What’s the Deal with Starvation Mode? | Ask the Dietitian

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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What’s the Deal with Starvation Mode? | Ask the Dietitian

Ever skipped a lunch break only to be warned by a well-meaning buddy that it could put your body into “starvation mode” and damage your metabolism? Before you dash off to stuff a dollar into that vending machine, it’s important to understand the different ways that people define starvation mode and how it differs from actual starvation.

WHAT IS STARVATION MODE?

“Starvation mode” is a slippery term. While one camp wishes that the starvation mode myth would die already, another staunchly defends its existence. Unsurprisingly, this boils down to the differences in definition. The two most common definitions are:

  1. Starvation mode is a phenomenon where metabolism slows down because you’re not eating often enough.
  2.  Starvation mode is a phenomenon where your metabolism slows down because you’re not eating enough calories.

“STARVATION MODE” IS NOT EATING OFTEN ENOUGH

The implied horror of being in starvation mode is that your weight loss stalls because your metabolism is broken. Where did this idea come from? It came from the popular weight-loss tip that you should eat six small meals per day instead of three square meals. Because digestion requires you to burn calories to get calories from food, eating six small meals was supposed to keep you at an elevated metabolism for weight loss. Conversely, not eating frequently enough means you burn fewer calories and your metabolism slows down (aka starvation mode).

By this definition, “starvation mode” is a myth. You don’t need to constantly eat to keep your metabolism elevated. Your metabolism doesn’t break just because you decide to skip a meal every so often. Additionally, when it comes to weight loss, the overall calories consumed matter more than how often you eat.


READ MORE > IS IT NORMAL TO ALWAYS FEEL HUNGRY?


“STARVATION MODE” IS NOT EATING ENOUGH CALORIES

If you regularly slash a reasonable number of calories (e.g., 250–500 calories per day) to lose weight, you may run into the dreaded weight-loss plateau after a streak of scale victories. It’s a very real and normal consequence of losing weight. Here, starvation mode and weight-loss plateaus are two sides of the same coin. Both refer to what happens when you weigh less — you consequently have a lower metabolism and burn fewer calories. While it’s a bummer to be handed this reality in a calorie-rich environment, the adaptation was useful in the past when food shortages were common.

If you drastically slash calories and are eating a very low-calorie diet (Think: less than 1,000 calories for women and less than 1,200 calories for men), “starvation mode” can actually be starvation. Starvation from chronic undereating can be counterproductive to weight loss and dangerous to your health. Eating very low-calorie diets for extended amounts of time puts you at risk for malnutrition because it makes it very difficult for you to obtain all the vitamins and minerals through food alone. Additionally, your metabolism drops way down to conserve energy, and your body breaks down valuable muscles and organs in a futile effort to maintain adequate fuel for your brain. (If you want to learn more, read Why Undereating Won’t Actually Help You Lose Weight.)

THE TAKEAWAY

In both definitions, the hallmark characteristic of starvation mode is a slower resting metabolism and increased hunger — both of which threaten to boot people off the weight-loss horse. This is more likely to happen when you use calorie restriction as the only tool in your weight-loss kit. If your goal is to lose weight and to keep it off, you have to focus on changing your lifestyle. No two bodies are the same, so be open to different strategies, find the ones that work for you and stick with it! Need some inspiration? Check out these 67 science-backed weight loss strategies to get you started!

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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11 responses to “What’s the Deal with Starvation Mode? | Ask the Dietitian”

  1. Avatar Viola Rose says:

    I’m glad someone finally said no two bodies are the same!!!

  2. Avatar Matt Kornegay says:

    I totally agree. I’m not seeing any loses in weight while I’m counting calories. I workout 5 days a week (off weekends) and I was doing cardio two and strength three. I’m now trying to incorporate cardio in every workout even if only 10mins on strength days. This is very frustrating because I am smaller body while I have a friend who is heavier and shedding lbs left and right. Trying to keep to a 1,500 calorie diet feels burdensome. I look at calories on everything and realize how much I can’t eat. Even on the things like healthy organic granola bars (over 150 cal). I find myself rarely full after only consuming 500 or less calorie meals. And all the while I’m not losing weight. Yes, I admit not everyday is 1,500 cal, but in no way do I eat like before. So I can’t eat anything and then I’m not losing weight and I exercise and my energy is somewhat down from lack of food. So what’s to keep me on this lifestyle. Feeling frustrated. Feeling like I’m starving. And yes I will skip meals here and there just so I can eat a meal and actually feel full without going over my calorie intake for the day.

    • Avatar Dan says:

      Try HIIT cardio. That should get your metabolism going. Also what is your macro ratio at?

    • Avatar Marelica says:

      You don’t have to change your diet, since you’re eating 1500kcal. What you have to change is your mindset! If you think “i caaan’t”, you are fight, you can’t. Try thinking “i caaan do it!” Change your mind and your body will follow. And, ofc, try eating healthy low calorie food, like lettuce with something calorie dense, like potato. It keeps you full of energy. Or try big portion of leek with rice and curry. Eat slow, and enjoy every bite. It works, I promise. And, I’m not even working out. You work out, that’s even better for you. I’m sure you can do it, I believe in you, because you’re obviously trying hard. (Sorry for my english, that’s my third language)

      • Avatar Matt Kornegay says:

        I think that’s my big issue is finding food that I like and will not get bored of. It’s difficult because that seems like a vary limited menu. Besides how many ways can you prepare rice? A lot, but it’s still rice. Same as tofu. If there is only a handful of foods I can eat for the rest of my life then it feels as if I’m not able to enjoy it. Thanks for your reply.

        • Avatar Megan Nicole Montgomery says:

          Matt, what helped me is to find recipes with what you have. In the morning for a few weeks I stared with oatmeal with fruit, and egg whites on the side. After so long I dreaded eating it! I found out the main thing to do is making sure you get a good mix of not only protein but carbs as well; I keep that in mind. The other day I made the egg whites scrambled with some turkey sausage a pinch of cheese and salsa wrapped up in a fiber and protein rich tortilla! IT WAS SOOO GOOD! I have always been told that when looking for granola bars, try to avoid anything over 10 grams of fat and sugar. My favorite are the pure protein bars that are chocolate and peanut butter (:

    • Avatar Asani says:

      Here’s the thing: not all calories are equal in value. Macro’s are actually more important (protein, carbohydrates, and lipids) when it comes to body sculpting and weight loss. If you look at ingredients rather than JUST calories, you’ll see that a lot of those granola bars, for example, contain refined sugar (if it doesn’t say “cane sugar”, you’re getting beet sugar- shitty stuff that spikes your insulin levels and makes it next-to impossible for your body to burn fat). Sugar is the main culprit for lack of weight loss, not just weight gain. If you’re filling up on food with hidden sugar, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Lean meats, healthy fats like in avocado, nuts and seeds, and yes- even a little butter (organic/grass fed), fruits (but don’t overdo it on those either moderation is EVERYTHING), whole grains and complex carbs (think oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, starchy veggies like red and sweet potatoes- not whole grain bread/ other gluten-laden carbs that turn to sugar), and GREN LEAFY VEGGIES. If you’re not getting full it means you aren’t getting enough fiber throughout the day to fill you up. That said, you need protein to really full you up. Getting nutrients should be the main priority, then feeling full. My favorite meal plan is oatmeal with coconut oil and a teaspoon of honey with some fresh fruit like apples, or raisins, or blueberries and walnuts. Lunch is a light salad with balsamic vinaigrette and fresh veggies like tomato, cucumber, Granny Smith Apple, grated carrot, etc, and dinner is grilled chicken breast with oven baked sweet potatoes lightly salted and another veggie like asparagus or Brussel sprouts. Snacks that are filling and rewarding is a banana, 1 sliced apple and a tablespoon of organic peanut butter (Once Again has unsalted/unsweetened) or sliced red bell peppers and hummus.
      Another thing- if you drink lots of coffee, what you put in it matters (refined sugar/dairy products) and it drops your blood sugar so you’re more likely to crave sugar.
      Last tip- before you even get out of bed in the morning, drink 24oz of water to flush toxins, rehydrate after losing water through vapor while you sleep, and start your metabolism. A small piece of fruit before anything big, peach/plum/half a banana will ease your body into digestion and start your good enzymes.
      Stick with it and DONT SKIP MEALS because you’re more likely to binge and then feel guilt and shame.
      You go!!!! If you want more advise email me at AsaniDvorsky@gmail.com

      • Avatar Matt Kornegay says:

        Thanks for the advice Asani. Yes, I’m trying to adapt to this whole new way of eating and it is difficult for me. It requires a lot more preparation and meal planning which requires time and energy that I do not have a lot of. Convenience gets a lot of us in trouble even if we think we are eating healthy. I’m really trying to stick to the good granola bars like Clif, Kind, etc. I know the others are just junk. I drink coffe in the morn, but do watch and measure what I put in it. I use monk fruit in the raw for sweetener and a cream/sugar blended creamer with 25 cals per tbsp. I quit those vegetable oil based ones. I feel like those examples you gave are like the only foods I can eat. Or types like that. We are consumed with 90% bad and maybe only 10% good foods in our markets. I’m not a huge veggie person (at least not the ones that supposed to be good) an though I like fruits I don’t eat a lot of them. I will take yut suggestions and try to apply them. Thx.

        • Avatar Mel says:

          I was in the same boat Matt until I really changed my mindset/perception and decided a “do or die” attitude and got creative with my food. Make it a fun experience and google healthy veggie recipes and recipes in general. You would be surprised at all the easy good recipes out there with just knowing how to cook and what to add to give them different tastes and so they are more appealing to you. Once you get in the right mindset and start changing how you see “healthy” foods, it will be a way of life. Also simple swaps help. Instead of a granola bar, eat mixed nuts (prefer raw and or unsalted).
          Also look at ingredients when you shop. My philosophy is if you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it and try to stick with 5 ingredients (that you know what they are) or less for food purchases. And make your own meals. Make large meals and save the left overs for lunch. It’s more about mindset and planning. I plan my meals on Sunday for the week. If I don’t plan…forget it…I have too many outs/excuses to eat junk….hold yourself accountable….it’s a challenge at times.
          Best wishes!

  3. Avatar Chris says:

    Juice fasting could help with weight loss, like in fat sick and nearly dead. I’m seriously thinking of doing it! I’m almost fed up with counting every single calorie.

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