Let me guess. You want to lose weight, right? Cool.
And if you came here to learn about starvation mode, there’s another guess I feel pretty confident in making: you’re not actually losing weight.
You want to. You’re trying to. You’re doing everything you can in terms of your diet and workout to make it happen. But yet, it’s just not happening.
And that’s why you’re here. You want to know why it’s not happening. You also want to know what you need to do to fix it, and what role starvation mode is playing in all of this.
Well, by the end of this article, you’re going to know the answer to all of these questions. You’re also going to know the truth about starvation mode and whether it’s the real reason behind your lack of progress, or if it’s just another stupid weight loss myth.
What Is Starvation Mode?
Starvation mode is the supposed state a person is in when an excessive approach to weight loss has slowed down their metabolic rate enough to completely prevent further weight loss from happening (or possibly even cause weight gain)… even though a caloric deficit remains present.
You see, in order to lose weight, you need to either eat less, burn more, or do some combination of the two so that you’re consuming fewer calories than you’re burning.
This is known as a caloric deficit, and it’s the sole requirement of weight loss.
However, when a person is in a caloric deficit but ISN’T losing weight, the most often assumed reason is that they’ve entered starvation mode.
What Causes Starvation Mode?
The supposed causes of starvation mode are:
- Not eating enough calories.
- Burning too many calories.
- Being in too large of a caloric deficit.
- Being in a caloric deficit for too long.
I’ve also heard people claim that crash dieting, getting too lean, doing too much exercise, losing weight too quickly, losing too much weight in general, going too many hours without eating, and yo-yo dieting (i.e. losing weight and gaining it back) causes it as well.
But, above all else, the fundamental concept behind what causes starvation mode is this:
Being in too much of a caloric deficit is supposedly capable of stopping weight loss. When you eat too little and/or burn too much, your body’s survival response is to hold on to all of your fat and slow your metabolism enough to prevent you from losing anything (or potentially even cause you to gain additional fat).
And the only way to supposedly get out of this state and start losing weight again is by eating MORE calories, not less.
So, when a person claims to be “eating less,” and “eating right,” and “eating healthy,” and “working out all the time,” and guarantees they are in the caloric deficit they need to be in for weight loss to occur – but yet they still aren’t losing any weight – the assumption they’ll make (or the advice they’ll get from someone else) is that they’ve entered the mysterious state of starvation mode.
The question is… is any of this actually true? Let’s find out.
Is Starvation Mode Real?
No, it’s not. Starvation mode is a myth.
It doesn’t currently exist, it has never previously existed, and it will never begin to exist.
Not for you. Not for me. Not for anyone… under any circumstance… ever.
Did I make that clear enough? No? Let me try again…
How about now? 🙂
The truth is, a caloric deficit ALWAYS works.
There are no exceptions to this fact. The laws of thermodynamics always apply to everyone.
As long as you’re consistently in a caloric deficit, weight loss will happen. And you’ll lose weight every single time regardless of whether you’re creating a deficit that is small, moderate, or large.
In fact, even if your calorie intake was dangerously low – where you were legitimately starving to death – you would still lose weight. (I’m NOT recommending that, I’m just making a point.)
To put it bluntly, 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 did some extra cardio (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 who the person is or how low the “calories in” side of the equation is (or really, how low you mistakenly think it is… more on that in a bit).
Simply put, what most people think of “starvation mode” to be is complete and utter nonsense.
And guess what? I can prove it.
In fact, I can prove it with 4 different types of proof.
Here, I’ll show you…
Proof #1: Science
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 completely prevents weight loss from happening.
This is false. However, one small part of it is actually kinda true.
The Truth About Metabolic Slowdown
The true part is that being in a deficit does indeed cause your metabolic rate to slow down over time. This occurs during any prolonged deficit, and after any amount of weight loss.
And it happens for two main reasons:
- A smaller body burns fewer calories.
Your body burns calories maintaining the organ, fat, and muscle mass you have. So the more you weigh, the more you’ll naturally burn. For this reason, as you gradually lose weight, you’ll gradually burn fewer calories (source) both at rest and during activity due to the simple fact that you weigh less than you previously did.
- Adaptive thermogenesis.
Research (sources here, here, here, & here) and real world experience have shown that as we lose weight, a person’s metabolism slows down more than we’d predict based on the loss of weight alone. This extra amount of slowdown is known as “adaptive thermogenesis” (also sometimes called “metabolic adaptation”), and it occurs as part of your body’s survival response to weight loss.
And I know what you’re probably thinking right now.
“HA! There it is! There’s starvation mode! You’re just calling it by something fancier (‘adaptive thermogenesis’), but it’s the same damn thing!! It’s your body slowing down your metabolism for survival purposes, and that’s what stops weight loss from happening! See, I told you so! I was right all along!!”
There’s just one small problem with that thought: it’s wrong.
The Truth About Adaptive Thermogenesis
Yes, adaptive thermogenesis is real.
Yes, it means your metabolism does slow down for survival purposes during the weight loss process.
And yes, the more excessive your approach to weight loss is in terms of the size of your deficit (i.e. excessively low calorie diets), how long that deficit lasts, how much weight you end up losing, and how lean you end up getting, the more significant the adaptive thermogenesis will be.
But… this STILL isn’t what you think starvation mode is.
Why? Because adaptive thermogenesis is NEVER significant enough to actually STOP weight loss. And it sure as hell isn’t significant enough to cause weight gain.
That’s just plain ridiculous.
How Much Does Your Metabolism Actually Slow Down?
So, just how significant is adaptive thermogenesis? Well…
Here’s an example of what this means.
Let’s pretend some person lost some amount of weight over some period of time. And, based strictly on the amount of weight they lost, we might predict that they’d now need to eat 2000 calories per day to continue losing weight at the same rate they previously were.
However, it may turn out that this person needs to eat 1800 calories per day instead to make that happen.
And… that’s it.
That’s a realistic example of how significant adaptive thermogenesis might be.
It’s something that can gradually slow your progress a little, gradually make weight loss a little harder than it would otherwise be, and gradually serve as one part of what requires people to have to adjust their calorie intake (and/or calorie output) over time to continue making progress.
But this isn’t even remotely close to what people think starvation mode is, which is metabolic slowdown so significant that is completely prevents weight loss from happening (or somehow causes weight gain) regardless of how much of a deficit you’re in.
Sorry, but no. That’s not real.
I Know What You’re Thinking Now
I bet you’re thinking that this only applies in “normal” cases, where a person is approaching weight loss in a safe, healthy, and moderate fashion.
But… what if the example was a bit more extreme?
After all, I did say that your body’s metabolism-slowing survival response will be more significant the more excessive the approach to weight loss is.
So, what if the person was on an excessively low calorie diet? Or losing an excessive amount of weight? Or basically just being in an excessively-sized deficit for an excessive period of time?
Surely this is the kind of scenario that will make “starvation mode” happen, right?
Let’s see about that.
The Minnesota Starvation Experiment
Every calorie-controlled study I’ve ever seen over a span of decades that involved the creation of a caloric deficit resulted in weight loss 100% of the time. Regardless of every other factor. A caloric deficit = weight loss. Always.
And this is true even in the most extreme cases, including an actual starvation study like the infamous Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
In this study (sources here and here), 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 continued 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.
See for yourself…
Now tell me, do these two guys look like they are in starvation mode?
Or that being (semi) starved for 6 straight months prevented them from losing weight?
Or that “not eating enough” stopped their weight loss or magically caused weight gain?
Of course not. Because that’s not real.
Instead, the Minnesota Starvation Experiment is proof of the complete opposite. Which is that “not eating enough” will make you lose weight until you’ve literally lost as much weight as your body is capable of losing, and you eventually die.
That’s obviously not a recommendation. That’s just a physiological fact.
Another fun fact about this study is that by the end of it, the men’s metabolic rates dropped by about 40%. And of this 40%, only 15% was a result of adaptive thermogenesis. The other 25% was due to the overall loss of body weight.
And that brings us to…
3 Key Takeaways From The Minnesota Starvation Experiment
- 40% is not 100%.
Even under semi-starvation conditions as extreme and excessive as were seen during this study, there was still nothing even close to the complete 100% metabolic shutdown (or whatever nonsense people believe about starvation mode) that would be needed to prevent weight loss from happening.
- The adaptive component was only 15%.
Even under these extreme conditions, the adaptive component of metabolic slowdown was only 15%. For less extreme conditions, it would most likely be less.
- They kept losing weight.
No aspect of the metabolic slowdown the participants of this study experienced ever stopped them from losing weight. They just kept losing and losing until there wasn’t any weight left for them to lose without dying.
So, if metabolic slowdown didn’t prevent them – people who were purposely starved until they reached the deathly skinny lowest levels of human leanness – from losing weight… it sure as shit isn’t preventing you – someone who is likely a normal weight, overweight, or obese person nowhere near this state who will (hopefully) never be anywhere near this state – from losing weight, either.
More about this topic here: Metabolic Damage vs Adaptive Thermogenesis
Proof #2: Negative Real-World Events
Is science not really your thing? Do you prefer real-world evidence instead? Okay, fine.
If you want real-world proof 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 bullshit, all you have to do is look at any of the countless extreme examples we unfortunately have in this world.
- Anorexics reach deathly skinny levels by starving themselves.
- Starving children in Africa reach deathly skinny levels due to not having enough food.
- Holocaust victims reached deathly skinny levels from being starved.
These are examples of people who were consuming less food than anyone ever would under any circumstance, and they all lost disturbing amounts of weight.
But yet you – a person who is most likely under normal circumstances – 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?
Seriously? Can you even comprehend how silly that thought is?
If that were true, wouldn’t those pictures of concentration camps show a ton of normal weight/overweight people who didn’t lose anything (or maybe even gained fat!!) 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 wouldn’t anorexics remain at their normal healthy weights despite starving themselves?
And why the hell are we wasting so much time trying to end world hunger when we can just sit back and relax and let starvation mode save everyone by making their bodies “hold on to all of their fat” when their food intake is dangerously low?
Because starvation mode isn’t real.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject of your body supposedly “holding on to fat” for survival purposes when you’re not eating enough, the reality is that your body does the complete opposite of this.
The main reason your body stores fat is so there will be a backup fuel source available to burn to provide the energy needed to keep you alive in case a situation ever arises where you don’t have access to food and your survival may be in jeopardy.
Meaning, your body stores fat for the specific purpose of burning it when you’re “not eating enough” (aka… in a consistent caloric deficit).
Which means burning fat while in a deficit IS the survival mechanism.
Not the other way around.
Proof #3: TV Shows
Now for something less serious… reality shows!
Survivor is one good example, but I prefer 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, and cook something.
And most of the time, they struggle to make that happen and spend the majority of the 21 days barely eating anything while 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? Good.
So tell me…
- If “starvation mode” is real, and eating too few calories STOPS people from losing weight… how the hell did these people who were hardly eating any calories still lose tons and tons of weight?
- If “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 “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 starvation mode isn’t real. That’s why.
Proof #4: Positive Real-World Events
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 that 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 as 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? 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
A couple of months later, 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.
Should You Take An Extreme Approach To Weight Loss?
At this point, I’ve provided you with 4 different types of proof that have hopefully helped you see that starvation mode is nothing but a stupid myth.
However, having spent over a decade explaining this fact to countless people, I know there’s something else that needs to be explained along with it.
See, most people will read this article and take the correct messages from it. You know, things like:
- Starvation mode isn’t real.
- A caloric deficit always works, no matter how excessive it may be.
- “Eating too little” never stops weight loss.
- Your metabolism does slow down while you lose weight, but nowhere near enough to ever prevent weight loss or cause weight gain.
- Adaptive thermogenesis is a real part of that metabolic slowdown, but it only accounts for 0-20% of the total slowdown taking place.
- And so on.
Unfortunately, other people – typically those who already have an eating disorder, or those looking for someone to justify the development of disordered eating habits, or those who simply lack basic reading comprehension skills – will view this article as a huge recommendation to approach weight loss in an extreme and excessive manner.
To them, a sentence like “A caloric deficit always works, no matter how excessive it may be.” is somehow processed by their brain as “It’s okay to starve yourself to lose weight.”
Basically, they’ll read this article and come away thinking that if starvation mode isn’t a real thing that will stop their progress when using an extreme approach, it is therefore okay to use an extreme approach.
And that “extreme approach” will usually entail:
- Severely restricting their calorie intake (via a very low calorie diet).
- Doing an excessive amount of exercise (often tons and tons of cardio every day).
- Some combination of the two.
Well, if you are one of these people and you believe this to be the case, please listen closely to what I’m about to say: THIS IS ABSOLUTELY NOT THE CASE AT ALL.
Well, for starters…
- It’s not mentally or physically safe.
- It can cause nutrient deficiencies.
- It can cause hormonal problems.
- It can cause problems with sexual function.
- It can cause problems with reproductive function.
- It can cause problems with immune function.
- It can cause sleep problems.
- It can cause muscle loss.
- It can cause lethargy and fatigue.
- It can cause disordered eating habits.
- It can worsen existing disordered eating habits.
- It can cause hair loss.
- It can cause depression.
- It can cause extreme hunger.
- It won’t be sustainable.
- It will make weight regain much more likely.
- It can negatively affect virtually every physiological and psychological function.
- It can potentially kill you.
Want more reasons? Okay.
Here’s one final fact about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. Yes, an extreme approach was used and they all lost a ton of weight without their progress ever being stopped by “starvation mode.”
However, 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.
So… should you take an extreme approach to weight loss? Should you starve yourself to lose weight? Should you eat significantly less than you truly need to? Should you do excessive amounts of exercise? Should you have an unnecessarily large deficit?
And just in case you missed that, I said no.
Outside of rare cases that are taking place under the close supervision of a doctor, this is not something I would ever recommend to anyone.
Instead, the only weight loss approach I ever recommend is a moderate approach. It’s the safest, healthiest, easiest, least problematic, and most sustainable way to lose weight.
Additional details here:
- What Is The Best Way To Lose Weight
- How Many Calories Should I Eat Per Day To Lose Weight
- Why Very Low Calorie Diets Don’t Work
- The 1200 Calorie Diet Myth
- What Is The Best Weight Loss Diet
- Superior Fat Loss (my book)
If It’s Not Starvation Mode, Then Why Aren’t I Losing Weight?
If weeks or months are passing and you’re not losing any weight (or you’re possibly even gaining some), you now know that it’s definitely NOT because of “starvation mode.”
And that brings us to the next big question…
If it’s not starvation mode, then why the hell aren’t you losing weight?
Well, if you made it this far, that answer should be pretty obvious.
- 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 not because your deficit is too big.
It’s the opposite.
You’re either eating more calories than you think you are, burning less calories than you think you are, or both… and no deficit is present.
I know, I know… “But I’m only eating X amount of calories, I swear!”
You know who else swore they were “only eating X amount of calories” (with X being some low amount that should clearly cause weight loss)?
The woman in my story from before.
She claimed to be eating 1300 calories per day… until she realized she wasn’t. Instead, she was unintentionally underestimating, under-reporting, and/or miscalculating her calorie intake by hundreds of calories each day the whole time.
And this is almost always the underlying reason behind why EVERYONE who swears they’re “eating the right amount of calories” to lose weight still isn’t losing weight.
How do I know this? How can I be so sure?
- Because countless studies support it (sources: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).
- Because a seemingly infinite amount of real-world cases confirm it.
- Because a caloric deficit always works. So if you WERE in that deficit, you’d currently be losing weight and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
“But I swear I’m in a deficit! I’m barely eating any calories and I’m burning tons of calories and I’m doing everything right but it’s still not working!!”
Nope. That’s not a possibility.
There is simply some factor that is unknowingly preventing you from being in a consistent caloric deficit, and your lack of weight loss is the ultimate guaranteed proof that this is true.
And that brings us to the final question we need to answer…
What Is The Problem, And How Do You Solve It?
I cover every single science-based reason for why you’re not losing weight, how and why each one happens, and exactly what you need to do to solve them right here…
I promise you, your problem and solution are in that article.
And it’s definitely not starvation mode. 😉