For many people losing weight is synonymous with restriction and sacrifice. In an effort to acquire the body of their dreams, patients obsess over every calorie and cut too many corners, leaving their body starved and tired. Dr. Niket Sonpal, an NYC Internist and Gastroenterologist, tells us malnourishment is not the key to a healthy lifestyle and could be the “gateway into difficult health problems.”
Dr. Sonpal, who is an Assistant Professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and Associate Director of Brookdale Hospital’s Residency Program, says, “Starving yourself is a technique that quickly backfires on patients. It can cause mass to be stored, water to accumulate, and hormone imbalances, among other things. If we aren’t careful about our nutrition and our weight loss, we can end up worse than when we started.”
Hunger is defined by bodily sensations ranging from mild pains in the abdominal region, headaches, mood changes, a decline in energy or light-headedness. These sensations signal the body’s instinct that it needs to replenish energy by consuming food. Biological cues arising from hunger inform the body of what to how to operate some of its essential functions to adapt to your circumstance. Remember though society has evolved tenfold since the first Neanderthals roamed the earth, our biological instincts are still quite similar, and hunger is at the center of how our body assesses its ability to survive. Simply put, if our body is not receiving the energy it needs, it will adapt its functions to survive what it perceives as hard times. During this adapting period, we can undergo mild to serious health implications that run contrary to our overall goals of losing weight and improving our health.
Here are 6 Major Reasons to Refrain from Starving Yourself and what to do instead:
Prolonging your body’s state of hunger regularly and for extended periods can cause your system to slow down your energy expenditure during periods of rest. Your Basal Metabolical Rate dictates how much energy your body burns in order to fuel your essential bodily functions while at rest. In the absence of regular and consistent nourishment, your body may begin to store energy, often in the form of fat.
Many people get caught up in an unhealthy obsession with calories. While calorie counting is sometimes necessary to get rid of stubborn fat and techniques like intermittent fasting can help people jumpstart their metabolism. Studies show that for people who are already obese or lack muscle while packing excess body fat, extended periods of hunger can worsen their situation.
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To avoid going down the path of starvation and fat storage, start to slowly and sustainably build a schedule and regiment that has you eating high volumes of low calorie and low carb foods. Vegetables and lean proteins are your friends. Instead of eating two or three huge meals, space them out throughout the day with space for small healthy snacks that keep your energy up throughout the day.
Stress and Bingeing
Hunger and stress have an interesting relationship. People come in a great many varieties, and they react to stress differently. However, it is common for stress, in short doses, to decrease appetite. Prolonged stress, on the other hand, can lead people to binge-eat, especially if someone has developed the habit of food-for-comfort over time. Hunger, prolonged periods of fasting, and eating disorders can increase the body’s production of cortisol, known as the stress hormone. This can make you moody, anxious, and uncontrolled. Stress also inhibits our ability to control our appetite, often leading to overconsumption of calories. Once your system becomes overwhelmed with stress, you break, and the result may very well be binge eating.
Instead, focus on eating as healthily as possible without sacrificing the fulfillment of feeling nourished. If you have a craving for sweets or some treat, navigate the situation reasonably. For example, if you are a fan of chocolate, as many of us are, treat yourself to a piece of dark chocolate after dinner. Dark chocolate is an excellent way to get a taste of cocoa without overdoing the sugar. As for your cortisol production, don’t revolve your entire life around dieting and counting calories. Take time to run outside and feel the sun. Working out is a natural stimulant of endorphins, the hormones that help us feel good. Endorphins are also helpful in helping relieve stress and pain.
Your Calorie Intake Helps Dictate Your Calorie Output
As previously mentioned, our bodies burn calories daily to cover our essential bodily functions while at rest. Reducing calories in an extreme way can reduce the number of calories you regularly burn in an extreme way also. This makes it more difficult over time to lose weight, maintain weight, and remain lean. This is especially true for people who are predisposed to having a hard time shedding pounds, such as postmenopausal women and people with a family history of high cholesterol, diabetes, or obesity.
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Instead, focus on the quality of your calories. 200 calories of broccoli will not affect your body the same way as 200 calories of ice cream. Giving our bodies an appropriate amount of food at an appropriate amount of calories is key to our metabolic health. The best way to cover our bases on the calorie front and on the hunger front, meaning fulfilling our energy needs while still satisfying our hunger is to eat foods that are high on nutrients, fiber and vitamins.
Hydration is key to your health
In their incessant battle for an “Instagram-worthy” body, people concentrate overwhelmingly on the solid foods they eat and very little on the liquids they drink. Needless to say, our bodies are dependent on water to help keep them regulated, hydrated and refreshed. If we are dieting like madmen while drinking sugary drinks, dairy products, and alcohol all the time, we are essentially counteracting everything we have accomplished at the gym and the dinner table. In other instances, people forget to drink water leading to dehydration and water retention.
Drinking ample amounts of water is also an effective way to send signals to the brain, informing it that you are not on an empty stomach. Drinking water before a meal has been shown to effectively decrease the amount of a person consumes once they sit down to eat.
Keep in mind water is extremely useful in keeping your digestion working properly.
Fiber is your friend
Fiber is a useful tool for staying regulated and healthy. Fiber is interesting because, though it is a carbohydrate, the body is unable to dismantle the nutrient to convert it to a simple sugar molecule. This results in Fiber passing through our gastrointestinal tract accomplishing many beneficial tasks to help us with our diet and health goals. Fiber is a healthy way to increase fullness hormones in the body. For many people who have built up resistance to this hormone, called leptin, this becomes more beneficial as your body becomes leaner and you become healthier. Fiber also helps to keep you full and it shows up in a variety of foods from fruits to vegetables to grains. The versatility of fiber means it is easy to work it into your diet without a lot of stress. Fiber helps fill you up as well without the risk of it staying and accumulating in your body to be processed into fat.
Opt for healthier choices that are rich in fiber, as opposed to processed and sugary drinks with little nutritional value. Because of where fiber is found, odds are the foods you eat to incorporate it into your diet will be full of many other vitamins and nutrients that will help keep your body healthy.
The term “starvation mode” is incredibly common and if you confess your fasting weight loss methods to a caring friend or family member, odds are they will mention starvation mode as a reason against going hungry. You may be tempted to roll your eyes and ignore the advice, but your loved one may be right. When we are constantly hungry, skipping meals and only feeding our bodies with one or two big meals a day, even if the meals are mostly healthy the body will do everything it can to store as much fat and nutrients as it can. This is especially true if you eat at inconsistent times of the day. Why? Because the body’s biological clock does not know when its next meal will come and how big that meal will be. So while you go hungry, your body grows anxious and looks for ways to compensate for the insufficient and inconsistent way with which it is fed.
To avoid starvation mode, make sure you are eating consistently and snacking on something natural and healthy between meals. Make sure to never skip breakfast as it jumpstarts your metabolism. Breakfast is also a signal to the body that its overnight fast is now over. It helps to keep track of the times you eat and make an effort to stay relatively consistent when it comes to your eating schedule. This will help alleviate some of the body’s anxieties about being left without food until further notice.
About the Expert:
Dr. Niket Sonpal is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and Clinical instructor at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center, Brooklyn who specializes in Gastroenterology. He is a graduate of the Medical University of Silesia – Hope Medical Institute in Poland. After completing his residency in Internal Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital, he was selected to be the 2013‐2014 Chief Resident at Lenox Hill Hospital–Northshore LIJ Health System. Dr. Sonpal has completed his Fellowship in Gastroenterology & Hepatology at Lenox Hill Hospital and continues his work in the field of medical student and resident test preparation. He now serves as the associate program director for the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Brookdale University medical center.
He is the co‐author for the best-selling Master the Boards: USMLE Step 2 CK, Master the Boards Step 3, And Master the Boards: Internal Medicine. He is also the Chief Operating Officer for Medquest Test Prep, Director of Medical Education for Picmonic Test Prep, and a recognized expert on medical test prep.