“And you’ll keep staring at the ground / you always do / when they get their time with you”

Junkfood Science on how we came to believe overeating causes obesity.

Worth reading for its recap of a 40s study of the effects of starvation on humans. Two important points:

– Starvation had both physical and psychologically detrimental effects.
– Starvation was defined as 1600 calories a day.

1600 calories is too little to live a healthy life on. In the 1940s we knew this.

Yet in the 2010s, 1600 calories a day is considered a mild diet, nothing more. Sometimes it’s not even considered a diet. Serious dieters regularly restrict themselves to far fewer calories than the amount that was considered severely stressful during this study.

Think about that.

And think about this:

As the men lost weight, their physical endurance dropped by half, their strength about 10%, and their reflexes became sluggish — with the men initially the most fit showing the greatest deterioration, according to Dr. Keys. The men’s resting metabolic rates declined by 40%, their heart volume shrank about 20%, their pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped. They complained of feeling cold, tired and hungry; having trouble concentrating; of impaired judgment and comprehension; dizzy spells; visual disturbances; ringing in their ears; tingling and numbing of their extremities; stomach aches, body aches and headaches; trouble sleeping; hair thinning; and their skin growing dry and thin …

But the psychological changes that were brought on by dieting, even among these robust men with only moderate calorie restrictions, were the most profound and unexpected. So much so that Dr. Keys called it “semistarvation neurosis.” The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical with distorted body images and even feeling overweight, moody, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. They lost their ambition and feelings of adequacy, and their cultural and academic interests narrowed. They neglected their appearance, became loners and their social and family relationships suffered. They lost their senses of humor, love and compassion. Instead, they became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly …

Now, these are men, and smaller framed women especially do have lower caloric needs. But how much lower? Dieters routinely live not on 1600 calories, but on a lot less. 1500 and 1200 calorie diets are considered normal and routine, and there are various fasts and other dieting programs that go lower than that.

We’re living in a society where, even though food is relatively affordable, at any given time many of us are starving. And we consider this normal.

I see it in the way people look at food, talk about food, deny themselves food, consume food. Significant numbers of people are significantly hungry significant amounts of the time. We’re a society of people yearning for food, obsessing over food, desperately waiting for the next time that we’re “allowed” to eat. We’re a society that considers it normal to look longingly not only at sweets but at ordinary things like slices of bread and cheese and fruit, then pull sorrowfully back, because we’re hungry and so badly want and need food and yet are told at every turn that we can’t have food and so believe it.

There are other interesting things in the article too, about set point weights and where we wind up if we don’t restrict caloric intake (gaining weight for a time, but not, generally, forever). But for me, the biggest takeaway is this:

We need to stop talking about starvation-level eating like it’s normal.

2 thoughts on ““And you’ll keep staring at the ground / you always do / when they get their time with you””

  1. I’ll be honest, the only time I was ever overweight was as a college student when everyone convinced me I should be “dieting.” I gained 25 pounds on those “diets” and it took years to get my metabolism and health back afterward…Now I never diet and I’m lean and can leg press 165 pounds!

    1. I stopped dieting when I realized that I always wound up weighing more in the end, too. There’s so much pressure to believe we have to be dieting and have to be a certain ideal weight, when being active and healthy and eating well–as in good, nutrient dense food, not as in low-calorie food–are all so much more important, and so much better for both mental and physical health, too!

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