Remember when the quintessential big screen body transformation belonged to Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull? These days, it seems like any actor worth his weight in awards statuette gold commits to a role that requires an extreme physical makeover. For some, it's about look-at-my-muscles machismo, while others go for ego-shedding emaciation, or full-on fatness.
The good news for these guys is that studies have shown that weight cycling – aka yo-yo dieting – doesn't necessarily alter a person's body composition over time. But the bad news is that it can damage blood vessels and increase a person's risk of a heart attack. So does that mean a one-time weight shift for a role is less dangerous than making a career of it? "It's not healthy to artificially manipulate your body in this way, says Linda Bacon, author of Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight. "The more you do it, the more problematic it is."
RELATED: Building a Bigger Action Hero
For anyone who has an underlying history (or even just an inherited risk) of medical conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, gaining a significant amount of weight for a role – even if it's only temporary – can be a dangerous pursuit, says Dr. Robert F. Kushner, clinical director at the Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity. Even without any predispositions, these guys are still putting themselves at risk for those medical conditions, not to mention high cholesterol or a fatty liver. And don't forget the cosmetic effects of gaining weight quickly: stretch marks.
Extreme weight loss, on the other hand, can result in low blood pressure and blood sugar, dehydration, decreased muscle mass, and compromised immunity. (One study found that moderate weight loss can affect a person's immunity, while another study concluded that high-intensity endurance exercise also can increase a person's chances of getting sick. A depletion of vitamins, minerals, and even carbs are to blame).
RELATED: How a Top Stuntman Mimics Movie Stars' Bodies
Regardless of the direction the scale moves, Kushner says, "I would be shocked if these actors don't have someone with medical training or fitness training or nutritional training who is watching them very closely." Take a look at some of Hollywood's biggest shape-shifters, from those who tried it once, to the repeat offenders.
Jake Gyllenhaal (gained once, lost once)
The actor shocked fans when he appeared on a red carpet last fall with sunken cheekbones. It turns out he'd been filming the upcoming crime drama Nightcrawler, in which he plays a guy he calls "literally and figuratively hungry." As for how he did it, he said, "There really was no technique" – it was just for the love of the film. His look was quite a change from the beefy, action star body he got for 2010's Prince of Persia. (His training for this included parkour, running in a 20-pound flak jacket and six small, protein-packed meals a day). "I'm a really athletic person, I'm very physical, and to be able to, you know, get paid and to do it as your job was just fun," he's said.
The Bottom Line:
When it comes to getting back to regular size after bulking up the way the actor did for Prince of Persia, it's a myth that all of that muscle would have just turned to fat if he quit the workouts cold turkey. "Losing muscle and gaining fat are two separate processes," says Bacon. The trick to getting back to regular size is balancing caloric intake and output.