Starvation Mode: Is It A Myth? Is It Real? Is Your Body In It Right Now?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Adaptive Thermogenesis

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.

A participant of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

A participant of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

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 pic to the right), 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

I told this story on the AWR Facebook page recently, but it’s such a perfect real world example that I have to include it here too. So, here it is…

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.

Surprise!

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.

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216 Comments

  1. sunny says

    Hey :) thanks for clearing this up
    Its a good thing i came across this website as it answers soo many questions in a simple way :) I recently started to lose weight due to a temporary health crisis and my cousin (which is dieting) told me that i didn’t eat enough calories and i will soon gain weight due to the low calories. This didn’t make sense as i haven’t gained any weight recently but lost 6 pounds. i kept eating the same amount of calories and i still lost weight! i then decided to eat more and gained the 6 pounds back. so i don’t know why so many people are ignoring their logic and listening to “diet experts” who claim to know something that is so wrong?

    On another note; are there any tips to gain weight in a healthy way? i am 99 pounds and 5’3″ and i eat 1000 calories. my weight is pretty crazy as in one day its 96 then the next day it’s 98 and then to 97 and to 101 and back down to 99. will protien shakes help? i dont think i could eat anymore food. im sorry i am quite clueless about this stuff :)

    • says

      Glad to hear it!

      As for gaining weight, simply add 250 calories on top of whatever amount of calories you’re currently eating each day right now. Then monitor what your weight does over the next few weeks. If it’s staying the same or even going down, add another 250 calories. If it’s going up, keep doing what you’re doing.

  2. Lisa says

    This article makes so much sense. I’m struggling with my weight and was researching what I might be doing wrong. I felt bullshitted and appeased by all the “it’s muscle gain”, it’s “starvation mode” stuff. I knew that wouldn’t help me.

    However, for two weeks, I’ve been logging every single thing that goes into my mouth (including gum) into the Lose It app and have been doing the P90X program. The program asks you to take measurements, so I did. I don’t know what to make of the following: I’ve lost 2 inches on my waist and 3 inches off my thighs, but not a single pound. Is the fat just re-distributing differently (no part of me is “bigger”. If something is shrinking, why isn’t it showing up on the scale? I don’t buy that it’s muscle growth – I agree with you that theory is bullshit. But I’m confused how I could lose inches everywhere but not weight??

    • says

      So you lost 2 inches from your waist and 3 inches from your thighs… but literally not a single pound? I have a few guesses:

      1. Your measurements aren’t accurate or taken consistently the exact same way under the exact same conditions. For example, if I measure my stomach around my belly button, then measure 1 inch above my belly button, then measure 1 inch below my belly button, I’ll get 3 different measurements that are inches apart. If I measure and the tape measure is a bit angled and not straight, I’ll also get a different amount. If I measure in the morning before eating and measure again at the end of the day before bed, my stomach will be 3 inches bigger. If I flex or stuck in my stomach or stand relaxed or push my stomach out or do a dozen other things, I’ll get a dozen different amounts. And on and on and on.

      2. You’re not weighing in accurately or consistently the exact same way under the exact same conditions. More details here.

      3. Your scale is broken.

      4. You’re female… is it a certain time of the month? If so, funny things happen with water retention during that time and can temporarily throw off what you’re seeing on the scale.

      5. Something I just noticed now: it’s been only 2 weeks and you lost that many inches? Here’s another vote for #1.

  3. Sophie says

    Fantastic (and hilarious) article! Thanks for all the info, exactly what I wanted to hear.

    What are your thoughts on the 5:2 diet? It’s being raved about as being incredibly healthy for cell repair/potentially preventing certain diseases and apparently doctors are recommending it for weight loss (and doing it themselves!)

    Would be interested to hear what you think of the 500cal reduction… Apparently studies have shown that people don’t tend to binge on the non restricted days (or, not enough to balance out the calories they’ve skipped on the fast days).

    Do you think it is unhealthy?

    • says

      Various forms of intermittent fasting exist, but not a single one of them is magical or will prevent diseases or whatever other nonsense it may claim.

      The main benefit (if any) is one of sustainability in that eating this way may suit certain people’s preferences and better allow them to stick to their diet. Martin Berkhan’s LeanGains approach to IF is the best version of them all in my opinion. But there’s nothing magical about it.

      And I think most people will do best to avoid diets that involve days of severe caloric restriction as that is the kind of thing eating disorders are made of.

  4. Mala says

    Very well written article! I was prescribed adderall for ADHD last week. It completely suppresses my appetite. Force feeding myself results in vomiting. Think 5 pounds in 5 days. No period, not water weight and I don’t have too much to lose. I now see that starvation mode isn’t real… I was worried I was going to start gaining weight.

  5. Tiffany says

    I found your article while searching “starvation mode”. I was curious if this was possible and your article was A LOT of help. Anyways, my biggest issue right now is I don’t know how many calories I need to be actually consuming a day. I have figured my BMR (blah blah blah). I currently do CrossFit 5 days a week and have started to incorporate cardio 3 times a week. I just need a number to follow each day or does it depend on my calories burned through exercise how much I should eat?

    Thanks!

  6. Sara says

    First let me say I absolutely agree and found my way here whilst Googling in search of support for my theory. Anorexia always comes to mind whenever I hear that “starvation mode” hullabaloo. And side note – isn’t the point of a diet to trick your body into cannibalizing fat tissues like it’s starving? Starvation mode? Good! Bring it on.

    Now for my problem. :-/ Is it possible a body might just require way less than the average? I’m 5 ft with 70 pounds to lose. Conventional wisdom dictates I should need 1200ish calories to maintain an ideal weight around 120. At a current weight of 194, 1200 calories should be enough to drop at least 1-2 lbs a week, right?

    Well, I’ve been eating an average of 500 total daily calories. My highest intake over the last two weeks was yesterday and still under 700 calories, but most days I have as little as 300. And let me assure you, there are no hidden, unaccounted for mints, coffee creamer, or miscalculated portion sizes or uncounted veggies. I’m literally eating nothing all day except a few crackers (which I keep count of) and a 5 ounce greek yogurt at night. I drink only water. I’ve been working out each night with 35 minutes of brisk walking interspersed with 5-15 minute blocks of jogging and at least 10 minutes of weight training different areas of the body. I make sure I break a sweat every time. Although I favor sedentary, I’m a stay-at-home mother of two toddlers, so there’s a minimum of two hours on my feet every day with just diaper changes, meal prep, dressing and bathing, running up and downstairs, playing, cleaning, etc. I’ve been taking a once daily caffeine supplement to complement my efforts, and here’s the kicker: I still pump breastmilk for my two year old, and my one year old is still nursing several times a day. I lost 4 pounds the first week and then nothing. Between the reduction in caloric intake and the increased burn, I should be withering away at a steady rate. Instead I feel completely broken and broken down. I’m not giving up yet, but how is this possible??

    Signed,
    Depressed in Dietville

    • says

      So you’re 5’0 194lbs, consuming 500 calories a day (which is stupidly low for any human, let alone a breastfeeding mother), doing some cardio regularly… and not losing any weight?

      I have 4 guesses…

      1. Are you healthy? Are there an medical/health issues or medications at play? If unsure, see a doctor. Also, I have little to no experience working with breastfeeding mothers, but something there can be affecting your weight on the scale as well (which is why measurements, pictures, mirror are important besides just the scale).

      2. Your scale is broken. Or you’re just not weighing yourself properly. More here.

      3. What period of time are we looking at here that you haven’t been losing? Is this a case of “it’s been 3 days and I haven’t lost anything!?!?!” Or is this a consistent weeks/months of nothing happening?

      4. If it’s not one of the first 3, then let me assure you… you are indeed eating significantly more calories than you think. It literally can’t be anything else.

      • Sara says

        It’s been a few weeks. I know it’s too few calories. I just wanted to try it since 1200 calories wasn’t moving the weight.

        No medications or known health issues, but I’m going to pursue thyroid testing. I’ve suspected hypothyroid, and unless my 150 calorie yogurt is mislabeled, it’s the only thing it could be. :(

        Thank you for the reply.

  7. JohnB says

    Having read the entire article, I agree with you completely. When I first started reading it though, I was a bit alarmed. I have seen too many cases of people dropping weight on a diet, but then a year or two years later their gain it all back and then some. My wife dieted for 20 years on and off. Lost weight everytime, but gained it all back and got bigger. She stopped all dieting maybe 10 years ago. She stopped her upward trend — her weight stabilized, then she very gradually lost 40 lbs or so over time. She is still too fat (and knows it). I hope over time and with better eating habits that the remaining excess weight will drop off, but I do not want her to go back to dieting because of her earlier experience with it. I conclude for all this that in a great many, if not most cases, dieting causes people to gain weight long term. I interpret the basic cause of this as being due to “set point” resetting which can be explained using the adaptive thermogenesis phemomena you described. But, of course, I don’t know anything.

    • says

      There is only one reason a person loses weight and gains it all back. They stopped doing what caused the weight loss, went back to their old eating/exercising habits or something similar to them, and consumed too many calories. That’s it.

      The only reason “dieting causes people to gain weight long term” is that people don’t continue doing what’s required to keep the weight off after they lose it typically as a result of a lack of will power and/or losing the weight by way of some stupid method that isn’t sustainable long term.

      • Rj says

        “Set point” is a theory but this clinical article explains it better in terms of leptin regulation in the body. I had read Linda Bacon’s Health at any size and her view on set points. Not that I subscribe to the theory but definitely more than just BS. A small puzzle piece and nothing to fixate on but interesting read nonetheless.

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2990627/

        • says

          I do think there is definitely something to the concept of there being a “set point,” but it’s still coming down to calories in vs calories out. It’s just that various factors that may support there being a “set point” are factors that are affecting the numbers calories in vs calorie out equation (e.g. hunger making you eat more, NEAT making you burn more/less, etc.).

  8. Tora says

    Thanks for writing this article but I have to say that it’s not only a deficient will someone lose weight. If a person eats 1800 cals from carbohydrates, they will not lose weight. I still believe that it still based on what type of foods are being consume that counts. For me as an example. I have been eating a high fat low carb diet for 5 weeks and have NOT lost any weight. I am trying to be keto-adapt but ketostix are not accurate as I was in and out every day. In my case, I was eating over 1640 cal every day and only worked out once a week with a trainer. No weight loss-tracked all my foods I ate on myfitness pal. I am at a standstill and need help. But before you say I have a medical issue, I don’t anymore. All my hormones are in check (including thyroid and cortisol), I use to have high insulin level which answered the quest as to why I kept gaining weight before. I have been taking metformin and have not gain weight since and my insulin level are normal. I don’t understand why no weight loss is happening for me. My thoughts were because I am eating too little calories and need to eat more as I always hear and read from “expert” that when you eat plenty of fat, your body will open and release stored fat for weight loss. Also, I needed to exercise more to increase my metabolism as I have done a breathing test which says I burn -8%. My Stats: 5’9.5 tall, weight 240, female, sedentary lifestyle, 30 years old.

  9. cindy says

    Hi,
    Im planning on losing 10 lbs with a calorie deficit of about 800 calories ( Im suppose to consume 1200 calories daily being only 5ft tall) but after i lose the weight can i go back to eating more calories to maintain my weight? or will i gain all the weight back? How can i slowly integrate back into a normal diet (not consisting of mainly processed foods) without gaining all the weight back??
    Thanks! (:

    • says

      Once you’ve lost as much weight as you want to lose and you just want to maintain from that point on, you need to increase calories back up to your maintenance level so that you’re no longer in a deficit (but not so high that you go into a surplus).

  10. Tal says

    So..after reading through this I just have a couple questions.

    For the past year and a half I’ve been counting my calories and eating at a deficit, and I’ve lost close to 60 pounds so far. I’m a 20 year old female, and I started out at 235 pounds. I’m around 175 now. I’ve been fluctuating around 172-178 for the past few months, however. I’ve hit one of those plateaus. Because of this, I’ve become really upset because I tried exercising more to start losing weight again, and that didn’t help. I wanted to reduce my daily calories more, but I was already only having 1200 a day and I thought any less might be too little. I upped my intake to 1400 a day after I was having trouble staying under 1200 – it resulted in me binging late at night several times.

    Anyway, because of this plateau that’s lasted several months, I’ve kind of developed a bit of an eating disorder – bulimia. I haven’t been diagnosed with it by a doctor but I’m pretty sure binging and purging a few times a week are the early stages of it. It hasn’t yet gotten serious to the point where I’m doing it after every meal or anything, though.

    So, in your article, you stated:

    “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.”

    My question is…I haven’t severely restricted my calorie intake, nor have I been doing excessive exercise. I exercise 3 or 4 times a week for about 30 minutes to an hour. I do a mix of cardio and strength training. I do add my exercise to the app I use to count my calories, although I am aware that the app might be way off and say I’ve lost more calories than I actually have, so I don’t end up eating back my exercise calories anyway. So there’s still a deficit there. Which is why I’m wondering, why haven’t I been able to lose any more weight recently? The deficit is there, the exercise is there, and for the most part, I’ve been watching what I eat (most of the time). When I do binge, I don’t eat anywhere near 3000-6000 calories over my daily goal, like you stated some people end up doing. I do my calculations accurately, even when I binge, and it’s usually no more than 1500 calories over. Sometimes it’s 2000, but rarely.

    I should mention that, when I first hit the plateau I continued to exercise and make sure there was still a deficit there. And even then, I wasn’t losing. It wasn’t till later that my bulimia started developing. So I’m wondering why I wasn’t able to continue losing BEFORE the binging/purging started, not after.

    Sorry for the long message..it’s just been really bugging me lately and I hate being stuck at this plateau. I still have another 50 pounds to lose and it sucks how long I’ve been stuck at not losing weight.

      • Tal says

        The thing is, I’m not eating too many calories. I scale EVERYTHING I eat. Like literally everything. If I can’t get an accurate measurement of it for whatever reason(like if I’m at a restaurant that I can’t find nutritional information for), then I won’t eat it – simple as that.

        • says

          Here’s the thing. You’ve been stuck at the same weight for months. This is all the guaranteed proof you need that, despite what you may think, you are definitely not in a deficit. If you were, you would have lost weight during that time.

          If you are in fact accurately tracking everything (and like my link above mentioned, most of the people who claim to be tracking everything perfectly actually aren’t), then there’s a good chance those binges you mentioned are canceling out whatever deficit you *might* truly be creating on the other days.

          • Tal says

            I’m aware of that. I read a bit of that other blog, and I can see how people would not be accurately keeping track of their calories and thinking they are. But I’ve been counting calories for the last year and a half, with results, so I really don’t believe that to be the case. I’m sure it’s accurate. Unless my BMR is somehow lower than what BMR calculators are telling me it is. But I doubt that’s the case.

            Would my metabolism speed have anything to do with it? Because I’ve got a very slow metabolism, so..I dunno if that would affect it at all?

  11. Andra says

    I was procrastinating online when I saw your article. Informative, blatant, and very comical (well done)! Anyways I do have a question. I’ve always been pretty lean with a high metabolism, until recently when I started to really gain more weight (not that much) only my upper thighs and butt. If I maintain a 1200 calorie diet and exercise everyday (I run with my dogs), will it reduce fat all over and help me lose weight in those areas? My mom’s been really into baking these awesome breads from this cookbook she got from Christmas, so I have been enjoying that…to say the least. Bread is the culprit here..
    Thanks much!

    • says

      If you create a small-moderate caloric deficit (20% below maintenance tends to be ideal), you will lose fat from your body as a whole in a pattern that is predetermined by your generics.

  12. kalin says

    Hi. Nice article. May I ask you what is take on leptin and how it regulates body fat and affect hormonal changes in the body when prolonged calorie deficit is presented?!
    thanks..

  13. Eric says

    Hi, great article. I’ve been following your blog for some time, but missed this one.
    I have some questions. I was taking in only 1200-1400 Kcal per day for past 3 months (maintanence is 1900 kcal), i’m able to lose some weight and belly fat for first 2 months, but for the past 1 month, my body stuck at 20% body fat, i believe it’s because my metabolic rate has slow down due to my low calorie intake.
    How can i get my metabolic rate back to normal and start the cutting again?
    How much calorie deficit should I take to prevent metabolic slow down?

    Thanks.

    • says

      Did you actually read this article? If so, why are you assuming that you stopped losing weight because your metabolic rate slowed down due to low calorie intake?

      This article goes into detail about why that’s bullshit.

      • Eric says

        Hi,maybe i’m still confuse somewhere.
        In your article, you mentioned about the “starvation response” which will slow down metabolic rate.
        I agree that metabolic slow down will not cause weight gain. just wondering what can i do to boost my metabolic rate back to normal.

        • says

          Yes, slow it down a little… but not stop it. So if your weight loss has stopped, this isn’t the reason.

          But if you’re metabolic rate has slowed down a little due to being in a sustained deficit, taking a 1-2 week diet break back at maintenance or a slight surplus will fix things.

  14. Loretta says

    I’m glad you didn’t go into depth about the ‘I must be gaining muscle’ thing. That makes me want to claw my eyes out. I’m busting my a$$ bench pressing and squatting 3 times a week just to maintain what I’ve got – and some Weight Watchers member with a pink dumbbell things they woke up one morning and accidently built a whole bunch of it?
    Anyway, my question is, if it’s all calories in and calories out (which I believe it is – I’m not questioning that), then why is it that one week I’ll lose 0.5lbs, and the next I’ll lose 0.2lbs, and then all of a sudden one week I’ll lose 3lbs? And looking over my journal, I’ve done the same exercise, weight training, eaten consistently…And I’m pretty experienced at tracking now and I don’t miss out little things like milk in my coffee, etc.
    It reminds me of something my mom always says when she’s trying to lose weight: “sometimes it takes a few weeks to see results”. I roll my eyes at this, since I figure you’re either in a deficit (and losing) or not in a deficit (not losing). It’s like me suddenly saying ‘oh, I’ve gained 5lbs. Must have been that pizza and carton of Ben & Jerry’s I had last month.” Still, can’t figure out why weight loss is so non-linear if everything is kept consistent.

    • says

      Little changes to calorie intake and/or calorie output will of course influence progress in that you may lose slightly more or slightly less depending on exactly what the net deficit ended up being when all of these minor things are taken into account (a bunch of minor things over the course of the week = a minor difference in weight lost).

      But let’s assume that’s not the cause in this case.

      The answer then is still just as simple and quite common… because other weight-effecting stuff (especially water) screws up what you’re seeing happen (or not happen). A little bit of water retention can make it appear as though less or sometimes no fat loss has happened even though it has. This kind of thing tends to effect women more often than men, especially a certain time of the month.

      And so weight loss looks slower (or stalled altogether) for a week or two, and then on the following week… back to normal or possibly even a big “whoosh” of weight loss above normal.

      Lyle McDonald literally wrote the book on this sort of thing. Here’s an article of his that will explain it better.

  15. Amanda says

    Thanks so much for this! I’ve been trying to lose a little bit of weight for vanity reasons for a while now. I did the whole calorie counting thing but it just made me feel deprived, crazy, and obsessive. Now I’m working out 6 days a week, not just for vanity reasons but because I really enjoy my gym membership. I stopped counting calories and I’m eating lean meats (fish and chicken), veggies, fruit, and whole foods only. I save Sunday (“Sunday Funday”) as a day where I can have 1 meal that is not clean, like from a restaurant or something, but I watch my portion. I eat LESS when I listen to my body than I did using a calorie counter, I eat healthier, AND I exercise more when I do it this way. I guess different things work for different people. But I hated reading about starvation mode because it made me doubt if I would see results. I feel satisfied (not full) eating the amount of calories I eat in a day plus a 1.5 hour workout. I had all these doubts that I would severly slow down my metabolism and balloon or something. My fiance always told me that was silly and that I should eat when I’m hungry (healthily and in small/moderate portions) and exercise and it will come off. And if it doesn’t, then cut down on the peanut butter or work out more to create a deficit. THANK YOU for making me feel content in doing what I’m doing :)

  16. Jessica says

    I’ve been on a 1200 calorie diet, since the 7th of this month. I wasn’t losing weight as fast as I wanted to, so I joined a gym on the 20th; and worked out every day since then. Every other day I do a full body workout, then the other days I do pure cardio. On the 20th they weighed me at the gym and took my BF percentage, I was at 247lbs and 42% BF. Last night they took my information down again, I weighed 245 but my BF percentage dropped 1% which came out to being 8lbs of pure fat loss. You said “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.” So my question to you is:
    Did I really only lose 2lbs in 6 days of working out and only eating 1200calories of food???
    Does that also mean that the BF percentages my gym gave me was wrong?
    Cause I swear I feel one little bump on both of my arms that are called biceps that were totally not there 6 days ago.

    • says

      How was your body fat measured? If it was through some kind of scale, the measurement is virtually useless in terms of accuracy. If it was done with calipers, that’s more accurate, but it takes someone fairly experienced with them to actually use them correctly and take an accurate measurement.

      And as much as I do not want to discourage you or anything close to that, being honest requires me to let you know that you did not suddenly build noticeably bigger biceps in just 6 days. Anything you’re feeling is your imagination. Or, having done exercises for the muscle, you just now have an improved ability to “feel” that a muscle is there.

    • David says

      Just wanted to say that 2lbs, if it was all fat, would be about 7000 calories, which is great for one week so don’t stop now!

      I would second the question about how your body composition was measured. Water can greatly affect certain kinds of measurements.

      Don’t focus so much on the numbers, and just keep focusing on doing the right thing (which you are doing!). And keep measurements over longer periods of time to not get discouraged over daily fluctuations. One eye-opener that I read a while back is that water in/out per day can be ~10 lbs, so even a 10% fluctuation in that would be a whole pound and make you feel like you’re not losing as much as you should be. (but then you’ll also have those fun days where you seem to lose 3 pounds over night! -don’t be too fooled though :) )

  17. Justin says

    Hi, I lost a lot of weight since September, and I know now that since I weigh less, my BMR is lower. So my question is, if I start eating a bit more, but it’s still under or exactly at my caloric intake, will I gain the weight back?

    • says

      As long as you don’t exceed you current maintenance level, you will not gain the weight back.

      Note though that when you increase your calorie intake from a deficit to maintenance you may see some initial weight gain. This isn’t fat. This is just water, glycogen and more food in your stomach waiting to be digested.

  18. mrsgee says

    I am 5’5 and I weigh between 146-148..I stay between those numbers….my bodyfat is about 21-22 (according to my scale)….I want to weigh 135 or have bodyfat between 17-19….but for months I can get lower than 146…..I do 3 days of hiit training and 3 days of heavy weightlifting. ….I dont eat too much because I have alot of food allergies. …a typical day would be…protein shake after morning workout….veggie juice and egg whites….banana and sunflower seed butter. …shake with plant protein, wheat grass and maca root….more sunflower seed butter….lean protein and veggie. …usually if I eat hungry between this I will eat sunflower seeds or butter. ..maybe this is a bad thing…..also I havent been drinking as much water as I used to….any help

  19. Piobaire says

    I appreciate this article because I have never believed in the starvation mode theory but after being stuck at the exact same weight since November 11th and having various medical professionals tell me I’m in starvation mode, I’m at a loss. I went from 183-160lbs over 6 weeks working with a trainer and dietician but I have not lost an ounce since November. I have been cutting my calories and adjusting my workouts during this time to no avail. I am now at 600 calories a day. I weigh/measure 2 c kale and 1 scoop whey isolate which I have 3x a day. I even round this up to 800 cal to be safe in my calculations. I weight train 45 min 3x week, crossfit 2x week, and do hiit treadmill intervals @ 10mph 5 days a week. I am 5’7 and had my bf measured via dexa three times, 29% in Sept and holding steady at 24% since Nov. My measurements have not changed but I have substantially increased my lifts. Ideally I would like to be around 130lbs, 15% bf but nothing is working so I am starting to believe in starvation mode???

  20. confused says

    Ok so now I’m confused. I used to see a dietitian (RD) and for an eating disorder/disordered eating and had a tough time losing weight.

    I used to frequently skip meals and would get these god awful migraine style headaches where I couldn’t function…

    My RD told me that I need to quit working out for a few months AND eat more! She helped structure my diet (basically telling me what to eat and when to eat it) and I followed her recommendations and lost 8 pounds in 6 weeks! Can you explain what that was all about?

    • says

      My guess would be that in your disordered eating — where you frequently had phases of forcing yourself to not eat — were followed up at some point (hours later, days later, whenever) with phases of excessive binge eating.

      And during those binges, you’d consume so much so that it would offset those ‘starvation’ periods to the point where no caloric deficit would end up being present in the end.

      So while you may think you’re “eating more” now, in reality the total amount of calories being consumed per week right now is likely less than your total weekly calorie intake was when you had an eating disorder.

  21. Lindsey1979 says

    How do you account for people with metabolic or endrocrine disorders/conditions (adrenal fatigue, hypothyroidism, insulin resistance, etc.)? They seem to have a much more difficult time losing weight and fat than those without these issues. Is it all that these conditions reduce metabolism so basically their BMR is much lower than is represented by “normal” BMR calculators? Or is it an issue on HOW they metabolize certain foods/macros (e.g. insulin resistant people will ultimately store a higher percentage of excess blood glucose as fat than someone that is metabolizing glucose normally)? Or is it something else?

    I’d love for the end result to be a simple thermodynamics calculation as simple as calories in and calories out, but not all calories result in the same end result in weight loss or body composition, right? For example, it take 3500 calories or so to lose a pound of fat, but doesn’t it take a lot less calories to lose a pound of muscle (something closer to 600 calories)? Or am I missing something? So, wouldn’t it be possible for the calories in equation to similarly differ in its end result — e.g. what types of calories you put in (percentage of carbs, protein, fats) can have a significant difference in how those calories are metabolized? For example, an insulin resistant person eating a high percentage of their calories in carbs (especially high glycemic carbs) is going to result in significant more weight gain (or reduced weight loss depending on situation) than a similarly situated individual eating a low carb diet of the same total calories because of their body’s inefficient or flawed metabolism of glucose/increased insulin response?

    I’m not sure if I’m right on this, but just trying to figure out how such people fit into the overall thermodynamic equation you discuss. There has to be something else going on or otherwise everyone would see the same results from the same deficits — and some are more likely to give up fat versus muscle, reduce weight, etc. Could there be other things in play other than simply miscalculating caloric intake and exertion?

    • says

      It’s always going to be about calories in vs calories out 100% of the time. However, various factors will certainly affect the specific numbers in that equation for different people in different ways.

      Lyle McDonald does a good job explaining this right here.

      In the end though, the law of thermodynamics will always apply.

      • Lindsey says

        I agree with you on the law of thermodynamics from a purist physics view. However, how that applies once you intro a variety of biological and chemical reactions in the human body and how that ultimately affects fat loss and weight loss is the part I’m struggling with. Sure, for people without these issues, they can use the short cut of calories in, calories out. But, for those with such medical issues, I suspect their version of calories in, calories out is far more complicated and not nearly as straightforward. So, I’m wondering what is the difference in the assumptions for the equation for those people — is it on the calories in or the calories out side, or both?

        For example, do some conditions like this skew the calories in part because their bodies don’t absorb or correctly metabolize certain types calories — so they’re putting more calories in their mouth, but not necessarily in their bodies because the calories are passing through their GI tract given their malabsorption or inability to metabolize? Or the calories out equation, are their metabolisms just so slow that the traditional BMR calculators don’t apply to them? Or is it possible that their bodies metabolize certain foods/calories differently and that throws off both sides of the equations? That they are far more efficient at turning glucose into fat (thinking insulin resistance here) because their cells won’t pick up the normal amount of glucose from the blood so it can’t be metabolized at a normal rate?

        I agree with you on the law of thermodynamics for a purist physics viewpoint, but how that translates into calories in and calories out does not appear to be as direct for everyone. For it to be simple, a lot of assumptions have to be present about metabolism and body functions. And once one of those assumptions is off, although the over law of thermodynamics still holds true, it’s direct link to calories in and calories out insofar as it impacts weight and fat loss may not hold true. And that’s the part of the puzzle I’m still struggling with. Know anyone who writes articles about that?

        Thanks for the article by Kyle — I’ve read it before and I think it’s great. And I agree with his breakdowns as well, but he doesn’t really address the issues as those people with these metabolic or metabolic-impacted issues. I imagine such issues would impact various parts of his equation breakdown, but it’s still not clear to me which parts are affected — lower BMR, thermic effect of food (if not metabolized correctly, is this affected?), etc. I imagine the pure exercise part of the equation would stay the same, but how that affects the body would be so impacted by a wonky metabolism.

        Let me give you a real world example. I was having a really difficult time losing weight. After a lot of trial and error, I got crazy scrupulous about everything, trying to figure out my calories in, calories out equation. I appeared to be eating/exercising at an average 700 calorie daily deficit. I was scrupulous about calorie counting — weighed, measured everything, so I’m pretty confident in that end of the equation. And I was measuring output with one of those body media armband devices and double checking the numbers for exercise times against online calculators and BMR — they seemed relatively similar. I was doing a combination of heavy lifting, lots of walking/hiking (15-25 miles per week), and semi-weekly spring sessions. Over 3 months, I lost less than 3 lbs — and who even knows if there was any real loss at that point given how water can fluctuate 7 lbs or more.

        That finally convinced my doctor something was off with me and a few specialists later, I was diagnosed with both Hashi’s (thyroid disorder where you can go hyper and hypo) and insulin resistance. I expected the thyroid diagnosis and have been fighting my main doctor on it for a while as I had other classic hypo symptoms from time to time, but the insulin resistance was a surprise. So, I end up on two medications — one for thyroid, one to help my body metabolize glucose correctly for the insulin resistance.

        And what happens? I start to finally lose weight/fat like a normal person. My eating habits are the exact same, my exercise regime and lifestyle is the exact same but now I lose in accordance what one would expect given my caloric deficits. So, it’s hard to imagine I was just way off on these estimates before and now I’ve gotten a lot better. So what’s the difference? Was my baseline metabolism just so low that the normal BMR calculators were way off (so instead of have a BMR of 1650 or so, it was really 1000 or so)? Or was there something else at play in how I metabolize (or failed to metabolize) certain calories like carbs causing the insulin spikes?

        I have no idea and that’s what I’m trying to figure out. And also why the calorie in, calorie out equation used to drive me so nuts — either there is something off with it for people with wonky metabolisms or those of us with wonky metabolism need vastly different assumptions for BMR and output estimates because the normal ones don’t apply.

        • says

          I’m far from an expert on any medical conditions that affect metabolism (or really any medical conditions in general), so I’m probably not the best person to ask.

          But, even in those cases, it’s still ALWAYS going to come down to calories in vs calories out. The difference is that in the case of something thyroid related for example, it’s less about eating fewer and fewer calories at a certain point, and more about solving the underlying problem that’s preventing the person from burning as many calories as they should be (so calories in vs calories out applies just the same, only their ‘calories out’ is below what it’s supposed to be due to a thyroid issue).

          On the ‘calories in’ side there are plenty of other factors at play. For example, digestion. If you eat X calories but aren’t properly digesting them, it’s like you ate less than X calories (again it’s still calories in vs calories out, just that issues with digestion are skewing the true amount you think are going in).

          Then there’s stuff like NEAT (non exercise activity thermogensis) which I think is the primary factor impacting someone like myself who has above average calorie intake needs and has always had trouble gaining weight. Meaning, NEAT causes my body to naturally burn more calories as a result of consuming more calories. So one person eats a 500 calorie surplus and it’s like they ate 500 more calories. I eat a 500 calorie surplus and NEAT causes my body to upregulate activity to the point where maybe 300 additional calories get burned thus making it as if I really only consumed 200 more calories instead of 500 (these are all just made up example figures, by the way).

          So the amount that a calculator might say should put me in a surplus or the amount someone of the same age/height/weight/activity level as me might consume to be in a surplus would NOT actually put me into a surplus. Once again it’s still as simple as calories in vs calories out, only the magic of NEAT causes my calories out to increase due to my calories in increasing, thus requiring an even larger calorie intake on my part to offset.

          So like Lyle’s (not Kyle ;) ) article explained, the energy balance equation always holds true for everyone 100% of the time. There’s just a handful of factors that can sometimes skew those ‘in’ and ‘out’ amounts for some people.

          • Lindsey1979 says

            Fair enough, and I agree with what you’re saying. I suppose the danger I see is people then relying on calculators that show what “should” happen and when it’s not working, assume it’s because they’re just lousy at estimating food intake and exercise/metabolism. So although,it’s true that they are incorrectly calculating, it’s not mecessarily that they’re wrong in their side of estimation but they’re an outlier for the estimatesbecause something is wonky with their system (providedthey really are being diligent in their food and activity tracking).

            I guess I see people on fitness boards jump to the conclusion of “you’re crazy/in denial/don’t know how to measure/etc.” (as I got such advice, even from doctors for YEARS) rather than saying, “hey if you’re confidentin your food tracking and exercise tracking, something is probably off in your underlying metabolism that’s throwing the equation (i.e. your base metabolism is off for some reason). It seems like nuanced difference, but one that can have a HUGE impact for those with undiagnosed underlying issues.

            • says

              A few things. First, regarding calculators, people need to understand that they only exist to give a person an estimated starting point. The key step is to then monitor what actually happens in the real world and adjust accordingly (e.g. calculator says X calories will put you in a deficit but you’re not losing weight… then it looks like the calculator was wrong and you need to eat less than that estimated amount).

              Second, there are always going to be exceptions. There is always going to be that 1/1000 person who does end up with a thyroid issue or something similar. However, the vast majority of the people who are failing to lose fat and are extremely confident in their intake/output and swear up and down to be eating exactly as much as they should be and counting everything they eat down to the last gram and burning tons of calories and blah blah blah simply are crazy/in denial/measuring wrong or really just knowingly or unknowingly screwing up something very obvious somewhere. This is like a 99% of the time occurrence that is seen over and over and over again.

              Most people do not have anything remotely close to an underlying issue. The only issue is that they’re not in a deficit.

              I explain all of this right here.

              • Lindsey1979 says

                Hmmm…I hear ya on people being wrong, but I do suspect that there are a good number of people that actually do have an undiagnosed underlying issue, and that the percentage is is greater than 0.1% (i.e. 1/1000).

                For example, the American Thyroid Association estimates that 20 million Americans have a thyroid disorder, 60% of which are undiagnosed, and 12% of the US population will develop a thyroid disorder in their lifetime.

                As for insulin resistance, I’ve seen numbers all over the place, though they’re all very significant — some say 25% of the population, 20-50 million, people, etc.

                Since those two issues alone can greatly contribute to difficulty losing weight or weight gain (likely due to abnormally low metabolisms), I wonder how many people that are battling weight issues do have the cards stacked against them in some regard because of some sort of underlying issue. Not all, by any means, but I bet it’s a significant percentage — and certainly much, much higher than 1/1000 — probably something more on the level of 1/10 or 1/6. And, I also suspect, like myself, these people are often told everything is fine and they need to eat less and move more, when the real solution is a combination of that and some sort of medical treatment to repair their malfunctioning metabolism.

                • says

                  There is no doubt that there are plenty of people out there with legitimate issues like this, and I’ll gladly admit to knowing nothing about those statistics.

                  However, what I can tell you is that out of the (literally) thousands of people who have come to me over the last decade+ with problems losing weight, it actually does work out to be surprisingly closer to 1/1000 in terms of how many of them were failing to lose weight due to some legit underlying issue (such as thyroid) and not just a lack of eating/training how they need to for fat loss to occur. And I know quite a few coaches, nutritionists, etc. who would probably say the same thing.

                  So while it is real and it does happen and those affected by it should definitely get the treatment needed to solve the problem (and those who are unsure should ask their doctor about it and become sure), putting the idea out there that this is the reason anything remotely close to 1/6 people are having trouble with and/or failing to lose weight is complete insanity.

                  • Lindsey1979 says

                    I see what you’re saying, but I bet there are a bunch more people like me that do put in the work and seem to have a really hard time seeing results — check out message boards on hypothyroid, insulin resistance, PCOS, and it’s a sadly common tale. We just keep trying harder and harder to make that square peg fit through that round hole because we’ve been lead to believe from people like you that the underlying health conditions are exceedingly rare, when they’re not that rare. You suggest 1/1000 and it could easily be 1/10 when you take all the possible disorders in (thyroid, insulin resistance, etc.) — and that’s a 100X difference — that’s HUGE. That would be like estimating something as 30 calories when it’s really 3000 — that’s a HUGE mis-estimate.

                    So, we just keep cutting calories down to crazy numbers because of incorrect information to compensate for the problems and put ourselves into a deficit. You’ll eventually lose weight as that is what it takes to get into a deficit…but you’ll probably feel terrible doing it — super fatigued, among other issues — or feeling like you’re crazy since you can’t figure out the food intake/exercise numbers.

                    And you think, well, this is what is “normal” for me and what I have to do to lose weight or maintain. And the underlying issue never gets treated, until things get really bad. After all, there is a reason why the authorities believe 60% of thyroid disorders alone go are undiagnosed.

                    After all, I am one of those people that thought nothing was wrong with my metabolism for YEARS — and had to see 4 doctors before the right blood tests were done (two PCPs and two endos). I doubt I’m the 1/1000 who experiences this. I don’t think I’m that special of a snowflake. :)

                    But when people like yourself tell people like me “hey, it’s literally less than 1% chance that there is an underlying health condition” even though you readily admit that you don’t know much about such statistics, I think that’s dangerous. Because it discourages people from getting the help they may need. Instead they just work harder and harder to get up that Sysphian hill or give up and just accept that they’ll always be 30, 50, 100 lbs overweight. You have to admit that is a pretty common scenario too, right? People that fight the same battles over and over again or just give up?

                    After I got my issues sorted out, I don’t find losing weight/fat that hard — not compared to what I was doing beforehand. It’s still hard and an effort, but I’m seeing the sort of weight loss in 2-3 weeks that used to take me 2-3 months.

                    I think it would be a lot more helpful if more people like you were aware of such statistics — and could say, “hey, if you’re doing the diet and exercise as you say you are, you should check in with a doc because although weight loss is hard work, it’s not supposed to be THAT hard” rather than assume there is only a 1/1000 chance of that being the case (which is wickedly incorrect).

                    • Lindsey1979 says

                      I also just wanted to add that I really do appreciate all that you write and your no-nonsense approach. It is refreshing and well-reasoned. I wish there was more of it in medicine/nutrition.

  22. Janie says

    Hi I am french canadian so I’m sorry if I am making any mistakes :P but I just wanted to say thank you for making this Website and taking time to respond to every person that need advices. You really seem passionate. I admire you and wish there were more people like you on this earth.
    Have a Great day !
    :)

  23. says

    [continuing to Lindsey1979]…

    Again, I don’t doubt that there are more people like you. Again, I agree that there are. But again, at this point I have more than enough first hand experience to know it’s a very rare thing affecting a very small minority. And I can all but guarantee other people who do what I do over a long enough period of time would say the exact same thing. This isn’t me assuming things. This is me observing what is actually happening in the real world.

    And it’s always nice to hear someone admit they’re not a special snowflake, but what you’re describing is the exact sort of thing that makes the average person eating/training incorrectly think they are in fact a special snowflake. It’s the kind of thing that makes people failing to lose fat think “it must be my thyroid” before thinking “it must be my diet.” And no matter how many statistics you come up with or how much you base on your own experience as one singular person who happened to be a rare exception to the norm, that is and always will be extremely wrong and misguided.

    Not to mention, it’s also a big part of why many people continue failing to lose fat. Instead of focusing on their true issue (their diet, workout, lack of a deficit, incorrect measurements, underestimated intake, overestimated output, etc. etc. etc.), they’re off focusing on underlying issues that don’t actually exist in the vast majority of cases.

    And speaking of those statistics. Let’s say they are valid and accurate. 20 million Americans have a thyroid condition? Okay. There are 314 million Americans. 20 million out of 314 million is 6% of the population.

    Now how many of that already tiny 6% are actually hyperthyroid, not hypo? That cuts 6% down to what… maybe 3%? Now of that 3%, how many of those people are actually making an active effort to lose fat in the first place to even reach a point where this conversation even comes about? 2%? Maybe even 1%?

    And just like that… my exaggerated-to-make-a-point “99% of the time” statement suddenly becomes much less exaggerated than I thought.

    So I’ll say it again (and I’m kinda running out of ways to say it). You are real. You do exist. Your problems are real. They do exist. And yes, there ARE plenty of others in the same boat. But, in the grand scheme of people trying to lose fat, it’s rare as hell and does not warrant the kind of attention you’re describing.

    Doing so may be helpful to that rare 1%, but it would be pretty damn harmful to the other 99% in that instead of correcting the basic diet/workout issues they have, they’re too busy worrying about, focusing on and being distracted by crap that doesn’t apply to them in the least. And as someone who writes about fat loss for the entire population, I have to write primarily with that 99% in mind.

    “I think it would be a lot more helpful if more people like you were aware of such statistics — and could say, hey, if you’re doing the diet and exercise as you say you are, you should check in with a doc because although weight loss is hard work, it’s not supposed to be THAT hard”

    I’ve said that plenty of times (I even said it in the very article I linked you to earlier) and will continue to say it. I fully support getting the testing done to know for sure just like I would if anyone was concerned they may have ANY sort of health/medical issue.

    But, I’ll continue doing so knowing that the first half of that statement (“if you’re doing the diet and exercise as you say you are”) is the actual problem the majority of time.

    • Lindsey1979 says

      Fair enough. I do absolutely agree with you that the lifestyle components have to come first — the nutrition and the exercise/movement part. I totally agree with you that there are a lot of people screwing up the nutrition/movement estimates. But, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on the numbers of people with potential underlying issues.

      Even if hypothyroid or Hashi’s (which has a hypo component) for most was only 1%, there are still a host of other ones out there — primary insulin resistance, secondary insulin resistance (caused by something else like thyroid, PCOS, etc.), diabetes, adrenal disorders, etc. There are estimates of 80 million or 25% of the population have insulin resistance alone. How many of those people are overweight? Likely, a good deal. So, when you add them all up, I bet it’s not an insignificant percentage — and far more than a mere percent or two.

      But, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree on the prevalence. Thanks for the lively conversation!

  24. Jenn says

    The two calculations you gave to figure out basic need are completely different for me by 900 calories. Which one would you suggest going with? Also what are your thoughts on people “eating back workout calories” to maintain the net goal at 20% calorie deficit per day?

    • says

      Pick a number somewhere in the middle. Your estimated starting point isn’t that important. What’s important is that you monitor what happens and adjust when/if necessary.

      And if the goal is to be in a 20% deficit… then that’s what you should end up with at the end of the day.

  25. Sierra says

    Thank you! I was just arguin with my husband about this. I don’t believe in starvation mode simply because I was anorexic in my teens and I never stalled out. But perhaps you can help me (was looking for my question when I came across this page) I’m on week 5 of losing weight. I’m 5’5 160. I’ve been looking 2 lbs a week every week but I was barely losing inches. Week 1-4 around 5 overall inches. This week however (everything is the same to prrior weeks) I lost nothing on the scale but suddenly my inches went down 14 overall. Is this normal? I don’t want to get discouraged. Ultimately I want to fit in my old clothes so the scale doesn’t matter much. I just want to address any “problems” quickly if I’m doing something wrong. Also, I are bacon Monday, could a person really hold water weight from salt this long (it’s Sat) that was my friends therory .. Thanks :)

    • says

      There are always going to be weird things happening with water (especially for women, especially a certain time of the month) that can make funny things happen with body weight and measurements. Which is why the most important question to ask yourself is this: are things consistently moving in the right direction overall?

      There are always going to be weird days and occasional weird weeks. But overall, are things moving in the right direction?

      For example, if you put your last couple of months of your weight and measurements on a chart and connected each dot to form a line… would that line be trending downwards? If so, that’s what matters most. If not, something is off somewhere and needs to be adjusted.

  26. Eddy says

    Great Article! I’m 5’7″ and I’m in a 1300 calorie diet (this means 500 calorie deficit based on BMR, sedentary calculation, etcs). I’ve been going to the gym for 2 weeks, sleeping well, eating healthy, BUT I’m still at 18.8% Body fat and still at 127 lbs after these weeks, I think it is the so called starvation mode because I don’t want to drop my daily calories intake anymore. Any further advice would be really appreciated!

    • says

      There’s no way a healthy adult male who is about 19% body fat is eating 1300 calories per day and not losing any weight at all. Chances are you’re eating more than you think or maybe just not accurately tracking progress.

      Also, read this one.

  27. Tara says

    Hi,
    Very interesting article, just what I had been searching for. I am a 5’1 23 year old female and weight 108-110lbs. I have been on a obsessive calorie restricted diet for the last two years (bordering on an eating disorder). This did work, I stuck to it religiously and lost 90lbs, but I am at the point now where I am recovering and am really worried about the long term damage I have done to my body/metabolism. Firstly, i’ve upped my calories to 1,200 and I work out (running, rowing or yoga) 5 days a week. To be honest, I am completely clueless about what to do next, I don’t want to gain a ton of weight, yet this seems to be whats happening. I do calorie count effectively and stick at 1,200 but have gained 2lbs this week alone. Is this my body regulating itself?
    Please help, I’m desperate to get healthy.

    • says

      If you go from severe undereating (or even just mild undereating), and then bring your calorie intake back up, you will ALWAYS gain weight right after that.

      However, this is not fat. This is just water, glycogen and/or the weight of additional food in your body waiting to be digested.

  28. Elizabeth says

    Another thing that causes the myth, being impatient and normal water weight fluctations (among women especially). When I am in a hurry to loose weight, and I weight myself every day, sometimes it feels like im not losing, because it was the same for two days, then goes up a little, then back down to the low point, then back up again,….then suddenly down 1.5 pounds.

    Just recently Ive been feeling like I am not loosing any weight even though I am working really hard and only eating 1200-1500 cals. Then I remember 6 weeks ago I weighed 155 (low point). and now I am 145 (sure 145, then 147, the 146, then 145 again), but still 10 pounds less, so actually I am loosing 1.5 lbs a week which is great.

    Basically, you cannot expect the scale to go down every single day when your on a diet, it kinda of moves up and down, but if you maintain the deficit it is like a slot machine—inevitably reaching lower and lower weights and till all your money is gone. But when you dieting and hungry every day seems long, waiting for the next meal, and so you feel like you’ve been dieting FOREVER, if only its really a few weeks. You mind kinda plays tricks on you, if every morning you don’t loose weight, you get discouraged and starting think, “ugh it isn’t working maybe I am starving myself too much”, — That is you fat cells talking, but if you stick with it a few days later puff, down another pound.

    And when you diet sometimes you eat large about of salads and fruits, which have a lot of water and can make you a little bloated and hold on to water weight from time to time. Oh and ladies, if you stay the same weight the week before your period, you’ve basically lost weight and be ready to be suddenly be 5 lbs lighter when your cycle is over.

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