Auto-Cannibal Dieting: Eat yourself thin, literally

by Denis Faye | July 9, 2014

Crashdiet_promoI like to fantasize that people read my blog and follow the nutrition plans I create because, like OMG, good food is totally awesome! Seriously, you don’t care about building muscle, dropping a few el bees, hammering workouts, or looking sexy bare pickle, right? You just want to eat healthfully because it’s the right thing to do, right?

Um, wrong.

Most of us have ulterior motives, be it weight loss, fitness, or an upcoming high school reunion. For example, my cycling friends typically go glassy eyed when I launch into my usual alimentary ramblings until they hear the word ergogenic, as in “intended to enhance physical performance, stamina, or recovery.” Suddenly, I become the Most Interesting Nutrition Nerd in the World, provided I can tell them something that’ll make them go faster on the bike.

But one of the hard parts about helping people to use proper nutrition to reach their goals is that it requires patience. Creatine will help you build mass, but not as quickly as shooting up steroids. Coffee will give you a pre-workout boost, but not like a line of coke. But we’re willing to use the healthier, sustainable solution because it tends to work better in the long run and, well, we don’t want to accidentally die or something.

… except when it comes to weight loss. In my experience, there’s something about the desire to look good in a bathing suit that turns even the most levelheaded, balanced adult into Augustus Gloop wanting to look like Charlie Bucket via Veruca Salt’s bratty tactics. “I want to be skinny now, Daddy! NOW! NOW! NOW!… and I want a squirrel.”

When people get like this, the first thing they typically do is go on a starvation diet. Much to my frustration, this typically works. But it rarely lasts. Mega-calorie deficits aren’t sustainable. You lose the weight, but you don’t learn how to eat to keep the weight off, so you usually gain it all back. Furthermore, you’re more likely to burn out and quit your diet or, worse, injure yourself working out because you’re not eating enough to recover properly.

Unfortunately, this type of advice often falls on deaf ears given people tend to feel that they have control of the issue and that they are going to be that one exception to the rule that slinks through the gauntlet without a scratch. (Of course, if they had control, they wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with.) But this is all a moot point now because I no longer need to advice people using logic and common sense. Thanks to findings presented this year to the European Congress on Obesity, I can now use Science!

A study looked at two groups of dieters. Group one ate 500 calories a day for five-weeks. Group two ate 1,250 calories a day for 12 weeks. In the end, the two groups lost a similar amount of weight—19 pounds on average. So the 500 calorie folks lost weight faster, but they also lost 3.5 pounds of muscle mass, whereas the 1,250 calorie group only lost 1.3 pounds of muscle mass. In other words, 7.7% of weight loss came from muscle loss for the 1,250 group while 18% came from muscle loss for the 500 calorie group.

Long story short, when you starve yourself, your body goes into a catabolic state and breaks down more muscle for fuel. You are literally eating yourself alive. These results are preliminary and the study has yet to be peer-reviewed, but given how stark they are, they warrant consideration.

Some astute readers may note that Beachbody has a few “photo shoot” style quick diets that lowball calories. Honestly, they’re not my favorite part of the gig, but people are going to do stuff like this whether we guide them or not, so I’d rather make those options available within our programs. That way, we can help them do it in a reasonable manner. We can also help people transition to a longer-term, higher-calorie, more-sustainable plan. (And, for the record, even our most extreme options only last for 3-5 days and they’re certainly not as low as 500 calories!)

In this era of supermodels and quick fixes, We all feel pressure sometimes to get thin fast. (Especially women.) But low-balling calories doesn’t work in the longterm– and it’s super destructive. Stick to a 500-calorie deficit (or so) and choose clean, healthy foods. Even without counting calories, a diet full of fresh fruits and veggies, but free of fried foods and refined carbs, and mixed in with a challenging workout regime is bound to produce results.

If you do this, you’ll get to where you want to be. Imagine a life where you don’t have to crash diet for every wedding or tropical vacation. It could be yours, but you need to take your time getting there.

10 thoughts on “Auto-Cannibal Dieting: Eat yourself thin, literally

  1. Steve

    Correct, my young Padawon, but you leave out a major point that should always be discussed here: performance. If you always gauge your diet by performance than it will tell you whether or not you are underrating. This is where almost everyone you address here goes wrong, as you’ve seen first hand. They become obsessed by, for example, the 1200 calorie diet that shed a particular amount of weight and won’t listen to rationale that states they need more fuel for their new found body composition. By gauging performance, during both workouts, life, the ability to sleep, have sex, etc, you’ll know when it’s time to eat more.

    The only times where this doesn’t come into play is cutting diets, which you touch on. Here’s a look at whether you should or shouldn’t attempt one of those. They are definitely not for everyone. Done correctly, however, they are tried and true, as long as you can keep your wits about you.


    1. Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd Post author

      Dear Palpatine, I mean, Obi Wan – Right, cutting plans. Thanks for bringing up that excellent point up and you’re welcome for the opportunity to shamelessly plug your own blog. I wasn’t really considering the overtraining aspects. I was thinking more about the off-the-couch dieter. As you know, I’ve been researching overtraining quite a bit lately (with your assistance) and plan on going wide with my findings shortly.

  2. Steve

    And, I might add, that my first thought upon seeing the title of this post was “whomever coined the title was clever.” When I saw it was you it all made sense. I think this should become the de facto term for these “diet plans”.

  3. Erin

    Very interesting post. I eat very healthily almost all the time, and I find it almost impossible to restrict my calories below about 2000 per day. If I go any lower, I start eyeing off members of my family, wondering who to eat first. Dizziness, nausea and brutal irritability follow. It’s too high a price to pay!

  4. Matt G.

    Denis – Slightly off-topic – Do you have the full paper? I’m curious how they measure muscle mass / BF%. I’m using some calipers but I’m not convinced of their accuracy. I’m only measuring 3 spots….any more would require the wife’s assistance and she always acts as if I asked for a kidney when I rope her into tasks like that.

    1. Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd Post author

      Matt – No. These are preliminary findings. I’ll keep my eyes peeled though and when they publish the whole thing, I’ll let ya know. (Normally, I’m not super comfortable crowing about preliminary findings, but it seemed pretty solid to me.)

  5. mrmyth

    Nice post. I think the biggest difficulty in the long-term healthy approach to weight loss is keeping that consistent discipline for the length of time it takes to get to the goal. Often times something will come up in the three months, like a vacation, holiday or illness, that blows you back to the start. I think one of the most important things during this period is making sure you get enough sleep so you can take on challenges with a clear head and energy.

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