Starving will mess you up

The worst has happened. Jason Alexander is the new face of Jenny Craig.

According to his Jenny Craig blog, Alexander decided to lose weight after seeing a photo of himself he didn’t like. This, some argue, signals a change in how men are viewed in the multi-billion dollar world of dieting. Rather than dieting for health reasons, Jason Alexander can now help break down the stigma that only women should be obsessed with losing weight in order to be more attractive. And of course, because he has chosen to use Jenny Craig instead of just eating healthy and getting a moderate level of exercise, Alexander is sure to achieve dramatic results that will have us all convinced of the effectiveness of diets. Then, when he inevitably gains back the weight he lost he can claim to have fallen off the wagon, just like his predecessor.

The problem with Jenny Craig is the same problem that every diet has. It’s a diet. It’s not a lifestyle change. Anything that restricts the number of calories you eats to a level lower than your body requires cannot be sustained long-term. Not because someone is lazy, or just didn’t try hard enough. The Jenny Craig diet is like any other diet; it involves calorie restriction and exercise. The exercise, I’ll admit, might be helpful for people needing help getting into a routine. But with food intakes as low as 1,200 calories a day, you cannot argue Jenny Craig is a lifestyle changes. 1,200 calories is lower than most adult’s basal metabolic rate (basically the number of calories your body needs in a day just to exist, not including any activity like walking, standing, digesting your food). To consume fewer calories than your body requires to survive is starvation, plain and simple. According to Health Canada, women between the ages of 19 and 30 should be eating approximately 2,100-2,350 calories per day, depending on activity level. For men, recommended caloric intake is anywhere from 2,700-3,000 per day.

Have you ever wondered what happens to a body that is deprived of nearly half its recommended caloric intake? You aren’t the only one. Back in 1945, an American scientist designed an experiment intended to determine the effects of prolonged calorie restriction, as well as discover methods of rehabilitation. Although the experiment was originally intended to provide insight into the effects of calorie restriction on soldiers during war time, the results provided some very surprising insights on the effects of extreme dieting. This experiment, referred to as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, involved 36 physically and psychologically healthy male conscientious objectors. For the first three months, these men consumed 3,200 calories in order to establish a baseline. For the next six months, their caloric intake was cut in half, and the men were allowed only to consume 1,800 calories per day. During this semi-starvation period, the men were also expected to walk for 35.4 km each week.

The results of the experiment were shocking. In addition to losing 25 per cent of their weight during the six month starvation period, the participants’ metabolisms were 60 per cent slower than before the study began. Their body temperatures and heart rates decreased, and some men experienced hair loss and reduced coordination. Most of the men experienced extreme fatigue, and were unable to perform simple tasks, like opening a heavy door. The participants also became obsessed with food. The men reported to be uninterested in sex, instead focusing not only on the food they ate, but also on watching others eat, and on collecting recipes and menus. One participant was asked to leave the experiment after consuming up to 40 packages of gum per day, and admitting to eating scraps of food out of the garbage. Even after the six month starvation period was over, the men struggled to return to their normal eating habits. After months of restriction, many of the men could no longer tell when they were full. Unable to satiate their hunger, participants would eat until they made themselves sick. Some men consumed as much as 8,000 to 10,000 calories in a day.

Perusing the Jenny Craig forums, it isn’t difficult to find men who are on programs that require them to consume 1,600 calories or less, and whom are also expected to exercise and go about their daily lives. If 36 physically and mentally healthy men are unable to function as human beings while consuming 1,800 calories a day, what chance do you think Jason Alexander has of maintaining a diet that is likely even more restrictive? The facts are that 95 per cent of all dieters regain their lost weight within five years. It’s not about willpower, or about finding the “right” diet. Your body is not that complicated. It needs energy to function, and when you consume less energy than you expel, your body will ultimately do whatever it has to survive. Anyone who believes that they can trick biology is in for a world of pain.

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