This is only half true. The fact is that most radical diets are not oriented towards sensible intake of nutrients but concentrate solely on ingesting as few calories as possible. Which is indeed dangerous. The body requires certain nutrients that it cannot manufacture itself and that must therefore be taken in with our food.
For example, the body needs protein to carry out necessary repairs, supply muscles, etc. A non-active person requires at least 0.8 g of protein per kilo of (normal) weight. That means for me, as a 175-cm-tall woman, around 60 g per day is the absolute minimum to keep me functioning. One gram of protein has 4 kcal, which means I need to eat 240 kcal worth of protein to avoid suffering from protein deficiency.
As soon as physical exercise is involved, the amount of protein required by the body increases up to as much as 2 g per kilo of body weight (so, for me, around 150 g/600 kcal per day).
Protein deficiency is marked by symptoms such as exhaustion, circulatory problems, pallor, weakness, lack of concentration, depression/irritability, hair loss, and water retention, especially in the abdominal region.
Many people experience these kinds of symptoms during a radical diet and they often make the mistake of attributing them to calorie reduction rather than lack of certain nutrients. Of course, the more calories you take in, the more likely it is that you will also be getting enough protein, but even eating 3000 kcal a day is no guarantee of that.
A protein-rich diet with fewer calories can contain more protein than that of someone who eats fruit for breakfast and pasta or rice for lunch every day and spends every evening snacking on crisps or chocolate.
Such a person might polish off ample calories and still suffer from malnutrition. According to the Canadian newspaper National Post (2015) overweight patients in particular are often more likely to suffer from deficiencies of important vitamins, minerals, and proteins. Their diets tend to be high in calories, but unbalanced, leading to malnourishment despite their obesity. Scroll writes of a major problem with child obesity in India, with very overweight children showing such severe signs of nutritional deficiencies that their health, their development, and even their lives, are in danger.
The reason for this is, of course, their diet, which is rich in calories but poor in essential nutrients. During my period of extreme calorie reduction, my committed taking of suffi- cient protein and vitamin supplements, as well as undergoing regular blood tests, meant I was actually even able to redress previous deficits in certain nutri- ents (iron, vitamins D and B), and I had no health problems.
I was sometimes asked whether I felt weak, faint, or similar, but I never did. And, compared to before my radical diet, my skin became significantly clearer and my hair stronger. Although the quality of my diet actually improved despite radical calorie reduction, some of those around me took a different view.
The general opinion of such a severe calorie reduction was that it was irresponsible, unhealthy — dangerous! This belief is lodged so firmly in people’s minds that we are bom- barded from all sides by the idea that everything is fine as long as we eat
‘enough’ (calories). What that means is that if I had added a couple of choco- late bars to my small, high-protein meals to raise my daily intake to 1500 kcal, observers would have considered my diet more healthy.
What people fail to understand is that a caloric deficit does not automatically mean an energy deficit. Fatty tissue is nothing but stored energy. It can be com- pared to a well-stocked pantry, where long-lasting basic foodstuffs like pota- toes, pasta, flour, and canned and frozen foods are stored. More perishable foods still have to be bought in fresh, but the stockpile covers most nutritional needs.
The fatty tissue in our bodies is sufficient to cover our basic energy needs, and we just need to add the vitamins, proteins, and a little of the fat that the body cannot keep in store. Another very common prophecy of doom is that people who are losing weight are also supposedly in danger of losing muscle mass.
Weight reduction is almost automatically equated with muscle loss, and men in particular often worry about losing strength and power when they lose weight. But, again, the rule here is that it is not caloric intake that is important, but the amount of nutrients in your diet (and how much you exercise). The body loses muscle mass for two reasons only: the muscle is not (no longer) needed; or the muscle can no longer be maintained. Muscle mass is important, but it also costs en- ergy, and so our body only carries around as much as it needs — no more, but also no less. As long as the muscle is necessary, the body will not willingly break it down, seeing as it is the best investment for future survival and a guar- antee of continued energy supply. It would perhaps be logical in our underactive society to break down muscle in order to save energy, given that providing our bodies with energy involves no more than a trip to the supermarket or even a simple phone call. In the past, though, obtaining food was highly dependent on physical strength, speed, and stamina, and a hunter who immediately lost muscle mass during a period of famine would have had a smaller chance of hunting and killing the next animal. So, our bodies don’t voluntarily start shedding muscle mass, but prefer to take energy from their fat reserves, which also happen to be much more efficient at storing energy.
Muscle mass and fat mass are separate systems and when one of them is built up or broken down, the other does not inevitably have to follow suit. Two things are necessary to maintain or build up muscle mass: the stimulus of physical training and sufficient nutrient supply.
Training stimulus signals to the muscles that they are required by the body. When athletes stop training, their fitness level begins to deteriorate after just two weeks of inactivity. When our muscles are not used at their maximum strength, our bodies break down the unnecessary mass and adapt to the actual level of strain they are under. How- ever, if we expose our bodies to stimulus from training while we’re losing weight, the body recognises that requirement and adapts to it — if muscle mass is clearly required, then the body will keep it.
Nutrients play a crucial role here. The body requires nutrients both to main- tain and to increase muscle mass — these are mainly proteins, vitamins, and minerals. When muscles are put under strain, tiny injuries can result — we feel them in the form of aching muscles after exercise.
If no nutrients are available to repair those injuries and increase muscle mass, the body is left with no choice but to break down the damaged muscle.
This means that, ironically, an exercise program which is not accompanied by a balanced diet can even lead to more muscle mass being broken down, since sport causes more tiny muscle in- juries. Anorexics especially tend to exercise excessively as part of their illness, and, as their bodies are also undersupplied with nutrients, they tend to lose muscle mass by exercising.