Are you in starvation mode?

I want to share with you a story about a client named Jason.  

Jason started coaching with me because he wanted to lose weight to be able to go on more hikes with his kids, and his doctor warned him that he was in danger of developing diabetes. During our first meeting, he told me that he was hungry all the time, never really felt full, and hated dieting.  

We decided he would keep a food log to see what he was eating. We reviewed the record and found he was skipping breakfast, eating meals mainly of protein and starchy carbs, and frequently snacking about an hour after eating. 

I asked him why he skipped breakfast, and it was because he would forget to eat. So we set a reminder in his calendar to make a balanced breakfast with carbs, protein, fat, and fruit or veggies.   

His go-to breakfast was a protein shake with two scoops of protein, a fist full of spinach, blueberries, avocado, and almond milk. The protein shake left him “full” until lunch. Once he consistently ate breakfast, we shifted our focus to lunch and dinner. 

We took a deep dive into the concept of building a balanced plate. 

  • 25% protein
  • 25% carbs,
  • 50% fruits or veggies
  • 1-2 thumbs of fat.  

Jason, like many clients, was shocked by how much food he should “try” to get on his plate. Furthermore, I let him know that he could have as many fruits and vegetables as he wanted throughout the day.  

Bonus points for fiber-rich fruits like raspberries and vegetables like broccoli.  

One day he came to our coaching session with a huge grin. I asked him what happened, and he told me he turned down free pizza at work because he was full.”  

Jason managed to lose about 25 pounds while eating more balanced meals and snacking less during the day. The added fiber and breakfast helped him consume more protein and have a more balanced, nutrient-dense diet.  

Most importantly, he could now take his kids on weekend hikes. So, he ate more, snacked less, and found the right balance for him. 

Eating More Leads To Weight Loss? 

Yes, eating more can lead to weight loss; however, context is everything.  

There is a popular trend amongst “wellness influencers” saying that clients are in “starvation mode,” and that’s why they can’t lose weight with a diet.

Starvation Mode is the idea that if you stop eating or reduce calories too low, your body will do everything to preserve energy and prevent you from losing weight. 

Yes, starvation mode is real; however, only in EXTREME cases of malnourishment, such as someone suffering from an eating disorder or starving. 

Quite possibly, the most famous example would be The Minnesota Starvation Experiement. During World War II, thirty-six conscientious objectors participated in a study of human starvation at the University of Minnesota. They divided the experiement into three phases. 

Phase 1: A 12-week baseline control phase. Each participant consumed roughly 3,200 calories a day to bring them close to their ideal weight. 

Phase 2:  A 24-week semi-starvation phase which adjusted the participant’s calories to about 1,560 calories per day. This cut in calories caused them to lose roughly 25% of their pre-starvation bodyweight. 

Phase 3aA 12-week restricted rehabilitation period. “The participants were divided into four groups of eight men; each group received a strictly-controlled rehabilitation diet, consisting of one of four different caloric energy levels.”

Phase 3bAn 8-week unrestricted rehabilitation period. Calorie intake was not controlled but was carefully recorded and monitored.  

Throughout the experiement, many experienced anemia, fatigue, apathy, extreme weakness, irritability, neurological deficits, and lower extremity edema.

Starvation mode did not happen until the men reached extreme levels of leanness, around 5% body fat, because they would have died if they lost any more weight. 

I hope anyone reading this article is not in starvation mode. It won’t happen if you skip a meal, decide to fast, or safely lower your calories while trying to lose weight.

If you look at the pictures of the men from the Minnesota Experiment, you will notice none of them were “overweight.” It doesn’t make sense to tell someone they have difficulty losing weight due to starvation mode. 

You won’t hold onto fat from eating too little. 

The reality is that someone needs to be in a calorie deficit to lose weight, and if someone says they are and aren’t losing weight, they aren’t aware of what they are eating.

Weight loss boils down to energy balance and lifestyle factors; however, it becomes much easier to eat in a surplus or at maintenance if someone isn’t accurately tracking their intake.

You are a human, and it isn’t crazy to think that someone might underreport how many calories they are eating. A controlled study found that even registered dietitians underreport their calorie intake by roughly 223 calories per day. 

Why Could Someone Have A Hard Time Tracking Calories? 

There are several reasons why someone might have a hard time tracking their calories. 

  1. They are new to tracking and make common mistakes like not accounting for liquid calories, fats, or additional sauces/condiments. It’s typical, and it isn’t hard to make an adjustment and see a change. 
  2. The deficit is too aggressive, so someone can’t adhere to the plan. 
  3. Reread number 2. 

When someone attempts to adhere to an extreme caloric deficit, the likely hood of maintaining that deficit is very small. Someone who follows a new trendy diet might lose weight and then gain it all back. It’s not that diets don’t work; they do, but aggressive deficits don’t lead to great adherence.  

If someone is claiming a reverse diet took them out of starvation mode, they are wrong. Attempting to eat 1,200 calories usually leads to snacking or, in some cases, binge eating. If I were to add 500-600 calories back into someone’s diet and they start losing weight, it’s because they are eating enough and have an easier time sticking to the plan. 

TL;DR: When you eat enough, it becomes easier not to need to snack throughout the day. Mindless snacking is a different topic that I cover in this article.

What Should You Do? 

I suggest reading a recent article I wrote on the price of getting extremely lean.   

This section highlights some realistic expectations you can set for yourself regarding weight loss and setting your calorie deficit.  

“There are three levels of weekly fat loss: 

Easy: .5 – 1 pound per week. 

Medium: 1-2 pounds per week

Hard: 2-3 pounds per week. 

To put things into perspective, losing 2-3 pounds per week would require about 95% adherence to your plan. The more consistent you are, the quicker you will lose weight and see progress. However, someone can make small changes, lose half a pound a week, and be consistent without extreme lifestyle modifications. One is more sustainable than the other. “

Creating a more significant calorie deficit is easier when you have more body fat to lose; however, you will hit a plateau at a certain point, and that is entirely normal.  

For anyone attempting to lose weight doing drastic things seem attractive because “it will work faster.”  If you aren’t laying the proper foundation and taking your time, you become more likely to cycle through diet after diet. 

Here are a few tips to try. 

Give yourself more time than you think you will need to lose the weight. If someone promises you quick and drastic results in a short amount of time, you will have difficulty adhering to or maintaining weight loss. 

If your weight loss goal is 100 pounds, start by aiming to lose the first 20. Your deficit will be more manageable, and you will be able to learn along the way.  

Don’t demonize specific foods. Understand that tracking your calories makes it easier to enter a deficit without eliminating everything. 

Focus on adding things into your life such as daily walks, drinking more water, getting more sleep, eating more protein & fruits/vegetables, and strength training. Addition is more manageable than subtraction. 

The best way to lose weight is to make sure you can adhere to whatever plan you are following without destroying everything you find joyful.  

Calorie deficits are the not-so-secret secret to weight loss. 

If you have a question, reach out. I’m here to help, and coaching is what I love to do.  

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