Dieting. The most prescribed treatment for obesity and weight loss of yesteryear’s is today the ‘bad word’ in health circles. Reason? All the new research about what is now called famine effect or starvation response. In a nutshell, when you don’t eat enough calories, your body assumes there is a famine. To ensure you don’t die from ‘starvation’, it literally shuts shop. The body starts working on something like the ‘low power mode’ of your smartphone when there is too little charge in the battery.
The National Award winning 2012 film Ship of Theseus has a character Maitreya who voluntarily starves, out of his spiritual beliefs. To play this character, actor Neeraj undertook a strict starvation diet coupled with intense exercise routine, under medical guidance. He later shared that in spite of very strict diet and exercise his body mightily resisted weight-loss. How is that? Remember our genes are programmed for survival. Sudden weight loss is seen as a threat to life. Survival instinct kicks in.
Thousands of years ago, seasonally food would become scarce. Human species survived it all thanks to this mechanism called starvation response or famine effect. Whenever food got scarce, our body would trigger this mechanism. In this system, the body burns as little energy as possible, triggers hunger and eating behaviour at every opportunity, and creates craving for fatty, sugary foods that are dense in calories. Lethargy is increased so we don’t inadvertently waste our energy. The body also starts to store rather than burn every calorie eaten. Ideal for surviving the tough times, right?
Trouble is, dieting triggers the exact same survival mechanism –starvation response. The body doesn’t know you are eating very little out of choice –to lose weight. On a diet, if you eat too few calories or start to lose weight too rapidly all the above changes in body’s functions occur. Firstly, hormones like ghrelin are released that create cravings for fatty, high calorie foods. So even if you never liked ice-cream much you suddenly crave triple sundae. And while a few spoons were always enough, now you want two sundaes. Secondly, extreme calorie conservation is triggered, making you loathe exertion. The bed and couch look irresistible. Forget about that workout, just getting dressed for office might need all your willpower. Thirdly, say you were earlier burning about 1500 calories each day. Eating about 1300 calories was giving you a great calorie deficit that could lead to weightloss. In starvation mode, your calorie burn is drastically reduced and may become as low as 900 calories. So on the same diet plan you now have a few extra calories. Extra calories are converted to fat molecules and stored around the belly, thighs, and arms. Because in case you don’t get any food for a while (there is a famine, right?) this store will keep you alive. Did you know you don’t have to eat ghee or fats to add fat cells to your body? The real cruelty here is that though all of us have the necessary raw material to convert any type of food to fat molecules, many don’t have the bio-chemicals to convert the fat back to energy. A one-way street that.
This isn’t all. Since the body has experienced starvation mode once (due to dieting) it is now always watching out for the next famine. If you have ever been stuck on the highway with a flat tyre, and not enough money you tend to double-check your tyres, spare, money and jack before taking a long journey. Same concept. The body of a dieter is especially geared to converting food to fat and storing it. So whenever you get off your diet, you will likely end up being bulkier than ever before.
So, if you want to lose weight, stop dieting. Ultimately, healthy weightloss is a mind game first and foremost. The trick to avoiding starvation mode is to go for slow, holistic weightloss. Take time to address your emotional needs. If feeling stressed, unloved or overwhelmed, seek help. Make lifestyle changes that are good for you –like getting some fresh air, being in nature, eating fresh food, sleeping well and having a life-purpose. Feel joyful doing this. This will give you holistic health for life and weightloss will be a happy side-effect!Like