Weight Loss Wednesdays: Is Starvation Mode Keeping You From Losing Weight?

Last week: Keep Your Heart Pumping!

Better set an alarm…

You may have had friends, family, or even your doctor tell you that you should be eating several small meals evenly spaced apart. They claim that doing so will keep your metabolism humming along, allowing you to lose the most weight possible. The logic is that the body is built to react to times of starvation by using fewer calories. If the body enters starvation mode, your basal energy expenditure will go down, meaning you burn fewer calories. Naturally, this decreases your calorie deficit, making it harder to lose weight.

MYTH: This “starvation mode” is the reason I’m not losing weight.

No. It isn’t. Actually, let me put that in bold and maybe italicize it too: No, it isn’t.

This peer-reviewed scientific article concludes that “studies using whole-body calorimetry and doubly-labelled water to assess total 24 h energy expenditure find no difference between nibbling and gorging.” The data shows that eating frequently isn’t making you burn more calories, and eating infrequently isn’t making you burn fewer.

Furthermore, those periods between meals aren’t even starvation at all. Starvation mode only really applies to cases of true or semi- starvation. You might think you’re starving after skipping lunch and coming home for a late dinner, but you’re not really starving. The oft-cited Minnesota Semistarvation Study cut down diets to about 50% of the participant’s BMR (basal metabolic rate, the calories you burn when you’re not doing anything at all) for six months, not the six hours you might spend between meals.

“Well ok, but if I’ve been dieting for a while, then I’ve been eating fewer calories than I need for a long time now…I could be in starvation mode, right?”

It’s possible, yes, that your body has somewhat compensated for a reduced caloric intake, but let’s make sure we understand properly just how little you’d have to be eating to see the types of effects we’re talking about. For most people, 50% of BMR is 1000 Calories or less per day. Unless you’re eating that little (and if you are, please make sure you’re getting adequate nutrition), you shouldn’t be thinking starvation mode is your problem.

But either way, the thing is, even if you WERE in starvation mode, the reduction in your metabolism wouldn’t offset the calorie deficit you had created by eating so little. I’m going to go ahead and let Lyle McDonald, an expert in nutrition science, explain this:

In no study I’ve ever seen has the drop in metabolic rate been sufficient to completely offset the caloric deficit. That is, say that cutting your calories by 50% per day leads to a reduction in the metabolic rate of 10%. Starvation mode you say. Well, yes. But you still have a 40% daily deficit.

In one of the all-time classic studies (the Minnesota semi-starvation study), men were put on 50% of their maintenance calories for 6 months. It measured the largest reduction in metabolic rate I’ve ever seen, something like 40% below baseline. Yet at no point did the men stop losing fat until they hit 5% body fat at the end of the study.

That last line is key. Even under fairly extreme conditions, where the effects of starvation mode might be considered at their greatest, the participants were still losing fat. What this means is that no matter how much you may want to believe it, eating less isn’t what’s causing you to spin your wheels.

Instead, the most common cause of plateauing is not accurately measuring your calorie intake. While at first (especially for those with lots to lose), just making general cuts might work, over time your caloric needs will change simply because you lost weight. It is important to periodically recalculate your BMR and maintenance intake (there are calculators all over the internet) in order to make sure your old calorie goals still apply.

Also, it’s possible you’ve started to get a little more lax with your diet. It’s easy to go in with a lot of motivation and really cut your diet down to the bare minimum only to start scaling things back as your cravings become intolerable. If you’re not careful, the calories can start to sneakily add up.

The obvious tip here is to log your intake and watch how many calories you’re actually consuming. But since I already addressed that in the first ever Weight Loss Wednesday, it looks like you’re all in store for a bonus tip this week.

TIP: If you don’t want to eat a bunch of little meals, don’t. Instead, consider trying something like LeanGains.

Leangains is a type of Intermittent Fasting (IF) program designed by Martin Berkhan that breaks the day into fasting and feeding windows. While there may or may not be any advantages from a weight-loss or fat-loss perspective, it can have convenience advantages. If you work odd hours or are too rushed to eat breakfast, no problem—meal timing doesn’t matter and it just means you can eat more later.

You don’t have to deny yourself.

In fact, one of the biggest positives that fans of the program cite is that they can eat the foods they enjoy because they aren’t trying to break their day into six 250-calorie meals. If you want pizza, have a couple slices, then fill the rest of your calories with foods that help you meet your nutritional goals. Nothing about intermittent fasting changes the rules of the game—you still have to eat fewer calories than you burn—it just makes it all potentially easier to stick to.

 

Your turn: What’s your favorite meal of the day and how often do YOU like to eat?

Neel Joshi

Neel is a medical student who also does research on pediatric brain tumors. He is passionate about medicine and blogs about health, politics, weight loss, and more at The Soapbox. He also maintains a blogging "happy place" at OptimistPrime.

4 Comments

  1. Good info here. Have you read the Four Hour Body? Ferriss talks about the idea of limiting the intake of “white carbs” during the week and then having a “cheat day” on Saturdays where everything is fair game. I like the idea because, like you mentioned, it is easier to stick to when you don’t have to deny yourself.

    • I’ve played around with a carb-cycling approach myself and found that it works well for me. Purely anecdotal, but I find that after a day, my cravings for carbs go down, and then when I decide to carb up, I can pick something I really enjoy.

  2. Interesting post. There are so many myths about dieting, it’s hard to know just what is the truth. The only time I had to diet was when I started bodybuilding and that was to gain weight. I’m naturally skinny and have a tiny, tiny appetite. Presently, I eat three or four small meals at random times during the day. That seems enough to keep my spirit and energy up.

    • I’m absolutely in favor of people finding what works for them and sticking with it. I just don’t want anyone thinking that things *have* to be done a certain way.

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