Starvation Diets?

You know what happens when someone discusses a study like Grey & Kipnis in low carb circles?  Almost invariably someone will refer to the 1500 cal/day diet given to three of the subjects as a "starvation diet".   This designation seems to trace to the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.  

The MSE was done in the mid-40's on men.  Men who, at that time, maintained on 3200 calorie mixed diet.  They took these men and cut their intake roughly in half to 1560 calories.  (Can you say Biggest Loser?).  But they did something else.  Their 1560 calories were composed of potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, bread and macaroni.  A very high carb and likely very low fat and protein diet.  And unless most of this was potatoes, not complete protein at that.  I'd imagine almost 6 months eating such a nutrient deficient diet would indeed be starvation for anyone.

EDIT: 7/15/2011:

I also forgot to mention in the original posting that there is a huge difference between imposing a severe caloric deficit on an obese person who is perhaps 50% overweight to begin and taking normal individuals and actually starving them over an extended period of time to 10-20 or more % below normal.

Melchoir shared an anecdote from a friend recently as well on how the fatter/obese concentration camp victims seemed to fare worse in true starvation conditions.  This makes sense to me because when we get obese, not just our fat mass but our organs and structural frames get bigger.  This requires more energy to maintain and move around.  Even if the person has a bit more protein stored in these organs, etc., once the body breaks down muscle to provide energy for other things, and organs that then are unable to support the still considerable total and fat mass, it seems plausible that they may well see breakdown of vital tissues sooner than a lean person while still not having depleted all or even most of their fat.

So this morning I came across the following graphic (I'm efforting finding the original source/better resolution copy), but I think you'll get the picture:

In the 70's, women averaged around 1530 cal/day and men around 2440 cal/day.  During the 80's we increased our intake to about 1780 (? 90 ?) cal/day for women, and around 2660 for men.  By the turn of the century women upticked intake to 1877 cal/day while men dropped ever so slightly to 2620.  Women seemed to at least somewhat get the message and by middle of last decade had dropped back to about 90's levels, while men ticked up ever so slightly.

Apparently in the 1970's the average woman was eating at what we now consider "starvation levels".  It's no wonder why so many of us seemingly don't lose weight eating a "reasonable" calorie restricting diet of 1500 cal/day unless we're seriously overweight.  

I believe the overestimation of caloric requirements is even worse for men, many of whom seem to think that anything less than 2000 cal/day is some sort of starvation scheme and estimate their intake closer to 3000 and above.  

I've posted previously on how the TDEE for women goes down on average by 225 cal/day going through menopause.  If we started out eating like an average woman in the 1970's, our post-meno energy expenditure would now be in serious "diet" range at around 1300 cals.  Perhaps this is why women of a certain age seem to have such trouble losing weight.  We've been conditioned for so long to eating a certain amount of food, and cautioned for so long not to cut calories below some arbitrary threshold - 1200, 1000 are typical - we'll never get into caloric deficit.  

One thing IS simple re: obesity epidemic.  We are eating more.  Some believe there's some sort of dietary induced hormonal shift that caused the overeating.  Take a look at the calorie counts at one of those "family style" restaurants (high end fast food like Olive Garden, TGIF, Unos, etc.).  One meal can account for the 250-300 cal/day difference for a week.  Or that's just a small fancy coffee.  A Red Bull or two.  


j said…
excellent post,

whats the role of operant conditioning in food?

we have been conditioned since childhood to finish whats on our plates, to eat foods that as kids we find distasteful like bitter vegetables, and praised for eating large amounts (the growing-boy fallacy that drives grandmothers across the planet to stuff their loved ones as some sort of substitute for affection and real love)

as a child with no particular praise-worthy skills or abilities, eating large amounts of food would likely be the only source of praise from adults.

is it any wonder we often have such a schizophrenic relationship to both food and the amounts of food we believe are appropriate to fill us up?

add to that increasing complexity of foods especially in north american restaurants and supermarkets where at one time our steak came with a baked potato and butter is now a pile of cheezy fries processed with lord knows what stabilizing agents, covered in salt, msg and a side of "chipotle-garlic" mayo which is essentially an emulsified version of the vegetable oil the whole side was deep fried in.

dont even get me started on the size of desserts.

its interesting that when we are truly hungry we dont crave dessert type foods as much, and when we are very much full, we physiologically (or psychologically?) make room for a dessert that can be very often half a day's worth of calories above and beyond what we needed or even wanted.

the question is less if over eating is the true cause and more if over eating is the symptom of something else at play.

much the same way some people seem to naturally eat more than others under similar circumstances and work loads (ie: soldiers eating and doing everything together) some turn to smoking 1 pack a day while others only a few per week. our brains can shift our pleasure seeking behaviors from mild to intense enough that i wonder if increased consumption is more a question of addiction than anything else.

under the calculus of addiction and eating,the source of foods be they carbs, fats or proteins are no different than regular or light cigarettes. in excess they hurt us.

eating feels good, as does drinking and laughing and all those wonderful activities in life, to view an alcoholic as simply a person who drinks "too much" or drinks the wrong kind of alcohol is to ignore the underlying urges that drive our ability to eat until we are physically full, not emotionally full. imho
Anonymous said…
Some of what you say is stressed by Marion Nestle. The most powerful speech I've heard from her (perhaps on TED) mentioned the expanded food supply and its effect on daily calories.

In this interview, one question she answers is about Atkins. It occurred to me that no one ever connects the low-carb diet proponents with connections to the cattle industry. This is so strange because the agricultural lobbyists are an easy target when it comes to finding blame for the obesity epidemic! I don't think there's any connection, but then, I am skeptical of the blame game and industries in general...
Anonymous said…
Just because we can see that there is an increase in calorie intake, doesn't mean that hormonal regulations have not been impacted by the source of those calories. Someone who is alcoholic for instance, is clearly hormonally, and metabolically in a dysfunctional state. An alcoholic, hands shake, has significant abdominal obesity, has problems with anger, nervousness, insomnia, depression, the list goes on. Why did the alcoholic start to drink, because he was stressed, and became addicted to the substance that gave a sense of relief. So the point being that the calories matter in this case, and a dietary induced hormonal shift was involved for the alcoholic to become addicted to that substance particularly over say, becoming addicted to drinking water. The memory of what the substance produced hormonally triggers the behavior of the alcoholic to want to take in the substance.
Anonymous said…
I don't mean that psychological things aren't influential, just that the source of the calories is important, in that food substances influence behavior too.
Anonymous said…
This is something that fat acceptance advocates miss, I guess because like the rest of us they are stewed in the conventional milieu of 1500 cals being 'starvation'. I've heard it said that because intake has only increased 100-200 cals (depending on source) that it can't be why people are fatter, it must be a virus.

Good on you for posting this sort of data-backed stuff!
Anonymous said…
(Again I am not denying calories in versus calories out, just that I guess there is more than one social/chemical factor involved, resulting in this obesity epidemic, eating disorders, etc. And I guess there are influences too through the substances we consume, though the overriding factor in the potential influence these substances have, are social and individual ones. I don't know about genetic/brain/cognitive/hormonal influences, upon the body fat (as fat influences fat regulation)/brain's fat regulation. The other thing is that if, gut bacteria possibly influences our behavior, appetite etc. And this bacteria is passed on through birth (I think Chris Masterjohn muses over the potential influences), then how long would it take for detrimental effects to take place that were not under conscious regulation? How would you separate these kinds of influences from for instance recognizing that calories have increased through perhaps a change economically that has produced the habit of going and eating out at convenience food stores/take out places?)
Galina L. said…
Thank you for interesting data. I was wondering for a while why the men in that Starvation study suffered so much on 1500 calories a day. After I divorced in 1988, I went on 1000 cal diet for a 7 - 9 months (a huge raw cabbage salad was the staple of it)in order to loose about 30 lb. It worked and I didn't suffer in a way those men did. If you remember the Brightangel participant on GT blog - she lives on something like 1200 a day in order not to regain previously lost weight.
Paul Jaminet said…
Hi CarbSane,

It's a great point. We have nutrient needs, not calorie needs. Calories can come from stored fat. The key is to avoid malnourishment while restricting calories.
Muata said…
The first time I read Dr. Ellis's Ultimate Diet Secrets I did so with an extremely critical eye since I was still buying into the LC myths. However, there was one bolded statement, and he has many, that stayed with me. Basically, and I'm paraphrasing, he said that once you lose the weight you will never be able to eat the same amounts of food that you did when you were obese.

CS, the brutal and unsavory truth is that we as a nation simply eat too much, and to slowly reverse the trend of obesity we will have to make a conscious effort to eat a little less consistently
Harry said…
Nice post CarbSane.

I find that one thing that long-term weight management success stories have in common is that they find a way to 'make peace' with the fact that they will eat much, much less food than they previously did, for the rest of their lives.

It sounds like a simple point, but it psychologically approximates a gestalt switch when genuinely recognized. Most people simply don't understand just how little food their bodies need for optimal weight and health, and also don't realise the extent to which they've been habituated into overeating by current social mores (like the 3-meals-a-day + snacks convention, the ever-increasing portion sizes that you mentioned, the ubiquitous nature of fast food etc.).

Sue said…
Don's doing some good posts lately (not that he hasn't done good posts previously).

This calorie thing and belief that their metabolisms are ruined is stopping a lot from losing weight. Its really hard to read the advice of upping calories, upping fat, lowering or upping carbs when somebody just commences a weight loss diet and not seeing any results.
CarbSane said…
@Human Doing: Welcome! Even 100 cal/day added is 10 lbs a year and that can add up, but we're clearly eating more. I agree with Lustig on one thing, if we just cut the liquid calories from our kids' diets it would go a long way towards solving the problem.
CarbSane said…
@Jeff: You forgot the "there are people starving in ..." one. I grew up with that one. But I was a skinny kid. My paternal granny was always ranking on my Mom for not feeding me enough.

@Muata & Harry: Since I didn't count cals, it took me about a year into maintenance to realize just how few calories I needed. This was scary because I really only lose when I go below 1000 cal/day - although I haven't really tried for a while now and it seems my metabolism has recovered some from it's VLC lull. It's a tough pill to swallow but what to do? I blogged on something similar over at the Chronicles for those who don't read there: Metabolisms Change ~ Respond or Regain and a somewhat related post:

@All: Nice discussion!
Alan said…
@eulerand others

Just as CS has a hobby of LC science reading, I have a hobby of stockmanship science reading. And I have yet to see anyone in the beef or pork industry make comments in any way, shape, or form about LC or ZC or paleo.

I think you cannot show me any.
CarbSane said…
I've seen quite a number of studies funded in part by the dairy industry, egg producers, cattle growers, etc.
Anonymous said…
This is a nice article:
Anonymous said…
I've been trying to give intuitive eating another go, influenced by Matt Stone, though with some restrictions - avoiding foods that are not on the PHD, for one, but even more important, keeping highly processed foods out of the house, and not eating out much (which I wasn't doing anyway - I'm lucky that I do have time to cook).

Anyway, my hope is that by eating what I crave up front, I'll spontaneously eat the right amount for my body. (Again, not including "foods" like Doritos, as I do think these are really cleverly made and override my "that's enough" switch.). Eventually, with all foods being legal, I THINK I'll also start craving the nutrients I need. (And I'm still taking the PHD recommended supplements, not sure how that all fits in.).
James Krieger said…

I used to be on a committee of scientists designed to promote the science of high protein diets, and that committee was formed by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and we were paid by them as well.
Anonymous said…
The interview with Marion Nestle (copy and paste the link) had many comments from her about the political repercussions of telling people to 'eat less.' If you read the interview, you see that the lobbyists who represent food companies are sensitive to this. It's a very competitive environment, marketing food. The meat producers have lobbyists who are involved just as intensely as any other producers.

It's a good interview. Bottom line - no one wants to be told to eat less and that's a very unpopular message. Put a 'magic' spin on a diet and, even if the dieter eats fewer calories (as with Atkins), the diet sells itself as a different diet. People convince themselves that they are not eating fewer calories (eating less).
Alan said…
I don't doubt that the beef cattlemen, and other players in the food sector, are funding whatever research might help their business; nor do I doubt that all sectors of the food-industrial complex aren't lifting a finger to pass on the message that people might prefer to.,... buy less product.

I just don't see it in the paleo blogosphere. Look at all the players and celebrities. None of them live on a ranch in Wyoming or a feedlot in Kansas. It's all city people.
Bill said…
@Jeff, that’s a very interesting idea: when actually “hungry,” the craving for sustenance (e.g., a ribeye steak) is high. When that hunger has been satisfied, a second serving is declined but now the hedonic drive for delicious dessert foods prevails.
Alan said…
1. when one reads the cattlemen's fora or listens to the speeches at their conventions, one doesn't start to think that they see their problem as the (say for example) vegetable truck farmers, or the dairy farmers.

One gets the impression that the cattlemen are about 3% worried about animal-rights propaganda, and about 97% worried about guys who can produce a pound of chicken meat with half the amount of corn/soybeans as cattle need to put on a pound of dressed weight.

2. Always eat alone, you will eat less.
CarbSane said…
Alan re: eating less when alone, that's not a given, especially for binge eaters. When I was a binger I rarely ate much when in the company of others. Food was inhaled when alone. This also seems impractical for anyone not living alone. One contributing factor to my obesity was not properly adjusting to the part of marriage that involved the selection of foods in our house, when and what we ate, etc.
Anonymous said…
Re: celebrities. Women who care to look good for a camera (I'm thinking film and fashion) are either 1) committed vegetarian, 2) changing diets like hair colors, or 3) paid spokespersons for diet plans. The male celebrity diets hard the same way to look good in clothes but works on chiseled abs to look strong. The physical activity (trainers with various regimens) is a huge part of looking good, much more than the revolving door of diets.

There are more calories to be consumed in the marketplace and we as a nation are consuming more calories. We get fat doing that. No one wants to change that if they are in the food business. Whatever they can do to make a profit will be just fine. Meat producers included! There's no industry to blame for our obesity - we eat more calories.
Diana said…
"and praised for eating large amounts (the growing-boy fallacy that drives grandmothers across the planet to stuff their loved ones as some sort of substitute for affection and real love) "

Huh? So the obesity epidemic is grandma's fault?

I do not find this to be a particularly reality-based comment.

Actually, there is a plausible hypothesis that having a grandmother is an advantage in terms of adaptation. The evidence is mixed but it's an intriguing theory.

My own anecdotal experience is that I wasn't forced to finish meals, in fact, meals in my house weren't regular at all - which proves that eating disorders come in all forms, and from all upbringings. The two most important factors in eating disorders, IMO are: genes and the social environment one finds oneself in NOW, not your upbringing.
Diana said…
"Basically, and I'm paraphrasing, he said that once you lose the weight you will never be able to eat the same amounts of food that you did when you were obese.

CS, the brutal and unsavory truth is that we as a nation simply eat too much, and to slowly reverse the trend of obesity we will have to make a conscious effort to eat a little less consistently"

What Muata said! My late father was a professional waiter, a very thin man. His main mean of the day was at 2:00 a.m., when he came home from work, which is of course a huge dieting no-no.

When he retired he adopted a "normal" eating schedule....but he was (a) older (b)completely sedentary (how's that for ya, Gary?)....the result was that he gained 10 - 15 pounds. He never got close to fat but he did put on some padding. Because his calorie expenditure dropped to zilch.
CarbSane said…
I'm becoming increasingly jaded about all of this. For all the neato thought about paleo and what-not, trying to emulate our ancestors, etc. The reality is that, for most, it's irrelevant. We don't live in those times with those foods and that food availability. Period. To try and pretend otherwise, when food is but a few seconds away at times is disingenuous.