Biosphere- the unintentional experiment in what happens when you try to eat under 1800 calories.

I haven’t written in a while. Life has been busy and I haven’t been inspired of late. I did however read an article recently that prompted me to write again. The inspiration was to deliver this message:

Failing at your efforts to excessively reduce calories and lose weight is not a moral failure.

Repeat- it’s often your biology protecting you from yourself. I’ve written frequently about calorie under-estimation (especially in chronic dieters) but here’s a really eye opening article I read today about the closed-system experiment called the Biosphere. Anyone that lived through the 1990’s probably remembers the 2 year long experiment where people tried to live in a closed system to mimic what deep space exploration may look like.

The reason I’m writing about this is a very interesting article I read about the Biosphere. This is what I was reading (I’ll summarize some of my thoughts below if you don’t feel like reading the whole thing):

The article talks about the trials they had with running out of food and one of the participants ongoing feeling that restricting calories would prolong life.

A very compelling story. I’d like to highlight: as they ran out of food they had to reduce calories to below 1800 calories per day.  To many chronic dieters this sounds like a reasonable number of calories (despite the fact that the average American women of normal weight eats around 2450 calories and normal weight men eat around 3000).  In fact it is very common to hear people report “I’m eating 1500 calories a day and not losing weight.”

So what happened, when in a closed system they reduced calories to below 1800 while still having to work at producing food and running the Biosphere? They lost crazy amounts of weight. Honestly: they were starving.  One guy lost 58 pounds from 208 to 150.  Another guy who started at 145 lost 25 pounds!  Everyone’s BMI dropped below 20.

They also had to lock up food, especially the bananas (the most delicious thing in the Biosphere)- presumably to save them from unplanned for binges.  They also spent time watching people eat hotdogs through binoculars and fantasizing about food.  The issue, of course, while you are on a diet of under 1800 calories….you don’t live in a closed-system. We have access to all kinds of food that is easy to not measure. Handful of nuts here, a few extra grapes there, a spoonful of peanut butter we forget to measure in our diet journal.

Starving yourself ultimately results in your body taking measures into it’s own hands to prevent you from harming yourself.  In the Biosphere- “it became accepted practice to lick one’s plate clean after every meal, so as not to miss a single precious calorie.” In fact I read an account elsewhere that several members of the Biosphere got so desperate for food that they ultimately broke into emergency supplies of food that had not been grown in the dome.

Now on a certain level the details of this diet may not apply to the chronic dieter in the Western world.  They were eating a very low fat diet. They also had a fair amount of activity which in this paper is thought to be equal to 3-4 hours of manual farming per day. This is likely more activity then most people in the Western world are getting, though the participants had gone into the Biosphere with a year of the same activity- which further supports that these people must have been eating much more when left to their own devices, when they weren’t in the Biopshere.

So again my conclusion is: it’s not moral failing if your attempts at calorie reduction aren’t working. Sometimes the issue is having an inappropriate idea of how low to reduce calories.  A more moderate deficit and a good relationship with food and body image are going to be important factors in success at weight loss.


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