You’d be surprised at how often people (typically women) ask me if they’re eating enough.
They’ll run down the details of their current physical state, their current diet, their current workout, their current goals, and – last but not least – their current lack of progress in reaching those goals.
So it’ll go a little something like this:
“I’m [however] old, I’m [whatever] tall, I weigh [x] pounds, I eat [this] much, I work out [this] much, I want to lose [whatever] amount of fat, but I haven’t been losing any. Am I not eating enough to lose weight?”
Whenever I hear this, I instantly know exactly what this person is usually asking.
And that is… am I in starvation mode?
Is It Starvation Mode?
For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, “starvation mode” is the term used to describe a state where a person is unable to lose weight because they aren’t eating enough calories. Instead, they’re eating an amount of calories that is low enough to cause their metabolic rate to slow down so much so that their body holds on to all of its fat stores, thus preventing any fat loss from taking place.
This, in a nutshell, is what starvation mode is.
Actually… let me rephrase that.
This, in a nutshell, is what people think starvation mode is.
In reality, of course, this concept of starvation mode is complete and utter bullshit.
The truth is, fat will be lost every single time a person creates a consistent caloric deficit. Always. 100% of the time. No matter how low their calorie intake is.
So if you think you’re consistently eating an amount that should put you into that required caloric deficit and cause you to lose weight… but you aren’t losing any weight… and you begin to wonder if the problem is that you’re just not eating enough… and therefore starvation mode has kicked in… and THIS is the reason for your lack weight loss… you’d be wrong.
That is a physiological impossibility.
You’re either eating more calories than you think you are (due to any combination of underestimating, under reporting, miscalculating, etc. etc. etc. additional details here), burning less calories than you think you are, or both… and no consistent deficit is present.
I cover this whole topic in tons of detail right here: The Starvation Mode Myth
But here’s where things get interesting.
Because, despite everything I just explained about this myth…
You Still Might Not Be Eating Enough To Lose Weight
Seriously. It’s true.
It’s just not for the reason you may have originally thought.
You see, even though there is no such thing as “not eating enough to lose weight” in the literal direct sense (i.e. the concept of starvation mode is horseshit, and a deficit will ALWAYS cause fat loss no matter how big it is and how low calories are… see that previously linked article for details), it is still definitely possible to not be eating enough to lose weight for other indirect reasons.
Let me show you the two biggest examples…
1. Health And Function
This is when a person is eating an amount of calories that is so low that they just aren’t able to consume the amount of macronutrients (primarily protein and fat) and micronutrients (various vitamins and minerals) that the human body requires to sustain health, function and potentially even life itself.
In case you may have forgotten, we don’t just eat food because it tastes yummy. We eat it because it contains the things our bodies need to keep us alive and functioning.
Stop giving it some of those things, or even just stop giving it the full amount it needs of some of those things… and bad things will gradually begin to happen.
Yeah, I’m talking “bad” in the “having an adverse effect on your health” kind of way.
Exactly what kind of adverse effect is impossible to say, as it depends on a variety of factors. But if you want an example, just take one look at the long list of problems associated with anorexia.
That’s the perfect place to start.
If you want more examples, pick any specific nutrient you want and look up the common problems associated with a deficiency in that nutrient. Then look up some more. And then more. And then combine it all together.
This is the reality of what can happen when you’re truly “not eating enough.”
Now, sure, the person in this scenario will still lose weight if they can manage to keep eating whatever stupidly low amount they’re eating (which explains why anorexics reach disturbingly skinny levels), but um… it’s going to take a significant negative toll on your health.
And as that toll becomes more and more significant, it’s going to become harder and harder for the person to lose weight as a result of the way-more-important impact it’s having on their ability to sustain health, function, and, if it goes on long enough… life.
This is an example of how “not eating enough” can indirectly prevent weight loss. And potentially prevent damn near everything else up to and including your ability to remain alive.
2. Optimal, Sustainable Fat Loss
Now for the second example.
Let’s pretend a person is indeed eating enough calories to allow for a sufficient amount of macro and micronutrients to be consumed for the purpose of sustaining life and function, and that no true nutrient deficiencies are present in that regard.
Basically, the person is eating enough of everything for their overall health to be just fine.
BUT, despite eating enough to support health and function, they’re still not eating enough to support optimal, sustainable fat loss.
Let me give you a few examples of what I mean by “optimal fat loss.”
- Consuming enough protein to preserve as much muscle mass as possible.
- Consuming enough carbs to (at least) maintain training performance and recovery (and sleep quality, overall sanity, etc.).
- Consuming enough protein and fiber to control hunger as best as possible.
- Consuming enough total calories to avoid having an excessively sized caloric deficit, thus minimizing the risk of muscle and performance loss.
Now, can a person in a deficit potentially still lose weight just fine without doing any of these things? Yup.
And can that person potentially still be eating enough to avoid nutrient deficiencies and health issues while doing it? Yup.
But, will this person be losing weight optimally?
As in, will a person who is losing more muscle mass than they need to be… or losing more strength than they need to be… or recovering worse from training than they need to be… or feeling a lot hungrier throughout the day than they need to be… or all of the above (and more)… truly be losing weight optimally?
So this person might be eating enough to lose weight and cover all of their core dietary bases in terms of overall health, but they will NOT be eating enough to cover all of the dietary bases that make fat loss happen as well as it could be happening.
Now let me give you an example of what I mean by “sustainable fat loss.”
Let’s pretend that some example person needs to eat 2500 calories per day to end up in a commonly-recommended moderate sized deficit of 20% below their maintenance level.
Now let’s pretend they decide to eat 1500 calories instead.
Are they eating enough to lose weight? In the literal sense? Yes, of course. Anything below their maintenance level – no matter how low they decide to go – will always be “enough” to lose weight, because the typical concept of starvation mode is quite possibly the dumbest diet myth of all time.
BUT, is it enough for this person to sustain their diet and continue losing weight in the long term?
You see, it’s going to be significantly harder for this example person to consistently eat 1500 calories per day than it would be for them to eat 2500 calories per day.
Yes, both calorie intakes will cause weight loss for them, but one will do it in a way that’s going to be much more mentally and physically demanding, and cause more issues with hormones (leptin, testosterone, cortisol, etc.), hunger, sleep quality, metabolic slowdown and so on, while also increasing the risk of muscle and strength loss.
All to the point where they may fail to sustain it all… and therefore end up going off of their intended diet… and over their intended calorie intake… and thus end up being unable to lose weight strictly as a result of attempting to eat an amount too low for them to actually sustain long term.
And in this scenario, we have ourselves a legit example of where 1500 calories does indeed qualify as “not eating enough to lose weight.”
Not in the literal direct “starvation mode” sense, but in the indirect “this person just isn’t going to be able to sustain it” sense.
And when it comes to successful long term weight loss, that’s the most important factor there is.
So, Am I Not Eating Enough? Or Too Much?
It’s pretty simple.
If a bunch of weeks have passed and you aren’t losing any weight, you’re eating too much.
If you’re losing weight, but doing so in a way that causes macro or micronutrient deficiencies or really anything that adversely affects your physical or mental health and well being, you’re not eating enough.
If you’re losing weight, but doing so in a way that is making your fat loss results suboptimal and/or unnecessarily harder to do and sustain than it needs to be, you’re not eating enough.