You’ve been restricting calories for weeks, months, years, or what feels like your whole life. Despite this, the scale is not moving.
You’re racking your brain to figure out what is going on – are you miscounting calories? Eating too many carbs? Not enough protein? Wrong type of exercise? Or is it the time of day you’re eating?
Well-meaning friends, family members, and professionals advise you, at best, to try something new, and at worst, just try harder.
And then you hear about starvation mode. That is, the idea that you’re not losing weight because your body is holding onto fat because it thinks it is starving. Could this explain your thwarted attempts?
Short answer: Maybe. But as always, the long answer is complicated. Read more on the truth about starvation mode.
Table of Contents
What is starvation mode?
“Starvation mode” is a colloquial term used to describe the idea that severe calorie restriction leads to the body holding on to excess fat. Meaning, by restricting calories too low, you will actually lose less weight than if you ate more. It is the body’s way of protecting you from starvation.
Consider it like a fire – if you don’t put enough wood on the fire, the fire will go out. Similarly, if you don’t give your body enough calories, your metabolism will slow down.
In the literature, this is referred to as “adaptive thermogenesis”. Adaptive thermogenesis does ultimately make sustained weight loss difficult to achieve, but it is more complicated than the body “holding onto fat”. Eating more may or may not lead to weight loss.
Is starvation mode a myth?
Yes and no! Metabolic adaptations to restriction and weight loss are certainly evident in the research.
If you feel like you are restricting calories and not seeing any change in body weight, trust when I say you are not doing anything “wrong”. There certainly are factors outside of your control going on.
Eating more calories may help your metabolism recover. However, this doesn’t necessarily lead to weight loss despite what you may hear.
“Calories in, calories out” is BS
Ok, ok, I know that’s a strong statement. And there may be some people who can restrict calories, lose weight, and maintain it no problem. Though truly, these individuals are the minority. The vast majority of people struggle to maintain weight loss.
And no, it is not a matter of you lacking self discipline. I have worked with a number of high achieving, highly disciplined clients who are anything but “lazy”.
So why do I say the traditional method is BS? Because for most people, it is.
If we could control for all of the metabolic adaptations that take place in the body, consistency in food labeling, and variability in how many calories an individual actually absorbs from a given food, it does seem that this method would hold true.
However, as we learn more about weight regulation, we’re finding more on how difficult it is to control for these factors.
So I find “calories in, calories out” to be widely ineffective. This method is actually harmful for a lot of my clients because of the metabolic adaptations that take place (not to mention the mental and emotional strain.)
Adaptations to calorie restriction
Bodies require a lot of energy to support life.
Interestingly, there’s not that much difference between the energy needed for a bed bound individual than one going to the gym every day. The majority of energy provided to our body goes to maintaining our organs, pumping blood throughout the body, digesting food, and most importantly, to our BRAIN.
Of course, the energy we consume also maintains muscle, bone, and fat mass. However, it is naive to believe it is solely our fat mass that is affected when we eat more or less than we need.
The body’s response to restricted energy intake:
- Slowed heart rate
- Reduced blood pressure
- Disrupted hormone production (low testosterone in men, disrupted menstrual cycles in women, altered thyroid function)
- Disruption in hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin
- Slowed digestion
How the body “decides” to conserve energy is unclear, and probably driven by genetics, as described by Dr. Gaudiani in her book “Sick Enough”. This would explain why some people are able to lose weight on calorie restricted diets while others experience any number of the above adaptations.
Dieting history and weight cycling
Dieting history and past weight loss attempts also seem to impact whether someone will lose weight on a subsequent diet.
Research on “The Biggest Loser” contestants demonstrates that those with a history of extreme dieting are likely to experience a long-term slowing of metabolism.
This makes sense to me that we are seeing an increase in body size during a time when our culture is obsessed with dieting and making bodies smaller. The more you diet, the slower your metabolism, and the more likely you are to gain more weight than when you started.
It also suggests that someone who is new to dieting will likely lose weight relatively easily, promoting the idea that “diets work”, while someone who has yo-yo dieted their whole life will have the opposite experience.
As described by the authors of intuitive eating, dieting, it seems, is the number one risk factor for weight gain!
What are the symptoms of starvation mode?
There may be any number of vague symptoms associated with “starvation mode”. That’s because, as described above, restricted energy intake can affect all systems of the body.
Common symptoms that I see in my clients include the following:
- Brain fog
- Bowel and digestive changes (constipation, diarrhea, bloating, and/or gas)
- Feeling cold all the time and/or cold extremities
- Depression and anxiety
- Stalled weight loss or weight gain
- Difficulty building muscle
- Menstrual cycle irregularities
- Low bone density
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Obsession with food
- Drive to overeat or binge eat
Please note: “starvation” can affect bodies of all sizes. These symptoms can show up even in someone who is “overweight” or “obese” according to the BMI chart.
How long does it take to get out of starvation mode?
This is a difficult question to answer. Research doesn’t provide a straightforward answer.
Research from the Biggest Loser suggests that metabolic adaptations are long-term.
However, Ancel Keys’ Minnesota Starvation Experiment suggests that resuming an adequate food intake by responding to hunger can reverse this reduced metabolic rate. This is shown to be a substantially higher calorie intake than would typically be expected. Responding to your hunger, even if it feels extreme, seems to be the way to recover a slowed metabolism.
As far as how long this takes, research by Duloo and colleagues suggest that this “overshoot” of body weight following weight loss persists for about a year or so before the body returns to its homeostatic baseline weight (i.e. the “set point”). I imagine that continued attempts to diet and restrict calories, however, would prolong this journey.
How to lose weight in starvation mode
This is the big question. And this is where the starvation mode gains some of its “myth”.
In most cases, eating more will get you out of starvation mode eventually. However, it might not result in weight loss.
If weight loss results, it is likely a result of some other behaviors. For example, if restricting food leads you to overeat later on, you may inadvertently eat more calories, leading to weight gain. Consuming adequate calories throughout the day may lead to fewer binges, thereby allowing your body to find its natural set point. It’s possible that your set point may be lower than where it had landed as a result of the overeating.
Body size seems largely determined by genetics, and maintained through the biological adaptations described above.
So what is the truth about starvation mode? Is starvation mode a myth?
It depends on your meaning of “starvation mode”.
Yes, adaptations take place. Restricting calories does not necessarily lead to weight loss. However, eating more may not be the magic solution to weight loss either.
Weight science is complicated, largely driven by genetics, and attempts to manipulate it are largely fought against by the body itself.
Wondering where to go from here?
Book a consultation with me to explore your history with food and dieting. I can’t promise weight loss (no one can!), but I can help you on your road to make peace with food and body.