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Dieting Eating Disorders Fitness Competitions

How Dieting Leads To Eating Disorders

Fitness Competitions and The Minnesota Starvation Experiment

CW: details of eating disordered behaviours.

Restricting food intake is the number one cause of eating disorders. NEDA reports that ‘35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting and that 20-25% of those individuals develop eating disorders.1

But why is this the case?

In 1944, a study was conducted that documented the effects of following a restrictive diet. This was the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Led by Dr Ancel Keys, a team of researchers set out to find the most effective methods of rehabilitation for the millions of people who experienced starvation during the Second World War.

They did this by restricting the diets of 36 young, healthy, male volunteers for a period of 6 months.

The study found that externally induced starvation led to various psychological and physiological changes. These changes are typical of what might occur when we engage in extreme or chronic dieting.

As a former Pro Bikini Competitor, I experienced similar effects when severely reducing my calorie intake in preparation for the stage. This eventually led to a full blown relapse into anorexia nervosa.

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment was in three parts:

  1. 3 month control phase, during which the men ate normally
  2. 6 months of semi-starvation
  3. 3 months of re-feeding

During the first stage, the daily calorie intake was approximately 3500kcal. This was then halved to 1570kcal in the second, semi-starvation phase.

Likewise, achieving the lean competition physique involves being in a calorie deficit for a long period of time. For the average woman, the recommended daily intake is 2000kcal.2 When preparing for a competition, however, this can drop almost to 1000kcal. This is the figure established by The World Health Organization as ‘the border of semi-starvation.’3

The Minnesota Experiment’s protocol required participants to lose 25% of their body weight during the process (an average of 37lbs.)4 This meant sustaining a weekly weight loss of approximately 2.5lb.

Aside from obvious external indicators such as sunken faces and protruding ribs, the men experienced:

  • decreases in body temperature
  • low blood pressure
  • anaemia
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • decreased heart rate
  • decreased metabolic functioning.

The lean stage physique is essentially in a state of chronic malnutrition

These symptoms can also arise when preparing for a fitness competition. Striving to attain the extreme aesthetic requirements causes various physical afflictions. These closely resemble the symptoms of starvation since the lean stage physique is essentially in a state of chronic malnutrition.

This produces dysfunctions that affect multiple organs within the cardiovascular, gastro intestinal, endocrine, skeletal, and central nervous systems.5

As well as causing physical illness, reduced caloric intake also leads to psychological depletion. The Minnesota men experienced various neurological deficits: lack of concentration anxiety, irritability and depression. Depressive episodes are both a physiological result of reduced dietary energy intake, and a psychological response to constantly fighting hunger.

Participants were also fanatically preoccupied with food: it was the principal topic of conversation and the subject of their dreams. They collected menus and cookery books; and some even expressed a desire to become chefs after the experiment had ended.

This obsession is also true of competitors. My fellow bikini models and I constantly talked of and thought about food: comparing our meals, watching food channels, and compulsively starring at ‘forbidden’ food items in the supermarket.

A common symptom of calorie restriction is heightened cravings


A common symptom of calorie restriction experienced by both study participants and competitors is heightened cravings. As with food obsession, cravings are survival mechanisms that ensure that the starving individual seeks out nutrition. In the fitness world, cravings are typically for carbohydrates such as doughnuts, chips and ice cream.

Following the semi-starvation phase, the men underwent 3 months of restricted rehabilitation where their daily rations were incrementally increased to 3200kcal. Their extreme hunger did not abate, however. According to Dr Keys, this was because the calorie increase was still not sufficient ‘to allow tissues destroyed during starvation to be rebuilt.’6

Finally, there was an eight-week period during which there were no limits on food intake, during which the men would often binge on 8000-10,000kcal a day. As a result, they frequently vomited after meals and one was admitted to hospital to have his stomach pumped.

Extreme hunger, known as hyperphagia, is typical of anorexia recovery


This extreme huger, known as hyperphagia, is also typical of anorexia recovery. It is the result of the body’s attempt not only to restore weight, but also to repair the physical damage that has occurred during starvation. Throughout my own recovery, I had frequent binges where I could easily consume a frightening 10,000kcal in one sitting and still not be satisfied. You can find a detailed account of my own experiences in Hanging Up The Bikini: Why I Quit Fitness Competitions.

Despite having no previous history of eating disorders, participants continued to be preoccupied with food, binge eating or restricting their calorie intake long after the study had ended.

Like the starvation imposed upon the men in this study, the extreme diet required for a competition can lead to obsessive and destructive food-related behaviours for women who have no previous histories of disorderly eating.

Eating disorders can be created just by dieting

The experiment revealed that malnutrition itself causes these symptoms: eating disorders can be created just by depriving the body of food through dieting.

This means that many, including myself, have hung up their sequinned bikinis. Like the Minnesota men, we have found starvation too damaging to our psychological and physical well-being.


  1. http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/treatment-for-eating-disorders/special-issues/dieting
  2. http://www.nhs.uk/chq/pages/1126.aspx?categoryid=51
  3. Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, ed. by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, Susan C. Wooley (The Guilford Press: London, 1994), p.8 ‘From Too “Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness’, Roberta P. Seid
  4. http://www.seven-health.com/2013/08/controlling-weight-part-2/
  5. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/89260-overview#a0101
  6. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/135/6/1347/4663828

Categories
Dieting

Why Diets Don’t Work

Diets don’t work. Restricting food intake may initially lead to weight loss, yet 95% of people who lose weight gain it back within 3-5 years.

Most of us would blame our lack of willpower, but dieting is not a matter of self-discipline.

Consider: how many different diets have you followed? How many times have you reduced your calories; fasted; or avoided whole food groups such as the currently demonised carbohydrates? If any of these diets worked, we would only need one.

Dieting becomes increasingly ineffective every time we embark upon a new nutrition plan. The irony is that intentional weight loss methods actually teach our bodies how to gain weight.

REASON WHY DIETS DON’T WORK #1: PHYSICAL RESTRICTION

Restricting calories or excluding food groups essentially puts our bodies into a state of starvation or malnutrition. Our bodies therefore respond as if there is a famine and make physiological adaptations to keep us alive.

These adaptations include increasing hunger and cravings which lead us to seek out and eat more food, especially those high in carbohydrates. This is owing to hormonal changes brought about by the period of starvation: when it is energy deprived, the brain increases production of the chemical Neuropeptide Y which drives us to consume energy dense carbohydrates.

In addition, reducing body fat through dieting leads to decreased levels of the hormone leptin, which helps us to feel full. Under normal circumstances fat stores release leptin into the bloodstream which informs the body that energy stores are available and signals us to eat less. As we lose body fat, however, leptin levels fall. This leads to increased appetite, particularly for sweet, high energy foods.

Restriction of calorie intake by dieting lowers our metabolism

Constant restriction of calorie intake by dieting also lowers our metabolism: this is a physical adaptation that ensures we will be able to survive on a smaller amount of food. The more body weight we lose, the fewer calories we need to consume, therefore we need to restrict more and more as weight loss continues.

Our bodies also increase our set point weight as insurance against future famine. This set point is a genetically determined range of 10-15lbs where our bodies are most comfortable. If we drop under our set point weight by restricting food, the body responds and works like a thermostat to adjust metabolism and hormone levels until our weight returns to this stable point.

If we repeatedly engage in dieting, we can actually push our set point weight up. This is because the body’s metabolic condition changes when we restrict our food intake. We cannot lower your set point weight, but it is possible to raise it…by dieting.

REASON WHY DIETS DON’T WORK #2: MENTAL RESTRICTION

Mental restriction such as implementing food rules, categorising foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and forbidding foods that we enjoy such as pizza or chocolate also leads to weight gain.

This is because depriving ourselves of these foods drives up cravings and therefore we end up overeating the very foods we are trying to avoid. Likewise, if we resolve to start a new diet tomorrow, then today we will probably go into ‘last supper mode’ and frantically eat everything in sight because this is our last chance before the food restrictions are in place.

Only permitting ourselves a certain amount of daily calories may also cause the number on the scale to creep up. This is because when we restrict our food intake, we are telling our brains that there is no more food.

This causes the brain to panic and consequently increase our urge to overeat or binge. In this way, we up eating more calories overall than if we hadn’t restricted our daily intake in the first place.

After a binge, we experience guilt or shame and resolve to diet even harder

Our body’s responses to physical and mental restriction are survival mechanisms that lead us to eat, and eat a lot. Afterwards, we may experience guilt or shame and resolve to diet even harder. This only serves to perpetuate the binge / restrict cycle, and each time we go through it the restriction becomes tighter and the binges become more extreme.

This constant cycling (or yo yo dieting) places the body in a chronic state of stress. The body reacts to this stress in several ways, one of which is that the adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite and causes cravings for sugary foods, which are then stored as fat.

Restriction is therefore the fastest way to gain weight and permanently increase our set point weight

The fundamental message is that we cannot control our weight long term. It is impossible to sustainably fight against our biological instincts. It’s just like breathing: we can hold our breath for a little while, but at some point, we are going to have to breathe.

We need to reject the diet mentality and throw away our meal plans. If we truly allow ourselves to eat without deprivation or restriction, the drive to seek out excessive amounts of food subsides as our bodies and brains learn that the famine is finally over.

We need to embrace food freedom, allow ourselves all foods, and trust that our bodies know what to do.