Starvation mode myth, this article explains why starvation mode is a myth and why you're not really losing weight.

Starvation mode myth – Why you’re not really losing fat

The reason you’re not losing weight is that you’re not eating enough, so you’re body is holding onto its body fat. Whether it’s at a family gathering or something said at the office. This well-meaning piece of advice is still pervasive. This is the starvation mode myth.


The idea of starvation mode is; that you lower your calories so much your body starts to rebel. Then it either holds onto whatever body fat’s left or makes you gain more body fat. They say it’s because your metabolism slows down.

As with most myths in fitness and nutrition, there is a small element of truth. Unfortunately it get taken to one extreme, it does more harm than good.

In a way, you can see how it makes sense. If you’ve been dieting on low calories for a long period of time. Of course, your body isn’t going to be having the time of its life.


Is starvation mode a myth?

The premise, that your body is holding onto fat or gaining fat, because you’re not eating enough, is 100% a myth.

It’s impossible and flies against the laws of physics. Im sure Sir Issac Newton, would be rolling in his grave, if he know people said this.

It’d be like being going into debt, because you saved too much money.

To lose weight you must be in a calorie deficit. Where you consume less calories than your body has expended.

That’s why it’s called a DEFICIT.

You can’t build things from thin air.


I find the term a little insulting. There are people in parts of the world, who’re actually starving.

If starvation mode existed, nobody in the world would be starving.


Why do people believe you gain weight if you don’t eat?

Underestimation

Because we are awful at knowing how much we eat. We tend to underestimate how much we eat. People eat more than they think. One of my favourite studies shows, even Dietitians underestimate. This is proof nobody is immune from miscalculating. (1)

There’s a lot of reasons why people are bad estimators of knowing what they ate.

People forget all the licks, tastes and bites they’ve had throughout the day.

A lot of people don’t take into account things like butter and oils. A table spoon of either can easily garner over 100 calories.

Takeaway and restaurant food is loaded with butter and oils. So there tend to be more calories, than what you’d expect from certain dishes.

And let’s not forget liquids, coffees, soft drinks, fruit juices and alcohol are loaded with sugar. Someone reason people don’t realise liquid calories do count.

To combat this, I recommend keeping a food diary. I recommend Myfitnesspal. Evidence also shows keeping a food diary on the phone, allows for greater accuracy than paper. (2)

I am pretty sure, if you’re tracking consistently, your weight will drop.

But before you crack on, please read the rest of this…


Restrict and binge cycle

A lot of people will go on super restrictive diets. Either “eating clean” (stupid term), completely cutting carbohydrates, or going super low calorie. If I was given money overtime I was told someone couldn’t lose weight despite eating 1200 or 800 calories a day. I’d be very rich.


What really happens is, you go in with the best of intentions. But, you’ve set yourself unrealistic expectations and targets. By the time it’s Friday evening you’ve said screw it. You consume a whole pizza, 10 pints, a bottle of wine, and a tub of ice-cream.

There’s a study basically showing, weekends are killing your fat loss goals. (3)

By the time it’s Monday, you feel guilty. You restrict again. Friday comes around and you repeat the cycle.


Health halo effect

This is something, I have fallen for, as well as my clients, when I was obese. This is the idea you can eat anything you want, so long as it’s healthy.

This meant, I was stuffing down dired fruit and nuts, like there was no tomorrow. I could easily get though a 200 calorie bag no problem.

I would drizzle olive oil over everything.

I’d make smoothies, with peanut butter and avocados everyday other day. My main protein source would have been salmon and mackerel.

Now don’t get me wrong, these foods are very healthy and I do still eat them. But for weight loss, your body doesn’t care about the nutritional value. If you’re not eating in a calorie deficit, you can’t lose weight. (4)

The problem is as a society we put thinness on a pedestal of health. So we associate being thin with healthy. So we associate nutritious foods with making us thin.

But health is more than thinness. Eating healthy foods, is important for millions of other things.

What I’m saying is just because a food is healthy, it doesn’t have any baring on your size.

Your body composition is only 1 out of millions of other things that determines your health. (5)

So eat those foods for health, not to lose weight. To lose weight you just need to eat less calories.


Personal responsibility

This is my view on things. But people don’t like to take responsibility for their own actions. I think that’s why the idea of tracking calories or even talking about calories gets a lot of resistance.

By explaining that the reason you’re not losing weight is that you’re consuming too many calories. This puts the responsibility in your hands. I personally think that’s empowering, I love to know things are in my control.

But people love to have a villain or someone to blame. In the fitness in the nutrition world, it’s far easier to blame carbs, sugar, or starvation mode. But talking about calories points the finger back at you.

It’s like politics. Whenever there’s an election or referendum, both sides like to create an enemy. Rather than telling people that a bit of personal responsibility might get you a bit further. It’s a case of let’s see who we can blame instead.

“To solve a problem, you have to recognise your share of responsibility. If you only blame others, you’ll never solve it.”

Unknown

Comfort

As well as having fragile egos, we hate being uncomfortable.

Lets be honest, eating less calories kinda sucks.

My job is find ways to make it suck as little as possible for you.

Eating less makes us uncomfortable. Sitting on the sofa eating chocolates is comfortable. Being a little bit hungry is uncomfortable.

So by being told, you’re in starvation mode because you’re not eating enough. This gives you justification to eat more, despite you wanting to lose weight.

As much as I hate to say this. If you want to progress anywhere in life, it comes from making yourself uncomfortable.

Il leave this here for you to ponder.

“If you are willing to do only what’s easy, life will be hard. But if you are willing to do what’s hard, life will be easy.”

T. Harv Eker

Is there truth to starvation mode?


I know I said the starvation mode myth has been bastardised. But as I said, these myths do usually stem from when there’s a small iota of truth.

This leads us onto “metabolic adaptation”. I have spoken about it before. But for those who’ve never read my stuff, il give you a brief overview.

We have this thing called our “Total Daily Energy Expenditure” (TDEE for short). This counts for the total number of calories we burn each day.

Before I talk about “Metabolic adaptation”, I need to go through the components of TDEE. So you have a better understanding of what’s going on.


TDEE

Our TDEE is comprised of four components.


1. Basal metabolic rate (BMR)


Imagine you were in a coma or asleep all day. Despite you not moving, your body still uses energy. What energy you may ask? People think they only burn calories from exercise, that is wrong. Your body burns calories when your heart beats, when you breath and many other things.

This burns most of your daily calories. About 65% of your daily calories are burnt purely by BMR. (6)

What determines your BMR?


Weight

The heavier you are, the more calories you burn at rest. If you are bigger you have more cells, so your body has to burn more calories to keep you going. Just like how larger vehicles require more fuel, to run the same distance.

Smaller people tend to think they have faster metabolisms. While heavier people think there’s are slower. Both are wrong, it’s actually the other way round.

The bigger you are, the more you burn.


Age

Age plays a small role in your BMR. As you age, your BMR tends to decrease. To be honest, not as bad as people think it is. Lot’s of people think they gain weight as they age because their metabolism has slowed down.

It’s usually a case that they eat more and move a lot less. That’s a post for another day though.

But metabolism does slightly decrease in general. The reason for this, is because most people lose muscle as they age.

This can be somewhat alleviated if you were to resistance train and eat a high protein diet though.

That’s why I recommend my clients to lift some metal and eat more protein.


Sex

Men burn more calories than women, because men tend to carry more muscle mass.

I know this isn’t always the case. But the trends for most populations show this.

Obviously more muscle means you tend to be heavier and if you’re heavier you burn more calories.


2. Thermic effect of food (TEF)

We burn calories when we eat food.

Yes even digesting food, requires calories to burn.

On the whole, about 10% of the daily calories we eat, is burnt as calories.

So if you burn eat 2000 calories a day, you burn 200 from digestion. If you eat 10000, you burn 1000. (7)

Makes sense. The more you consume, the more your body has to work to break it. down.


3. Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT)

This is the amount go exercise you do in a day. Need I say more?


4. Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT)

This is al the movement you do in a day which isn’t exercise.

Walking, fidgeting, bopping your head, gardening etc.

After BMR this burn most calories for most people. This burns significantly more calories than exercise. (8)


Metabolic adaptation

Metabolic adaptation is the term used when our TDEE decreases.

You see all the components of our TDEE will decrease when we are on a diet. This is to try and stop us from being in a calorie deficit. Our bodies don’t know we have enough food available to last us for the next billion years.


BMR

Lets look at BMR. Obviously we can’t control our age. But we know the main component of our BMR is our weight.

What tends to happen when people diet? Yes they lose weight.

What did I say earlier about people that weigh less? They have a lower BMR.

So what’s going to happen to your BMR? It’s going to decrease. When it decreases the amount of calories you burn each day also increases.


Thermic effect of food

Lets say you were eating 3000 calories per day, but on your new diet, you eat 2000 calories per day.

We know on average eating 3000 calories per day, meant your body used 300 to digest those 3000 calories.

But now you’re eating 2000, your body is going to use 200 calories per day.

You’re eating less food, so your body needs less energy to break it down. So from eating less, you burn less calories.


Exercise activity thermogenesis

It’s proven when you eat less, your exercise performance will decline.

I mean, if you’re not consume as much energy, of course your output is going to be less. Therefore you’ll burn less calories.

But if I’m being honest, exercise doesn’t burn many calories.


Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis

Now, your NEAT will take a massive hit, when calories are restricted.

The body doesn’t care about you wanting to get leaner.

Your body wants to keep you at homeostasis. So if you decrease your calorie input, you will subconsciously decrease your output. (9)

This means, you’re more likely to skip your daily dog walks and things like that. Even small things like fidgeting will probably decrease.

These may seem small, but they all add up at the end of the day.


Hunger hormones

I also need to mention your hunger hormones also increase and decrease. Leptin increases and Ghrelin decreases.

Leptin, which suppresses your intake will decrease. Leptin is like gatekeeper your food intake.

Ghrelin, is the hormone that increases your hunger.

These hormones are working together to try and get you to increase your calorie intake. Back up to maintenance. (10)


How do I get out of starvation mode? (Adaptive thermogenesis)

So yeah, your body isn’t holding onto fat or making you fatter, because you’re not eating enough. But it is being crafty by making you burn fewer calories than you were before. Whilst trying to get you to eat more.

As for your BMR decreasing there’s nothing you can do. You want it to decrease, that means you’re losing weight, which is the whole point.

Same with thermic effect of food. I mean if you’re eating less, your rate of digestion will also decrease. Thats totally normal.

As for exercise, you shouldn’t be exercising to burn calories or lose weight. Exercise is to get stronger, build muscle, feel good and improve overall health.

You can keep an eye on NEAT. I recommend getting a step tracker and getting a consistent number of steps over the week. Anecdotally for myself and clients,step count does decrease when weight is lost. So by making a conscious effort to keep it high may help.

I wrote two articles, what is NEAT and how to increase NEAT.

But you need to accept the amount of calories you burn will decrease. It is what it is.

As for your hunger hormones, theres not much you can do about hormones. If anyone tells you, they can manipulate your hormones, run away as fast as you can.

There’s a few things which we can do to make things suck a little less.

Every now and then it may be a good idea to take a break from your diet and eat at your maintenance calories for a week or two. I wrote an article about how diet breaks can help your fat loss.

Finally, when you’re experiencing a weight loss plateau. Use my calorie calculator, put in your details. Aim for a deficit of about 10-25% and track strictly for two weeks and see where you go from there.

But if I’m being honest. For most of you reading this, you’re likely in the first category of the starvation mode myth. Most of you, need to be more honest wit your intake.


Minnesota starvation experiment

This was an unethical study back during WW2. There’s no chance on earth something like this woukd be done again.

Long story short, they had a bunch of volunteers, who didnt want to enlist in the war to undergo an experiemnt.

They wanted to see, the best way to help people who were starved recover.

So they got these guys to starve basically.

They had to consume less than 1800 calories a day for six months and either walk or run 22 miles per day.

Considering the average guy is expected to eat 2500 calories a day. Thats large deficit. When these guys started they werent obese or overweight. They were all considered “normal”, scientifically speaking.

The guys who lasted lost 25% of their bodyweight. (12)

If we were to go with the starvation mode myth, you’d assume they would have either not lost weight or gained weight. You’d think their bodies would have held onto fat for survival.

Nope once their fat was lost, the body would have eaten into their muscle stores. After that the organs would have been next.


Man who didn’t eat for a year

This one definitely blows the starvation mode myth out of the sea.

This guy in Scotland called Angus Barbieri, weighed 456 pounds (207kg).

Whiulst most people would go on some kind of diet. He literally went all in.

He ate NOTHING for a whole year and 17 days.

Exceptions being some tea, coffee, fizzy water and vitamin supplements.

He lost 275 pounds (125kg). So he ended up weighing 180 pounds (82kg).

He was supposed to do short periods of fasting, but he felt good and was eager so he decided to go this long. (13)

Now according to the starvation mode myth logic, he surely would have doubled in size.

Nope, so long as you’re consuming less calories, you’ll lose weight.

Now am I telling you to not eat for a year? NO

Just that sometimes we need to hear extreme example to get our pint across.


Final thoughts on the starvation mode myth

When I read over this article again. I noticed I’ve basically done a 2900 word tangent basically telling you, you eat more than you think.

No matter the situation if you want to lose weight, remeber it’s not supposed to be easy.

Nutriton is very simple, but people like to overcomplicate it to sound clever.

Im afraid, no matter what there has to be some form of calorie restriction.

We can make the restriction as pleasant as possible. But for your body to eat its fat stores, there has to be a form of temporary under-eating. People don’t like to admit it, but it is what is it is.

Don’t let the starvation mode myth stop you wanting to lose weight.

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