What Is Starvation Mode?
Let’s paint a picture…
You decide you want to lose some weight, you know to drop a few pounds to feel and look a little better. The weight gain has snuck up on you and you realise it’s time to take control after all the holidays are coming and you want to look your best.
You calculate your calories, set your macros and start tracking your food intake using the MyFitnessPal app. You weigh yourself daily and see the weight begin to drop off, all goes well over the following weeks and you’re feeling on top of the world.
A couple of months down the line your weight loss begins to slow down before stalling all together, there are even days where you’re a little heavier than normal.
What the hell’s going on?
You give it another couple of weeks but nothing changes.
You drop your calories down a little lower and do a little extra exercise. Things initially appear to be better but another couple of weeks down the line and the scales refuse to budge again.
You repeat this process a couple of times, making incremental progress but mostly spinning your wheels.
By this point, you’re knee deep in your weight loss journey and this shouldn’t be happening.
You begin to worry, “why am I not losing weight”, “what’s going on?”, then it dawns on you, you must be in starvation mode.
Your body is shutting down and preventing weight loss, you might even be gaining a little weight back because of it.
You decide the best thing to do is bump your calories back up to “reset” your metabolism and pull yourself out of this dreaded starvation mode, then you can go back to losing weight.
However, when you do this you end up back at square one, gaining back all the weight you lost, plus a bit more and being no better off than when you started over half a year ago.
Starvation mode has reared its ugly head again. Except, has it? Is that what’s really going on here? Or is it something else?
What is Starvation Mode?
The funny thing with the starvation mode is that what most people think it is, is not what it actually is and this is where the problem begins.
The way most people see starvation mode is as follows,
“Eating too few calories, for too long of a period will cause your metabolism to slow down so much that it will prevent weight loss and even cause weight gain.”
The solution to this definition of starvation mode?
“Eat more calories to ‘re-start’ your metabolism and get out of starvation mode before going back into a calorie deficit to lose weight again.”
However, whilst this might seem like the logical thing to do (if this is your definition of starvation mode) this cycle of weight loss, followed by starvation mode, having to restart your metabolism before going back into a calorie deficit is not only fundamentally flawed but it is also not happening as a result of your body entering ‘starvation mode’.
The truth is whilst starvation mode is a real thing this definition of it is bullshit and for the average gym goer or quite frankly anyone else it’s not something you ever need to worry about.
The actual definition of starvation mode or the starvation response (1) is,
“a state in which the body responds to prolonged periods of low energy intake [by burning] free fatty acids from body fat stores, along with small amounts of muscle tissue to provide required glucose for the brain. After prolonged periods of starvation, the body has depleted its body fat and begins to burn primarily lean tissue and muscle as a fuel source.”
As you can see your body’s response to starvation i.e. reduced food intake or no food intake is to continue burning body fat for energy before moving to muscle mass for the same purpose.
It doesn’t halt fat loss or cause weight gain, it will continue to break down either fat or muscle mass to create energy until there is nothing left to use.
The starvation response in its true form is completely irrelevant to weight loss conversations for the average person trying to lose weight for a few reasons:
You should NOT be trying to lose fat by using a severe (more than 500) calorie deficit
You should ALWAYS be weight training to help preserve muscle mass
You should NOT be concerned with reducing body fat to levels which require you to burn your muscle mass for energy
‘Starvation mode’ does NOT cause weight gain or a plateau in weight loss
The only reason it keeps coming up is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what actually happens during the ‘starvation mode’.
Why Do People Think They’re in Starvation Mode?
It’s a fair question and the answer is adaptive thermogenesis.
Adaptive thermogenesis is the name given to the slowing of your metabolic rate when you remain in a prolonged calorie deficit. The greater the calorie deficit and the greater the duration of the deficit the higher this reduction in metabolic rate will be.
However, this reduction in your metabolic rate is not enough to invoke this so-called ‘starvation mode’ and prevent weight loss.
At most you’re looking at the slowdown of your weight loss progress over time as your calorie needs change due to this metabolic change combined with your change in weight (5).
As you lose fat and your body weight goes down so will the number of calories you need to maintain your weight, which means the number of calories you can eat and lose weight will also change.
For example, what worked for you at 280 lbs won’t necessarily work for you at 220 lbs as your body’s needs will be different. It’s this change in caloric need and the small impact of adaptive thermogenesis that causes you to stop losing weight, not starvation mode kicking in.
What’s really happening when you claim to be in starvation mode is actually very simple.
Whatever you think (bad luck, bad genetics, starvation mode, etc..) if you’re not losing weight or are gaining weight then guess what...YOU’RE NOT IN A CALORIE DEFICIT.
If you think you are…I’m sorry but you’re wrong.
Reduction in exercise
A change in body weight
Are what’s stopping you from losing weight and if you address these issues and make sure you’re actually in a calorie deficit then weight loss will resume.
The bottom line is that ‘starvation mode’ as most people see it is not accurate and certainly not a concern. Your concern should be, whether or not you are in a calorie deficit.
Yes, starvation and the starvation mode (also known as the starvation response) is a real thing but it’s not what most people think it is and for this reason, it’s not something the average dieter needs to be concerned with.
However, due to a process called adaptive thermogenesis, your caloric needs will decrease as your body weight decreases and for this reason, you may hit a weight loss plateau.
When this happens, there are 3 simple solutions you can use to get your fat loss going again; recalculate your calories, introduce refeed days or use a diet break.