Can starvation diets lead to weight gain?

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Can starvation diets lead to weight gain?

Can starving yourself lead to weight gain?



Anyone who has experience with dieting has heard the motto that it is a game of “calories in and calories out.”   So it is no wonder that many people have interpreted this to mean that by starving themselves, even for a short period of time, they will achieve weight loss.  Voila!  A few days of starvation to get you looking slimmer and ultimately happier, so what seems to be the problem?  You may admit that the first few hours or days may be tough, but once you get used to ignoring your hunger, it in fact gets easier.  Of course you are not looking to do this forever and for a dramatic weight loss, but you admit starving to shed a few pounds sounds like a great idea.  Well, maybe you should think again.

Related: Why you aren't losing weight? When cutting calories and exercising is not working

First, lets look at the science behind weight, weight loss and how starvation affects your body.  With one-third of Americans today being diagnosed with obesity it is no wonder that there is so much talk about dieting. These diets should be based on healthy eating and exercising, but for a majority they run the gamut from fads and diet pills, to cutting out food groups to starvation. Sadly in a society where everyone wants a quick fix, starvation as a form of dieting has grown in popularity. 

Before one can understand dieting, it is important to understand the concepts of weight and weight loss. Obesity is often a result of an increase in stored body fat, based on a poor diet and/or genetics. Fat stores actually serve as a way for our body to store extra energy that is not being used, based on its caloric needs and our activity level.  When eating certain amounts of calories, some is used up and the rest gets stored as fat.  For many people long periods of time go by, with the same bad eating habits and limited exercise.  Thus, the amount of fat storage and weight gain continues to rise.  

As someone embarks on a weight loss journey they must recognize that it took time to gain weight and it requires time to lose weight.  They also must realize that doing it more healthfully will lead to better success in keeping it off and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. 

A worthwhile read: How to stop dieting and learn to eat intuitively 

When trying to lose weight, primarily fat, your body needs to use up the fat or so-called “energy” through your metabolism.  This is why reputable diets discuss the need to balance foods, understand caloric intake and where exercise fits in.  However, for those who think they can outsmart the system, the mode of losing weight becomes all about starvation.  

When you choose to starve yourself, your body will automatically react by actually slowing its metabolism, as a way of protecting itself.  Choosing starvation as a mode of weight loss is not the best approach to take.  

A personal story; results with dieting versus healthy eating

What happens is that your body starts to sense it is not being fed and tries to slow down internally in case you are ill or have no more food coming it.  This allows your body to survive for a longer period of time until it is fed again.  The body believes that it will not be fed, so it counter intuitively will reserve the fat stores as a mode of survival.  The effects of this can be found within just a few short days, as your body will already show signs of slowing down.  The result of this will be evident as you lose only a few pounds and then wind up maintaining until you start to eat again.  Add to that as soon as you start to eat, your body's natural reaction will be to store up, in the event that your body goes through starvation again. So at this next go-round, your body may gain weight by you eating even a lower amount of calories than before.  Ultimately this starvation may have you packing on the pounds in no time at all. 

In addition, many people also find that when they go to eat after a period of starvation they tend to overeat.  The body is often over hungry and then it is hard to control how much you eat, causing an influx of calories the body can’t handle.  In these cases many people find that they not only gain back the weight they lost, but they wind up gaining even more.  This often leads to a vicious cycle of eating and deprivation that in the end does not help one to succeed in healthy habits or sustainable weight loss. 

So the bottom line is while starvation sounds like a great way to rid your body of calories quickly to achieve a weight loss, it may actually due the opposite and have you packing on the pounds!

Suffering from overly restrictive diet or exercise? Read: How to fix a damaged metabolism after dieting

M Mittler, MS Registered Dietitian