Let me guess. You want to lose weight, right? If so, then you have something in common with the majority of the population. Most of them want to lose weight, too.
But if you’re here to learn about starvation mode, then I can assume there’s something else you probably have in common with the majority of the population: you’re NOT actually losing weight.
You want to. You’re trying to. But, it’s just not happening. Sound about right?
And that’s probably why you’re here. You want to know why it’s not happening. Well, I can tell you straight up that there’s only one legitimate reason for why a person fails to lose weight, and the good news is that by the end of this article, you’re going to understand it once and for all.
But here’s the bad news. Even though there’s only ONE true reason for why a person isn’t losing weight, there are dozens of excuses and reasons that a person will come up with and consider to be the cause that just aren’t actually true, accurate or even remotely based in reality.
I’ve been lucky (or unlucky) enough to have heard most of those excuses and fake reasons over the years, but I’ve found that there are two that seem to come up more often than the rest:
- Muscle Weighs More Than Fat. The thinking here is that the person isn’t losing weight because they’re building muscle. So while they ARE actually losing plenty of fat, they’re supposedly gaining plenty of muscle at the same time and it’s balancing out their weight on the scale (thus causing it to appear as though they’re not losing fat even though they are). They’re just building an equal amount of muscle at an equal rate.
- Starvation Mode. The thinking here is that the person isn’t losing weight because their body has entered a weight-loss-preventing (or sometimes even weight-gain-causing) state commonly referred to as “starvation mode.”
Now I’ve already covered #1 in detail before (Weight Loss Plateau Myth: Muscle Weighs More Than Fat?), and I can sum it up by saying no… it’s highly unlikely that you’re building so much muscle so quickly that it’s completely covering up/balancing out your fat loss. MUCH more likely: you’re just not losing any fat, period. The full details of why are explained here.
But what about #2? The dreaded starvation mode. Is it just a myth? Or is this one real? Let’s find out.
What Is Starvation Mode?
That depends. Do you want to know what it actually is, or what most people think it is? Big difference. Let’s start with the second one.
Most people’s definition of starvation mode goes something like this:
To lose weight, you need to consume less calories. BUT, if you consume TOO few calories, your metabolism slows down so much so that your body enters a state where weight loss stops completely.
Some people also believe being in this state of not eating enough calories not only prevents weight loss from happening, but it can also cause weight gain.
So basically, eating too little prevents your body from losing weight. In some cases, it might even cause it to gain weight. To get “out” of this state and start losing, you must eat more calories, not less.
This, according to most people, is what starvation mode is.
Now with all of this in mind, let’s pretend we have a person who says they’re “eating right” and “eating healthy” and “eating less” and knows for sure that they’re eating an amount of calories that SHOULD cause them to lose weight. But yet, they AREN’T losing any weight.
Based on the definition above, it would make perfect sense for this person to assume that they’ve clearly entered starvation mode due to eating too little/not eating enough. That has to be their problem, right?
I mean, that’s the only logical conclusion a person can come to in this scenario, isn’t it? I guess so.
Well, except for one tiny thing… this definition of starvation mode is bullshit.
Your Version Of Starvation Mode Is A Myth
Seriously. It’s not real. It’s a myth.
As long as you create a caloric deficit (meaning consume less calories than your body burns, or burn more calories than you consume… just different ways of saying the same thing), then you will lose weight every single time regardless of whether you’re creating a deficit that is small, moderate or large.
Even if your calorie intake is dangerously low (not recommended at all, just making a point), you will still lose weight.
There is no such thing as “I’m not losing any weight because I’m eating too little.” That’s horseshit. And there’s definitely no such thing as “I’m gaining weight because I’m eating too little.” That’s even bigger horseshit that I can only assume would require the presence of an even bigger horse.
And the idea that you skipped breakfast or waited longer than 3 hours between meals (or something equally meaningless) and have now instantly entered starvation mode as a result is too laughable to even warrant another second of discussion.
Create a deficit and weight loss will happen. Calories in vs calories out always applies, no matter how low the “calories in” part is (or really, how low you mistakenly think it is… more on that in a minute).
Simply put, what most people think of starvation mode to be is complete and utter nonsense.
And guess what? I can prove it. Guess what else? I can prove it with 4 different types of proof. Ready? Here we go…
1. Scientific Proof
The cause of starvation mode, they claim, is a huge drop in metabolic rate. Meaning, eating too little supposedly causes your metabolism to slow down to the point where it prevents weight loss from happening.
This is actually half true, which of course means it’s also half false.
The true part is that being in a deficit DOES in fact cause your metabolic rate to slow down over time. This is known as adaptive thermogenesis, and it happens as a result of any prolonged deficit. The more excessive (in terms of size and duration) the deficit is, the more significant this drop will be.
The false part however is the idea that this “metabolic slowdown” is significant enough to actually STOP weight loss. It’s not. And it sure as hell isn’t significant enough to cause weight gain.
It’s mostly just enough to slow down progress a little over time. A much bigger factor slowing down weight loss progress over time is the fact that you’ve already lost a bunch of weight, so your body just isn’t burning as many calories as it initially was.
Meaning, your maintenance level has decreased because your body weight has decreased. So the calorie intake that caused lots of weight loss at 250lbs isn’t working as well (if at all) when you get down to 200lbs.
And it’s this successful decrease in overall body weight combined with that small (but real) amount of adaptive thermogenesis that causes people to eventually need to make adjustments at certain points so that weight loss continues happening (which, by the way, is a one sentence breakdown of what causes weight loss plateaus, why they’re common and normal, and what ultimately solves them).
It has nothing at all to do with “I’m eating too little and my weight loss stopped.” That’s nonsense, and literally every single study in existence supports this.
The Minnesota Study
Every controlled study where a deficit was created resulted in weight loss 100% of the time. Regardless of every other factor. A caloric deficit = weight loss. Always. Even in actual starvation studies like the often cited Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
In this study, 36 men were put on a 24 week long “starvation diet” consisting of two meals per day containing a total of 1560 calories, and that amount was then reduced further throughout the study to ensure weight loss kept happening
For these men, this represented a daily deficit of 50% below maintenance (compare that to a typically recommended “ideal” moderate deficit of 20%). Oh, and they all had to walk 22 miles per week as well.
Guess what happened? All of the participants lost approximately 25% of their starting body weight and reached about 5% body fat. So they were purposely (semi) starved for 6 straight months, and they all lost tons of weight/body fat.
Now For The Really Crazy Part
Ready for this one? This Minnesota Starvation Experiment is the study people sometimes use to show that “starvation mode” is real. I kid you not. This study, which clearly shows people eating very little and losing plenty of weight, is the same study idiots cite as an example of how eating too little stops people from losing weight.
How can this be, you ask?
Because at the end of the study, the men’s metabolic rates dropped by about 40% (two points about that: 1) only a small percentage of that 40% was actually the adaptive component, the majority was just due to the overall loss of weight, and 2) 40% still isn’t the 100% complete metabolic shutdown or whatever nonsense people think happens… but let’s play along anyway) and appeared to finally stop losing weight.
So after they already lost over 25% of their body weight and hit 5% body fat and looked deathly skinny (see included photo), they finally appeared to stop losing.
So stupid people see this and say “HA! See… starvation mode is real! Told you so! This is why I’m not losing any weight!!”
But a non-stupid person sees this and says “Uh, no. They all just finally reached a point where there wasn’t any weight left to lose without dying.”
Take a look at that picture. That’s one of the participants somewhere near the later part of this study. Is that guy in his current state a perfect example that starvation mode is real? That eating too little stopped him from losing any weight? Seriously? No. He’s a perfect example of the opposite… to the point where he literally lost as much weight as his body was capable of losing.
And yet you – someone who is likely a normal weight, overweight, or obese person NOWHERE NEAR THIS STATE who will NEVER BE ANYWHERE NEAR THIS STATE who’s trying to lose anywhere from 5 to 200 pounds of body fat to look prettier in your swimsuit – thinks this somehow applies to you? HA!
And even if you did reach a point like this (and I seriously hope that you don’t), your lack of weight loss is the least of your problems. The fact that you’re about to die is probably your new biggest concern.
2. Unfortunate Real World Proof
A reader recently brought up the subject of holocaust survivors in the comments of something I wrote about starvation mode. It’s obviously not an example I’m happy to use, but… it’s there, so I will.
And all it takes is one look at the pictures of how horrifically skinny the people in concentration camps were and you should have all the “real world” proof you need that what most people consider starvation mode to be (“I’m eating too few calories and it’s stopping me from losing weight/causing me to gain weight”) is pure nonsense.
Those people were consuming less calories than anyone ever would under any circumstance, and they all lost disturbing amounts of weight.
But yet you, a normal person under normal circumstances who is unable to lose weight have somehow come to the conclusion that YOU’RE eating so little that YOU’RE in starvation mode and that’s why weight loss isn’t happening for YOU? Ha!
Can you even comprehend how silly that thought is?
If that was even remotely true, wouldn’t those pictures of concentration camps show a ton of fat people who didn’t lose any weight (or maybe even gained some!!) because starvation mode kicked in and magically prevented weight loss from happening for them just like it’s supposedly preventing it from happening for you?
And they were all eating WAY less than you are (or at least think you are), so it would’ve surely kicked in even stronger for them, right? Yeah… sure.
And that would also explain why eating disorder clinics have so many “fat anorexics” coming in all the time. You know, the ones who failed to lose any weight whatsoever and remained at their normal healthy weight despite eating very little and purposely starving themselves? Yeah… sure.
3. Television Show Proof
Now for something less serious… reality shows!
I was going to go the Survivor route with this one, but I’ve been catching up on shows that have been sitting on my DVR for a while, one of which is something called Naked And Afraid.
If you don’t know what it is, it’s basically a more hardcore version of Survivor. Two people (a man and a woman) get dropped in some hard-to-survive remote location with little to no supplies (or clothes) and have to survive there for 21 days with no help of any kind (although producers eventually step in when it looks like someone might die… how nice!).
So if these two people want to eat, they need to catch/kill/cook something. And most of the time in the episodes I’ve seen, they have a CRAZY hard time catching/killing/cooking things and spend most of the 21 days not eating anything whatsoever and complaining about how they are in desperate need of food.
With me so far? Cool.
At the end of the 21 days, the show does a quick recap of what happened, which includes telling us how much weight the two people ended up losing. I’ve seen the man and the woman each lose anywhere from 20-50lbs during those 21 days of barely eating.
Still with me? Cool.
So tell me…
If most people’s definition of “starvation mode” is real, and eating too few calories STOPS people from losing weight or even causes them to GAIN fat… how the hell did these people who were eating insanely low amounts of calories still lose tons and tons of weight?
If most people’s definition of “starvation mode” is real, why doesn’t every episode end with a recap explaining that no one lost any weight whatsoever because they were eating too little and starvation mode kicked in?
If most people’s definition of “starvation mode” is real, why doesn’t every episode end with a recap explaining that the man and the woman both gained weight because they were eating too little and starvation mode kicked in?
Why? Because most people’s definition of “starvation mode” is bullshit.
4. Perfect Real World Proof
A woman who needs to lose 85lbs tells me she’s been working out a lot and eating 1300-1500 calories per day. But yet, she’s not losing any weight! In fact, her clothes feel tighter! WTF?
She’s considering eating more calories, with the assumption being her calories must be too low (that darn starvation mode strikes again!!!). She has also considered the possibility that, since “muscle weighs more than fat,” maybe she’s just building lots of muscle and it’s hiding her fat loss results on the scale (her trainer actually told her this was the reason).
So I tell her this, because I’ve heard her story a million times before:
“When it comes to fat loss results, someone like you with 85lbs to lose should be seeing some degree of progress pretty much every single week. Your weight should be gradually and consistently decreasing at some realistic rate (0.5-2lbs per week, possibly even more at first). So if that’s not happening, and you haven’t lost a single pound in weeks/months, and your clothes actually seem to be getting tighter on you, then it appears that there isn’t actually a deficit present. Simple as that.
How can that be if you’re eating and burning as many calories you say you are? Well, more than likely, you’re somehow miscalculating or underestimating your calorie intake (the most common cause), miscalculating or overestimating calories burned, or a bit of both.”
This is typically the point in the conversation where the person gets mad at me for insulting their intelligence. Luckily, this woman didn’t. The next day, she responded with this:
“I wanted to tell you after considering what you said (and it was hard not to react defensively… in my head I’m saying I KNOW I’ve been sticking to my diet religiously and haven’t miscalculated) but after that initial reaction I started to examine even more closely after reading your guides and understanding a little better.
The Weight Watchers program uses points. The points equate to about 50 calories each. I get 26 points a day and earn extra points based on my exercise so I was (I thought) taking in from 1300 to 1550 calories a day (less than what I figure I need based on your maintenance calculator).
So in looking at the program all fruits and vegetables are free, meaning no points to encourage one to eat more fruits and veggies. So I have been eating large salads and at least three fruits every day that I don’t count for! That’s at least an extra 300 calories or more a day not being counted!
Plus I noticed I pour a little nonfat milk in my morning coffee. I never count that because it’s just a dab but today I measured it and its about a qtr cup or another 22 calories.
Oh yeah, let’s not forget the frozen berries I add to my protein drink each morning… more free uncounted calories! Amazing!!!! I’m quitting Weight Watchers today to follow your plan. Will see if I can find a good calorie counting app and count everything.”
Happy for her? Definitely. Surprised? Not even a little.
A few days later, she checks back in with an update…
“Hi there. Just wanted to touch base after my first week following your guide to thank you. After getting my calorie deficit accurate I dropped 2.6 lbs this week!
I know that won’t seem like such a big deal to your readers but it’s everything to me. I don’t need to adjust my thyroid meds and for the previous 6 weeks of killing myself 6 days a week at the gym and sticking to Weight Watchers I lost, if lucky a half pound and just couldn’t figure it out… didn’t know what was wrong and was soooo discouraged.
I have a long way to go (another 75) but now I know I can stick to it thanks to you helping me see how to actually get results! You are an angel. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you for helping others cut through all the confusing crap!”
So what’s the moral of this story? Besides the fact that I’m an angel? It’s pretty simple…
If you’re not losing any weight over a significant period of time, it’s not because your calories are too low, or because you’re in starvation mode, or because muscle weighs more than fat, or because of carbs, fat, meal frequency, meal timing, food choices or any other crazy voodoo bullshit.
It’s because there is no deficit. Even if you think there is… there isn’t. If there was, you’d be losing weight.
An Updated Update
Literally the day before posting this article, that same woman sent me an update…
Just checking in. Since following all your great advice I’m 18 lbs down! 67 to go but thanks to you I know I will be successful this time. You are literally a lifesaver. Thank you for doing what you do. Will let you know when I reach my goal just thought you might want to know I am still progressing!!
Music to my ears.
Something Real: The Starvation Response
Alright, so by now I’ve hopefully helped you see that the typical definition of starvation mode is nothing but a silly myth and a convenient excuse people pull out of their ass to try to explain their lack of weight loss.
In reality, the real explanation is that they’re just failing to do what needs to be done (e.g. create a caloric deficit). Simple as that. Additional details here: How To Lose Fat
But, there is something else that needs to be mentioned here which happens to be very real. It’s something better described as the “starvation response.”
Basically, if you do things to your body that it doesn’t like, it’s going to respond in whatever way makes the most sense to it from a survival standpoint.
In this case, the thing your body doesn’t like is an extreme and prolonged deficit caused by either severe caloric restriction (you know, VERY low calorie diets), excessive amounts of exercise (often tons and tons and TONS of cardio on a daily/almost daily basis), or some combination of the two (very few calories coming in with very high calories going out).
In this sort of extreme scenario, your body’s adaptive response is to make it harder for you to allow this to continue and, you know, prevent you from dying. How so? Well, for starters…
- It slows down your metabolic rate, aka the adaptive thermogenesis I mentioned earlier. Since your body can’t tell the difference between you eating less in an attempt to lose fat and look good, and you eating less because you’re about to starve to death, it reacts to both scenarios the same way… by slowing down your metabolic rate in an attempt to conserve energy stores and keep you alive. This IS completely real, and the exact amount of it will vary from person to person. However, as mentioned earlier, this amount of “slowdown” is MUCH less than most people think. It’s enough to slow weight loss progress a little over time, but no where near enough to completely stop it or prevent it from happening in the first place (and certainly not enough to somehow cause a person to gain weight).
- It reduces the amount of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) taking place, which in turn causes you to naturally burn less calories. This is really part of the previous bullet point.
- It causes intense hunger and food cravings, which causes you to eat more than you’re attempting to. Pay extra attention to this one. Think of the people who starve themselves most of the week with some stupid 800 calorie per day diet, then binge like crazy during a 1-2 day span afterwards. They’ll say “I’m eating 800 calories per day and not losing weight… it has to be starvation mode!!” Nope. First of all, most of those people are unknowingly eating more than the 800 calories they claim. Second, the few that legitimately are eating 800 calories most of those days are following them up with those 1-2 day binges where they essentially binge-eat themselves right out of the excessive deficit they stupidly attempted to create during those previous days. So… stupid 800 calorie starvation diet most days + crazy 3000-6000 (or more) calorie binges on other days = no deficit present (but maybe a surplus now is). And that’s magically how someone “eating 800 calories per day” ends up not losing weight or possibly even gaining some. They’re either unknowingly eating much more than they claim, or eating what they claim on some days and then binge eating themselves right back to their maintenance level and then some on the others.
- It makes you feel like crap mentally and physically. Pretty self explanatory.
This, among many other obvious health reasons (plus the increased risk of muscle loss, the fact that the weight is often regained right after, the likelihood of an eating disorder developing if it hasn’t already, etc.), is why you’re NOT supposed to severely restrict your calorie intake and/or do extreme and excessive amounts of exercise.
Doing so would be stupid.
But, here’s the thing. Even if you did do something this stupid… you’d still lose weight. Every single time in fact. Every study and real world example proves it, and there is not a single bit of evidence anywhere that suggests otherwise.
BUT PLEASE NOTE: I say this only to help show you that the concept of “eating too little preventing weight loss/causing weight gain” is bullshit, not to suggest you actually start starving yourself to lose weight. I’m NOT suggesting that at all. It’s a terrible idea. I don’t recommend it at all. You shouldn’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t be stupid. Have I said this enough times to sink in for the handful of people looking for someone to justify their eating disorder?
Just in case I haven’t, here’s one last thing about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment I mentioned before. Yes, they all lost weight on very low calorie diets. But, some pretty fucked up shit (technical term) happened as well…
Among the conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semi-starvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondriasis as measured using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Indeed, most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression. There were extreme reactions to the psychological effects during the experiment including self-mutilation (one subject amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe, though the subject was unsure if he had done so intentionally or accidentally).
Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation. The participants reported a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgment capabilities, although the standardized tests administered showed no actual signs of diminished capacity. There were marked declines in physiological processes indicative of decreases in each subject’s basal metabolic rate (the energy required by the body in a state of rest), reflected in reduced body temperature, respiration and heart rate. Some of the subjects exhibited edema in their extremities, presumably due to decreased levels of plasma proteins given that the body’s ability to construct key proteins like albumin is based on available energy sources.
Think of this as the starvation response at its absolute worst (which is consistent with what accompanies anorexia). The lesson? Very low calorie diets will cause weight loss, BUT DON’T ACTUALLY DO IT.
Another thing worth mentioning is that some degree of starvation response comes about during ANY form of consistent deficit, even the small/moderate/safe kind that is recommended. It’s just to a less significant and noticeable degree than when the deficit is excessively/stupidly large.
This is one of the many reasons why A) a small/moderate deficit is recommended in the first place (it’s safer, healthier, easier, more sustainable, less problematic, etc.) and B) things like refeeds, diet breaks and cyclical forms of dieting are recommended for people trying to reach lower levels of body fat and/or those who will just be in a deficit for a significant period of time… to help prevent, reduce and fix the various issues associated with this starvation response.
Although again, just keeping your deficit to a sane size and your activity to a sane level will alone go pretty far in reducing these issues for the average fat person trying to become less fat.
So yes, the starvation response is a real thing that does affect people losing weight. And yes, the more extreme your deficit is, the more extreme the response will be. This is all true and legit.
BUT… it’s STILL not what “starvation mode” is thought to be. It STILL doesn’t prevent weight loss. It STILL doesn’t cause weight gain. That STILL remains total horseshit just the same.
The starvation response will basically make weight loss harder and possibly slower at some point, and some adjustments may need to be made to compensate. But actually stop weight loss from happening or reverse it? Nope. That just doesn’t happen.
If It’s Not Starvation Mode, Then Why Aren’t I Losing Weight?
If weeks/months are passing and you’re not losing any weight (or you’re possibly even gaining some), and you came to the incorrect myth-based conclusion that you must be in starvation mode, then I hope you realize by now that you were wrong.
And that brings us to our next obvious question. If “starvation mode” isn’t the cause of your lack of weight loss… just what the hell is? Well, if you made it this far, that answer should be pretty obvious by now.
It’s not because you’re eating too little. It’s not because your calories are too low. It’s not because you’re burning too many calories. It’s the opposite.
Basically, you’re eating more calories than you think you are, burning less calories than you think you are, or both… and no deficit is present.
I know, I know… “But I’m only eating X amount of calories, I swear!” You know who else swore they were “only eating X amount of calories” (with X being some low amount that should clearly cause weight loss)? The woman in my story from before.
You remember her, she was the woman who claimed to be eating 1300 calories per day until she realized she wasn’t. Instead, she was accidentally underestimating, under-reporting, and/or just miscalculating her calorie intake by hundreds of calories per day the whole time.
Just like pretty much everyone else who swears they’re “eating the right amount of calories” and “working out to burn the right amount of calories” but yet somehow STILL aren’t losing any weight for some crazy reason.
That “crazy reason” is just the simple absence of your required caloric deficit caused in these cases by an underestimated calorie intake, an overestimated activity level, or just some kind of miscalculation or mistake somewhere that has lead you to believe you’re “doing everything right” when in reality you are not. (Additional details here: Why Am I Not Losing Weight?)
How do I know this? How can I be so sure?
Because if you WERE doing everything right and you WERE in a deficit, you’d currently be losing weight and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.