The Dark Side of Staying Super Lean

Being ultra-lean is fun. Even beyond appearance, it means that a lot of planning and effort paid off, and you’ve achieved something extraordinary. However, staying super lean is rare, and it’s very common for all that work to be lost in a post-diet fat rebound.

It happened to me many times so I experimented with ways to keep body fat low. I found it can be achieved, but also that if you push it too far for too long there’s a price to pay.

Joseph Westrupp—staying super lean

Sanity Disclaimer

Researching and experimenting with ways to increase muscle, strength, and leanness is a passion. I see the human body as a kind of art project that we can shape and mold, or a machine to be programmed with diet and training.

It seems necessary to say that up front, otherwise what I subjected myself to might seem even more crazy than it probably already was.

Exploring the Limits

In the last few years I’ve been interested in the idea of permanently lowering body fat percentage, and the limits of how lean it’s possible to stay.

Of course you can’t establish a limit without going past it, and in this case that meant stripping enough body fat to get below what could really be considered healthy.

As such, I got extremely lean (using the method outlined here) and stayed that way for well over a year as I reverse dieted. Here’s what I discovered.

Starvation Mode: the Dark Side of Staying Super Lean

Insatiable Hunger

Regardless of food volume, or even short term overfeeding, it was simply impossible to feel satisfied. It’s surreal to eat a massive, high energy meal and remain ravenous.

This also lead to preoccupation with food. The moment one meal ended, I was anticipating the next one.

Muscle and Strength

Strength plummeted. Even doing what I was capable of took immense effort and concentration.

As much as I’ve read and heard about the possibility of muscle gains in a calorie deficit, it was impossible. I used a few different approaches. One was to frequently train extremely hard to try to force adaptation, and another was to really emphasize recovery with infrequent training. Neither worked.

Worse, I kept losing muscle. As time progressed the circumference measurements of my limbs and torso kept decreasing, even as I slowly added food back in.

Skin Quality Degradation

My skin was very dry and structurally weak. For example, the pressure of dental floss being wrapped around my fingers was enough to penetrate the skin, and I had lots of little cuts from it.

Immune Dysfunction

I got atopic (meaning no external cause) dermatitis on my face, which I’ve never had before. It took about five weeks to heal, and actually left noticeable scars on my cheek.

Fatigue

Energy was low, which made doing anything very difficult. At the worst times even standing up seemed to take a monumental effort.

Hormonal Dysregulation

Inadequate testosterone production meant libido was almost non-existent. An abnormally elevated morning heart rate was probably caused by high cortisol levels. Conversely, an unusually low heart rate later in the day I guess had something to do with low thyroid hormone.

Regardless of whether my layman diagnoses are strictly accurate, it’s safe to say my hormone levels weren’t optimal.

Poor Sleep

Sleep was short and of low quality. I averaged about five hours per night, which is unusually low for me.

I was extremely tired by the end of the day and nodding off when I sat on the couch in the late evening, again very unusual for me. I dropped off easily, but would wake early and couldn’t sleep further.

Other Observations

My blood pressure was abnormally low, resulting in frequent dizziness (not the best during a heavy set of squats…). Mood was effected, too. I was overly irritable and life was generally less enjoyable.

Difficult… but Fascinating

At times it was rough, but it provided valuable insight. Staying super lean is a great goal, but overall the experience has shown me that you can definitely push it too far.

Metabolic adaptation, metabolic damage, starvation mode—regardless of what you call it, you’re basically in a state of malnutrition. For a short term goal, putting up with these symptoms is manageable. However, anyone seeking long term change would be well advised to stop short of this type of dysfunction.

Feedback is very welcome, I’d love to hear from you. Just use the comment form below, or send me an email.

If you enjoyed this, take a look at Trying to Determine the Real Health Risks of Steroids.

Thank you so much for reading.