Thursday, September 2, 2010

Vintage Starvation Diet is Still Around

Some readers know I love the Golden Era (c. 1920-1963): I swing dance, live in a hundred-year-old house, and grow old garden roses. A recent acquaintance even asked me if I drove a Studebaker. I just finished a book that combined my interests in history and health: The Great Starvation Experiment by Todd Tucker. In 1944-45, a group of 36 American men, all conscientious objectors, volunteered for a year-long study on starvation. Ancel Keys (of lipid hypothesis fame) ran the tightly controlled experiment.

Dr. Michael Eades blogged about the book awhile back and noted the macronutrient balance of a typical subject:
The men in this study consumed macronutrients in the following amounts daily: protein 100 gm, fat 30 gm, and carbohydrate 225 gm. If you express these intakes as percentages, you come up with 25.5% protein, 17.2% fat and 57.3% carbohydrate.

Average energy intake of the subjects in the experiment: 1570 calories per day. (emphasis mine)

The men also had to walk 22 miles each week. The experiment was designed to simulate conditions in famine areas of Europe, with foods like cabbage, pea soup, potatoes, whole wheat bread, and very little meat. Indeed, the men looked like concentration camp victims at the end of the starvation phase. They lost some of their coordination, concentration, interest in anything but food, and of course much of their strength, energy and spirit. At one point, two of the pacifists got into a fistfight over a piece of macaroni in the lunch line. Yet even the end of the war in Europe--an event that had Americans literally dancing in the street--didn't excite them. Their lack of reaction reminded me of pictures of the thin, solemn prisoners at liberated concentration camps.

Is it fair to say this isn't a good diet for health and fitness, both mental and physical? Can I get an amen?

I'd heard that after the war, the information on concentration camp diets--the diet that kept prisoners alive and working but hungry and weary--was for sale and became the basis for modern diet programs. (The starvation study wasn't fully written up and published until 1950.) I don't know if that's true, but out of curiosity, I checked a few popular diet plans of today. The following quotes are from (who doesn't necessarily endorse the diets). Compare the calories and carb, protein and fat composition with the starvation diet, noted above.

Jenny Craig
Nutritionally, they reflect the 2005 federal guidelines and USDA food pyramid, and contain 50% to 60% carbohydrate, 20% to 25% protein, and 20% to 25% fat.
The article also mentions "tiny portions" and "physical activity."

Women follow a 1,200-calorie plan and men are allowed 1,500 calories per day....The diet is made up of 55% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 20% fat....Exercise is recommended.
LA Weight Loss:
The LA Weight Loss Centers plan is in line with national recommendations of approximately 50%-55% carbohydrates, 25%-30% protein, and 20%-25% fat. Emphasis is on moderation and portion control.

Here's a sample meal plan for a 1,500-calorie diet...
Dr. Andrew Weil:
Eat less, exercise more....Carbohydrates...50-60% of your calories...Fats up to 30%...Protein...should be limited to 10-20%.
These plans look a lot like the Great Starvation Experiment. And note that LA Weight Loss and Jenny Craig state that they follow the USDA food pyramid (our national guidelines. Did anyone in the USDA read the study the government funded?) As you might guess, the USDA recommends that for losing fewer calories.

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