Consequences of Severe Dieting

What about people who succeed in taking off enormous amounts of weight, going from 300 or 400 pounds down to normal weight? Although they may look more normal to the outside world, such people are often quite abnormal in their body physiology. Rockefeller University researchers followed a group of successful dieters from Overeaters Anonymous, all of whom lost more than 200 pounds. After such a severe diet, these individuals had a normal weight according to "ideal weight" tables. But the researchers found they were biologically abnormal. Their fat cells were tiny and the dieters' hormonal output was like that of a starving person.

What did researchers discover about successful dieters from Overeaters Anonymous? How can a formerly obese person maintain a low weight?

Fat tissue itself acts like an endocrine gland: it puts out hormones (over 20 different hormones, according to recent research). Therefore fat is not an inert glob; it is tissue that actively changes the rest of the body. The changes caused by obesity can lead to the so-called metabolic syndrome, a group of problems that often occur together in overweight people. The metabolic syndrome includes heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Inflammation-normally the result of an infection-can be stimulated by excess fat. Chronic inflammation may itself may itself invite heart disease and strokes, because inflammation of artery walls is now thought to trigger formation of plaque deposits on the walls of blood vessels, and plaque deposits can ultimately burst, causing heart attacks and strokes. In light of all these complications, the lack of hormones produced by a severe diet may be preferable to the abundance of hormones produced by too much fat.

A person with anorexia nervosa—the starvation disease—has tiny fat cells. Such a person is likely to experience disturbances such as irregular heartbeat, insomnia, intolerance of cold, and mood fluctuation. They have low white blood-cell counts and abnormally low heart rate and blood pressure. Anorectic women (women with anorexia nervosa) do not menstruate. They are intolerant of cold. They tend to be obsessed with food.

The Rockefeller University researchers found the same exact characteristics in people who were formerly obese and now at so-called normal weight. To maintain their weight loss, they had to eat 25% less than people without a history of obesity. To keep their fat cells almost empty of fat, they had to tolerate being cold much of the time. Virtually all the women stopped menstruating. They tended to be obsessed with food. In summary, it is possible to go from extremely obese to normal in weight, but the price is great. One remains in a perpetual state of starvation, physiologically.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey