Am I Not Eating Enough Calories To Lose Weight, Or Am I Eating Too Much?

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.

Taaadaaa.

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.

Awesome.

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?

Nope.

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.

This is a topic I covered in much more detail when I discussed using a 1200 calorie diet for losing weight.

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.

46 thoughts on “Am I Not Eating Enough Calories To Lose Weight, Or Am I Eating Too Much?”

46 Comments

  1. makes perfect sense. Now if I can find an alternative to emotional eating – or an acceptable snack to go to when I do feel the need to eat away emotions – Id be ok. Have to work on eating right – not eating less – although in my case – less of the wrong things will be eating right.

  2. If strength isn’t going down in gym, the person is not losing any muscle mass despite having huge caloric deficit. Water retention always masks true fat loss to a great extent.

  3. I think you might be holding a little too strict of a definition of “starvation mode” in order to make your point.

    One’s basal metabolic rate is always in flux, so what may be a caloric deficit at one BMR would be a caloric surplus at a decreased BMR (due to eating so few calories that one’s BMR decreases enough to make that happen).

    THIS is what I think people generally mean when referring to “starvation mode,” so it is not a totally BS concept.

    • Nope, what you just said is indeed a bullshit concept. Metabolic rate DOES NOT ever decrease enough to stop fat loss (and certainly doesn’t come even remotely close to causing a surplus) due to eating too few calories.

      It’s bullshit.

      • What our friend Doug is getting at is that despite the poorly chosen name of “starvation mode” and its misuse in the general populace, metabolic slowdown as a result of caloric restriction and loss of body mass seems to be an important factor. Possibly even a slowdown beyond what is simply explained by the loss of fat mass and fat-free mass. So if someone maintained a caloric deficit of 200 kcal/day long enough to have lowered their basal metabolic rate by 200 kcal/day, they’re no longer in a deficit. What was previously a deficit is now their maintenance intake. So in that respect it could stop fat loss. What’s more is that dramatic caloric deficits are linked to exacerbating this problem.

        If you believe that is nonsense, you are directly contradicting valid studies into the subject (and no, I’m not talking about the old Minnesota chestnut) of which I provide a small sampling here:
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8653104
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3387402/
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24500156
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7632212
        https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3173112

        Plenty of people who lose weight experience plateaus where weight loss slows and then stalls for significant amounts of time, even in the presence of all due diligence in tracking food intake. I for example weigh things down to the gram and assure you I’d easily be among the top 1% most accurate people in making MyFitnessPal entries; I’ve had plenty of plateaus. The typical response is to reduce calories further, increase exercise efforts or both. If calories in/calories out is the be-all end-all of weight loss, then one side has to be wonky. And if it isn’t calories in, it’s calories out. Given we are governed by the laws of nature this can’t be hand-waved as simply varying levels of water retention, a bit more or less sleep or any other factors without further specifying HOW, because in order to cause a slowdown in weight loss for an extended period they’d have to express themselves through the actual metabolic rate. Which means it must have slowed down.

        Yet as the caloric deficit is once again introduced by further decreasing the already low intake and widening the gap through increased exercise, sustainability is compromised. Which means, yes, that person would have probably been better off eating a bit more. Dig into enough studies and you realize there’s too many factors at play (many of which have a yet unclear role) to even fully consider, but for the average dieter they see the numbers on the scale ceasing to drop and think “starvation mode”. And if what they previously did worked and now it suddenly stopped working, for all their intents and purposes they’re right. The body has adapted to match its nutrient intake to its energy expenditure. You can get somewhere driving 100 mph or 75 mph. In the latter case it’ll take longer, but fuel consumption won’t be the same, because it doesn’t follow a linear relation to speed. You’ll consume LESS fuel overall driving slower in an optimal power band. Your body is most capable of sacrificing peak performance for prolonged survival, because the former is useless without the latter.

        • Good lord. You just typed up a whole lot of stuff to argue against something I never actually said.

          First of all, here’s what Doug said and what I responded to initially:

          “so what may be a caloric deficit at one BMR would be a caloric surplus at a decreased BMR (due to eating so few calories that one’s BMR decreases enough to make that happen)”

          He is specifically stating that “due to eating so few calories” a person can not only completely stop losing fat, but actually end up in a surplus and thus gain fat.

          This is not possible and has never happened to anyone, anywhere, ever. It doesn’t happen to starving children in Africa, or concentration camp victims, or anorexics, or reality show contestants on various survival shows. Nor has it happened in any controlled human study in existence. Read my starvation mode article for additional details.

          And Lyle McDonald’s great article on the subject here.

          And another semi-relevant good one from Lyle.

          Metabolic slowdown, however, is definitely real. It’s often referred to as adaptive thermogenesis in studies and represents the “slowdown beyond what is simply explained by the loss of fat mass and fat-free mass” you referred to. It’s completely real and I actually discuss it (and how very real it is) in that same starvation mode article, among others.

          HOWEVER, while real, it’s never actually significant enough to – all by itself like Doug is saying and people who believe in starvation mode are implying – completely erase the entire deficit or somehow go even beyond that and create a surplus. That doesn’t happen. Ever.

          But it’s still very real and very responsible for slowing down fat loss progress. And… COMBINED with the drop in BMR that occurs as a result of successfully losing weight (along with other additional factors), is a part of what causes fat loss plateaus.

          Which, by the way, are also extremely real and extremely common/normal and will be covered in a whole chapter in the book I’m currently writing. Why you seem to be implying that plateaus are something I don’t think ever happen is beyond me considering a) I never said that and b) I’ve talked about plateaus, how common and normal they are, what causes them and how to break through them in countless articles I’ve written over the last decade.

          It’s just not this adaptive component itself that causes it to happen. It’s one small part of what causes it.

          • I wouldn’t argue that (continuously) lowering caloric intake would ever result in weight gain. Unless the breatharians are right (unfortunately that’s a real thing) there’s a lower threshold at which bodily functions start breaking down. People are starving all over the world and the laws of physics still seem to hold, so yeah, obviously that is not going to happen.

            But when prolonged dieting causes a sufficient drop in basal metabolic rate (and possibly affecting TDEE in general due to lowering of activities such as fidgeting; actually observed in studies) that the caloric intake which previously provided an ample deficit no longer suffices for weight loss, then for all intents and purposes this constitutes “starvation mode” for the average person.

            What’s important to note is that after ramping up the calories to what previously constituted a sensible maintenance intake – not maintenance for when the person was obese, but maintenance as would make sense for their new weight, height, gender and other parameters – they now find themselves rapidly gaining fat again, because the metabolic rate doesn’t immediately spring back. In fact, there’s growing evidence it can take a frighteningly long time.

            That wouldn’t have to happen if the diet was in better moderation in the first place. In that respect, you can in eat “not enough calories” to prohibit losing fat when you keep forcing the compensation mechanisms of your body to catch up with a vanishingly low caloric intake. You’ll dig a hole that’s hard to get out of even before the health hazards you mention manifest themselves. So I’m not sure I’d agree with the conclusion that when weight loss stops for a few weeks, you’re still eating too much, because it might be more sensible to eat slightly more and up the exercise. You could argue that it’s the same thing, because “calories in / calories out” but it’s not that simple. There’s a significant difference between giving your body ample nutrients (and micronutrients which don’t contribute to weight gain directly are very important in this regard) and putting it through rigorous exercise, creating an environment where it might make sense for it to invest in lean tissue and use some fat, or lowering caloric intake even more and giving it the signal “hey buddy, better put the stove on low and hang onto all your stuff for dear life cause the food’s run out”.

          • “I wouldn’t argue that (continuously) lowering caloric intake would ever result in weight gain.” Yes, and it won’t ever result in maintenance, either. At least, not until the person has reached the lowest levels of human leanness like the guys in the Minnesota study. Those guys kept reducing their calorie intake and they kept losing and losing and losing. Just like concentration camp victims. Just like anorexics. Just like starving kids in Africa. Just like reality show contestants on a deserted island.

            This is what the vast majority of people using the term ‘starvation mode’ are implying. The women who needs to lose 100lbs who claims to be eating 1200 calories per day and isn’t losing weight thinks she’s in starvation mode… a magical place where eating too little prevents fat loss. It’s bullshit. Always.

            Plateaus are something completely different, and you seem to be mixing them up or possible just trying to use the term starvation mode to describe a normal plateau… which is simply an incorrect usage of the term.

    • Nawww….from what I’ve observed (during my forty+ years of PED-free bodybuilding, so my long attention to any conversation or comment concerning nutrition), the idea people typically believe is a point at which calorie intake becomes so low — “so low you’d starve to death if you stayed on it” — that the body reacts somehow by refusing to lose bodyweight.

      The idea of “starvation mode” is almost an oxymoron, if logically considered — for, if calorie intake becomes so low that a person faces starvation, then, what would happen if continued indefinitely is what happened to concentration camp victims and others who have been reduced to severely low caloric intake. Those starvation victims didn’t stop losing bodyweight — they continued losing bodyweight until that loss caused their deaths!

      While it’s true that BMR resets a little lower after longer-term calorie deficit and bodyweight loss, it’s never true that “not eating enough” foils further bodyweight loss. What’s then needed, to lose further bodyweight, at the new lower BMR is an even-slightly-lower daily calorie intake than the daily calorie intake that’d been deficit enough to lose bodyfat until then.
      At a lowered BMR, it’s possible to get stuck because of consequently eating too much, but NOT because of “not eating enough”.

  4. Great job on so far everything I’ve read… although I’m like most of your readers a student of trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of where I’ve been FKNup in diet and exercise my whole life… what you’ve discovered in your “journey” of health makes good sense… much appreciated…
    Michael

  5. Jay,

    You mentioned how the example of a bigger caloric deficit would cause issues with leptin. If you are in such a big caloric deficit that your leptin levels drop, wouldn’t you agree that weight loss would slow down significantly even if in a caloric deficit (rather than stopping)? Isn’t that the point of refeeds or diet periodization? Is there a reason you didn’t you mention this?

    Thanks

    • The main reason fat loss slows or stops due to an excessive deficit that causes an excessive drop in leptin (besides the fact that significant weight loss is happening and a smaller body naturally burns less calories) is that hunger levels also become excessive, thus causing the person to eat more than they are intending to… thus wiping out some if not all of their deficit and slowing/stopping fat loss due to a simple lack of deficit (or potentially causing fat gain if they overeat enough to create a surplus).

      What you’re really asking about in the context of refeeds actually deals with metabolic slowdown which IS definitely a real thing that really happens (my starvation mode article covers this… see the section on “adaptive thermogenesis” and the “starvation response”). Anyone with a consistent deficit of any size of a decent period of time will experience this to some extent, and it will be more significant the bigger the deficit is and/or the longer the deficit lasts. Refeeds, calorie cycling and diet breaks are used to counteract this and keep fat loss happening at the ideal rate it should be. (SFL will cover this in detail.)

      HOWEVER, while very real and guaranteed to happen to everyone to some degree, this adaptive component of metabolic slowdown is only a secondary factor of what causes metabolic rate/fat loss progress to slow down over time. The primary factor is what I mentioned before… weight loss is happening and a smaller body has a lower BMR.

  6. Is 20% below maintenance already accounting for metabolic slowdown? Or should we consider metabolic slowdown and reduce calories 20% from there?

    Also… SFL

    • Regardless of the size of your deficit, there will always be some degree of metabolic slowdown taking place over time. The bigger the deficit is, the more significant that slowdown will be. This is part of why 20% (which would be in the range of “moderate”) is an ideal place for most people to be.

      And SFL is in progress as we speak. I actually just finished the first chapter today.

  7. For men: BMR = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) + 5
    For women: BMR = 10 x weight (kg) + 6.25 x height (cm) – 5 x age (years) – 161

    If you exercise moderately during the week increase the result by a multiple of circa 20% (you should take into account what you actually do for a living i.e. are you on your feet all day or are you behind a desk). For more active people the multiple (20%) can be increased as required.

    That should give you a base guide to your daily calorific intake to maintain your body weight at it’s present level. As Jay says, eat less lose weight, eat more gain weight for the same level of physical activity, but better to lose a little every week and keep it sustainable. If required, rework the above equation for your new body weight as it reduces/increases. It aint rocket science.

  8. I am a 53-year-old Australian female who is 20kg overweight. I have hypothyroidism and my endocrinologist suggested I limit my calorie intake to 800 cals/day using VLCD shakes because I have been unable to lose weight on 1200 cals/day (eating whole food), where I weighed and measured *everything* in order to be accurate.
    I believe 800 cals/day is unsustainable and likely unhealthy long-term, and based on your article above, I suspect you agree. Indeed, I lasted just 2 weeks on 800 cals/day. Yes, I lost 2kg in the first week but this was likely fluid etc. The second week, I lost only 200g and was going out of my mind with just water-based shakes and broccoli (The doctor suggested I eat LOTS of broccoli to ‘fill me up’…urgh!).
    My endocrinologist has told me that the idea that a person’s metabolism can ‘slow down’ if calorie intake is decreased is also a myth. She claims that a person’s metabolism is set for life and cannot be increased or decreased through exercise, diet or any other means.
    I also sustained a tendon injury 10 months ago which means I am no longer able to undertake the brisk walking/jogging I used to do daily (another reason I’ve put on weight).
    I’m desperate to lose the extra kilos. Any help/suggestions you can offer a peri-menopausal woman with an underactive thyroid would be *greatly* appreciated.

    • Unfortunately I have to avoid giving any kind of personalized advice when there is a health issue involved (medical issue, injury, medication, etc.).

      However, I can tell you that what your endocrinologist said about metabolic rate never increasing or decreasing under any circumstance is completely wrong.

  9. I don’t know how, but i’ve lost link to your site. For past few days i was constantly looking it. And now you’ve just poped out from my facebook. You don’t even know how happy i am! 😀 yep! going back on diet 😉

  10. Hi Jay, what’s your take on diet soda (supposedly 0 calories), and artificial sweetener? Drinking water or tea most of the time, but it gets boring sometimes.

  11. Hello Jay – first let me start out by a HUGE thank you for all this wealth of information! I have avidly read both of your A Workout Routine and A Calorie Counter and I have learned a lot!
    There is just one item I feel I’m personally still missing. I am 156 pounds with somewhat athletic body but have fat reserves in the belly and love handles area. Rest of my body is lean. I have established that I am a “beginner” and made my exercise plans accordingly. I am just not sure when it comes to the diet what to follow, the surplus or deficit? My aim is obviously to lose this stubborn fat WHILE building muscle. Can you point me in the right direction here please? Deficit or surplus, and sorry upfront if this has been covered in a different post already.

  12. I’m still in the process of reading through these articles but I wanted to ask some quick questions.

    1. It says you have to burn more calories than you consume to create a defecit, so if my daily intake to lose weight is 1800, do I need to burn more than this daily to lose weight if yes, how.

    2. I’m around 240lb (overweight) and just starting out in they gym, would you recommend cardio + strength training or just cardio as the most affective method to lose weight

    Thanks in advance

    • 1. Most of those calories are naturally burned by your body doing everything it needs to do to keep you alive and functioning. If you calculated your daily calorie intake to lose weight to be 1800 calories, this fact is already taken into account and you simply need to eat 1800 calories and maintain your current activity level. Also, if you’re 240lbs, 1800 sounds quite low.

      2. I’d recommend weight training for building/maintaining muscle, and a proper diet for causing fat loss. Cardio = optional.

  13. Hi Jay! I used the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation for my BMR and It gave me 3058 calories for a moderately active person. I have stayed the same weight for quite a few months so I do believe this is accurate for me. The problem is I’m 20% BF at 6′ 220 lbs. My overall goal has always been to be 215-220 lbs lean but it seems like it’s just not going to happen. When I lean out to 200 lbs or less, I’m not happy with my build and really don’t enjoy the process much because I’m still not as big and strong as I want to be in the first place. I just keep going up and down with strength and weight.

    3000 calories is not that much food and I know I would be stronger and bigger if I was eating in more but I don’t because I don’t want to get too fat. So my strength has not gone up much lately. I have been lifting for over 13 years and this is just what happens, up to 220lbs, realize I’m putting on too much BF, then diet down to 200lbs. It just a cycle for me and I haven’t put on any real (NEW) muscle in years.

    I am now trying to eat around 2500 calories now to lose some BF and have started your fat loss+maintenance workout but I’m feeling hungry throughout the day. I can’t imagine once I have to eat even less calories once I plateau. I have your SMG book and it’s great! I know I should lean out to around 14% BF, then start again using the guidelines but I’m just tired of gaining and losing the same 20 lbs. I want to be big, strong and in shape. Not one or the other.

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I only lift 3x a week. I walk a lot at work, but I technically have 4 days off. Now 3 days of lifting seems to work for me in terms of recovery, and I understand that’s a good thing. But when I see people who are bigger than me and in better shape, I see that they are also busting their butt in the gym 4-5 days a week.

    Just wanted your advice as it is very appreciated. Thank for all your help!

    • Just to clarify, I’m not saying that your workouts aren’t enough. I am just wondering if I would be getting better results doing your upper lower four times a week or the push/ legs/ pull four to five times a week? Its just a frustrating process and sometimes I think I may have reached my genetic potential, which would suck but I’m passionate about getting bigger and stronger and believe in your programs!

      Thanks!

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