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TOPIC: Very low calorie diets and metabolic damage

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February 2, 2012 5:45 AM
There was a thread that was deleted yesterday where the original poster was asking if it was okay to consume something like 800 calories per day. I'm not sure exactly why it was removed, but it likely had something to do with person after person telling the OP that she was being stupid.

I don't like personal attacks at all... but what drove me even more crazy was the fact that almost every single person felt the need to chime in about a topic they obviously haven't studied very much. We heard things like your muscles are going to fall off, you're going to kill your metabolism, you're going to wind up in the hospital with nutrition deficit, you're being anorexic, etc.

I'm not posting this thread to restart all the flaming and trolling. I want this to shine a bit of objectivity on the subject of very low calorie diets and metabolism. I spent a decent amount of time explaining things in the thread that was deleted, so it was disheartening to see the information deleted. I think we can all agree that among other important goals, this community is about education.

As this thread in question is being discussed on my profile page, someone asked me to re-explain what I discussed in the removed thread. I'm simply going to copy and paste my response here:

Yes, very low calorie diets (VLCD) can reduce RMR and disrupt various components of the endocrine system. But correlation is not causation. Meaning... is it the VLCD or is it the effect of the VLCD that leads to the slowdown? Put differently, VLCD cause high rates of fat loss due to the massive energy deficits. Fat happens to be the home of the master hormone responsible for metabolic regulation - Leptin. Leptin lets out bodies know that it's fed. So if we have less fat, we have less Leptin. If we have less Leptin, we have less of a "fed" signal to the brain. If we have less of a fed signal, the body responds accordingly with the slowdown in RMR (and some other adaptations).

But the logical question you should be asking is, "Won't smaller or normal deficits also cause a loss in fat? And won't that loss in fat lead to the same sort of negative adaptations?" And the answer is yes. It's just that the VLCD will cause these adaptations to happen faster... but you'll also lose fat faster. Follow me?

This isn't an argument for people to start following VLCD as most will fail miserably. Once you factor in the psychology aspects of them, they're just not right for most long term fat loss plans. In addition, the lower your energy intake is, the more careful you have to be about nutritional adequacy. Meaning it becomes very easy to shortchange yourself of particular facets of nutrition, which can ultimately tap into "health."

For example, back in the day when the medical community was busy trying to fix obesity, they used VLCDs and weren't mindful of protein quality or quantity. Protein happens to support muscle mass. Sure, around here we're interested in preserving skeletal muscle, as that's what helps us get "toned," "lean," "athletic looking," "ripped," or whatever the cool buzzword is nowadays. But these experiments on the obese patients led to losses in other types of muscle... namely cardiac muscle, which plays an important role in being alive, obviously.

Point is, the more food you eat, the easier it is to cover all of your nutritional bases. You can still screw things up, but it's just harder.

In the thread that was deleted last night, I spoke of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment ran by Ancel Keys, which took already relatively lean men and locked them down in the lab where they were given 50% of their calorie needs for half of a year. They also had supervised exercise ever day if memory serves me correct. We know that lean people will react faster (in terms of metabolic slowdown) to big energy deficits than fat people will. Which makes sense.... fat bodies don't "think" they're starving as quickly since they have all of this excess energy in storage, right?

But even with the test subjects in this experiment being lean to start, after the 6 month period, they only experienced a slowdown in RMR of 15% or so. I mean total energy expenditure dropped by 40% or so, but the remaining 25% (above the 15%) was due to the loss in weight (tissue costs something to maintain and a bigger body is more expensive to move around). Everyone knows that as weight is lost, calorie needs go down.

The "starvation mode" totaled 15% after half a year of low calorie dieting. And that's the primary point... life requires energy expenditure. And metabolism can be thought of as our total energy expenditure in this case. Even if there is negative adaptation to low calorie dieting, metabolism can only drop so far... there's a minimum threshold that's required to keep your heart beating, to fuel respiration, power the brain, transport nutrients, digest food, etc, etc.

I also posted a few links to more current research.... one paper compared a 25% deficit to a 890 calorie intake. The low calorie intake lost more weight than the 25% group. Yes, they had a metabolic slowdown... but so did the 25% group, which corresponds to what I said above about big and small deficits.

There's a lot more that I could say on the topic. For example, NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) is turning out to play a substantial role in the reduction in total daily energy expenditure experienced on prolonged diets... big or small deficits. Which only stands to solidify the importance of exercise while dieting. NEAT drops unconsciously... so we counteract that by doing more activity consciously via structured exercise. But we won't dive into that end of things as this is already far too long.

The bottom line is this... VLCDs are not as destructive as people around here are making them out to be. People see VLCD and immediately think of anorexia. Anorexics lose weight past the point of healthy thresholds. They also aren't mindful of nutrition quality, more often than not. Not on low calorie diets are "unhealthy."

There's a time and a place where they may even make sense for some. I've used them. I've used them with some of my clients.

It's just that those times and places don't match beginners who obviously need to learn nutrition fundamentals before they go experimenting with advanced dieting techniques. If they jump right into very strict and limiting diets, there's a good chance they're going to wind up gaining weight, not because of some crazy adaptation that winds up creating stored energy (fat) out of thin air... but because they're not going to stick with it, and when they fall off the wagon, they fall hard and typically eat their faces off.

I'm not out there advocating VLCDs. Not at all... heck, I wrote the Nutrition 101 article, which everyone should have read by now, and nowhere in it did I advocate VLCD. I'm simply trying to maintain the integrity of information while steering people in an optimal direction. It seems like too many people around here are stuck on absolutes. They believe there is 100% right ways of doing things and 100% wrong ways of doing things. There's no in between. In reality, there are very few absolutes in the game of fat loss.
February 2, 2012 5:50 AM
Thank you, great post!
February 2, 2012 5:50 AM
Thank you so much for explaining this!
  6101596
February 2, 2012 5:54 AM
Mike, please stickly this thread - it's wonderful!
  1100181
February 2, 2012 5:56 AM
Good info...thanks!
It's good to get all the facts.

As for yesterday's discussion...
The post was deleted, because MFP is not the place to push the virtues of starvation diets - period.
People have the whole rest of the internet to ruin their health with yoyo routines and diet scams.
Starvation diets won't be suffered on MFP, because they just don't work.
Why?
Because if your calorie deficit is too great you can easily suffer from
loss of muscle mass (slows down your metabolism) and impaired general progress.
You have to find what is right for you but you also need to remember that your body
is a machine and without the right type and amount of fuel there could be problems
either with loss of muscle, loss of energy, less weight loss/plateaus, etc.

Stick with the MFP recommendations.
And if somebody wants to try the hyper low calorie route, go for it - just don't push it here.
Edited by MaximalLife On February 2, 2012 6:02 AM
February 2, 2012 6:01 AM
great post thanks!!
  4432041
February 2, 2012 6:03 AM
QUOTE:

The post was deleted, because MFP is not the place to push the virtues of starvation diets - period.
People have the whole rest of the internet to ruin their health with yoyo routines and diet scams.
Starvation just diets don't work.
Why?
Because if your calorie deficit is too great you can easily suffer from
loss of muscle mass (slows down your metabolism) and impaired general progress.
You have to find what is right for you but you also need to remember that your body
is a machine and without the right type and amount of fuel there could be problems
either with loss of muscle, loss of energy, less weight loss/plateaus, etc.

Stick with the MFP recommendations.
And if somebody wants to try the low calorie route, go for it - just don't do it here.


I think you're missing his point. Or maybe I'm missing yours, lol.

He said point blank that one of the biggest concerns with VLCD, especially among new and uninformed dieters, is how easy it is to fall short of your most basic nutritional needs.

The bigger point he was making, as he said in the last line of his post, is that there are very few absolutes in the world of losing weight and getting healthy. His concern in the thread from yesterday was that SOO many people were speaking in such absolute terms, which only becomes a bigger problem when they are speaking in absolutes about something they don't actually understand.

It's the same thing that happens in all the exercise calorie threads.
Edited by jacksonpt On February 2, 2012 6:06 AM
February 2, 2012 6:04 AM
great post!
February 2, 2012 6:04 AM
QUOTE:

The post was deleted, because MFP is not the place to snivel about the virtues of starvation diets - period.
You have the whole rest of the internet to ruin your health with yoyo routines and diet scams.
Starvation just diets don't work.
Why?
Because if your calorie deficit is too great you can easily suffer from
loss of muscle mass (slows down your metabolism) and impaired general progress.
You have to find what is right for you but you also need to remember that your body
is a machine and without the right type and amount of fuel there could be problems
either with loss of muscle, loss of energy, less weight loss/plateaus, etc.

Stick with the MFP recommendations.
And if you want to try the low calorie route, go for it - just don't do it here.


Sure, most people will screw up VLCDs, as I mention in the original post. I also mention that it's not something that most beginners... or really most people in general... should be experimenting with. I agree with you on that. But to claim that in all cases they're bad and that in all cases they'll lead to muscle loss, a dead metaoblism, harm, (insert any other myth here) is simply false.

While people deserve to be warned of potential hazards, they also deserve evidence-based truth... I hope you would agree with that.

Like I said, there are very few absolutes.

For example, a friend of mine, who's a well known author, wrote a book called the Rapid Fat Loss Diet. I haven't read it in a while, but essentially it's a modified protein sparing fast. And there are thousands of testimonials out there of people who have overhauled their health and physiques using this diet. The author starts the book out saying something like, "I don't recommend most people toy with extreme diets because they'll ultimately screw them up, but since I know people are going to experiment with them, I wanted to put out a resource that limits their chances of screwing it up." Meaning it assures adequate amounts of the essential macro and micronutrition are present for health maintenance and muscle maintenance.

It's apparent that some people are only going to hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. But I'm very happy that more people than not seem appreciative of objective information around here.

Here's to continued learning!
Edited by stroutman81 On February 2, 2012 6:06 AM
February 2, 2012 6:06 AM
QUOTE:

Here's to continued learning!


Maybe my favorite thing I've read on the forums all week, if not longer!
February 2, 2012 6:07 AM
Thank you! You explain things so well!
February 2, 2012 6:10 AM
QUOTE:

QUOTE:

Here's to continued learning!


Maybe my favorite thing I've read on the forums all week, if not longer!
AMEN!
February 2, 2012 6:14 AM
While I totally agree with you, I don't think the people (the women, really) on here are following a more science-based, "proper" VLCD. I also think (and not to speak of ALL men vs. ALL women), that the mindset of a man on a "diet" vs. a woman on a "diet" can and often is, very different. The chronic undereating and mindset of many women on here is not to follow a VLCD for a while, based on the science out there and the actual diet plans in the books. It's to starve themselves to be skinny. They post threads to gain justification for doing it (again, not based on the science behind a VLCD), and to do it for a very long time. I am also against the "OMG you are going into starvation mode and your metabolism is screwed forever!!", but I think there is a balance between the two that would be better used for most of the people on this site.

I'm having a hard time explaining it without getting your post deleted and without bringing in the people who will think I'm being sexist...
February 2, 2012 6:25 AM
QUOTE:

While I totally agree with you, I don't think the people (the women, really) on here are following a more science-based, "proper" VLCD. I also think (and not to speak of ALL men vs. ALL women), that the mindset of a man on a "diet" vs. a woman on a "diet" can and often is, very different. The chronic undereating and mindset of many women on here is not to follow a VLCD for a while, based on the science out there and the actual diet plans in the books. It's to starve themselves to be skinny. They post threads to gain justification for doing it (again, not based on the science behind a VLCD), and to do it for a very long time. I am also against the "OMG you are going into starvation mode and your metabolism is screwed forever!!", but I think there is a balance between the two that would be better used for most of the people on this site.

I'm having a hard time explaining it without getting your post deleted and without bringing in the people who will think I'm being sexist...


No, I'm understanding the point you're trying to make and I appreciate your input. I agree with you, most people who are posting about VLCDs are merely looking for justification and they really haven't spent the time researching or the lack the ability to understand the research even if they tried. Which is why I keep saying over and over and over... these aren't tools that most people should be considering.

I wrote my nutrition opus last year in my Nutrition 101 article and that was my brain dump of everything I think the average dieter needs to know in order to conquer their nutrition. Nowhere in it did I advise people to use VLCDs. And this thread isn't here to educate people how to use them properly... I wouldn't do that because it would simply give people an excuse to try it when they likely have no business doing so.

This thread is simply an attempt to nix the polarized conceptions people have about calorie intake and the "starvation mode."

Oh, and your point about men vs. women is very valid. I train a lot of women at my gym and the vast majority of them are almost neurotic about "clean' eating, dietary compliance, etc. And I've said this elsewhere on this forum, but that sort of intense stress about things that likely don't matter all that much can cause more harm than good. Here's what I had to say in another thread:

QUOTE:
And you bring up an excellent point about added stress. I'm sure this will come across as overly blunt but it seems many dieters today go bat crap crazy about this stuff. They only see things in binary terms - particular foods are either healthy or horrible, their behavior is either good or bad, they're either successful or they failed, etc, etc. And all this sort of reasoning and perspective does is ramp up anxiety like crazy.

People are flipping out over 10 calories. And ya know what? I think it hurts them.

The stress response they're generating by being as anal retentive and psychotic as they are bites them in the arse. Which is why I always recommend people read the book written by Robert Sapolsky called "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers." He's a great author and a genius when it comes to the stress response of the body. Humans unfortunately can work themselves up into such a psychological mess about the future by thinking about catastrophic thoughts and building psychological hurdles that are simply impossible to clear and thus, our biology that's really in place to keep us alive winds up going in overdrive in chronic terms.

Like I've said in numerous places on this forum now - our ability to manage stress is finite. In our body's mind, stress is stress have it be psychological, physical, real, imagined, etc. And when you've relatively small people eating like birds, doing copious amounts of exercise, stressing about work and family which is typical in this culture, and then topping it off with psychotic analysis and concern over diet and exercise - well - things tend to get messed up.

It's no wonder people are constantly stalling out, really. Granted, I believe more often than not it's a miscalculation on energy intake and expenditure, but still, this is very real.

Fat loss, sex drive, immune function, you name it and chronic stress will affect it, usually negatively.

People just need to relax, set realistic expectations, avoid perfectionism, and be patient.
February 2, 2012 6:31 AM
Good information, thank you for taking the time to post. smile
  9233173
February 2, 2012 6:42 AM
bump
February 2, 2012 6:42 AM
Great post, thank you!

I'd be interested to hear your take on VLCDs and length of plateau time. Is there research out there regarding this?

In my personal experience the more low cal I go, the longer and tougher my plateaus are. A few years back I did a VLCD (at least for me, my BMR is around 2500 and I was eating 1200 per day) at the 7 week mark I hit a plateau and literally did not budge for two months no matter what tactics I tried (increasing calories, zig zagging, switching up activity etc.) There was nothing psychological about it, it was 100% physical.

By comparison I find that if I'm on a 1lb a week loss schedule, as frustratingly slow as it might seem, the plateaus seem to be fewer and further between, and also much easier to break out of. Any idea what the mechanism behind this phenomenon may be? I think it would be an important component to add to any discussion of VLCDs.
February 2, 2012 6:43 AM
I raised the " starvation mode" with the gym owner. Your explanation is clear and answers my question.

Thanks for a great post!!
  14334094
February 2, 2012 6:54 AM
QUOTE:

I raised the " starvation mode" with the gym owner.

How blank was that stare....laugh
February 2, 2012 6:59 AM
Great post!
I almost insist to new people to actually sit down and run dietary numbers from several websites before taking on a futile journey down the 1200 road...
  7369177
February 2, 2012 7:01 AM
QUOTE:

Oh, and your point about men vs. women is very valid. I train a lot of women at my gym and the vast majority of them are almost neurotic about "clean' eating, dietary compliance, etc. And I've said this elsewhere on this forum, but that sort of intense stress about things that likely don't matter all that much can cause more harm than good. Here's what I had to say in another thread:


Great post - as always! Thank you for taking the time to address it.

As for the point made about many women seeing their success/failure in absolutes. It is all about control. So many of us wear multiple hats - working all day, then managing the household and the family, feeling responsible also for our family's nutrition, and many going to school on top of that. We are so used to "managing" everything that we think we can control our diets just as rigidly - and then when we "cave" and eat something off plan, then we have failed miserably.

You and I and the whole world knows that such a small thing isn't really a failure - but to a control freak, it is, LOL! Bah, I don't even know the point I was trying to make - I guess just now admitting to myself that I am one of those women castigating herself over slight dietary indiscretions! The first step is admitting it right? (From the podium in the front of the room.) Hi, My name is Resalyn, and I am a control freak!

Regardless - GREAT POST and thank you for the further information regarding this topic.
  247153
February 2, 2012 7:06 AM
Awesome information as always! Thanks for posting! :)
  12049380
February 2, 2012 7:07 AM
This is interesting. Thank you for posting. I'll reply later with a more comprehensive comment once I have time to digest the info.
February 2, 2012 7:35 AM
bump
February 2, 2012 7:36 AM
bump

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