In a recent post on Medium, writer Michael Easter unearthed a study from 1944, when the University of Minnesota simulated a POW camp for 36 male volunteers.
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It was part of a wartime effort to gather information on starvation — a mind-bending 20 million people died of malnutrition during WWII, soldiers and civilians alike — and over nine months, researchers drastically curtailed the amount of food each subject was allowed to take in. They started them with 3,200 calories a day, but eventually brought them down to 1,570, and kept them at that number for 24 straight weeks.
The volunteers’ bodies became emaciated. During this “diet,” meanwhile, they were still expected to do two hours of physical labor a day, and walk at least three miles. All told, it’s the sort of extreme experiment that would only happen during an era like WWII. But despite being almost 80 years old, its findings are hyper-relevant to today, especially in the United States, where dieting is a national pastime: two-thirds of the country is overweight or obese, and 45 million Americans attempt a diet each year, fueling a $33 billion weight loss business.
The study exhibits why weight loss is such a pesky pursuit in the modern age. When we shed pounds by cutting calories, our resting metabolisms simply regroup — the body of a 160-pound man starts to burn calories at the rate of a 60-pound child. This was once an evolutionary advantage, meant to protect hunter-gatherer types from several days spent chasing gazelles or searching for berries. But these days, it just leads to weight loss plateaus. Worse yet, in order to burn fewer calories, the body stops sending regenerative cells to organs and muscles.
During the study, many of the men also became obsessed with food. They’d read cookbook recipes well into the night, and they dealt with an ever-present “hangriness.” They found focusing on anything other than food impossible. Once they left the U of M and were allowed to eat again, they consumed at a prodigious, Michael Phelps-like level, averaging over 11,000 calories a day. (That’s about 60 donuts. Yeah.)
This, of course, led to significant weight gain. In the end, many of them gained more weight than they had lost during the experiment. This corroborates recent research, which suggests that for every two pounds someone loses, their brain is intent on eating an extra 100 calories a day. An over-the-top dieting process essentially catalyzes our cravings while fiddling with our concept of fullness. And in our era, it’s easy to meet those massive cravings with processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat.
Research on weight loss best practices is ongoing — and on the other side of the coin, recent science has suggested that simply prioritizing exercise isn’t an ideal way forward for burning calories. But the takeaway here is to be sparing and cautious with fad diets, especially those that simulate a famine. While they may indeed help you lose weight, it’s possible that the aftermath — wild mood swings and cheat meals — could cause more damage in the long run. It’s better, as always, to find a consistent balance and champion non-processed, whole-food, plant-based ingredients on a day-to-day basis.
This content was originally published here.