Starvation mode sounds understandably terrifying to those of you trying to lose weight. Drop your calories too low, and your body responds by slowing your rate of weight loss and holding on to every last pound until your weight loss progress grinds to a halt.
But the term "starvation mode" is very misleading and creates a culture of fear around dieting and weight loss that can be hard for some people to work through and overcome. So this article will clarify some of the facts and debunk some of the myths.
What is Starvation Mode?
People use the term starvation mode when they mean that after a period of dieting on reduced calories, their body starts to adapt to the lower caloric intake. That means they lose weight at a slower rate than before.
Starvation mode is not a real thing. On a long enough time on low calories, your body will lose weight. That's the law of thermodynamics. At the most extreme level, if someone had no calories at all, a person will eventually starve. A more accurate and helpful way of talking about the slowing down of weight loss is metabolic adaptation.
What is Metabolic Adaptation?
Metabolic adaptation is the process of how efficiently your body turns the food you eat into energy. When considered through a biological lens, your historical ancestors in times of famine would have needed to use only the minimum number of calories to preserve bodily homeostasis. Homeostasis keeps natural processes like organ function in order. It maintains the body's temperature at a steady level and stores the rest of the calories as body fat for survival.
When your body gets fewer calories than it needs now - because of being on a diet - your body does adapt to needing fewer calories to fuel your daily activities.
Why Does it Happen and When?
After an extended period of fewer calorie intake than you need to maintain body fat, your body starts to get used to fewer calories. It has adapted to the new dietary calories; this is your new "set point" to maintain your weight. Your body is conserving energy; calories not used for running essential biological functions are stored as fat, and you have considerably less energy for exercise. Other bodily functions may take over in importance, such as sleep.
This reduction in day to day energy levels affects your readiness to train. Your motivation to exercise is low, your focus and intention in the session are less dialed in. You even fidget less. This is a reduction in your TDEE - total daily energy expenditure. In short, you feel lazier and have less enthusiasm for non-exercise activity, like walking or even sex.
Can You Mitigate It?
Metabolic adaptation, unlike starvation mode, is real. And unfortunately, there's not a great deal you can do to stop it. There are millions of years of evolution guiding that metabolic change. But some things can be done to mitigate it and prevent it from completely stopping your progress.
Diet breaks are a useful tool that can be used to give a biological and psychological reset and help you to recommit to the process if the goal is substantial and takes time.
According to research by MATADOR, introducing a diet break can improve long-term compliance if you've not yet finished your diet and can get you ready to work hard again. When using a diet break, you increase your calories up to maintenance to shift that set point to a higher level. When you restart your diet, you'll be able to lose weight again on more calories than before.
If you've not used a diet break before, it can be useful to work with a coach who can guide you through the process. There are some significant psychological considerations for increasing calories after a long period spent dieting, so having expert support can prove to be particularly beneficial.
To conclude, starvation is real but starvation mode - as it's spoken about in dieting terms - is not. However, the impact of long term dieting on the body is real and is called metabolic adaptation. This is unavoidable, but some strategies can be used to mitigate it from preventing progress with your diet.
The most effective approach is a diet break. The goal is to reset your maintenance calories at a higher level to continue progress with weight loss. If you feel your weight loss has plateaued and need some input from an expert to figure out where to go from here, feel free to get in touch!