Starvation Mode

“Starvation Mode”

It is quite likely that you have come across the term “starvation mode” before.

If you are dieting and exercising, but you are not seeing progress, then a common self-diagnosis is that your body has gone into “starvation mode”.  In this post I am going to reassure you that this is simply not the case!  Read on!

Here’s a common scenario

You were trying to lose weight, so you decreased your calorie intake and stayed disciplined to your workout routine.  You were happy to see your bodyweight readings going down, and your physical appearance was beginning to look slimmer and leaner.  Then all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, all progress appeared to stop!

You didn’t cheat on your diet.  You didn’t skip any workouts.

So, you do what most of us do when we have a problem.  You search online.  You talk to your friends.

And you soon come to the conclusion that you are not losing weight because your body has gone into “starvation mode”.

Starvation Mode

What is “starvation mode”?

“Starvation mode” is the term used to describe the theory stating that when your body feels it is being deprived of food, a survival mechanism is triggered where the body will stop you from losing body fat.  So, the theory concludes that if you have been dieting and then all of a sudden, your weight loss stalls, it is because your body “thinks” it is being starved.

Sound legit?  Keep reading!

Is “starvation mode” real?

The short answer here, is yes, but not to the extent you might think.  Yes, it is true that processes do take place in the body to prevent further weight loss, following a prolonged restricted calorie intake. Though it won’t “stop” you from losing fat.  And there are some external factors at play too when dieting.

– You naturally tend to feel more tired and move less – i.e. NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) levels decrease (fidgeting, pacing, walking, etc).

– Also, it is true that your metabolism begins to slow down after consistent dieting (this is adaptive thermogenesis), meaning your body will burn less calories while at rest.

What may be classed as external factors, are:

– TEF (thermic effect of food) levels decrease, probably because you’ll be eating less food when dieting, so your body will burn less calories through the process of digestion.

– You will burn less calories during exercise, because your body adapts to become more efficient at carrying out exercise while saving energy.  Plus, it may very well be that you are not training as hard as you think you are, if energy levels are declining through dieting.

But no, your body does not enter a “mode” where it refuses to drop body fat!

So, when dieting, you will feel more tired and less prone to move and burn energy spontaneously and unnecessarily (e.g. fidgeting).  And your metabolism will begin to slow, but this will not stop you from continuing to lose body fat.

An extreme example here, but have you ever seen someone suffering from anorexia?  They still continue to drop body fat despite literally starving themselves, right?!

The Minnesota Experiment

The Minnesota Experiment is worth mentioning, just to emphasise my point.  So, let’s go back in history a little.

Towards the end of the Second World War in 1944, an experiment was carried out to see the best way to assist starving people to return to a healthy body weight.

36 soldiers participated in the experiment, in which for six months they were put through conditions meant to replicate a prisoner of war (POW) camp.  These men were made to do hours of manual labour each day.  Plus, they had to march for many miles, and were only given a diet of half the calories of their average daily calorie output. They were quite literally starved.

At the end of the six months, the men had lost on average 25% of their bodyweight.  Their metabolisms (basal metabolic rate) were estimated to be only 20% lower than they had been previously (not a great deal considering the circumstances!).

The men were put on a “recovery diet” over the twelve weeks afterwards, at which point their metabolisms were recalculated to be only 10% lower than normal.  Which isn’t such a great deal at all!

So, my point here?  If these guys were to be put under the most extreme circumstances of actual starvation, and yet:

  1. They were continuing to drop body fat
  2. Their metabolisms didn’t even slow down by a great deal, and their metabolisms recovered fairly quickly afterwards too…

…then it is safe to say that the average person following a conservative diet and exercise program has nothing to worry about!

Starvation Mode

Then why does it seem that fat loss stalls after prolonged dieting?

This question is actually very simple to answer.

  • Fat loss tends NOT to be linear, especially after dieting for a little while.  This means that after a few weeks into a calorie-controlled diet, you may very well not see a pattern of regular fat loss each week.  You might lose 1lb one week, 2lbs the next week, no change for the next two weeks, and then 1lb the week after.  It’s not always linear!  You may think that your body is not dropping fat anymore, when in fact it still is. The process just may have become slower.
  • You may be gaining muscle mass whilst dropping body fat.  This is especially possible for those new to resistance training.  If you lose a lb of fat but gain a lb of muscle, then your body weight will not have changed.
  • You may be retaining water.  This can happen depending on:
  1. hydration levels,
  2. the time of day you weigh yourself,
  3. your stress (cortisol) levels,
  4. your menstrual cycle if you are female,
  5. or even due to how much food you have still in your digestive system.
  • The most likely solution – you are eating too much.  Even when you have the best of intentions in sticking to your diet, adherence becomes harder and harder over time.  Portion sizes slowly begin to creep up, whether you know it or not. The best fix for this is to weigh and log all of your food and drink.

If you think that it is “starvation mode” that has brought your fat loss to a stop, then think again. I am almost 99% sure that “starvation mode” is not the reason!

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