Diets change your brain: evidence from Gitmo

The New York Times' Well blog picked up on Rachel's excellent coverage of the use of diets as a torture technique by the Bush administration. Huffington Post blogger Sam Stein wrote that:

In a footnote to a May 10, 2005, memorandum from the Office of Legal Council, the Bush attorney general’s office argued that restricting the caloric intake of terrorist suspects to 1000 calories a day was medically safe because people in the United States were dieting along those lines voluntarily.

“While detainees subject to dietary manipulation are obviously situated differently from individuals who voluntarily engage in commercial weight-loss programs, we note that widely available commercial weight-loss programs in the United States employ diets of 1000 kcal/day for sustain periods of weeks or longer without requiring medical supervision,” read the footnote. “While we do not equate commercial weight loss programs and this interrogation technique, the fact that these calorie levels are used in the weight-loss programs, in our view, is instructive in evaluating the medical safety of the interrogation technique.”

Rachel had this to say in the "comments" section of her post:

The overall point is the same for terrorist or woman: Wean their caloric intake down so far to keep them alive, but in a state where they’re body’s defenses kick in and all they think about is food. They will then be more docile and retractable so that you can gain — and sustain — power over them.

And this is, I think, where so many seemingly "average" Americans are likely to miss the point: dieting changes brain chemistry. It's not free of side effects and the potential for harm. Sure, once all of your bones are sticking out, people might tell you to knock it off--but some will also ask you for diet tips.*

People dramatically underestimate the effects that dieting and even mild malnutrition have on the brain. Many women and men cut their calories to levels even below that of the detainees. In the Minnesota Starvation Study, where the men at about 1500 calories each day, they essentially went nuts. They obsessed about food, lost interest in women and sex, became depressed and anxious. One man even chopped some of his fingers off.

Food restricting changes neurochemistry. Some people survive a diet okay. Some get trapped. It's no more safe whether it's "approved" by Jenny Craig, an ex-president, or a doctor. It's no more safe whether it's imposed upon a prisoner or embarked upon by a teen. Dieting can be risky. It changes your brain.

Remember that.

*No joke. The day before I was hospitalized for AN back in 2001, a girl asked me how I did it because she was having "a little trouble with Atkins." I was practically at death's door, with blue fingernails and covered in fur and she wanted to know how I did it.

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Anonymous said...

I didn't realize the starvation study was on that 'high' of a caloric intake.

In our physio classes, we're taught that the average [no judgments attached] intake is 2,900 kcal/day.

I wonder if you could justify overdosing the prisoners on any number of street drugs to get their defenses down... I mean, people here do that voluntarily, so it must be okay, right? What a ridiculous explanation.

I was always taken aback with the unabashed asks for tips, even from staff. On more than one occasion, people asked me how I stayed 'so motivated' w/r/t running. I was in a wheelchair for fucks sake, wasn't it obvious I wasn't just "motivated" I was crazy?

Another patient talked about the upcoming holiday & mentioned how it was hard for her to not restrict more, make special fat free things & how much she wanted to be able to just enjoy the family/friends holiday. The therapist asked for the recipe of a fat free dish she mentioned.

A:) said...

Ummmm wow? I'm sure these diets are "medically safe" if the people are monitored, but even the fact that it is used as a coercion method speaks of how unnatural for the human body dieting to that level can be. . . Especially when some of these prisoners may not be overweight in the first place. . .

Interestingly, I have a family member dieting right now (for health reasons) and it is interesting to see the habits that have emerged -- constant talking about food, fluid loading to decrease hunger, gum chewing, fixation on weight, irritability. It really underscores what the Minnesota Starvation study set out to prove -- that even mild dieting for legitimate reasons can quickly effect behaviour and the brain.



IrishUp said...

Great post, Carrie!
A:) - I don't think that the medical community really understands nutrition, micro-nutrition or malnutrition very well at all. Modern research is profit driven, western medicine is very atomistic while issues of nutrition are complex and systematic, and medical schools don't teach very much about human nutrition. Given how much medicine happens without an adequate evidence base, and how much profit there is in dieting, I am very skeptical that "medically safe" diets have really been evaluated in the depth necessary to make that claim with confidence.

Tiptoe said...

I think you're right in saying a lot of people don't realize how much dieting affects the brain.

In general, I also think what a lot of people forget or don't know is the short amount of time it takes for your body react to starvation. It can take as little as 24-48 hours for your body to start to "compensate" for lost nutrients and food. Then, of course when it goes on to being chronic, the effects just continue to compound.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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