Survivor: starvation diets

A Health24 reader once asked me, "Why don't I lose as much weight as the Survivors? Some contestants shed up to 30kg, while I can't lose more than 1kg, if that!"

It's understandable that people who are struggling to lose weight view the emaciated bodies of the Survivors with envy and ask themselves what they're doing wrong.

Keep in mind that, in each of the Survivor series to date, the contestants were exposed to extremely harsh conditions. This included: 

  • Unrelenting heat, which causes dehydration.
  • A monotonous diet based on a single staple carbohydrate food, e.g. maize meal in Africa and manioc in the Amazon.
  • Practically zero fat intake.
  • Tiny portions of protein, if they're able to catch fish or trap animals.
  • Great physical exertion when they have to build shelters, fetch wood and participate in challenges.
  • Extreme and constant psychological stress and anxiety.

In addition, many of the contestants started out on their Survivor adventure not carrying much weight.

If you're sensible about life, you'll realise that the Survivor conditions, which induced weight loss in the participants, differ radically from the conditions most of us, who live in comfortable homes, look after families and hold down jobs, experience.

You can't even try to recreate the same conditions. And there are excellent reasons why you shouldn't attempt to copy the Survivors.

Negative effects of starvation
People who only have eyes for the many kilograms that the Survivors lose, don't see, or don't want to see, what other negative physical and psychological effects these men and women develop because of their forced semi-starvation.

In general, the contestants who stay in the game long suffer from the following negative effects induced by starvation:

  • Deficiencies of vital vitamins and minerals, which cause infections, skin conditions, poor wound healing, hair loss and exhaustion. Some of the long-lasting Survivors also start to develop anaemia due to a lack of iron, folic acid and vitamin B12.
  • Emotional fragility and depression caused by lack of vitamin B complex and amino acids, such as tryptophan.
  • Extreme lack of energy and tiredness due to the low energy content of their diet.

Now, those of you who intend on copying the Survivors by attempting semi-starvation plus excessive physical activity to lose weight, will probably also start suffering from these ill effects. This isn't what a sensible weight-loss programme is supposed to do.

The sensible alternative
If you're set on losing weight, it's much more sensible to use a balanced, low-fat diet that still contains sufficient energy derived from carbohydrates and all the protective vitamins, minerals, trace elements, essential fatty acids and bioflavonoids. At the end of your slimming exercise, you'll reap the following benefits: 

  • Desired weight loss
  • Plenty of energy for exercise and work
  • Emotionally stable and not depressed
  • Bursting with good health
  • Not going to regain all the weight you've lost

The latter disadvantage of starvation diets is a normal reaction of the human body to replace lost weight as fast as possible when it's been exposed to a period of great deprivation. This survival mechanism has kept the human race going for thousands of years. We're programmed to replace our fat stores when they've been depleted by famine. If this were not so, we would have died out as a species long ago.

It's therefore much better to reduce your energy intake moderately and reprogramme your body to require less food and less energy over time, while using up extra energy by doing exercise.

If you use a sensible slimming programme, you'll keep the weight you've lost off forever and hopefully have reprogrammed your metabolism and appetite so that you'll never overeat again or stop exercising.

– (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc, updated April 2011)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

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