Why Starving Yourself Is A Bad Idea for Weight Loss

February 5, 2024

Let’s play a game: I will tell you a word, and you will close your eyes for a few minutes and let your brain paint a vivid picture associated with the word. Here’s the word - ‘starvation’. Now, I’m sure what popped up were images of misery, suffering, pain or even death! Nonetheless, many people starve themselves in order to lose weight, doing themselves more harm than good. 

Weight loss is not simple, but it is also not so complex once you use science to understand the human body! In this article, we look at what happens to your body when you starve for a long period, and a healthier strategy to shed that extra weight!

What is Starvation?

In layman’s terms, starvation can be defined as prolonged deprivation of essential nutrients. Now, this can mean extended periods without food or with significantly limited food intake. Typically in the context of weight loss, most individuals resort to the latter, wherein they restrict their food intake and consume calorie’s way below the body’s requirements. 

This huge calorie deficit can not only lead to unsustained weight loss, but also make way for nutrient deficiencies, slows down your metabolic rate, and impair biological functions. So, the question arises - to what extent can restricting calories be harmful?

How much of a calorie deficit is too much?

Calorie deficits are popularly associated with the ‘CICO’ diet that stands for ‘Calories In Calories Out’. Since there is no definite standard as to how much of a calorie deficit one can introduce into their diet plan, people usually key in a random figure of their choice. Some opt for a 100-calorie deficit, while some get polarised and go for a 500-calorie deficit. 

A deficit as small as 100 calories may not create a huge impact on your metabolic rate. Conversely, 500 calories is a huge deficit for any average adult human being. It is very likely to impair your metabolism and result in nutrient deficiencies even if you choose to eat healthy. 

Then there are low-calorie diets that lie at the other extreme. These diets involve consuming 1200 kcals at the most and can go anywhere as low as 500 kcals. Giving your body just 1200 kcals for a sustained period can make you severely undernourished and pose severe health risks. 

What happens when you starve?

Let’s consider the calorie consumption of someone before they kick start their weight-loss diet. More often than not, it is likely going to be way more than their TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). TDEE, represents the overall amount of calories required by the body, determined by the energy usage. In simpler terms, energy expenditure encompasses a) your activity levels, including both exercise and non-exercise activity, and b) the calories a body naturally burns at rest. 

So, when people start consuming fewer calories than before, they also see rapid weight loss as the body uses stored glycogen for energy. What is glycogen? The body breaks down most carbohydrates obtained from food and converts them to glucose. Glucose is the main source of fuel for our cells. When the body has excess glucose, it stores it in the liver and muscles as glycogen. When the body needs a quick boost of energy or when the body isn't getting glucose from food, glycogen is broken down to release glucose into the bloodstream to be used as fuel for the cells.

When stored glycogen is lost, it goes along with water molecules present in the body so we also see a loss of water from the body. As glycogen is depleted and water is released, it leads to the initial weight loss. After your body has used up glycogen, it then goes to burn some of the fat to meet your energy needs. This leads to fat loss and numbers on the weighing scale start to move down and that makes one feel better. When this happens, people think they are becoming healthier and getting closer to the ideal body they have always dreamt of!

Isn’t that a good thing, you ask? Let me tell you why it’s not. In addition to fat loss, you also lose some lean muscle mass because your body also breaks down muscle mass to meet your energy needs. Now, any common person would lack the means and methods to figure out how much of the weight that you’ve lost was fat, water, and lean muscle. 

As much as there is the possibility to lose more fat and less muscle, there is also the chance to lose more muscle and less fat. You wouldn’t know what has happened unless you have been tracking your body changes with a body fat analyzer. 

Regardless, when you lose lean muscle mass your body loses muscular strength. You will also experience reduced mobility, loss of strength in joints, and reduced bone density. On top of this, starvation also impacts your hormones which is more pronounced in women and can affect your metabolism and other physiological processes like lead to irregular menstrual cycles, unexplained fatigue, mood swings, etc. 

Your body’s ability to burn fat also declines significantly, so eventually you will see your scale stay stagnant - what is popularly called the ‘weight loss plateau’. In some cases, it can even lead to weight gain. When you have starved yourself for a significant period of time, your metabolism slows down, and your body starts storing the food you eat instead of burning it for fuel which leads to weight gain. So, starvation even for a very short term can prove to be highly detrimental. 

Impact of Starvation on Mental Health

Your metal health is dictated by your metabolic health. If your brain does not get its supply of nutrients, it can have a significant impact on your mental health. Nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin E, choline, omega 3 fatty acids, zinc, selenium, calcium, and copper have a profound impact on the brain. 

Studies have shown that the effects of starvation on an individual’s mental health can vary. Categorically, starvation can impact an individual’s emotions and cognition and lead to depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, decreased enthusiasm, lack of motivation and willpower, obsessive thoughts, reduced alertness, need to isolate, etc. 

Many people who use starvation as a method to lose weight are victims of body shaming and find the need to fit themselves to societal stands of beauty. You can look within to understand where your body goals stem from — personal growth or external validation. 

Apart from changing your perception around your reasons to lose weight, it is also important to have a healthy relationship with food. Eating mindfully will not just help your mental health but also support your body in processing the food. 

Healthy strategies to lose weight 

Before you venture on a weight loss journey it is always good to establish a baseline of what the current state of your health is. Some of the key things that need to be paid attention to are your current body weight & height, lean muscle mass: body fat ratio, healthy history, and underlying health issues.

The first step to losing those stubborn pounds is to eliminate all toxic and inflammatory foods such as gluten, fried foods and sodas. Then you need to get your blood work and advanced tests done to rule out any underlying causes that might be sabotaging your weight loss plans. Some of these include an underactive thyroid, insulin resistance, hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, gut issues and toxin overload. 

Apart from food and nutrition, it is important to have a healthy lifestyle that includes restful sleep, no chronic stress, exercise and mindful practices such as meditation and breath work. If all of this feels overwhelming, you can always sign up with a functional nutritionist to hand hold you through your journey towards a healthier you!


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