Starving to Crazy

Often times, in drama-queen fashion, you’ll hear exclamations from people (and honestly, I’ll utter it once in a while too) that they’re (I’m) “starving to death!!” Probably 99.9% of the time, this just isn’t true, but hunger still does funny things to us.

Case in point: the Bible story about Esau & Jacob. Twin brothers, one a hunter and outdoorsman (first one out of the womb), the other, a contemplative, sensitive type (second one out of the womb). Esau, after a long day hunting, sells his birthright to his brother for a bowl of soup because he’s famished. Chaos ensues once the hunger has dissipated and Esau realizes what he’s done and that Jacob is serious about keeping the birthright. Definitely an “oh shit” moment.

If you’ve ever suspected that all the diet’s you (or others) have tried make you (them) crazy, you’re most likely right. There’s a lot of room between “comfortable” and “starving to death” but in the constant battle with our bodies we’re slowly tipping the scale towards “starving to death.” And on the way, with our calorie restrictions and strange eating habits, we slowly starve ourselves crazy.

Definitions of Crazy:

  1. Mentally deranged; demented; insane.
  2. Senseless; impractical; totally unsound: a crazy scheme.
  3. Intensely enthusiastic; passionately excited: crazy about baseball.
  4. Informal. very enamored or infatuated (usually fol. by about): He was crazy about her.
  5. Intensely anxious or eager; impatient: I’m crazy to try those new skis.
  6. Unusual; bizarre; singular: She always wears a crazy hat
  7. Slang. wonderful; excellent; perfect: That’s crazy, man, crazy.
  8. Likely to break or fall to pieces.
  9. Weak, infirm, or sickly.
  10. Having an unusual, unexpected, or random quality, behavior, result, pattern, etc.: a crazy reel that spins in either direction.
  11. An unpredictable, nonconforming person; oddball: a house full of crazies who wear weird clothes and come in at all hours.

Starving to crazy is what I’m calling the strange and obsessive behaviors and numerous physiological symptoms many people (myself included) develop when engaged in chronic dieting – especially diets using moderate to severe caloric restriction as a means of weight loss.

Bigger case in point: the Minnesota Starvation Study conducted in the 1950’s (thank you Meg for brining this study to my attention).

Experiment Summation
36 healthy men at normal weights, assessed to be in excellent physical and psychological health had their food intake cut in half (from 3,600 to 1,800 cal) for a period of 6 months (this was considered the general prescription for treating obesity at the time – halving food intake). The men were studied for 3 months before the semi-starvation period to identify baselines for normal function. After the 6 months of semi-starvation the participants went through a 3 month re-feeding period.

During the 6-month starvation period and the 3-month refeeding period, these “symptoms” were noted:

  • Preoccupation with food to the extent that it impaired concentration on their usual activities
  • Food became the principle topic of conversation, reading and daydreams
  • Began extending meal-times, sometimes taking 2 hours to eat their meager portions
  • Made strange concoctions out of their foods, many that would be considered “weird or distasteful” by normal standards
  • Began using a lot of salt and spices
  • Coffee and tea consumption increased so dramatically that it was later limited to 9 cups per day
  • Began smuggling out bits of food and consumed them later in long-drawn-out rituals
  • Experienced “vivid vicarious pleasure” watching other people or if they smelled food
  • Developed hoarding tendencies ranging from collecting cookbooks and recipes to buying hotplates and coffeepots and items that were not necessary and generally considered “junk”
  • Binging (during refeeding phase)
  • Self-deprecatory, disgusted with themselves and overly critical after a binge
  • Loss of control of their appetites (ate continuously)
  • Depression
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Angry outbursts
  • Began biting their nails and/or smoking because they felt nervous
  • Apathy
  • Irritability
  • Argumentative
  • Negativistic
  • Hysteria
  • Hypochondrias
  • Disorganization
  • Participants became progressively more withdrawn and isolated
  • Humor and a sense of comradeship diminished
  • Feelings of social inadequacy grew
  • Social contacts with women declined sharply
  • Strained relationships with the opposite sex
  • Drastic decrease in sexual interest
  • Experienced a decline in physical activity
  • Impaired concentration, alertness, comprehension, and judgment
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Hypersensitivity to noise and light
  • Reduced strength
  • Poor motor control
  • Edema (excessive fluid causing swelling)
  • Hair loss
  • Decreased tolerance for cold temperatures (cold hands & feet)
  • Visual disturbances (inability to focus, eye aches, “spots” in visual field)
  • Auditory disturbances (ringing noise in ears)
  • Paresthesias (abnormal tingling or prickling sensations, especially in hands or feet)
  • Decreased body temperature
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased respiration
  • Decreased BMR, basal metabolic rate (40% below normal levels)

The results of this study are both enlightening and frightening. Who would have thought that cutting calories in half could do all these things to a previously healthy, normal person?

But really, the evidence has always been there. Haven’t we seen the ravages in our own lives, diet after diet? I’ve struggled with so many of these symptoms through my 20 years of chronic dieting and I think my body has been staging a revolt the past 10 years by gaining weight despite the calorie restrictions.

And is it any wonder? I’ve demanded that my body function on an inadequate calorie supply for 20 years. My body has had to make sacrifices in order to survive. Hence my declining mental/emotional health, daily headaches, body pain, hair loss, and sensitivity to cold.

I sometimes feel like my body has it in for me or that it’s broken and nothing I do can fix or change it. But it would seem that my good intentions, all my attempts to fix and change it, have backfired and my body, in its brilliance, survives despite of me. And thank God for that.

It’s time for me to take a breath and practice self care. It’s time to be gentle with my body and stop abusing it with nutritionally cheap food in restricted quantities.

It’s time to look beyond the food I put in my mouth and engage more fully in life. 



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