Saturday, 24 June 2017

Why starving myself was a stupid idea

5-year-old me
I was obese by the time I was about 5 years old and stayed that way for the better part of 40 years. Eventually, I made huge lifestyle changes that transformed the way my body looks and works, a transformation that has lasted two years now. However, this certainly wasn't the first time I tried to become less fat.

Like many other people unhappy with their body size or shape, I experienced multiple attempts and failures over many years. In this post, I want to share what didn't work for me, because, in hindsight, it should have been obvious, and for whatever reason, it wasn't.

Twain never said this.
The memes are lying to you.
There's a famous quip routinely misattributed to Mark Twain that's usually rendered something like "It’s easy to quit smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times."1 Regardless of the source of the remark, it was similarly easy for me to lose body fat on the many occasions I set out to.

I've felt self-conscious and strongly negative about my body since I first started getting teased at school about its shape and size, somewhere between the ages of 6 and 8 years old. But it wasn't until I was a teenager that I felt motivated and empowered enough to do anything about that.

It seems to me that most people instinctively understand the two sides of the energy equation: that losing or gaining fat depends on the balance between energy consumed and energy spent. And consequently, most people who want to reduce their amount of body fat know that they can achieve this goal by reducing the amount and types of food they eat and/or increasing their level of physical activity.2 This principle is sometimes called "CICO", for "calories in versus calories out". While it's essentially true, stripping all the physical, psychological, and emotional elements of body recomposition down to this one simple, cold equation leads some people (like me) to a naïve, "brute force" approach.3

And so, when I was 17 years old, I started starving myself for the first time.

And I found out that I was good at it!

That is, I discovered that I could easily suppress and ignore hunger pains. I started by skipping meals. Then I sometimes skipped whole days. The furthest I went was when I was 25 years old and I went a whole week without eating anything at all.

Most times, I would also boost my output by going for long walks. I chose walking because it was the only form of physical activity I was familiar with that I didn't hate (How I learned to hate physical activity is a story in itself for another time). On some of these fat-loss attempts, I would make time for a two-hour walk each day, which I would do regardless of weather: hot or cold, rain or shine. The longest walk I did was one of around ten hours, coming home with my feet shredded and bleeding, all so I could be happier with my body.

Each time I embarked on a starvation diet, I would pursue it for a few weeks, lose something in the vicinity of 5-10kg (10-20lb) and then lose the willpower to refuse food any further, or have my attention diverted to other interests. When that happened, I would resume eating exactly as I did before, and resume the sedentary lifestyle that I had before.

Worse: while I was in my most severely restrictive phases, like the week in which I didn't eat at all, I would be pretty preoccupied with food, dreaming of all the things of which I was depriving myself. I would start to hoard food, buying the treats I wasn't allowing myself to eat and hiding them in my bedroom. At the time, I would feel good and powerful—that I had a big stash of all this junk food and my willpower was so strong that I could resist eating it. That is, until the willpower eventually collapsed, as it always did, and I would gorge myself on everything that I had been denying myself up to then.

And then, with my normal patterns of eating and inactivity re-established, I would soon regain the fat I had starved off, and the whole cycle would begin again. I would go many months, and sometimes even a year or two, without restricting, and I would always end up at a point heavier than I had the last time I restricted. Over the course of doing this for twenty-plus years, I gradually gained about 40kg (90lb).

In essence, severe restriction as a strategy for fat loss was really a strategy for fat gain.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I always knew that starvation wasn't sustainable as a strategy, and that when I had lost all the fat I wanted to, I would have to come up with a plan to keep it off. But it never got that far, because my will to starve always failed long before I reached my goal.

What went wrong?

With the benefit of hindsight, here's my take on why restriction failed so badly for me time and time again:

1. Reliance on willpower and attentiveness

In my experience, willpower is a finite commodity: mine eventually runs out. Restriction and denial is a constant push uphill; and when the ability to keep pushing faded away, my life always resumed its original path.

The same goes for attentiveness: I can only concentrate on so many things at one time, have so many projects "on the go". So when other things in life crowded out the constant attentiveness needed to suppress the desire for food, restriction would fall by the wayside.

In 2005, I lost about 20kg.
I then gained over 30kg
during the next few years.
The same applied on the exercise side. Prior to the last two years, my most successful fat loss campaign was a little over ten years ago when I lost about 20kg (44lbs) through heavy restriction and daily (as in, seven-day-a-week) gym sessions.

But I didn't enjoy the gym. I forced myself to go. And then, when I had a break from it, I just never went back. I took time away from there to prepare for, and then to run in, the Bridge to Brisbane event that year. But when the run was over, I never returned to the gym. Or did any more running. The change was superficial and driven by willpower alone.

I even kept my Fitness First membership going for about a year because I always intended to force myself back; I just never did.

2. Expecting to be able to go back to the old way of eating and (in)activity

Einstein never said this.
The memes are lying
to you again!
Keeping with the misattribution theme from earlier, it's often erroneously claimed that Einstein said "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results"4 Again, regardless of its origin, the observation holds true here. 

I always expected that after I had slimmed down to a size and shape I found acceptable, I would just go back to eating the food I enjoyed up to that time; maybe less of it, or eating it less frequently, but without any substantial changes to what I was eating.

Here's the most ridiculous expression of that belief: during that attempt where I lost the 20kg, as I reached each 5kg milestone, I would celebrate by choosing some incredibly calorie-rich junk food to indulge in. Yes, really: "I've just starved off another few kilos — I will therefore eat this whole box of donuts!"

If that's not crazy, I don't know what is.

Now, in the scheme of things, that one indulgence every few weeks was not, in itself, going to undo the effects of all the restriction and exercise. But, it does show that my efforts were doomed to eventual failure, because as long as I expected to and wanted to keep eating that way, that's what I would revert to as soon as willpower or attentiveness failed.

And, of course, that's exactly what happened. Every time.

This misalignment of desires and goals is what makes me so wary of the principle of "cheat days" that some people use during body recomposition. For me, needing to schedule a day to eat whatever I want would be a symptom and a warning bell that my lifestyle was pretty out-of-whack; that my values and my eating had become separated, just like eating the donuts to celebrate losing fat.

Again, the same principle applies on the energy output side of the equation: I never expected that the long walks or the daily gym sessions would be something I kept up after I reached my goal shape and size. And that, somehow, magically, the inactivity would not lead me straight back to the body shape I had been working to change.

3. Going it alone

Related to the expectation of going back to eating an old way, the fear of not being able to eat that way was one of the main reasons I was so determined to strive for my goal through starving myself instead of seeking professional help.

Specifically, I expected (without any evidence, of course) that a doctor or dietitian would condemn me to a plan of eating things I didn't like — things that were less appealing than not eating at all. So I deliberately avoided the very help and support that I know now would have made things easier, healthier, and a lot more likely to succeed. 

4. Separating the fat-loss stage from the maintenance stage

Two years ago, this strategy eventually did work for me, but only because I was lucky to be well-supported through the transition. I now think that this separation into an incredibly difficult and unlikely-to-succeed "phase 1" and a completely undefined and not-thought-out "phase 2" was a major reason why dozens of previous attempts over more than half my life had failed.

Spelled out that way, it's obvious what a stupid idea this was, and one eventual success, that relied on luck, after multiple failures doesn't make it a great strategy.

Put another way: if I had ever worked out what "phase 2" looked like, there would have been no need for a "phase 1" — I should just have started "phase 2" straight away.

But to be kind to myself, when I started the journey that eventually transformed me, I literally could not have imagined that I would be leading and loving the life that I have now. Indeed, if I could have seen this future, the me of two years ago would have not wanted it.


I now think I was completely wrong on each one of these counts. That:
  • Successful transformation comes from embracing things I love, not through denial and restriction; through letting a healthy lifestyle crowd out an unhealthy one.
  • Tastes and appetite, for food and for movement, are more malleable than I ever believed. 
  • A good nutrition professional will work with you to help you enjoy food. If they're not doing that, you need to change nutrition professionals. In Australia, look for someone registered as an APD (Accredited Practising Dietitian): they're the experts at this.
  • Diets with short-term goals will produce short-term results and are probably counterproductive in the long run. Transformational change comes from transforming a whole lifestyle.
In future posts, I want to expand on each of these ideas, and also to share in more detail what did eventually work for me.

1 There's no evidence for Twain ever saying this. The earliest variant of the gag that Quote Investigator has turned up is in the 1907 novel Duke of Devil-May-Care by Harris Dickson and refers to poker-playing, not smoking (see here for their detailed and well-sourced research).

2 Most people. I do occasionally hear people claiming that no matter how little they eat, they can't lose body fat. Or that restriction doesn't work for them because they have slow metabolisms. Or that restriction doesn't work at all because of the body's "starvation mode". My layperson's understanding of such claims is:
  • We're not plants and we can't photosynthesise; the body must be getting its energy from somewhere. If it's not from fat stores, it has to be coming from food and drink. 
  • It's undeniable that some people lose (and gain) body fat easier than others, but my understanding is that metabolisms that are so slow to make fat loss significantly harder (as in "not work"-level of harder) than for the general population are very rare. It's also easy and pretty cheap to get your metabolic rate (RMR) measured if you really think this is you. 
  • "Starvation mode" is definitely real and was investigated extensively by the US military in the wake of World War II. My understanding is that it doesn't have much of an effect until the body is down to its last few percent of body fat. Most people attempting to lose body fat are nowhere near that point.
  • The horrible truth of the effects of famine on humans and other animals. Enough said. 

3 It's even the basis for a whole fat-loss regime I found very attractive at one point: The Hacker's Diet by John Walker, who co-wrote the famous computer drafting software, AutoCAD.

4 As with the purported Twain quote, there's no evidence for Einstein ever saying this. Quote Investigator has found an expression of the same concept in The Psychology of Personal Constructs, a 1955 psychology textbook, and a close match for the wording of this supposed quote in a 1981 Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet. Their research is here.

No comments:

Post a Comment