What it is and what to do about it
This is a tricky subject because so many people are extremely attached to the idea that this is where their problem lies. I will start by asking you to keep and open mind, to be open to understanding the science behind what is happening to your body, so you can actually begin to have some control over your weight management.
WHAT IS STARVATION MODE
Starvation mode says that you can lower your calories so much that your metabolism slows down to the point that you start to put on fat even if you’re in a calorie deficit.
Essentially saying that you can eat too little to lose weight, meaning that your body would magically store calories that you haven’t actually eaten. On a physiological level this is completely impossible. To put it crudely, if starvation mode occurred… no one would starve. You will never lower calories enough that your body will overcompensate and you start putting fat back on.
While avoiding crash dieting and severe restriction is important, it’s not because you’ll go in to starvation mode, it’s because your body is activating mechanisms that it is designed to activate when in a calorie restriction, but these do not include holding on to body fat. In the nutrition world we sometimes reference controlled starvation, and this is NOT the same thing as what is called starvation mode. Controlled starvation is SOMETIMES (not often) used to reference a calorie deficit.
WHY DO PEOPLE GAIN WEIGHT WHEN SUPPOSEDLY EATING TOO LITTLE?
What usually happens is a lot simpler than we think.
It’s impossible to gain fat in an energy deficit, that would defy the laws of physics. What usually happens is that the cycle of diet and regaining the weight faster than it was lost repeatedly tells the body to defend itself, and this is illustrated below. There is usually an excessive restriction, which is not sustainable, followed by an excessive consumption, which is above necessary, leading to the yo-yo diet trap. This is either from binge eating, cheat meals or whatever. Because the calories were so low, when there is a higher calorie episode, people put on fat very quickly, above what they would put on had the restriction not been so intense. We will have an entire post on this defense mechanism coming soon.
Common problem #1
Most people are very restrictive for 6-7 days, and they overeat 1 or 2 days. These days of overeating can easily undo the calorie deficit. What you do Monday to Friday is absolutely irrelevant if Saturday and Sunday are without boundaries.
As you can see from the image below, weekend “free for all” eating can completely derail your results. This is a generous example, more often than not we see people going above maintenance calories on a weekly average due to overeating on weekends, or the so called “cheat meals”.
Common problem #2
Another thing that usually happens is chronic dieting with constant bursts of overeating. This mainly occurs due to impatience. We want to lose weight, and we want to lose it FAST… for a party, an event, a trip, whatever it is, our desire to lose weight quickly becomes our focus. With chronic dieting your metabolism slows more than it would with responsible dieting, and then episodes of overeating are much more damaging.
What happens in these cases is that after a goal is attained rapidly, individuals eat more than their bodies can metabolize at that time – and store fat. Studies show that more weight is recovered than is lost, and this is called fat over-shooting. This phenomenon persists several weeks after the body has reached the pre-restriction weight, and this contributes to over-shooting mostly as fat.
However, while body fat goes above baseline levels, the metabolism does not recover at the same pace, this actually leads many people to believe their metabolism is broken. That’s not the case, it’s simply that metabolism recovers more slowly than body fat storage mechanisms. Repeated cycles of weight loss and regain are associated with long-term weight gain.
WHAT DOES THIS TELL US?
Your body will not go into starvation mode from skipping a meal, fasting for 24h, or dropping calories for a few weeks. While it’s certainly not advisable to eat too little, all you have to do to understand that this concept does not work like most people think it does is to look at people throughout history who have been severely underfed under awful conditions… they did not hold on to body fat. On the contrary.
No one gains fat from eating too little. However, when going back to previous eating habits after eating too little, your body stores fat more efficiently.
Some people will say that in a hospitalized condition, or in extremely low calorie diets people have lost a significant amount of weight in a short time. Of course! Severe restriction leads to severe loss. This is not due to starvation, this is simply because when you eat less then your body needs you will lose weight. This is not starvation, and when these people go back to eating normally, they gain the weight back. Unfortunately, a regain without boundaries will lead to the cycles shown in the image above.
SO WHAT IS ACTUALLY HAPPENING?
Why have I stopped losing weight?
What happens is that our weight loss is not linear, as our body changes, we need to make adjustments accordingly. Weight loss results in reduction in calorie burn through mechanisms like metabolic adaptation, adaptive thermogenesis and exercise efficiency.
Before going in to these, remember that you don’t lose weight every day, and go back to the post about how not all weight increase is fat to see details and trends in weight fluctuation.
= less mass burns less calories
= preservation of energy lowers NEAT (see this post to learn more about NEAT)
= increased hunger to try to get back to previous set point
All this means that we feel hungrier, and we use less energy.
Our body has defense mechanisms to ATTEMPT to get us back to our set point, which is simply a body weight that our bodies sit comfortably at, not necessarily your ideal weight, simply a weight your body has adapted to maintain easily. Our body doesn’t hold on to fat, our body activates mechanisms to try to make us eat more, and when we do, it increases our ability to store fat.
While starvation is possible, it is not what the absolute majority of people are experiencing when they stop losing fat at the rate they wish they were losing. If you use the term starvation to mean calorie restriction, that’s fine. Not completely accurate, but I see where you’re coming from, like I mentioned in the beginning. If you use the term starvation to say that eating too little means your body holds on to fat, that’s inaccurate.
means that you’re moving less when you’re eating less. This is a mechanism your body uses simply because it has less energy readily available to be consumed, this means that without realizing it, you are moving less throughout the day.
Another adaptation that happens with exercise is that your body becomes more efficient, in other words, your body becomes better at that activity, meaning it needs to burn fewer calories to perform the same activity.
ADAPTATION X ENERGY BALANCE
While this defense mechanism is real, it does not invalidate energy balance
With continued restriction there will be continued loss. The reality is that faced with the powerful defense mechanisms, most people stop the restriction, and many of these overeat in the aftermath.
One issue is that after a very restrictive or prolonged diet “listening to your body” doesn’t work because this defense mechanism overshoots, meaning that after restriction our body overcompensates by making us feel hungrier than the number of calories we would actually need to consume.
An exit strategy is always essential to finish a diet.
People think that since your metabolism will go down on a deficit that means you should never go into a deficit. That’s just not true. If you want to lose fat, you have to be in a deficit. When you eat more, your metabolism will increase again, but if you eat in a surplus, you WILL gain body fat.
The quicker you lose weight the more your metabolic rate will drop. It is a VERY good idea to not lose weight too fast. A drop in metabolism from a reasonable deficit is not inherently bad, it’s just a normal response because if you’re losing weight your body needs less energy to live.
Metabolic adaptation is not a problem to be fixed, it’s simply what happens. The only “fix” you need is to pay attention to your deficit so it’s not too high, because while adaptation is normal, a very restrictive diet lowers metabolism too much.
I’ll give you a trigger warning right now. Skip the next line if you wish. Starvation mode is a made-up concept to justify overeating either after a diet or during a perceived diet. It’s come to a point where it’s not rational, it’s not intentional, but it’s right there.
HOW DO I OFFSET METABOLIC ADAPTATION
So with all this, how do I offset my body trying to gain more fat???
Here are a few things you can do to help offset these defense mechanisms:
. Don’t diet all the time. Diets are supposed to be temporary.
. Slow down. The faster the weight loss, the stronger the defense mechanism will be. Your calorie deficit should be small enough that you can stick to it and still enjoy your life, and high enough that you’re steadily (not daily) losing weight. If you go too low, you won’t be able to keep it up without bingeing every now and then (thereby erasing the deficit you created before). The important thing is not to focus on stopping the overeating, but in stopping the excess restriction. When you stop the over-restriction and go into a reasonable deficit, the overeating tends to stop on its own. Think long term.
. Be responsible with your higher calorie meals. It’s fine to have these meals, just be responsible. If you are doing a sustainable diet this rarely comes up as an issue. Talk to a coach to set up a sustainable diet.
. Have an exit strategy for your diet. I cannot stress enough how important this is!!! Don’t just jack up your calories. Again, talk to a coach to have an exit strategy.
. Separate your weight, the number on the scale, from body fat. Our weight fluctuates massively depending on many factors (see this post for details). If you associate weight with body fat you will think you’re gaining fat every time the scale spikes up, and if it doesn’t change, you’ll assume you’re in starvation mode.
. Resistance train. Bodyweight works, lifting weights is better. This helps maintain muscle mass and exercise has also been shown to help regulate hunger and satiety.
. Keep your protein intake high. Protein helps keep us satisfied, supports muscle maintenance, can reduce cravings and overall calorie intake.
. If you have a lot of weight to lose, take diet breaks. This is important to teach your body to maintain your new weight when done for longer stretches. For short breaks of a few days, this can temporarily boost the levels of some hunger hormones. However, it’s important to not eat like an idiot during these breaks. It’s a break, it’s not a free for all. Again, having a coach to walk you through these stages is one of the best investments you can make.
This was a long one! If you would like support in reaching your ideal weight and not gaining it back, contact me! Either email firstname.lastname@example.org or use the form on my coaching page.
References used in this post:
PMID 9168518; PMCID PMC1526048; Jacob Tanner, The Rationing system…; PMID 16568134; PMID 19761507; PMID 18356845; PMID 19400750; PMID 22475574; PMID: 22846776; PMID: 18356845