“Starvation Mode” Preventing Fat Loss?
“Starvation mode” is a phrase you’ll sometimes hear if you talk about fat loss with friends, people at the gym or personal trainers who aren’t worth their certification.
I recently got a question about “starvation mode” from someone who had bought my fat loss video course, they said:
“Hi Rob, I’ve just bought the course, but I wanted to know if it addresses how to get out of starvation mode? I always seem to hit a block with my fat loss attempts and my previous trainer said it was due to starvation mode stopping me losing any weight”
Here’s the short answer (it’s not “starvation mode”):
Your trainer isn’t worth the money you pay them. Starvation mode is not real. You cannot be “not eating enough to lose weight”. That makes no sense.
“Starvation mode” is a convenient excuse that takes the blame for not losing fat off of the dieter, and shifts it onto some mysterious phenomenon.
Remember – if “starvation mode” really was the reason why people didn’t lose fat, then people wouldn’t become anorexic, nor would they die in famines.
Here’s what’s happening when someone thinks they are in “starvation mode”:
1. They’ve been on a reduced calorie diet for a while, and they’ve reached the point where those reduced calories are no longer enough for weight loss at their current weight and level of activity.
They’ve lost some weight already – so now the amount of calories they’re eating will result in slower fat loss (heavier people need more calories, lighter people need fewer). Calories either need to be dropped again, or activity (exercise or non-exercise) needs to be increased.
Fat tissue requires energy to sustain it (although not as much as muscle does). If you weighed 300 lbs and were losing fat on a 2700 calories per day diet, your fat loss would slow down as you became lighter and lighter. Eventually it would stop altogether when the energy required to maintain your new weight comes down to meet the energy you’re providing through diet.
This on it’s own could be the reason, or it could just be one of the contributing factors.
2. The reduced calorie diet has resulted in some reduced calorie expenditure via NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).
In other words, you are moving less to compensate for the reduction in energy being provided by your diet.
NEAT refers to all of the energy you expend through activity that is NOT exercise. It’s walking to the train station and the shops (or to the bathroom or garage at the moment). It’s also tapping your foot absent mindedly, pacing while you’re on the phone, waving your hands around as you speak, chopping up food as you make a complex meal in the kitchen, etc.
When you’re on a reduced calorie diet, eventually your body will try to conserve some of this energy. It’s not starvation mode. It’s not “not eating enough to lose weight”. You’re simply moving less. You may speak slower. Fidget less. Stop waving your arms around when you speak. Roll over less in the night. Take the elevator instead of the stairs. You get lazier and move less.
You can ramp NEAT up again by eating a little more for a couple of days
Restarting NEAT can be as simple as having a few days or a week at maintenance calories (the energy intake required to maintain your weight and usual level of activity). This will see you expending more calories through NEAT again. It will raise your leptin levels – which is a hormone that affects hunger, cravings and how rewarding food is. When leptin levels are low (which happens in extended periods of dieting), you move less and food becomes super rewarding to your brain. This is your body’s way of protecting you from what it thinks is a famine.
You can raise leptin levels by increasing your calorie intake. Don’t just go on a massive cheat day that results in you eating WAY over your maintenance calories and erasing a week of progress. The smart way to do it is to increase calories from carbs, so you can refill your muscle glycogen stores (which deplete when dieting and working out). That way there’ll be no extra fat gain.
It’s worth tracking your daily steps on your phone so you can spot when you’re subconsciously making fewer decisions to walk. Additional calories burned from additional walking can be significant when done every day. I know it’s hard at the moment, but do whatever you can to keep your NEAT up and it will really help your fat loss efforts. Don’t just lie on the sofa all day.
3. The reduced calorie diet has led to a drop in intensity and volume of training.
Calories burned lifting weights aren’t usually that significant, but this is another factor that can contribute. When you’ve been in a significant calorie deficit, this can result in reduced training sessions. It’s easier to convince yourself it’s ok to skip that last set. And you might find that the weights feel really heavy and only lift at 85% of what you usually can.
4. You’re not losing weight because you’re eating too much.
Real talk: This is probably what it is in most cases.
People seriously underestimate the impact of a couple of nights a week of untracked indulgence.
If they’re aiming for a moderate calorie deficit like 500 kcals per day, this is EASILY erased by a few drinks and a couple slices of pizza in addition to your normal meals. Untracked bites, tastes and licks (BLTs) add up. Seriously letting loose at the weekend because “cheat day” (which becomes “cheat weekend and I’ll start gain on Monday”) can totally erase a week or two of progress. Get caught in this trap and you probably WILL be starving yourself in the week, trying to make up for it, and then convinced you’re in the fabled “starvation mode”.
There’s no starvation mode. Don’t do binge/restrict cycles. Be on track 90% of the time, not 70% of the time (if that).
Want to know how to develop the right habits that will keep you on track?
- Without over-restricting
- Not eliminating foods you like
- Staying on plan (which can include a few indulgences) whether it’s a weekday or weekend
- Not being ridiculously hungry or feeling like you’re depriving yourself
- Not even feeling like you’re dieting
Check out my fat loss video masterclass:
There’s hours of video content here, containing everything you need to know to lose fat. You’ll also get 9 additional pieces of bonus content. These are the tools that I use myself and with clients to help keep them on track.