Fit Food: Starvation Mode And Fat Loss

tumblr_mqqv2nyVBg1rj6k3yo1_500If you have ever gone on a diet or even thought about going on a diet, you’ve likely heard the term “starvation mode” to describe why losing body fat won’t happen if you eat too little. You also probably understand that your metabolism will slow if you cut your calories too low and a sluggish metabolism does not equal successful weight loss. While “starvation mode” is a physical reality that does occur, it doesn’t happen nearly as easily as one would think and in large part is misunderstood. Let’s look to the science and research to understand what it really is and why it may (or may not) be something you need to worry about.

When most people talk about “starvation mode” they are referring to a supposed state that your body enters when you eat too little. Our bodies are programmed to adapt to our environment and if you start to take in fewer calories than are needed to fuel your bodily functions your metabolism will adapt by becoming more efficient. This means that it will continue to do everything that it used to do with 2000 calories a day, but it will do it with 1800 calories. During this shift, which may take days or weeks, it will fill tumblr_m5usnay2Rx1rw2a8zo1_500in the gap with stored carbs and fats. Eventually though, it will simply run on less. At this point many people will stop losing weight and think that they are in “starvation mode”. This is not true, your body has simply adapted to it’s new normal. If you are still eating slightly below your caloric requirements for the day, then you will continue to lose body fat, although the process will be slower than at first. The other caveat to this is that as you lose weight, you weigh less (seems obvious right?). But now that you weigh less your caloric requirements are also less. So while eating 1800 calories a day when your requirements were 2000 a day will let you lose weight for a while, once you lose a certain amount of weight your requirements will drop to 1800 calories and if you continue to eat the same your weight will stabilize. This again is where many people think they have “plateaued” or are in “starvation mode”. Again, not true, your body has just adapted.

Now that we know what starvation mode isn’t, let’s talk about what it is, because it does exist. If you cut your calories too low (and I’m not giving a number because everyone will be different) then no matter how efficient your body becomes it will not have enough energy to power all necessary functions of life. At this point it starts to prioritize which processes will get energy to fuel them and which are not essential and can therefore be slowed or stopped. It will also fill in the gaps with energy from wherever it can get it, so you will lose fat, but you will also lose valuable muscle tissue, as well as bone. You will feel tired all the time and won’t likely be able to exercise very hard, or at all. Eventually when you do start eating more again your body will rebound and gain back fat in large amounts, but unfortunately the lost muscle and other tissue is much harder to replace. This is what people are talking about when they say that each cycle on a yo-yo diet makes it harder to lose the weight the next time. When you crash diet like this you lose muscle which is metabolic tissue that requires energy. Then when you regain the weight it’s harder to lose because you don’t have that calorie burning muscle tissue to help your metabolism!

Now you may be thinking as long as you don’t cut your calories too low that you should be ok. While that may be the case, let’s go back to our example for a moment. Assuming your daily caloric requirements are tumblr_mo6b0luxo61rfi5sto1_5002000 calories a day. You eat 1800 for a while and see success with that. Eventually though, you plateau and so you cut your calories to 1600. Your weight drops some more but levels out after a while as your body adapts to the 1600 calories as well. So you cut again to 1400. See where this is going? You can only cut your calories so much before you either give up because you are so miserable from eating so little or your body does go into starvation mode and starts to break down your muscle. If you have a lot of weight to lose then simply cutting calories isn’t going to work long-term. At a certain point you need your weight to remain stable but your body fat to drop. How do you do this? By building muscle. If you are just starting a weight loss program and are overweight or obese, focus on your diet and cardio first to drop weight. Start out just like I specified in this example, cutting calories by just a little and only lowering them more once you have plateaued. Once you have lost the majority of your weight and are working on the last 15-20 pounds, start to focus on building muscle. There are many great articles on this website for that, so I won’t get into it here, but it’s your ticket to building a lean body without starving yourself!

Happy Lifting!

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7 comments for “Fit Food: Starvation Mode And Fat Loss

  1. September 28, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Great advice to focus on building as opposed to just focusing on fat loss. The psychology of building your self up is so much more positive than trying to tear yourself down.

    • October 1, 2013 at 4:04 pm

      Thanks Matt! I like the psychology view as well, puts a good spin on things!

  2. September 28, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    Some great advice! Like you said there is a lot of misconception about starvation mode out there. Great job of clearing that up.

    • October 1, 2013 at 4:03 pm

      Thanks for reading Steven, I’m glad you liked it!

  3. September 28, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Good stuff Dara. I had been thinking about doing a very similar topic, glad you covered it! How often do you hear that skipping a meal puts you into “starvation mode” and whatever you eat next will be converted into fat, no matter what it is… Not that I recommend it, but come on.

    • October 1, 2013 at 4:03 pm

      Thanks Colin! There are too many simplistic “rules” out there that people follow without really understanding, I like to try to clear things up with science! 🙂

      • October 1, 2013 at 9:28 pm

        And I love it! Besides without science what would we have? Mainly bro-science!

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