Conventional weight-loss wisdom says cutting calories results in a thinner body. Some dieters are tempted to take this advice to the extreme, consuming next to nothing each day. For some, it's a quick crash diet. For others, it may be symptomatic of an eating disorder. In either case, starving yourself may result in weight loss, but can also have dangerous -- even deadly -- implications.
Just one week of restrictive dieting can cause nutrition deficiencies, reports the "Chicago Tribune." Your body needs protein, fat and carbohydrates as well as a wide variety of vitamins and minerals to function properly. Although there's no official definition of what constitutes a "starvation diet," consuming less than 1,200 calories daily for women is considered unhealthy, according to the University of Washington. Dipping below this number for any length of time could lead to both physical and mental repercussions. Physical effects can include bone loss, constipation, decrease in sex drive, a chronic feeling of coldness, weakness, sleeping troubles and amenorrhea, or loss of a monthly period. Cognitive effects include trouble focusing, poor judgment skills, depression, anxiety, obsession with thinking about food and social withdrawal. In extreme cases, starving yourself can be fatal. Even if you're not extremely underweight, a consistent failure to consume enough daily calories can lead to arrhythmias, or abnormal heart rhythms, as well as electrolyte imbalances. Both of these issues can cause sudden death, states MayoClinic.com.
The goal of a restricted diet is to quickly lose weight. However, any weight lost is likely to come back quickly as soon as you start eating normally again. The reasons for this are two-fold, reports the “Chicago Tribune.” First, when you crash diet, your body slows the metabolism to conserve energy. When you start eating again, that sluggish metabolism doesn’t speed up quickly enough to burn off the additional calories. Second, crash dieting doesn’t teach you proper eating or exercising habits, which are necessary to keep weight off for the long run. Aim to lose 1 to 2 pounds per week either by consuming 500 fewer calories per day or by burning off 500 calories through exercise.
Signs of Starvation
If you're concerned about the number of calories you eat regularly and its effect on your health, consult with a health-care provider or registered dietitian. However, there are a number of signs or risk factors to watch for in yourself or a loved one. Anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder involving obsession with weight, is more common in women, particularly teenage girls, according to University of Maryland Medical Center, due to the media and societal pressures. Other risk factors for this disorder include genetics, family history and stressful life situations or transitions. Signs of starvation include extreme weight loss, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness or fainting, brittle or breaking hair and a bluish discoloration in the fingertips, to name a few. Also, look for less-apparent social cues, such as a denial of hunger, social withdrawal, lying about food or excessive exercise patterns.
While one or two days of reduced caloric intake -- such as fasting for religious or medical reasons -- will not have long-term health effects, some cases of starvation will require medical intervention. If you or a loved one experiences any number of physical or mental symptoms or effects of starvation, make an appointment with a medical professional. Severe cases of starvation might be treated by admission to a medical facility, where vital signs, hydration levels and electrolytes will be monitored. Some situations might require a feeding tube. A significant portion of treatment is dedicated to mental health recovery, determining what has lead to starvation or obsession with weight and food.
Kelsey Casselbury has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Penn State-University Park. She has a long career in print and web media, including serving as a managing editor for a monthly nutrition magazine and food editor for a Maryland lifestyle publication. She also owns an Etsy shop selling custom invitations and prints.