Competition Diet vs. Starvation Study
What happens to humans faced with starvation? Back in 1950, professor Ancel Keys decided to find out. During World War II, famine was a very real issue. So Keys recruited 36 volunteers, conscientious objectors to the war, to study starvation and recovery. In short, they were starved down to the bones, then rehabilitated.
Today, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment would be considered unethical, but we learned a lot from it. In part, we learned that it takes a long time to recover from near-starvation diets.
There’s more to learn, though. So how can we ethically study the effects of extreme deprivation diets on humans today? We study female physique competitors.
The New Study
This study focused on normal-weight, physically active females – 27 IFBB amateur competitors getting ready for shows (1). Seventeen were bikini competitors, nine were “body fitness” competitors, and one was in the fitness division (a figure competitor who does tricks). I assume “body fitness” means figure or one of the ever-growing classes that aren’t quite full-blown bodybuilding.
The researchers wanted to find out what happens health-wise during the four-month pre-competition period, along with how well they recover from the strict dieting and increased training.
This is unique because most studies involve overweight people trying to lose weight and then maintain that healthier weight. Physique competitors are different. They’re already in good shape; their goal is to get in stage shape – very lean and still displaying a good amount of muscle. After the show, the smart ones try to return to their baseline or normal fitness level, which is usually pretty darn good.
A control group was established, pre, mid, and post-competition lab tests were conducted along with DXA scans, and, well, the rest gets very tedious. Suffice it to say, it was a very thorough study… except for one possible error, which I’ll get to in a minute.
The participants then did what they always do: reduced calories, lowered carbs, kept protein high, lifted weights, increased cardio or HIIT, and posed their little privates off.
Most saw a 35 to 50 percent decrease in fat mass. Yeah, they got ripped. Muscle size was either maintained or only slightly decreased. Weight training plus a higher protein diet allowed them to keep all or most of their muscle, the researchers concluded.
That’s all good, but it wrecked their hormonal systems. “Serum concentrations of leptin, T3, testosterone, and estradiol decreased,” researchers noted. Menstrual irregularities and energy dips were also common.
After their shows, the bedazzled-bikini subjects kept lifting, decreased their level of aerobic training, and brought their overall calories and carbs back up to normal. In 3-4 months, hormone concentrations returned to baseline. Well, most of them. “T3 and testosterone were still slightly decreased compared to pre-diet…” researchers noted.
The Possible Error
The researchers looked at these results positively since muscle was mostly maintained and hormone levels returned to normal, or close to it, in the four months after the show.
But four months is a long time to be hormonally hamstrung, especially regarding thyroid and testosterone. And many competitors do more than one show in a season. What happens when you end one competition prep and jump into a new one soon after?
The scientists here also didn’t talk much about drug use, only noting that the IFBB doesn’t allow performance-enhancing drugs.
I’ll give you a minute to stop laughing.
Now, these were amateur IFBB competitors in the bikini or fitness classes, so we can probably (maybe?) assume that any drug use was minimal. But it could have affected the study results, like the ability to maintain muscle mass.
Anyone who’s been involved in even local amateur competitions knows that drugs often enter the scene very early on. Even “modest” amounts of certain steroids and bodybuilding-adjacent drugs can make a difference.
What We Can Learn
- With a high protein intake and weight training, muscle loss can be minimized or avoided, even during an extreme diet.
- The damage done by a competition diet can be repaired, but it may take 3-4 months or more. Female competitors should be aware of the hormonal changes, especially thyroid and testosterone. Back-to-back shows seems like a pretty terrible idea.
- Step onto the competition stage with caution, and not too often.
- Hulmi JJ et al. The Effects of Intensive Weight Reduction on Body Composition and Serum Hormones in Female Fitness Competitors. Front Physiol. 2017 Jan 10;7:689. PMC.