Starvation Mode: Truth or Myth?

CoachMel Weight Loss Tips 7 Comments

If you’ve ever hit a weight loss plateau, no doubt someone has tried to ‘diagnose’ your plight as the result of the mystery ‘starvation mode.’

But, is this a true phenomenon, or simply another misinformed dieting myth?

Well, starvation mode is really the non-scientific term used to describe the metabolic, hormonal, psychological, and behavioral responses which happen with an extreme or prolonged calorie deficit.

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The evidence is actually pretty convincing that starvation mode does exist, but there have certainly been some misunderstandings in the finer details.

I find people easily latch on to the idea of their fat loss plateau being the result of not eating enough.

We like labels, and having a ‘label’ to excuse a lack of weight loss is understandably appealing.

So, is it really true that fat loss plateaus are caused by not eating enough, in other words, your body going into starvation mode to protect itself from your dieting escapades?

Well, kindof!

The answer is a little bit ‘yes’ and a little bit ‘no.’ Let me explain…

Calorie Deficit Does Not Always Lead to Starvation Mode

First of all, it is impossible to say that not eating enough always leads to a weight loss plateau.

So, if you are truly in a calorie deficit, you are going to lose weight.

No doubt, however, you will have heard someone claiming they only eat 1,000 calories each day, but they are unable to lose weight.

1. Underestimating Calories

Studies confirm the fact that we pretty much always underestimate our total days calorie intake, and overestimate our activity level.

One study looked at individuals who claimed to be eating less then 1,200 calories, yet could not lose weight. The researchers, however, concluded;

The failure of some obese subjects to lose weight while eating a diet they report as low in calories is due to an energy intake substantially higher than reported and an overestimation of physical activity, not to an abnormality in thermogenesis.

So, rather than having a genetic cause for their obesity, such as a thyroid problem as some presumed, this study revealed they were simply eating more, and moving less than they realized.

Note: there are certain individuals with conditions which make it more difficult for them to lose weight. I don’t, however, want to take this article in that direction today.

Another problem that ends people in a weight loss plateau, is lack of compliance to their given diet.

2. Lack of Compliance

I would say this is actually one of the biggest reasons for weight loss plateaus.

Most people find a diet relatively easy to follow in the first few weeks, but as time goes on they start to get bored. Often, it is the gradual return of old habits, which go unnoticed, yet create havoc with results.

The fix? An honest self-compliance check.

Ask yourself on the scale of 1 to 10, how well you are following your diet program?

Are You Eating too Much?
Don’t forget, even if you have been eating pretty well, you could be eating too much good food.

You shouldn’t assume that if your diet has been healthy, the quantity of your food intake has also been healthy.

You need to evaluate both the foods you eat and the amount.

Eating too much healthy food has been the cause of many a fat loss plateau.

Has Your Appetite Increased?
If you truly are not eating enough, you could easily find yourself with a bigger appetite than normal.

For most people that means major hunger pangs, which lead to poorer food choices and overeating.

These cravings, or binge eating episodes, can very quickly wipe out your deficit days. So, at the end of the week you haven’t actually created as much of a calorie deficit as you intended.

The urge to increase your calorie intake is a protection response, and it demonstrates the importance of feeding your body a nutrient-rich diet.

The more nutritious your diet is, the less of a grip your food cravings will have over you.

And, even when they don’t completely go away, the urge to eat will be much more controllable.

All of that considered, you may still feel your diet is pretty tip-top.

Well, this is the time to just sit tight, and keep doing what you’re doing, because things will usually start moving again in the direction you want them to.

As I said in my recent article, you are not truly in a weight loss plateau unless your measurements (weight and waist circumference) have remained the same for 3 weeks, or more.

If you find you are still stuck at a weight plateau, or your results don’t match the effort you are putting in, there is another side to all of this…

Calorie Deficit MAY Lead to Starvation Mode

As I said, there are two parts to this query of calorie deficits leading to a weight loss plateau.

So, at the other end of things, eating too little could end you right in the middle of a weight loss plateau, and here are some reasons why;

1. Body Mass is Smaller

It is totally understandable if you start to feel disheartened when you see your weight loss beginning to slow down. However, if you understand why this is happening, it will help you to think logically about it.

The whole point of weight loss is to reduce your body mass.

What most people forget to factor in, though, it that when you lose body mass, you naturally need fewer calories to sustain your body.

So, if you keep eating and exercising in the same way week after week, the calorie deficit which you started out with, will eventually reach equilibrium, and you will stop losing weight.

You may translate this as, “I’m in starvation mode” which wouldn’t be completely wrong, but it would be much more accurate to say your calorie needs have decreased, but you failed to adjust your eating accordingly.

Let me explain this using the basal metabolic rate (BMR) equation;

  • A 30 year old, 5ft 10 male, weighs 220Ibs to begin with. His basic calorie need, or BMR, per day is 2,122 kcals.
  • If this man loses 40Ibs, his new calorie requirement per day will be 1,872 kcals.

Can you see my point?

Smaller people need fewer calories than larger people.

So, if you continue to eat as you did when you started losing weight, it is natural that your weight loss will begin to slow down somewhat.

Remember, weight loss is dynamic. So, what you did to begin with, will not necessarily work the whole way through your weight loss journey.

Be open to change. Move with your body, not against it, and you will be successful in the end.

2. Your Body Adapts

As I’ve said, when you lose weight your energy expenditure decreases simply because your body mass is smaller.

But, there is also a certain amount of adaptation, or your body becoming more efficient and trying to conserve energy.  This is what we call adaptive thermogenesis.

Adaption does not mean that your metabolism slows down so much that you stop losing weight. But, it does mean that metabolism drops enough for your weight loss to slow down, therefore you don’t lose as much weight as you expected.

One study stated;

There are clearly individuals capable of showing a large capacity for adaptive thermogenesis amounting to 300-400 calories per day.

Exercise Helps

Adaptive thermogenesis also leads to a reduction in activity levels, and this is often without us even realizing it. So, activity levels throughout the day may spontaneously decrease, and workouts may lack the usual energy.

All of this further confounds the problem, making it much easier to truly reach that point of plateau.

If you want to keep losing weight, or maintain your current weight, research proves a high level of physical activity can help.

In one study, those who exercised enough to expend 1,000 calories per week regained most of their weight. However, those who expended 2,500 calories per week maintained most of their weight loss.

Similarly, those studied in the National Weight Control Registry, who successfully maintained at least 30 pounds of their weight loss, were found to expend an average of 2,620 calories per week taking some form of physical activity.

This is all very good news, because you can make a conscious choice to increase your physical activity level sufficient enough to prevent weight regain.

In Summary

Remember, this whole starvation mode malarky is simply a protective mechanism.

Imagine what it would be like if your body did not have some kind of weight regulation system… it would not be pleasant, I assure you!

If your body didn’t have a way to maintain it’s equilibrium, even the smallest deviation in energy balance would cause huge weight gain or weight loss.

So, be thankful for the amazing resilience of your body, and try to work with it, not against it.

Weight loss is not a race! So, there is no need to drastically cut your calorie intake so much that the whole thing backfires on you.

Eat sensibly, make training a part of your lifestyle, be consistent, and you will see the results you want.

Have you ever been in a weight loss plateau and thought you’d hit starvation mode?

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Comments 7

  1. Alan

    I’d be interested to know your views on the kind of “temporary starvation” mode (at least it feels like that to me!) that one can experience on a regime such as the 5:2 diet. It has at least taught me a new word – “autophagy” – and I’m finding it a fairly easy way to manage my weight. I’m also surprised at how quickly the hunger pangs pass.

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  5. Walt

    Isn’t Basil Metabolic Rate the amount of calories per day a body REQUIRES to maintain bodily functions, even if one slept all day, i.e. coma? My understanding is yes. This being true, there is a floor below which your body can not drop below. Benedict-Harris states there is a factor one multiples their BMR by to match the caloric requirements. In other words, if my BMR is 2000 Cal’s and I am a sedentary person I should multiply that 2000 by 1.2 to ascertain my caloric requirements to maintain my weight. If I want to lose 1lb/week I need to maintain a deficit of 500 Cal’s/day (500*7=3500==1lb). Yes, as I lose weight my BMR will drop as will 1.2* BMR.

    Here is what I am doing. Everything I put in my mouth I enter into MyFitnessPal. I tell it I want to lose at a sustained rate of 2lbs/wk. MFP will not ‘allow’ a male to go below 1500 Cal’s/ day. Once the rate would have gone below 1500 MFP froze the daily calorie goal at 1500. I then computed my current BMR and Benedict-Harris number and subtracted 1000 from it. Currently it is about 1250 Cal/day. MFP shows my weekly average total calories fluctuating between 1200 and 1400 with my daily net calories fluctuating between 600 and 900. This is because I try to burn 650 +/- calories at the gym 6 days per week. Every day I give the treadmill my current weight and vary the program. I do understand BMR is inaccurate for excessively overweight or athletic individuals. I am 40 lbs off my target and have been largely quite predictable with my weight loss to this point. I would think BMR would be getting more accurate, not less. Why have I hit a wall?

    1. Gary

      Walt, I’m being very scientific about it and extremely disciplined, too. It’s just more complex than any of these articles can address, imho. They all try to scare people about losing muscle mass, but why would the body reduce survival-required muscle tissue before fat tissue? I’ve seen no scientific evidence for this. Additionally, WW2 POW photos show men with no fat whatsoever and some loss of muscle mass. They didn’t have less muscle than fat (my uncle was in a nazi forced labor camp, so I know this for a fact). Animals clearly lose fat during hibernation or times of famine, but not muscle mass until near death. They don’t go into a “muscle loss mode”. So, I’m simply not satisfied with any of the answers I’ve read. Lastly, if we heavily subsidize our weightloss with exercise, then if we must cut back on exercise for whatever reason,we are just setting ourselves up for inevitable weight gain and the psychological devastation that ensues. I lost weight easily when unemployed after a layoff by restricted diet and performing 3 hours of HIIT per day. But once employed again, the weight eventually returned. Catch 22.

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