The notion of a “starvation mode” could easily be one of the worst culprits in America’s obesity problem.
If you have been around weight loss information for any amount of time, you have heard the story about this dreaded starvation mode. It goes a bit like this:
If you eat TOO FEW CALORIES, or go on a “crash diet”, your body will go into something of a crisis/survival mode as a reaction to perceived oncoming starvation. This starvation mode involves the reduction of metabolism, PRESERVATION of stored fat, and the breakdown of muscle for fuel (which further lowers metabolism).
Thus, starvation mode is the body’s way of preventing you from losing so much weight that you die.
So “experts” strongly advise us that the best way to lose weight is to avoid dietary practices that trigger this starvation mode.
Mostly their advice is to:
- Never allow yourself to feel hungry
- Eat smaller, but more frequent meals
- Never run TOO MUCH of a calorie deficit
- Never go very long without food/calories
So that’s the basic story. If you Google “starvation mode”, you’ll read this story more than any other. It is widely accepted dogma. Don’t eat too little, and don’t let yourself feel hungry. Sounds like great weight loss advice to me! (please, read that as sarcasm!)
But what of it? Is it true? Let’s have a look…
Is starvation mode real?
There are several parts of the starvation mode story that are true.
First, when calories are extremely restricted, one loses weight. This weight will usually include fat AND MUSCLE. The more weight – and especially the more muscle – one loses, the fewer calories one burns. And when the body burns fewer calories, it does become harder to lose weight. And yes, metabolism slows.
Metabolism slows simply because there is less “engine” (muscle) to perform metabolism and less tissue requiring support.
Other things may also happen to preserve energy. The body may become more lethargic in an effort to preserve fuel for survival. And of course starvation mode creates cravings and hunger. DUH.
But I don’t want to get too far into all these things because for all PRACTICAL PURPOSES they just don’t matter at all.
Does starvation mode prevent weight loss?
We know that in the interest of SURVIVAL the body does certain things to deal with the absence of food, like cut back on fuel expenditures. Naturally that would SLOW weight loss. But does it PREVENT weight loss?
NO. It doesn’t. At worst it can SLOW weight loss.
Think of modern phones and laptops. Almost all of them have a low-battery mode. Details vary, but as the battery runs down power saving mode turns on, decreasing screen brightness, slowing processor speed, and slowing or stopping other functions that drain battery. BUT, as long as the phone is running and a power source is not plugged in, the battery continues to drain.
Have you ever seen pictures of Nazi concentration camp survivors? What about shipwreck survivors? You get the point. If starvation mode made it almost impossible to lose weight in response to extremely low caloric intake, why were these people so deathly thin?
ANY TIME you run a calorie deficit, you WILL lose weight. Of course if that deficit is very large, certain things may happen to slow the weight loss, but you WILL still lose weight.
Is starvation mode RELEVANT TO YOUR WEIGHT LOSS?
NO. Almost surely not.
You cut your calories, you still don’t lose weight, you hear about “starvation mode”, and you’re sure THAT’S IT. I mean you cut your intake, you’ve eliminated hamburgers, fast food, and junk food, you’ve stopped snacking in the evenings, and you’re eating more salads, but you still don’t lose weight. The starvation mode theory makes sense, right?
Not really. Even if this starvation mode baloney was a half legitimate phenomenon, it SLOWS (not STOPS) your metabolism, and only by a little bit, only after EXTREME CALORIE RESTRICTION (like HALF your required maintenance-level calories), AND only over a long time (at least weeks). And even in “starvation mode” you STILL LOSE WEIGHT, just not as fast.
Having gone through the process of losing weight and learning how to count and measure everything, I know what’s going on here. It’s really pretty easy to see.
It’s all about the calories!
As I reason at Count Calories to Lose Weight (and nearly every other page of this site), if you’re dieting and not losing weight, it is because you’re still eating too many calories. In this case you’re DEFINITELY not in starvation mode!
If you aren’t looking up accurate calorie numbers for every calorie you consume, and MEASURING everything you eat, you are probably not even running a calorie deficit at all, and certainly not enough to put you in “starvation mode”.
If you look in the mirror and can’t count all your ribs, you don’t need to worry about starvation mode. If you are reading a website about weight loss and you CAN count all your ribs, let me know and I will help you find a psychiatrist/psychologist to help treat your condition.
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