I like to think most people understand that they need to eat LESS calories to lose weight, right?
We’re all aware of this, aren’t we?
What’s that now? We’re not?
Most people think it’s carbs, sugar, fat, gluten, fruit, fructose, dirty foods and/or foods that cavemen didn’t eat that we need to eat less of in order to lose weight?
Oh. How wonderful.
Excuse me while I go bang my head against a wall to forget this reality.
Okay, I’m back.
As I was saying, fat loss and fat gain are determined by calories in vs calories out. Create a deficit and you lose, create a surplus and you gain. If you’d like a more thorough explanation of this (and why it’s NOT carbs, sugar or whatever else), read this one: How To Lose Fat.
And that brings us to the subject of this article.
Which is… the idea that there are times when eating less calories STOPS you from losing weight, and then eating more calories causes you to START losing again.
Let’s begin with the first half of that statement.
When Eating Less STOPS Weight Loss… aka “Starvation Mode”
Have you ever heard of the mysterious state known as starvation mode? If not, please allow me to fill you in.
Starvation mode (sometimes referred to as “survival mode”) is the idea that not eating enough calories will cause a person to STOP losing fat or possibly even GAIN some despite being in a caloric deficit.
As in, if you eat too few calories, your metabolism breaks or completely shuts down or some such nonsense, and, in an effort to keep you alive, your body will hold on to all of your body fat and prevent you from losing any of it until… wait for it… you eat MORE calories.
This concept/myth then leads to the following type of conversation on diet forums (I’m looking at you, MyFitnessPal) and throughout social media…
Person A: “I’m eating [insert some excessively low number of calories here… typically 500, 800, 1000 or 1200] calories per day, but I’m not losing any weight! What’s my problem?”
Person B: “Your body has entered starvation mode because you’re not eating enough, so it’s holding on to all of your body fat and stopping you from losing weight.”
Person C: “Yeah, Person B is absolutely right. I was in starvation mode myself at one point, and it sucked! Eventually I was in it for so long that I started gaining fat because I was eating so little! Once I started eating more, I instantly began losing weight again.”
Person D: “Um, you people have no idea wtf you’re talking about. Read this starvation mode article.”
Thank you, Person D.
It’s because of the many Person Ds of the world and the fact that they frequently link to my starvation mode article (which then sends traffic to my website from these sources) that I know just how often these stupid conversations are happening.
Why do I call them stupid? Because the entire concept of starvation mode – that not eating enough will stop fat loss (or cause fat gain) – is as stupid as it gets.
In that aforementioned article of mine, I reference Holocaust victims, starving children in Africa, reality show contestants, anorexics, the infamous Minnesota Starvation Experiment, and a whole lot of commonsense to show why starvation mode is nothing more than a stupid myth.
Feel free to read it for all the fun details.
But… But… But…
Now I know what you might be thinking.
If starvation mode isn’t real, then how do I explain how there are so many overweight people who are eating as little as 600 – 1200 calories per day but still aren’t losing any weight?
They aren’t actually eating 600 – 1200 calories per day.
Instead, in the VAST majority of cases, there is some kind of mistake being made somewhere in the tracking of the person’s calorie intake/output that is causing them to unknowingly eat more calories than they think they are, burn less calories than they think they are, or some combination of the two… and no deficit exists.
But Wait, There’s More!
Less commonly, though, there’s actually a slightly different second scenario taking place that leads to this same nonexistent starvation mode bullshit.
That is when the person is indeed eating the (often excessively) low number of calories they claim to be… on certain days.
BUT, they are then overeating (or binge-eating) on the other days to a degree that cancels out whatever deficit they created and causes them to end up breaking even at maintenance for the week.
And when you’re at maintenance instead of in a deficit, you stop losing weight.
This is how you get people (fun fact: it’s almost always women) who claim to be on some crazy low-calorie starvation diet eating 600 – 1200 calories per day but still aren’t losing any weight.
In reality, they’re either eating more than they think they are, or they’re legitimately eating the amount they claim some of the time (be it as little as one to as many as six days per week), but then overeating by thousands of calories on the other day(s) due to the excessive hunger that the previous extreme restriction caused.
Sometimes it’s so bad that this restrict-and-binge cycle doesn’t just land the person at maintenance for the week and prevent fat loss… it actually puts them into a surplus, thereby causing fat gain.
This, along with other related problems (e.g., water weight gain), is how you get people saying “I starved myself eating 800 calories per day but I still gained weight! It must be starvation mode!!”
No, it’s not.
But wait! I know what you’re thinking now: what about the second half of that original statement?
Ah ha! Good question.
Why Do People Claim To Lose Weight Again When They Start Eating More?
If what I’m saying is true (and it is), then how does any of this explain the next claim these people often make, which is that they finally started losing weight again as soon as they began eating MORE calories?
Doesn’t this prove that I’m wrong and that there are times when eating too little stops weight loss, and eating more restarts it?
Eh, not quite.
There are actually two very logical explanations for why people think eating more made them start losing fat again:
- First, because the “more calories” they are eating eliminates the excessively low-calorie days they previously had, which prevents the massively large binges those low-calorie days were previously causing. Meaning, the person actually ends up eating LESS total weekly calories now than they had been, despite thinking they’re “eating more calories.” And so, a deficit finally exists. Thus… weight loss happens.
- A second possible explanation is that if the person is legitimately eating more now after a period of eating significantly/excessively less, it would cause cortisol levels to drop. Guess what happens when cortisol levels drop? Water retention subsides… thus causing instant “weight loss” strictly in the form of water weight, not body fat. And if the deficit is as excessive as it usually is in these cases, the water retention can be quite substantial.
What Does All Of This Mean?
I’d sum this topic up like this…
- A caloric deficit is the sole cause and requirement of fat loss. Always. For everyone. So, if you think you’re in a deficit but aren’t losing fat, you’re not actually in a deficit after all. Double and triple check the tracking of your calorie intake/output, because there’s most likely a mistake being made somewhere that’s causing you to eat more/burn less than you think you are. Again, this kind of thing happens ALL THE TIME. Yes, even to people who swear they obsessively track everything down to the very last gram and couldn’t possibly be making a mistake like this.
- Starvation mode doesn’t exist. Just… no. For the love of all humanity… no.
- People who think that eating more caused them to start losing fat again after a significant period of no fat loss (which was supposedly caused by “not eating enough“) are always wrong.
- In reality, if they did indeed start losing fat after “eating more,” it’s because they actually ended up unknowingly eating less than before. Not more. Or…
- In other cases, eating more after a period of eating excessively low calories has legitimately caused a loss of water weight, and the person is mistaking that water loss for fat loss.
Got it? Good.
By the way, if you’d like to lose fat while avoiding all of these annoying myths, mistakes and problems, and pretty much everything else that sucks about losing fat, feel free to check out my new program: Superior Fat Loss
I created it for this very purpose.