Starvation Mode: What It Is and Why You Want to Avoid It at All Costs

Posted January 10, 2013 by

This may come as a surprise to you, but a large percentage of folks who are overweight and have trouble achieving weight loss actually eat to few calories as opposed to eating too many calories. This can be a confusing concept to grasp, particularly with the media constantly telling us to eat less to lose more. The truth is, effective, permanent fat loss demands a delicate balance of just the right amount of calories—not to few and not too many.

As you may know, if you eat too many calories, that which your body doesn’t use (for repair, day-to-day functioning and for energy replacement), it stores as body fat. Folks who have a food addiction or who don’t watch their portion sizes tend to have this problem, and can certainly have a hard time managing their weight for obvious reasons. In this case, the best solution is to lower the amount of calories they’re eating on a daily basis.

However, many people are on the other end of the spectrum—a situation that can be completely frustrating when you feel like you’re doing everything in your power to reduce your body fat but seeing no (or even negative) results. How is it possible that eating too few calories could halt fat loss? The answer is starvation mode.

Starvation mode is essentially the body’s response to a lack of the necessary amount of calories over an extended period of time. Our bodies require calories just to stay alive—not even including for exercise—but simply to perform day-to-day tasks like breathing, thinking, pumping blood… etc. If we fall below a certain level of calories and remain there, our bodies will not be able to get the energy they need from the calories we consume, and for most people this means that the next energy source in line is the muscle mass.

When the body uses lean tissue for energy, it basically eats away the muscle mass to provide the calories needed. This is an issue because lean body mass is one of the main determinants of one’s metabolic rate, and the less one has, the slower one’s metabolic rate will be. The slower your metabolism, the less you can eat without going into a surplus of calories (which will cause weight gain as stated earlier) and the less you can eat, the closer you’re getting to starvation mode… as you can see, it becomes a vicious circle.

On top of this, when the body goes into starvation survival mode, it reduces your metabolism anyway as a safeguard against death from starvation. So now we’re looking at a situation where not only is our lean mass—a main driving force behind our metabolism—being eaten away, but in addition, our bodies have artificially reduced our metabolisms to better suit our lack of calories. This is NOT an environment that is conducive to effective fat loss!

This is the main reason why people who eat too few calories cannot lose weight even though they are working out like crazy. In fact, working out is increasing their caloric needs, which further emphasizes the lack of calories they are taking in… exacerbating the issue.

Now, starvation mode is a little tricky in and of itself. According to medical studies, individuals who are obese (with a BMI >30) tend to fare better while in starvation mode than individuals who are closer to a healthy weight. This is because obese individuals’ bodies utilize body fat for energy at a higher percentage than those with lower body fat levels. Because they utilize body fat instead of lean mass for their energy needs, their metabolisms don’t really slow down while restricting their calories.

However, even if someone manages to lose weight via starvation, they are not learning any healthy habits and thus, it is inevitable that they will regain the weight after they stop dieting. This is a major reason for the “yo-yo” dieting phenomenon, where one loses weight on a diet, only to regain the weight after the diet, thus requiring them to go back on a diet, and so on.

Learning to move away from the “less is more” mentality and toward the “smart balance” mentality is key to achieving efficient, healthy and permanent fat loss. The best way to guarantee permanent, effective fat loss while maintaining a highly-revved metabolism is to watch portion sizes, eat frequent, small meals throughout the day, and to stay active through some form of cardio exercise as well as resistance training. While the results may not come as quickly (at first, anyway) as they would when starving oneself, the results will be much easier to maintain after the period of calorie restriction, compared to an environment of post-starvation.

Comments on Starvation Mode: What It Is and Why You Want to Avoid It at All Costs »

  1. Gary Host

    Hey man….I just read your blog entry about juice fasts and it cracked me up. It was nice taking a break from the pseudo-science that dominates the Internet. Kind of scary when science is the minority view.

    Anyways, I have been juicing (not fasting). I do it because I hate eating vegetables. I practically gag from them. Working under the premise that I really will never eat my daily portions of vegetables, do you think juicing is beneficial for people like me? What are your thoughts on vitamin absorption from juicing? Do you feel there is validity that the vitamins get “in you” quicker by juicing? In short, is there a role for jucing raw vegetables?

  2. Gary, why not simply grind up the vegetables, fiber and all, along with the liquid? The pointlessness of juicing vegetables is that it removes the fiber—one of the best parts of vegetables in the first place.

  3. So how exactly does weight loss take place if I eat a lot more calories than I

  4. Zara: it doesn’t. The goal is to eat at a moderate deficit, not at a huge deficit.