This will probably turn into a series of articles. I don’t know if myth is a good work since starvation mode does actually exist. Like most of these there is a grain of truth to the claims, but for most people in most situations Starvation Mode is a myth. Do you need to worry about Starvation Mode? The short answer is no. For anyone who is overweight or even a healthy weight starvation mode will not be a factor. If you are underweight starvation mode could affect you but you shouldn’t be dieting anyway.
What people think starvation mode is
It isn’t hammered down, but people think starvation mode kicks in if you consume less than 1200 calories per day. It causes your metabolism to slow to a crawl. Your body stops burning calories, and you stop losing weight, some people even believe you can begin gaining weight if you eat few enough calories (something that violates the laws of physics).
What starvation mode actually is
Starvation mode is what happens when your body runs out of fuel to burn. Your body will feed on 2 things as long as they are available: food you eat and your fat reserves. If these 2 calorie sources are depleted then your body has no choice but to slow down. People become lethargic. They have trouble concentrating, They are laterally running on empty. With no where else to get energy the body will consume muscle and organ tissue to keep going. Body temperature is no longer regulated properly and people can get very cold. Their metabolism does slow to a crawl but that is because there is no more fuel for the fire. I want to hammer this point home. The body doesn’t choose to slow metabolism to conserve energy. Energy is depleted so the body is forced to slow down. This is real starvation and it is probably hell to go through.
Where did starvation mode come from?
The idea of starvation mode cam from a now infamous study generally referred to as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. This was done in the 1940′s by a man named Ancel Keys. The study was actually designed to see how to best re-feed Europeans who where in a famine state due to the war torn land. The study took 36 volunteers through 3 phases. The first was a 12 week baseline where the men were fed a normal (controlled) amount of food. The second phase was a 24 week starvation period where the men were fed little enough for them to lose 25% of their body weight by the end of the phase. The final phase was what the study was actually about. A 12 week re-feeding of the subjects to see how much food would be required for the men to get back to a healthful state. Towards the end of phase II Mr. Keys was astonished by the transformation of his volunteers both physically and mentally. He and his colleges published their findings in a near 1400 page book called “The Biology of Human Starvation”.
The problem with using the results of this study is that it wasn’t a weight loss experiment. These were normal healthy men who were starved down to dangerously low body fat levels. Now I hope everyone reading this are not trying to get down to dangerously low body fat. So you will likely not have the same results as these subjects.
This guy may be in starvation mode, but only after every ounce of fat on his body was depleted. No one can say he didn’t lose weight. This guy actually had a mental break and chopped off several of his fingers with an axe. He was dismissed from the study.
How does starvation mode affect dieting?
There are a few factors of starvation mode that affect diet and weight loss a little.
1. Muscle loss. If you diet without exercise you may lose some muscle mass. This can be easily remedied by performing some strength training a few times per week. There was a great study done at West Virginia University that fed 20 subjects 800 calories per day for 12 weeks. Ten of the subjects were asked to only do cardiovascular exercises during the 12 weeks. The other 10 were asked to only do strength training exercises for 12 weeks. Keep in mind this is a full 1/3rd less than the 1200 calories you hear people throw around that is starvation mode inducing. All 20 people lost considerable weight. The 10 who did strictly cardio lost the most overall weight. But that is because they lost both fat and muscle. Those that did only strength training lost more body fat, and lost nearly 0% of their muscle mass. This shows that muscle loss can be counter acted by performing strength training. (source)
2. Slower metabolism. I do think your body conserves a bit of calories if you eat significantly less. For example, I notice that I get cold easier and I am cold to the touch. I also believe that your body will try to convince you to do less to offset the lower calorie intake. This urge can be ignored. Try moving as much as if not more than you usually would.
3. Weight loss slows. There may be a law of diminishing returns with dieting. They say every 3500 calories you burn is a pound of fat. So cutting your calories by 500 per day should cause you to lose a pound a week (500 calories * 7 days = 3500 calories per week). 1000 calories is 2 lbs per week. but a 1500 calorie deficit per day may not necessarily be a full 3 lbs per week.
4. Weight loss stops or even weight gain occurs. This can be very discouraging. I have hit a plateau a few times in my weight loss journey but it isn’t due to Starvation Mode. I notice while dieting I tend to drink large quantities of water to keep from having an empty stomach. Water weights a lot. It isn’t fat or muscle its just water weight, but your scale doesn’t know the difference. If you continue to diet and your scale isn’t showing any improvement, try cutting back some on the water intake and see if the number goes back to what you expect.Take a look at my weight change over time. I was stuck in the low 190s for about a month. Then my weight started dropping quickly. The only thing I changed was the amount of wather I drank in a day. The fat was burning off, but I was replacing it with water weight. Once I cut my water intake I went right back to where I should have been.