Can eating less make you gain weight? And damage your metabolism?

The year is 1945. Winter arrives early in the Netherlands. The weather is unusually severe. Combined with the Nazi blockade, food is in short order.

Some Dutch folk walk ten kilometer to trade their valuables for tulip bulbs. And not because they just finished reading Better Homes magazine and want their front yard to look delish. They're buying tulip bulbs to eat them.

Nothing tastes as good as dying of starvation feels.

Trying to eat healthier? Complaining about how something tastes? How about you go outside and eat some flowers. How's that for perspective?

(I typed the sentence as I complained about my hotel's Internet connection. #domaindependence)

Food rations are down to 580 calories per day. That's two regular sized Snickers bars. If I do no physical activity save for lying in bed, I need more than 580 calories per day to survive (even sans porn which would potentially possibly maybe might considerably drastically increase my energy expenditure).

Images of children growing up during this time period are haunting. Many people die. Miraculously, some pregnant women survive.

The babies of said pregnant women are studied years later by scientists. They find some interesting links between what's now known as the Hongerwinter (Hunger Winter) and health.

Turns out, if you were a third trimester fetus during the Hongerwinter, you had increased odds of suffering from obesity and the litany of obesity related dysfunctions, like type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Rerun the tape. Something happening to you a fetus can have a huge effect on you later in life? That’s gotta’ be something genetic right?

It's about as genetic as your house getting torn apart by a tornado. Because the scientists concluded that these metabolic problems were a direct result of the starvation, and food quality and food quantity are products of the environment. 

So the moral of the Hongerwinter phenomenon, in some way, is that eating less made a bunch of people gain weight. Sounds scary, right? Because 99.9% of fat loss strategies tell you to eat less.

So let's deconstruct the Hongerwinter phenomenon piece by piece to make sure you don't end up with a metabolism that functions like Charlie Sheen on a Saturday night.

Envision a car. There's an immediate fuel tank, but there's also a bunch of those red fuel canisters in the trunk. Spoiler alert: those red canisters are your fat cells.

You want to empty those red canisters? Alright. Fill up the tank with less fuel, and drive around more. This is how the mechanical model goes, right? Eat less, move more.

But machines don't care whether or not they run out of fuel. They aren't living and breathing biological entities, which absolutely do care about their fuel situation. So let's add a human element to this analogy.

You get kidnapped. Blindfolded. With a gun tickling your temple, a thick Russian accent tells you that your family has been kidnapped. In order to free them you have to drive on a one way road to a certain destination.

You have no idea how long the road is. You have no idea if there are any gas stations on the road. Are you going to be doing donuts and peeling tire? Are you going to let the car idle when you take naps in order to keep the AC on?

The car may have a relatively steady miles per gallon output, but focusing on the logistics ignores adjustments the driver can make in light of the situation at hand.

This fuel is important, so I can't be wasteful.

Your body (not necessarily your consciousness) is fully aware of its fuel situation. From a biological fitness perspective, no fuel means no life. Do not pass go, do not collect two-hundred dollars.

Oh, would you look at that? I mentioned money. What a fantastic segue because here's where we begin to replace the mechanical model with the money model (even though I nailed my car analogy).

Your metabolism is less like a machine and more like a financially savvy human handling money. Remember Claire? From accounting? She doesn't want to go broke. Neither does your body.

So you can relate your conscious financial behaviors to your body's unconscious resource behaviors. This helps from both a physiological standpoint, and a psychological standpoint.

We're not here to talk psychology, but just to whet your appetite: everyone knows it's better to save money, yet everyone buys the new flat screen TV; everyone knows it's better to eat the broccoli, yet everyone eats the cake. Similarities? Absolutely.

You have an income. Your income is your food intake, which consists of both nutrients and energy. You have expenses. Your expenses are, uhh, vast, to say the least. You beat your heart almost every second. You renew your skin almost every month. Your brain never stops. These aren't pro bono jobs.

So you have income. You need to spend the money on the stuff that's going to keep you alive and kicking. But what happens if you have a good paying job and are in good financial standings?

Where do you put extra money? The safest place = your savings account. You could invest it. But there's a chance of going bust if you invest.


Body fat is your human savings account. If you want to know why my instincts tell me so, you can read this thing I wrote.

Now that we've established body fat as a savings account, we can plug back into the Hongerwinter phenomenon.

As a fetus, you’re asking questions about the world you’re about to be squeezed into. During the third trimester, one of the questions you’re asking is: what’s the deal with nutrients and energy on the outside?

If Mom is starving, then you’re starving. So the sensible conclusion: nutrients and energy will be hard to come by. Given you're biologically programmed to survive, you're ‘lil fetal self takes this information to heart.

Not a lot of nutrients and energy out there? Then I have to get reallllllyyy efficient with what comes my way. Nothing can be wasted.

In other words, the Hongerwinter phenomenon hints that our body undergoes metabolic adjustments to better survive a nutrient and energy crisis.

Imagine making $50,000 per year. That's your income. Your expenses add up to $45,000. That's your mortgage, car payment, utilities, and all of the other things you do for fun to keep you sane (like binge drink on the weekends).

You lose your job. You get a new one. Now you make $10,000 per year. You're now missing $40,000.

The mechanical model says you maintain your previous lifestyle and automatically cover the full $40,000 with your savings account, but this doesn't happen because your savings are muy importante. 

You can't assume your body is going to reach into its savings account (body fat) to cover an income shortage.

You're going to balance the seesaw as much as possible before you absolve your most precious resource.

Cancel the cable. Turn off the lights. If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down. Sell all the shit in the attic. Unsubscribe to RealityKings. 

Your body wants to maintain a semblance of stasis, but there isn't one singular nob turned to stop the physiological seesaw from wobbling. (If I wanted to sound smart, I'd mention something about allostasis.

But I already want to punch myself in the face. I'm not a scientist, but I'm sure as hell am doing a good job sounding like one. Maybe. Probably not. Okay. Right. I'm not. Shit. Time to eat some Fruity Pebbles and cry myself to sleep.

You're doing all this shit to reduce your expenses because, for all intents and purposes, there's no reason to believe you're ever going to be making more money. And if you bank roll the missing $40,000 you're going to run out of savings quick.

There are ways you can adjust your income and expenses in the event of a financial threat. Your body can do the same in the event of a metabolic threat.

Your body can absorb more calories from the food you eat.

Ever bake brownies? You throw a bunch of ingredients into a bowl, mix everything up, and then dump the sludge into a baking pan. But you never really get all of the sludge out of the bowl, do you? Sitting there and using one of those plastic spatulas to scrap the bowl down isn't worth your time. Unless, of course, you're starving.

Just because you eat 2000 calories doesn't mean your body absorbs 2000 calories. Lots of things (gut bacteria, type of macronutrient, quality) influence how much energy you scrape out of the bowl. If you're starving, you're going to absorb more energy from the food you eat.

Your body can adjust your unconscious activity levels. 

Your body is replenishing energy throughout the day during non-deliberate exercise (and life) situations. You move and fidget unconsciously. When the temperature outside rises and falls, you sweat and shiver. If you eat less, your body can use less energy but adjusting all of the factors that make up your unconscious non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT).

You tell your wife to get you another beer instead of walking to the fridge yourself. You get chilly more often because your body isn't spending the cash to maintain your body temperature.

Your body can sabotage your conscious activity levels. 

A big part of training regularly is having the haunches to train, regardless of whether or not you feel motivation. Because, as anyone in the game will admit, even though there are times when motivation is sky high, there are also times when motivation is drop dead low.

Your body can make you tired, lethargic, and groggy in an attempt to sabotage your voluntary activity levels. And if you aren't getting energy and nutrients to recover, you'll feel beat down anyway.

Your body can sabotage your eating behaviors. 

When you eat less, your brain can adjust your satiety mechanism (meaning you don't feel full as quickly and unconsciously eat more) and hunger mechanism (meaning you feel hungry more often).

As someone that grew up eating whatever whenever with a big appetite, I've found that when I maintain a lean physique, I can eat a lot more food in one sitting.

Your body can get rid of metabolically expensive muscle tissue. 

Say you surf through all of the muck above. There comes a point in time when the seesaw will tip, no matter what kind of metabolic adjustments your body is making. In other words, there will come a point when your body won't be able to compensate downward further.

You will turn into a skeleton and die if you don't eat…or you will die earlier from some kind of nutrient deficiency or illness.

So say you get your expenses down to $15,000. You're making $10,000. You're winning, right?

Maybe. Or maybe not. Because your body doesn't have to dip into its savings account. Your body can break down muscle tissue (instead of body fat) to cover for the expense.

Breaking down muscle tissue is a win win. Not only does your body get energy from the breakdown, but your body also becomes more energy efficient. First, because bigger creatures need more energy (and you're becoming smaller). Second, because muscle mass is more metabolically costly than body fat (and you're losing muscle).

So it's not that eating less causes weight gain. But eating less (a lot less) triggers metabolic adaptations to better your chance of surviving a world without lots of nutrients and energy.

Which, quite frankly, makes an insane amount of sense. The okie-doke being that Hongerwinter wasn't permanent. And neither are most diets. The winter season ended, as did the Nazi blockade. Food rations returned to normal.

So a bunch of babies triggered metabolic adaptations towards frugality, which is a fine characteristic to have if you're trying to make good in a world without lots of resources. In fact, if these kids would have continued to grow in said nutrient deprived world, they probably would have been skinny. But they grew up in a nutrient and energy plentiful world.

So go back to the financial example. You spent the last six months getting your expenses down to $15,000 from $45,000. But whadayaknow, you get your old job back.

So your expenses are still at $15,000 and your income is back at $50,000, meaning you're ahead $30,000. And, since you're a fatphillic human, you're wired to store your excess in your savings account. So what happens? You put a lot of shit into savings.

The metabolic adaptations triggered by an energy crisis can increase the likelihood of you getting fat upon returning to a nutrient plentiful environment.

Most diets fail. It's a depressing statistic I first head from my nutrition professor in college. I can't remember the exact numbers, but I want to say 90% (or more) of weight loss interventions fail.

But you can dig even deeper and find an even more depressing facet of this statistic: most people that diet and lose weight end up gaining all of their weight back…and more.

You playing Connect Four in your head right now? Because you should now be able to rationalize why most dieters actually get fatter in the long run.

At which point those of you with my level of self-confidence (zero on a scale of one to ten) are playing the following cassette on loop in your head:

“Your body wants to get fat? What? Your body doesn't want to be lean? Fat loss seems fucking impossible, I quit. This is Shitty McShitpants. Give me the tub of Ben & Jerry's Peanut Buttah Cookie Core. I need to numb myself with an insulin coma.”

And, if that's the case, I have some good news that goes beyond complimenting you on your ice cream selection because Ben & Jerry's Peanut Buttah Cookie Core is fire.

You're right in that the body isn't keen on losing body fat, but your body accumulates savings under the assumption that it probably will come in handy one day. So your body can and will make it rain under the right circumstances.

The Hongerwinter is an extreme example of what can happen during genuine starvation. So I overplayed the situation a tad. I'm sorry I'm not sorry. The exaggeration is important because most people diet in such a bass ackwards way that the deck is ever not in their favor because they forego the fundamental Truth of weight loss.

Your body doesn't know the difference between I'm dieting to look sexy and ohmigod I'm starving to death.

Fitness is a survival characteristic. The body gives zero fucks about what modern beauty culture says a fit body is supposed to look like.

There's a big difference between making $50,000 and then making $10,000 versus making $50,000 and then making $40,000. You know this intuitively from a financial standpoint. You can envision the situation; parallel it to your physiology.

And, unlike Hongerwinter and “shit happening,” there is no genuine starvation. You're in control of the situation with a more robust physiological blueprint in hand.

So, if you have your wits about you, you can minimize metabolic damage and stack the deck in your favor.

Now's about the time where you're expecting said wits, but this is more of the philosophical thought piece. You can read a similar article I referenced heavily from Precision Nutrition for some of their thoughts, but mine differ, naturally, else I would have just linked you to this article and saved you my nonsense.

The point of this article (and the previous one) was simply to peel back a layer on how a distorted perception of how the body works — a broken model — can sabotage good intentions.

I'm sure people that go on very low calorie diets (VLCDs), juice leanses, and detoxes have good intentions. I'm sure those that switch to a bulking phase immediately after a cut are only trying their best.

I'm sure those that drop calories insanely low after hitting a fat loss plateau because teh numbers!!11!1!1 aren't adding up.

Yoyo dieting stints.


This human software of yours was built to work without your consciousness. It works fantastically. It keeps us alive. The Hongerwinter is a great example. The world is shitty, your body does whatever it can to survive.

I'm sure all of those people don't want to whack out their metabolism like Charlie Sheen. But shit like that bound to happen when you're opening up hood of a car and thrashing without any idea who or why or whatever…essentially trying to fix a car with the wrong (or no) instructions.

As usual, when you appreciate body for smart biological thingie, with sphincters, you're in a better place. Fat loss may seem daunting, deck stacked against, but don't compare yourself to the schmucks that don't know what they are doing.

You're flirting against biology. No one said this shit ain't easy. Smooth seas never make for skilled sailors. Cliche/

Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

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