Crash Dieting Syndrome: A Somewhat Facetious Guide to What You Should Not Do


Crash Dieting Syndrome: A Somewhat Facetious Guide to What You Should Not Do

July 22, 2012


Crash dieting (n., kraSH dī-iting): extreme caloric restriction, oftentimes coupled with excessive exercise (namely steady-state cardio). Time-frame can range anywhere from a few days to several months.

People who crash diet are in a hurry to drop the most amount of fat in a short time frame. Crash dieting can take multiple forms, including but not limited to: consuming only a select few specific foods (eg. only crackers and lemons), engaging in bizarre rituals, and mixing together foods that suddenly possess magical power.

Crash Dieting Syndrome (CDS) typically starts in the teen years but can affect individuals at any age. This syndrome is much more common with females than with males, though recent years has seen an increasing number of males falling victim to this trend.

With crash dieting, patients may find it hard to enjoy life, engage in social affairs, and focus on tasks. Some may become afflicted just once in their lifetime, while others will have it time and time again under the false pretense that there is any long-term success to be gained.


There are numerous causes for CDS. More often than not, there is a defining event in an individual’s life that trigger CDS behavior. Popular moments include:

  • seeing an aesthetically unpleasant photo of oneself
  • not being able to see one’s own genitals without a mirror
  • having trouble fitting in

    The ominous scale.

    to last year’s jeans

  • stepping on the scale after a long period of time and seeing a much higher number than expected
  • a visit to the doctor

Additionally, upcoming special occasions, such as weddings and high school reunions, can instigate CDS. With a deadline quickly approaching, individuals can feel pressured to speed up the dieting process and resort to shedding the weight off as quickly as possible.

Those who struggle with patience may be more prone to CDS. They are accustomed to instant gratification and give up easily when results are not immediately visible. Despite knowing that slow, reasonable steps to fat loss is more sustainable in the long run, individuals convince themselves that they will not fall prey to the common side effects of CDS. This is hardly ever the case.


    1. Muscle loss. When slashing calories, it is not uncommon for people from the general population to drastically reduce protein intake as well. Coupled with lack of a sound weight training program, this creates a recipe for severe muscle wasting. Any hard-earned muscle will quickly atrophy, leaving a smaller yet doughy version of one’s former self.
    2. Energy levels. They will plummet. Drastically. Individuals may experience difficulty sleeping soundly and may also struggle getting out of bed in the mornings. Dependence on stimulants such as caffeine may spike (that’s a pun) to combat feelings of lethargy.
    3. Mood changes. Any trace of one’s original bubbly, chirpy personality may degenerate into witch mode. Constantly obsessing over thoughts of food and all the things one cannot consume may stir sudden outbursts of anger and unsolicited bitch slaps to unknowing passerby. Diva mode: activated.
    4. Rebound & metabolic damage. One of the more severe symptoms of CDS. Most of the time, individuals who crash diet may experience short-lived success before rapidly piling the weight back on.

Rebound is defined as rapid weight gain at an alarming rate via an individual’s behavior, normally involving regular episodes of binge eating on formerly forbidden foods. It is not uncommon for people under tremendous pressure (say, competitors getting ready for a show or celebrities constantly in the spotlight) to have their bodyweight fluctuate upwards of 40 to 50 pounds. Patients report feelings of panic, lack of control, and an overwhelming need to consume as much food as possible within a short timeframe. Individuals may battle with rebound for anywhere between a few months to several years. Many end up looking worse than they did before they started dieting in the first place and frequently make false promises to themselves to “try again tomorrow.” The damage is primarily psychological. Well-known examples of yo-yo dieters who unsuccessfully crash diet time and time again: Oprah Winfrey, Janet Jackson, Kirstie Alley, Britney Spears, and Kelly Clarkson.

Oops, she did it again!

Metabolic damage is a related yet distinct effect of CDS. Unlike rebound, metabolic damage has more serious physiological implications. Severe, prolonged caloric restriction with hours of daily cardio can make for a turbulent environment within the body, knocking proper hormone levels off-kilter, for one. Despite eating properly and exercising at appropriate levels, the body refuses to respond – and may even continue to gain fat. Issues may include, depressed metabolic rate (eg. gaining weight at 900 calories per day), decreased testosterone levels, and chronically elevated cortisol levels.  Individuals, confused, may further slash their dietary intake but doing so will inevitably exacerbate their situation.

Metabolic damage may take months, and oftentimes years, to fix. The medical repercussions should never be overlooked. The emotional toll inflicted upon victims of metabolic damage is never worth any trophy, magazine cover, or photoshoot. Click here for more in-depth information or the video below to watch coach Scott Abel and Kevin Weiss talk aboot the realities of metabolic damage.

  1. Living under the illusion that crash dieting is a quick fix. Crash dieting seems too good to be true – and that’s because it is. Many people engage in crash dieting with the mindset that once the diet is over, they can resume their lives and fall back onto their previous habits. Oftentimes, individuals are shocked to learn that healthy eating and exercise behaviors must be practiced day in and day out in order to maintain (and improve upon) results. Shedding one habit at a time and replacing it with a healthier one – say, broccoli instead of potato chips as a side – and realizing that more and faster is not better can aid in the pursuit of the coveted physique. When individuals can embrace the fact that being in shape entails a permanent lifestyle change, their chance of success increase dramatically.


Finding out that someone you know has been afflicted with CDS may induce excessive eye-rolling and head-banging. But you can help – to an extent.

All people with CDS can benefit from having a serious discussion with a knowledgeable individual about the dangers of crash dieting. Point them to this article and encourage them to seek nutritional counseling. Help them understand that having their skin turn orange (see: carrot diet) is not cool and that any progress made will likely be temporary.

If you have CDS, try not to resist treatment. Keep an open mind when speaking with others. Do your research – learn how to set up your dieting calories, put together a sound training program, and accept that hunger is a normal and expected part of the fat loss progress.

Keep in mind, however, that people will not change unless they themselves are willing to change, no matter how much you may wish otherwise. People may just have to continue on their fast track to failure with crash dieting and learn from experience what they should not have done in the first place. It will hurt, but they will learn.


There are certainly smart, calculated ways to go about this – but the truth is that the large majority of the dieting population will not approach fat loss in this manner. And if they do, they will likely twist and bend the rules, mashing and molding it until it’s no longer recognizable.

With that said, provided that individuals have adequate knowledge of proper diet and training, crash dieting can be a safe option when approached with the right mindset. Say you’re preparing for a major role in a movie and you’re getting paid the big bucks to be on-screen in a skintight outfit and you only have a month to get ready. Or you’re a big-time model who booked a last-minute photoshoot. Circumstances like these are the exception and not the rule.

Possibly one of the only universally fitness-approved crash diet concepts out there is the Protein Sparing Modified Fast (PSMF), popularized by Lyle McDonald. Like the name suggests, the diet places a heavy emphasis on protein and allows for minimal calorie intake while still providing all the essential nutrients. Complete with training guidelines and a thorough explanation of the why’s and how’s, the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook covers everything you need to know about crash dieting.

But be warned: great mental strength is required. If you’re not disciplined or motivated enough, this is not for you. Go back and read this article from the beginning.

Final parting words: [Tweet “coax the body into responding; don’t force it.”]

Be wise, my friends.

  • Ann

    I’ve had metabolic damage before, and it took me 1 1/2 years for my body to finally normalize. I have suffered some effects that I cannot recover from, though (my heart is messed up).

    • Ann, so sorry to read about this. I know several individuals who have or are going through this right now; I can’t imagine how much you’ve had to go through to get your body – and most notably your mindset – right again.

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  • DanielAipa

    Great write up Sohee. Everyone should read this because I’m sure they have done this at one point in their lives or know someone who is doing this right now. I have two friends who are on a weight loss bet. One is doing it the right way and looks awesome, the other is doing crash diets. He is looking like he is just withering away mainly because he is losing a lot of muscle mass. Good stuff.


    • Hey Daniel, I agree. I encourage you to send them the link to this article. Chances are, the one who is crash dieting will turn a blind eye to this and insist that he is “not like everyone else.” Some people just have to learn through their own mistakes.

  • fitgirldee

    Would you consider competing in a fitness (bikini) competition crash dieting? I’ve always been fit and ate healthy, but I recently did a fitness competition for the first time. I never did excessive cardio. Only the last 2 weeks of prep did I do 2 30mins sessions and 2 40mins sessions a week. I also slowly went down in calories for months, nothing major. My weight went from at the highest 116lbs to 105lbs on show day. The last 2 weeks of prep were more tough though. I went down to about 1300 – 1100 calories with a very limited food choice selection. Well, I LOVE food, healthy food that is. After the show I had strong feelings to want to binge. I did maybe a couple times because I am very strong willed and can fight myself. I ate like a dozen cookies in one sitting the night of my show. The sad thing is, I’ve never done that before AND I normally don’t eat junk food because I like being healthy. I overate on healthy food, specifically carbs for weeks and weeks after the show. I went up about 10lbs in a month. 3 months after the show, I finally feel normal again. I’m not craving ridiculous food. I wanted to do another show in November, but now I’m not so sure if it’s worth it because I don’t want those feelings back again. I know that I can probably go into this next show stronger now that I know I’ll get those feelings to want to binge afterwards. Do you believe a fitness competitor can be healthy?

    • Hey girl – Your prep doesn’t sound all that bad. There are MANY more worse ways to go about it. The urge to binge is completely normal for many competitors; I think the difference lies in how long that urge lasts. The fact that your weight went up by only 10lbs is a good sign. Many competitors blow up 30, even 50lbs.

      I would really ask yourself the reasons WHY you competed in the first place. If it’s just to look good, remember that there are other ways to capture that moment as well. Take a read here to gain better insight into my thoughts on competing:

      Hope this helps!

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  • Interesting article. You make some great points and even better laughs. You mentioned that there can be exceptions, cases where crash dieting can work. I think it most often fails people and gets a bad name when used for weight loss alone outside of healthy diets. We (science) are learning now that short term calorie restriction can have some major health benefits outside of just weight loss. I wrote an article about crash dieting, it links to some interesting resources in case you are interested!



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