The theory of “starvation mode” is something that fuels obsessive compulsive eating in North America and throughout the world.
The theory of starvation mode is challenging to dispute because the definition continually changes. As each definition is proven to be junk science, a new definition pops up in it’s place, and some definitions are more correct and scientifically feasible than others, so it becomes increasingly difficult for the average person to tell hype from fact. And while some aspects of starvation mode are a concern, others are simply a marketing technique designed to create fear… fear that without a special diet or special advice you could diet wrong and hurt yourself.
So for the sake of clarity, the definition I am referring to when I say “starvation mode” is as follows:
Starvation mode is when metabolism supposedly slows down when you don’t eat every couple of hours.. to the point where you are actually gaining weight while in a caloric deficit.
More often than not you will see this definition supporting very complex diet programs. (What??) They take the common sense idea of eating less, and make it sound like a bad idea… of course then you need their advice on how to lose weight if eating less is no longer an option (clever).
This is just another example of fear mongering and confusion created by the food, diet, and supplement industry that ultimately leads to obsessive compulsive eating.
DO NOT fall for this fear mongering!
It only ads to the confusion people have about how much food or how little food they can eat without slowing their metabolism.
The truth is that a large body of scientific research shows that you can eat lower amounts of calories for extended periods of time without large changes in your metabolism and without a significant decrease in muscle mass as long as you do some form of resistance training, and if you are not already exceptionally lean.
In fact, most of the fear of “starvation mode” tends to come from bodybuilders and people in the fitness industry – men and women who are dieting to the point where they temporarily get to dangerously low levels of body fat, and have caused major metabolic complications with their prolonged severe dieting, severe training, and severely low levels of body fat. It’s the people in the extremes, warning about the extremes.
But the goal isn’t zero percent body fat, and for the vast majority of us who are trying to lose fat, build muscle, and get lean and healthy this is not an issue.
Yes, spending extended periods of time eating very little amounts of food and taking part in high levels of exercise can cause metabolic complications, but this doesn’t mean that eating less and exercising ALWAYS causes these types of problems.
In fact, you can lose significant amounts of weight without losing muscle mass or damaging your metabolism as long as you are using resistance training as part of your weight loss plan.
In a study just published in the Journal of Obesity, researchers examined the effects of losing 25 pounds on 94 women who either:
A) Followed a resistance training workout program
B) Followed an aerobic training program
C) Did not workout at all
These women were asked to follow a diet consisting of 800 Calories until they reduced their BMI down to less than 25. (The average was 25 pounds of weight loss.)
The women continued this diet for as long as 5 months straight (not something I would personally recommend without being medically monitored). The researchers found that the women who were following the resistance training workout program maintained their fat free mass during the time they were on the diet.
This means that even though they lost 25 pounds they were able to preserve their muscle mass. Therefore all 25 pounds that these women lost were from fat! (So much for those fat burning enzymes decreasing!)
They also found that the group of women who were following the resistance training workout program preserved their metabolic rate. In other words they did not see any metabolic “slowdown” as a result of losing 25 pounds, or from being on a 800 Calorie per day diet for 5 months (way lower and way longer than I would ever recommend)!
Interestingly, the researchers found decreases in fat free mass in the women who did not workout AND in the women who performed aerobic training.
More evidence that resistance training while following a weight reducing diet program can preserve lean mass and metabolic rate.
Sometimes it’s not the diet, but what you do along with the diet that counts the most.
REF: Hunter GR, Byrne NM, Sirikul B, Fernandez JR, Zuckerman PA, Darnell BE, Gower BA. Resistance training conserves Fat-free mass and resting energy expenditure following weight loss. Obesity. 2008;16(5):1045-51.