Elvis Presley, the king of rock ‘n’ roll, pelvic thrusts, and peanut butter and bacon sandwiches, was rumored to have once heavily sedated himself for 2 weeks in an attempt to continually sleep and lose weight. While he might have removed the bags from under his eyes, Elvis’ crash diet did nothing to help him cram into that jumpsuit, and he ended up gaining 10 pounds. As far back as the binge-and-purge bacchanalias of ancient Rome, people have been trying to lose weight in the fastest and sometimes strangest ways. With tactics ranging from subsisting on baby food to ingesting live tapeworms, crash diets promise quick and efficient weight loss, but at what price?
What is a crash diet?
A crash diet is any nutritional plan that severely reduces calories, is nutritionally restrictive, and is supposed to promote quick weight loss. Often the diet focuses on one food group or type, and is not usually intended for long-term use. Any diet that goes below 1,000 calories a day is considered extremely dangerous, and just one step away from starvation.
What is the benefit?
Do crash diets actually work? According to Dr. Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University, crash diets are (at least temporarily) effective for “disinhibited eaters,” or those who are easily tempted by food. (That’s all of us, isn’t it?) According to her study, by dropping weight quickly, those who are easily discouraged by slow and steady weight loss get instant gratification, and therefore, results. The problem, of course, is that you can’t maintain a crash diet forever. Donald Hensrud, chairman of preventive medicine at Mayo Clinic, said: “People could eat nothing but jelly beans and if they were eating just a small amount, they would lose weight. You might be able to get away with it for a period of time, but the more restrictive the diet is—and the longer you follow it—the greater the risks.”
What are those risks?
The first issue is usually nutrient deficiency, as one cannot get all of the nutrients he or she needs from a bowl of cabbage soup. It is difficult to get a sufficient amount of calcium, vitamin D, or iron on a very low-calorie diet. You can do permanent damage to your organs by not providing them with their required fuel. If you lose too much fluid, you can damage your electrolyte level, and become easily dehydrated. We know low levels of potassium and sodium can cause cramping, fainting, and even heart failure.
The next thing you’re looking at is a slower metabolism. Your body is an extremely efficient machine and will slow down its resting metabolic rate in order to survive longer. This is how our ancestors made it through famine, floods, and sometimes, just winter. Over time, you will lose lean muscle without the proper nutrients to maintain it, which will lower your metabolism even further. With that slower metabolism comes decreased energy. Not only will that affect your home and work life, it will destroy your workouts.
Should you continue on the super low-cal path, you are likely to suffer catabolic reactions. You would expect to lose weight as long as your metabolism uses up more chemicals and energy than it is replacing, right? In fact, weight loss may occur for a short period resulting not from fat loss, but from breakdown of cell structures, organ tissue, bone, and muscle. The body then uses up structural proteins in order to survive. So, yes, your body will begin to consume itself.
Your emotional state will usually alter with the lower number on the scale, which is not quite low enough to compensate for how yucky you feel. Irritability, depression, and lack of patience are very common with calorie restriction. Your sleep state will be affected, as severe caloric restriction often disrupts sleep patterns and can cause insomnia. Lack of sleep, in turn, will not assist in muscle recovery, your mood, or your energy. And eventually when you return to a rational eating plan, your body will be all the more likely to store everything you eat, as it thinks it has been starving for the last few weeks.
Why, why, why?
So, why on earth would anyone do this to themselves, especially if it means only drinking lemon juice, maple syrup, and cayenne pepper? The quick fix. We are a drive-thru nation that believes instant gratification is our birthright. If we can get it in a pill or hire someone to do it for us, we will. We also live in a culture obsessed with thinness, and we seldom take into consideration how much lean muscle can actually do for us, and how much better it looks than “skinny fat.” So we torture ourselves with the “path of least resistance” and end up right back where we started, often before that high school reunion or Christmas party actually happens. And we still can’t fit into that darn dress.
What is the answer?
The answer is, as it has been for centuries, to make a decision to change your life, and then to have the motivation and discipline to stick with it. Eat a clean diet, somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 calories depending on your needs, split up over 5 to 6 meals a day with an appropriate balance of protein, carbs, and fats. Perform intense exercise that burns 500 to 800 calories a day, creating a greater caloric deficit, and speeding up your metabolism. Drink lots of water; get 8 hours of sleep; and try to avoid alcohol, refined sugar, and processed foods. Losing 1 to 2 pounds a week is not really hard to figure out, but it does take hard work and commitment to a plan.
Cyril Connolly, the famous writer and critic, once said, “The one way to get thin is to reestablish a purpose in life.” And truly, that is the kind of commitment it takes. If weight loss were easy, everyone in the world would pop a pill, subsist on only bananas, and walk for just 30 minutes a day. If weight loss were easy, we would not be inundated with Jenny Craig commercials and weight loss-based reality shows. If weight loss were easy, all of those New Year’s resolutions would have come to fruition. But diets alone, especially the crash variety, do not work. So stay off the diet merry-go-round and stay committed to the control of your health and your appearance. Just because Elvis couldn’t lose weight without extreme means doesn’t mean you can’t. Of course, you probably can’t get paid thousands to wear a rhinestoned spandex jumpsuit, so it evens out.