First of all, what is starvation mode?
Simply put, starvation mode is the idea that your body slips in to a type of weight loss plateau that is caused by not eating enough. In other words, implying that in order to lose weight, or break a weight loss plateau, you need to eat more. You may have heard someone refer to it like this… “The reason you aren’t losing weight is because you aren’t eating enough… your body is in “starvation mode”.
Why does the idea perpetuate in the weight loss circles?
First, because there IS a such thing as METABOLIC ADAPTATION. Metabolic Adaption is fancy name given to the natural (and normal) slowing of the metabolism over long periods of calorie restriction. Although, some have used the word “metabolic damage”, which I don’t agree with because this implies something is going on that should not be. And, the implication that there is damage done is not accurate.
Adaptation is NORMAL and happens with many things since our body is always striving to maintain a state of balance. Think of exercise for example… when you are a beginner, and out of shape, exercise is hard. After exercising consistently for some time, things feel easier. Why? We call it getting in shape. Getting in shape is “adaptation” to exercise.
Just like getting in shape… and getting out of shape… Metabolic adaption can work both ways too! When we are on restricted calories for a long period of time, our metabolism adapts by slowing down. When we are over consuming calories our metabolism can actually speed up.
Although, this is just a small piece of the conversation that gets taken out of context. This is why I believe the “Starvation mode” continues to come up time and time again.
OK… can you explain how our metabolism works?
From a weight management perspective, let’s use the analogy of a bank account since this is something everyone can relate with.
With your bank account, if you bring in more money than you spend, at the end of the month, your account will have more money in it. On the contrary, if you spend more than you bring in, your account will have less.
I realize this is very over simplified. However, fundamentally, this is how weight management works.
If you take in more (calories from food) than you spend (calories burned through metabolism); at the end of a given time period, you will have more (calories stored as fat) in your body. And, if you take in less (calories from food) than you spend (calories burned through metabolism); at the end of a given time period, you will have less (calories stored as fat) in your body. Think of your body fat like your body’s “savings account”. In order to drain your savings, you have to spend more than you make.
Therefore, at no point is there a situation in which higher (calorie) intake (than output) would create a scenario in which you would lose more fat. But, that is just skimming the surface.
Taking things one step further, we can break down your metabolism to FOUR parts. We measure them in calories. We call the total of these FOUR parts our TOTAL DAILY ENERGY EXPENDITURE (TDEE): Think of this as the total number of calories you burn in a given day, over a 24 hour period. So, when someone says “I burn 3000 calories a day” they are referring to their TDEE
The FOUR parts that make up your TDEE are:
- RESTING METABOLIC RATE (RMR): Makes up largest percent of your TDEE
- You can think of this as the number of calories your body and cells use just to maintain life. If you slept in bed for 24 hours, this would account for your RMR
- NON EXERCISE ACTIVITY THERMOGENESIS (NEAT): Second Largest part of TDEE
- This part takes in account all the calories you burn doing normal daily activities. Things like brushing your teeth, cooking, cleaning, walking to and from your car, fidgeting etc.
- THERMAL EFFECT OF FOOD (TEF): Smallest part of TDEE
- It takes energy (calories) to break your food down, through chewing, digesting and eventually metabolizing the foods you consume.
- EXERCISE ACTIVITY THERMOGENESIS (EAT): Largest variable in TDEE from person to person
- This is one we all know. When you exercise, you burn additional calories (on top of the ones you burn at rest).
Hopefully this has set the stage to understand the basics of metabolism with regard to weight management AND the fundamental parts that make up your metabolic rate (in calories).
So what is actually happening when our metabolism “adapts”?
Let’s go back to the metabolism really quick… Back to the four parts that make up your total daily energy expenditure (calories)
There is a linear relationship here to body mass and to a degree, LEAN body mass. Simply put, the larger you are, the larger this number. The smaller you are, the smaller this number. It makes sense that a humming bird would need less energy to sustain life than an elephant. Therefore, as you reduce your body mass (weight) you will also reduce your resting metabolic rate.
You CAN have some influence to your RMR, though this is the one you have the least control over. We’ll touch on that later. But, in a nutshell, when your weight goes down, your RMR will also go down as a result.
Something that is very interesting is the body’s ability to conserve energy in a deprived state.
With less calories coming in, your body (subconsciously) begins to shut down/ reduce your involuntary/ unnecessary tasks. You’ll feel more tired, weak, lethargic, unmotivated. Your brain will (subconsciously) have you move less in an effort to conserve energy (calories). All the while you realize none of this is going on.
Since NEAT accounts for the second largest part of your metabolism, calories burned this can be make a profound difference in the net difference of calories in/ calories out. The result of this is a shrinking calorie deficit (in vs. out) and can be seen in a slowing down of your weight loss efforts – AKA a stall or plateau.
As we discussed, the process of eating, digesting and metabolizing food takes energy (calories). Simply put, taking in less calories means less energy being used to digest the food. You can’t just add back more food. Otherwise you are adding back more calories and closing the deficit. Though, there are some things you CAN control here which we will discuss later.
The next way your body adapts is to exercise.
Remember when we said, as you get in better shape, exercise becomes easier? While this may be a good thing for your fitness level, the phenomenon puts you at a disadvantage with regard to weight loss.
There are two reasons to this:
- First, again, as you lose weight you will be moving less mass while exercising. Imagine putting on a weight vest when you workout. It would be much more challenging, right?! Now take off the weight vest and do the same workout. It’s now easier. This is virtually the same thing happening as you lose weight. And, as the exercise gets EASIER, easier workouts burn less calories, period.
- Second, as you also get in better shape physically (stronger, faster, better cardio endurance etc), the exercise becomes easier. Once again, easier exercise means less calories burned. So, in essence, every single part of your metabolism WILL slow down as you take in less calories and you lose weight.
However, even with ALL these metabolic adaptations, it’s not enough to COMPLETELY close the gap on your calorie deficit (assuming you had started with a deficit enough to see weight loss in the first place).
In fact, if you started with an approximate deficit of ~500 calories per day, it’s been shown in metabolic models that it would take 3 YEARS to completely adapt to a deficit of zero.
Now that we have covered those things it’s easy to see how adaptations happen.
What adaptations occur when you begin to eat more calories?
For starters, for THESE adaptations to occur, it would require a caloric increase at or above maintenance. Doing so would negate the deficit required to lose weight and halt weight loss all together. Nonetheless, let’s discuss adaptions in the opposite direction
While the RMR may change a little, the real changes take place in the other 3 parts of the metabolism. Again, for RMR to change, there would need to be a significant change in body mass.
Adding in more calories has the greatest affect on NEAT. Subconsciously, with more calories, you will move more. You’ll have more energy, you’ll “feel” more alive, you’ll have a little extra pep in your step. All this happens – for the most part – subconsciously.
The increase in NEAT, while almost unnoticeable, creates a fairly marked increase in overall calories burned. So, the calories you add back result in an increase in NEAT. As a result, there is an increase in the calories going out.
Taking in more food will mean more calories needed to consume, process and digest the extra food. It’s not a huge increase.
Finally, more food means more fuel for your workouts. So, whether you notice or not (I am betting you will) adding in more food will result in an increase in workout intensity (and volume) therefore, once again, more calories burned.
Ultimately, the increase in food will simply create a scenario where the number of calories burned increases. However, we also increased the calories coming. So, the net effect is negated.
Though, one MAJOR piece we did not discuss was compliance.
Studies have all shown; long periods of calorie restriction create an increase in appetite. As I mentioned briefly, this is a where hormones DO play a large role in weight loss. Specifically with appetite and satiety.
In conjunction with the increased appetite, we have a decrease or delay in the sensation of feeling full when eating. We also develop a hyper-focused awareness of food. Doesn’t it seem like you notice WAY MORE food commercials when you are trying to lose weight?
Ultimately, these factors lead to more BLTs (bites, licks, tastes) which create an increase in calories. We may feel as though the increase is negligible or harmless. In reality, it is one of the primary reasons we see weight loss stalls/ plateaus.
Researcher Kevin Hall referred to this as “The decay of dietary adherence”. He is also the one that developed the models that predicted it would take ~3 years to completely adapt to a 500 calorie deficit.
In the end, the a simultaneous increase of calories through food (with decay of dietary adherence) coupled with with metabolic adaptation… this is a recipe for a stall/ plateau in weight loss.
All that said, a VERY SMALL increase calories may not create increases in NEAT, TEF or EAT… but decreases in BLTs.
So, we’re just more compliant when the calories come up. THAT is why we sometimes observe someone breaking a weight loss plateau when they slightly increase calories.
Do people with thyroid conditions have slower metabolisms?
Yes, let me explain.
The principles for weight management still applies (remember the bank account analogy). Although, someone with a HYPO thyroid condition will definitely burn LESS total calories than someone with a fully functioning thyroid.
Unfortunately, this simply means that someone with impaired thyroid function will have to eat even fewer calories than someone without compromise. The margin for error is VERY small. This makes it VERY hard to do, but not impossible.
Another analogy I like to use here is; It’s like someone with massive (financial) debt trying to dig themselves out of the hole with a very small income. It’s a LONG road and every little bit counts. And, it may not seem like you are getting very far very fast.
Do Hormones matter?
Again, like the thyroid question, fundamentally they do not.
Although, depending on WHAT hormones you are referring, it WILL impact the amount of calories coming in AND/ OR the amount of calories going out (calories burned through metabolism). Hormones do have SOME affect on the output (metabolism).
Although, as I’ve mentioned, it seems as though they may have a larger impact on the input side with things like appetite regulation and satiety.
This is an entirely new rabbit hole that we could spend an entire post to discuss.
Here’s a Million Dollar question, why do men seem to lose weight much easier than women?
Because life just isn’t fair… LOL! Pretty simple: Pound for pound, men have more lean body mass.
When we go back to the RMR we discussed how this was relative to your body mass and specifically, LEAN body mass (aka muscle). To answer the question of men vs women and fat loss, you first have to level the playing field and account for weight difference.
Say you had a man and a woman, same height, weight, age etc. Pound for pound, men carry more lean body mass (muscle). And, to put it plainly, more muscle burns more calories. Therefore, pound for pound, men simply have a higher RMR than women; aka, higher metabolism
I know, it’s NOT fair!
What ways can we influence our metabolism to burn more calories?
This is a GREAT question! And, the one we should be asking.
Anything we can do that will help us keep calorie intake low while calorie output high will result in better weight management. If we look to each of the four areas of our metabolism, we will have to break them down by things we can control and things we cannot
We can’t (immediately) control a lot here, but there is something we CAN do. Plain and simple… build more lean body mass (aka MUSCLE) – muscle is more metabolically active and “expensive” to sustain in terms of caloric cost for your body.
While most will spend a lot of time doing cardio for weight loss, strength training is arguably a better long term solution (metabolically).
Think of it as compound interest. Not only are you burning calories WHILE you are strength training, you have the added benefit of increasing your RMR with added muscle you build over time.
There are a few things we can do to help the reduction in NEAT. Though, it will take a conscious effort to counteract the subconscious slowing down of the calories expended.
We can do things like, take the stairs vs. the elevator, park in the spot furthest away from the door, employ the use of activity (step) trackers and set a daily goal.
You’re going to have to fight your body’s attempt at “slowing you down”
While adding more calories will be counterproductive, we can focus on the TYPE of foods we eat to have an impact.
First, focusing on more Whole foods vs. Processed foods. By weight, processed foods are MUCH more calorie dense. Studies on satiety show that heavier foods (by weight) help us feel more full.
Think of watermelon vs. potato chips. 100g of watermelon is only about 30 calories while 100g potato chips is roughly 550 calories. Additionally, calories from whole foods are extracted by your body to a much lesser degree.
EXAMPLE: Researchers had participants from one group consume whole/ raw peanuts and another group consumed peanut butter. The results… almost 40% percent of the fat from whole/ raw peanuts was excreted in the stool. That’s only about 60% of the calories from fat being extracted.. On the flip side, nearly 97% of the fat from the peanut butter was absorbed leaving virtually NO fat in the stool.
So, having a diet of MOSTLY whole foods will be most ideal for weight management.
Next, your macronutrient intake also matters. For those unfamiliar, MACROnutrients are protein, carbs and fats.
While most may assume cutting carbs is the obvious choice, you might be surprised to find out that INCREASING protein will be more effective.
If I had a pill that would provide the following benefits…
- Suppress your appetite and make you feel more full after you took it
- Preserved lean body mass (aka muscle) while in a calorie deficit – remember, more lean body mass (muscle) means higher RMR. So, we don’t want to lose this while dieting if we can help it
- Short and slight boost in metabolism when consumed (maybe a few hours)
It would be a no brainer… most would see the benefit in taking this pill
Protein IS that pill!
Of the three macros (Protein, Carbs, Fats)… Protein offers 1) Appetite suppression and satiety 2) Preservation of lean body mass 3) Short and slight boost in metabolism when consumed in enough quantity. This is why high(er) protein diets tend to show more favorable results with regard to weight loss
We already touched on incorporating strength training for the compound interest effect. The other thing that you can do to mitigate the adaptation effect from exercise is to vary your exercise program to prevent adaptation.
The other thing you can do is take Strategic Deconditioning periods, AKA take time time off.
Yes, you read that correctly. When you take a break and come back after a week or two; have you noticed how your workouts are much harder? It may be frustrating and you may feel like you have taken a step back in your fitness level. However, remember what we said earlier… when exercise is easier, it burns LESS calories. When it is harder, it burns MORE.
That said, taking some intentional time off may help you get a short boost in the effectiveness of your workouts.
There are a few other things that won’t directly affect your metabolism, but can have an impact on appetite and satiety. In turn, they may be helpful in weight management.
- First is sleep – Studies have shown, people getting less than 7-9 hours are 35% more likely to gain weight. This is likely due to the disruption in hormones associated with appetite regulation.
- Next is stress reduction – I think we can all associate with stress eating and how that might impact calories consumed, right?!
What advice would you give to someone struggling to manage his or her weight?
First, track what you eat. This can be on paper, taking photos or using some type of food tracking app. You need to increase awareness and accountability with what you consume – We recommend MyFitnessPal
Second, break out the food scale and take an accurate account of your portions. You’ll be surprised at how much your portions change when you are weighing/ measuring everything!
Third, set a reasonable calorie restriction that you can sustain. The greater the deficit, the faster you will see weight loss, but the faster you will begin to see metabolic adaptations. We recommend somewhere between 15-30% from your maintenance calorie intake. We also recommend periodic diet breaks to increase compliance and sustainability. And also (slightly) reverse some metabolic adaptations. A diet break is exactly what it sounds like; a 1-2 week break from “dieting”. Not a free for all… just a break from the “diet”
Fourth, set your macronutrients (protein, carbs and fats) for optimal levels based on your lifestyle, food preference and your goals. We already discussed the benefits of higher protein diets with weight management. After calories set and protein is fixed, with the remaining calories set your carbs and fat intake ratios based on activity levels and food preferences. More active lifestyle = more carbs, less fats and vise versa.
Fifth, focus on MICROnutrients by improving food QUALITY – more whole foods are not only going to help you feeling more full. The volume of these foods will allow you to eat much more while still keeping your calories low. Not to mention, as we discussed, whole foods provide a higher TEF.
We also recommend you follow the 80/20 rule. Simply stated, you should aim to get 80% or more of your calories from whole foods for reasons we discussed. Try to keep your calories from processed foods at 20% or less for maximal benefit – especially with regard to appetite and satiety.
Sixth, play around with the timing and frequency of your meals. Some clients find they prefer smaller meals more often. While others prefer fewer meals that are larger in both volume and calories. I tend to find more clients have an easier time adhering to the latter. They tell me they feel more full when they have fewer meals that are larger.
You may also want to try Time Restricted Eating – aka intermittent fasting. TRE won’t (on it’s own) lead to greater weight loss. Remember, weight loss has to do with calories in vs. calories out… not WHEN you eat the calories or burn them. However, by eating all your calories in a small window, you are much more likely to feel full. And, by feeling more full, you’re less likely to add back the calories. This could be a topic to get it’s very own discussion. So, we’ll leave it there for now
Lastly, as insurance, fill the void with supplements – don’t take them UNLESS you have ALL the previous pieces in place. Even then, you only really need a few supplements for optimal health.
Supplements are simply designed to put back what you have taken out when you decreased your food intake. The main supplements we suggest for optimal health are… Multivitamin/ Mineral, Witamin d3, Probiotic and Omega3
SIDE NOTE: I don’t consider “protein” powders/ bars/ meal replacements to be supplements since they are actually engineered FOOD.
So… does this mean there is there merit to the idea of the starvation mode? Is this a real thing preventing weight loss?
There is (some) merit to the idea of starvation mode, with everything we discussed regarding metabolic adaptation. But, not in the sense that it is THE thing preventing weight loss. Starvation mode – or Metabolic Adaptation – is NOT something that is PREVENTING weight loss. Perhaps only slowing it down or making it difficult to sustain.
Think of it like this… If you were stranded on a desert island with no food… you WOULD starve to death, but only after losing A LOT of weight. So much weight that you had virtually zero fat and severely atrophied lean mass. You would not go in to “starvation mode” and suddenly stop losing weight. And furthermore, once someone brought you food to eat, you wouldn’t keep losing more weight. You would begin to ADD weight back once calories coming in exceeded calories going out.
So, to answer the BIG QUESTION… “starvation mode” is FICTION, not fact!