Can you live on it?
March 28, 2009 3:14 PM   Subscribe

HypotheticalFilter: What would happen to a morbidly obese person if completely deprived of food?

I wonder about the very large, those confined to bed, or requiring motorized vehicles to move about. What would happen if they were suddenly unable to access a food supply?

Assume there's plenty of access to water. Would their bodies be unable to handle it, causing stroke or heart attack? I figure most of their muscles will have atropied, but would they eventually get down to a mobile size? Would they have those excess skin problems like the gastric bypass folks? Other issues?

This is not a joke question, I am genuinely curious if large amounts of excess fat can be converted to a source of food for an extended period of time in the absence of other sources
posted by leotrotsky to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, not that this is a scientifically rigorous reference or anything, but in one of those television documentaries about such a person (Half Ton Man, I think) they mentioned that one of the challenges was preventing malnutrition while on a very low calorie-per-day diet. So I think the answer to your question is that the person would probably die before they got down to a reasonable weight.
posted by FishBike at 3:20 PM on March 28, 2009


I watched a Horizon episode recently that stated they took a very obese person, and gave them vitamin supplements and water, but no food (effectively, no calories) and carefully monitored them. They lasted just over a year.

Your main problem would be scurvy - that's what would kill you first.

Also, in the same program, they stated that the average person (with normal BMI index) could easily last a month without food.
posted by BigCalm at 3:30 PM on March 28, 2009


BigCalm, do you remember anything else about the circumstances of the scenario you describe? Sorry for the derail, but I'm having a hard time imagining anything other than horrific involuntary human experiments that would lead to such a result.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 3:35 PM on March 28, 2009


I'm trying, but my google-fu is failing me! (but that's hardly suprising, amateur diet pages everywhere, sigh) - I'd suggest you look up and watch that horizon episode (Why are thin people not fat?) because it talks about a lot of stuff around this subject including proper scientific studies.

The body's pretty good at converting one thing to another and if you're obese, you probably can afford the wastage. You can quite happily convert fat to muscle (with a little wastage of course, but if you're obese, it won't be a big difference). You've even got a pretty good supply of vitamins around - enough Vitamin A in your liver to last you a year for example.

I'll keep hunting, see if I can find the study they referred to.
posted by BigCalm at 3:45 PM on March 28, 2009


While fat storage acts somewhat as dietary cushion, obesity is not a natural condition, and not something found before the rise of industrial society. Therefore it's a mistake to think the body will just efficiently eat up all the fat, allowing you to live months until you're trim. There is no evolutionary precedent for the body to store that much fat and operate that way.

What would happen instead is that your body would preferentially eat away at your muscle tissue instead of your fat, including your heart muscle, until you died of cardiac arrest.

For instance, there's the old rumor that Mama Cass died from eating a ham sandwich. No, actually Mama Cass died because she didn't eat a ham sandwich. When a fat person starves themselves they don't get skinny they get "a heart attack brought about by fatty degeneration of the heart muscle fiber". This is also a common way anorexics and bulimics die.
posted by dgaicun at 3:48 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nothing good:
[Jon Brower Minnoch] claimed to have been in no way handicapped by his size until a 500-calorie diet sapped his muscle strength and left him at the brink of death. . . .
[Michael Edelman] rapidly lost several hundred pounds, taking nourishment only when spoon fed. At about 600 lbs, he literally starved to death.
link
posted by booksandlibretti at 3:55 PM on March 28, 2009


obesity is not a natural condition, and not something found before the rise of industrial society.
[citation needed]

After providing the citation, please explain this famous stone age statuette, and many similar ones that have been found.
posted by Flunkie at 3:57 PM on March 28, 2009 [1 favorite]


See here. Your choice of link is interesting, since it agrees with me:

"The chances are, a Stone Age woman, much like the women in hunter-gatherer tribes today (such as the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa), would not have had the opportunity to get that fat, unless, of course, she had some special status."

Please focus on the question, or take it to MetaTalk.
posted by dgaicun at 4:18 PM on March 28, 2009


BigCalm, do you remember anything else about the circumstances of the scenario you describe? Sorry for the derail, but I'm having a hard time imagining anything other than horrific involuntary human experiments that would lead to such a result.

He volunteered because he was desperate to lose weight. IIRC he lost over 200lbs in the course of the year (it was a phD project I think) he was carefully monitored but he ate no food, just water and vitamins. Horizon didn't really go into more detail than that, it was just a short segment and not the main focus of the programme. It wasn't something that happened recently, it was 20-30 years ago (I don't remember the exact date)
posted by missmagenta at 4:41 PM on March 28, 2009


[a few comments removed - metatalk is your option if you are not answering the question. email also works]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:55 PM on March 28, 2009


We're assuming a situation where you have water. Mostly, it's the electrolytes that would get you. Yeah, you'd have the calories to survive quite some time, but you'd still be busy producing urine and dumping out quantities of sodium, chlorine, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Add to the loss of all of your water-soluble vitamins and you'd be hurting pretty fast.

Now, if it were water, a multivitamin, and some of those electrolyte replacement fluids, yes, they could survive quite a bit longer in that scenario.

If we're in the size range you're talking about, I imagine excess skin would be an issue. That would vary by age and skin type of the subject in question.
posted by adipocere at 5:10 PM on March 28, 2009


Food provides us with nutrients, not only calories. Nutrients are not stored in fat; only calories are stored in fat.

As for "there were no morbidly obese people before the industrial revolution" I am wondering if nobody has ever read Galen? His account of Nichomachus of Smyrna, a man so obese he could not walk or be moved from his bed, is straight out of a Richard Simmons special.

There were a number of famous fat people in 16th and 17th century England, who toured as "human curiosities" in the precursors to the 19th century sideshows. Some of them topped 600 pounds.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:46 AM on March 29, 2009


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