December 30th, 2012

Starvation Mode Revisited: Is This The Cause of Slow Fat Loss, Frustrating Plateaus And Weight Re-Gain?

Is “starvation mode” the cause of frustrating fat loss plateaus? Is this what makes it so easy to gain back all the fat you lost (and sometimes more?)  Is this the same as metabolic damage? When I first got into bodybuilding and fitness many years ago, almost all the fat loss experts said, “Yes! Starvation mode is real and it’s something to watch out for!” But if you do a Google search for “starvation mode” today, I bet you’ll find that 9 out of 10 “authority” articles will say starvation mode is a myth. New research continues to confirm that what many people call starvation mode was real all along. The evidence is convincing, there has simply been a huge misunderstanding about what starvation mode really is. Combined with what’s going on in both the mainstream weight loss world and in the physique competition world today, that makes revisiting this subject, in detail, more important than ever…

Why starvation mode is not a myth

First of all, (on a slight tangent), why do the experts keep changing their minds?  If something is not a myth, why do they tell you it is? I’ll come back to this in the near future, because the “shiny new object” and “flip flop” syndromes so prevalent in the diet industry are not only irksome, they’re why there’s so much confusion about fat loss today. For now let me simply say that slaying sacred cows, contradicting conventional wisdom and  busting myths is one of the best ways to get clicks, readers, sales or just attention for its own sake.

Of course, we love seeing myths getting busted (hence the successful TV show), and admit it; it feels kind of satisfying to be the one busting the myth. In addition, knowledge keeps expanding and science is ever-evolving, so we do sometimes find out what we once believed is not true. For the record, I also believe that questioning assumptions and challenging the status quo is a trait of the most successful and progressive people in the world. But if you’re not careful, in your quest for “what’s new and better,” you’ll throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The truth is, starvation mode has been studied for years under a different name, and interest in the subject has recently re-peaked both in the labs and in the gyms. Starvation mode is not a myth. Perhaps it has simply been mis-defined, or as one prominent blogger said, the phrase has been thrown around too loosely. The confusion and misunderstandings have been largely over semantics, which I’m about to clear up, once and for all.

The definition of starvation mode, clarified

Here’s part of the problem: You may see the phrase “starvation response” in a peer-reviewed journal or an academic textbook on occasion. But “starvation mode” is a lay person term, so people look it up in the science journals, don’t find it, and unduly dismiss it as “unscientific.”

The closest scientific term is adaptive thermogenesis. Look that up and you’ll be amazed at how much you find. The research is extensive, fascinating and in some cases, worrisome (considering how widespread starvation diets, extreme cardio regimes and severe contest prep has become).

There has also been a huge misunderstanding because most people don’t even know what starvation mode means or they think it’s the same thing as adaptive thermogenesis (it’s not).  When you get the definitions clear, it all starts to make sense, so let me try to define it as I see it:

Starvation mode is a non-scientific umbrella term used to describe a cluster of scientifically-proven metabolic, hormonal, psychological and behavioral responses to extreme or prolonged calorie deprivation, which is common during many popular weight loss diets. Since your body can’t distinguish between  severe dieting and starving, regulatory mechanisms are activated to decrease your rate of further weight loss, including lower physical activitity (NEAT & SPA) and increased appetite. Your metabolism also slows down more than you would predict for the amount of body weight lost. In summary, your body adapts to energy-restricted diets and tries to restore you to energy balance or even back to your original weight.

Your first challenge: compliance

In troubleshooting slow or stalled fat loss, your first job is checking your compliance rate. So let’s get that uncomfortable part out of the way, where I (or your trainer) “scold you” (just once … for your own good, of course)…

In the majority of cases, slow metabolism is not your primary problem. Lack of compliance is really the biggest reason for plateaus and slower-than-expected weight loss. You fix this by first, re-analyzing your goals and deadlines to make sure you weren’t compounding your frustration with impatience and unrealistic  expectations, and then doing an honest self-compliance check…

On a scale from 1 to 10, how well were you following your program? Here’s the catch (the thing that no coach except Tom Venuto ever asked you to do before): Rate yourself twice: rate your compliance to your foods/macros and rate your compliance to your calorie deficit. When most people think about compliance, they only think about compliance to “allowed foods” (food quality). They pat themselves on their back for eating so clean and say, “I followed my plan!” But the real question (for fat loss programs) is, how was your compliance to your calorie deficit (food quantity)? Too much healthy (aka clean) food has been the cause of many a fat loss plateau.

Once you know your goals are realistic for your body and you know your compliance is spot-on, then it’s time to look at this from the opposite angle and analyze the degree of restriction you’re imposing on your body. If you know you’ve been chronically depriving yourself of calories, it’s time to really start understanding what’s going on with your metabolism and how it responds to severe and prolonged restriction.

It has been rightly accepted that “sticking with it” is the single biggest challenge of burning fat and keeping it off. It’s no surprise then if you tell your coach or trainer that you’re frustrated because you’re not losing any weight, and he immediately retorts, “Bad client! Poor compliance! If you were following the program, you’d be losing weight faster.”

As I mentioned above, he’s usually right. But in some cases, you know you followed the program.  You feel like you gave it 100%. You might even be weighing and measuring food. That’s how you really know there’s a problem – you know your numbers! But you’re still either stuck at a plateau or your results don’t match the effort you’re putting in.  You think your results should be better, so in your heart, you know something else is wrong. Secretly (or openly), your coach still thinks you’re fibbing…or you’re crazy.

I’m here to tell you that you’re NOT crazy. Something else could be going on. With prolonged, extreme calorie restriction, (typical of many popular diets), your metabolism may have adapted, ie slowed down, so your rate of weight loss may indeed be slower than it should be on paper.

Understanding metabolic slowdown and adaptive thermogenesis

Most people understand that when you go on a diet and don’t eat enough (you “starve yourself”), it will cause your metabolism to slow down. Scientists who study thermogenesis confirm that this really does happen, and for two reasons.

The first part of the metabolic slowdown is obligatory: It happens from the loss in total body weight. Think of it this way: If you started your diet at 200 pounds and finished at 150 pounds, you’ve lost 25% of your body weight! You are a much smaller person. Smaller people burn fewer calories than larger people. The smaller you get and the more weight you lose, the more your weight loss slows down as your calorie deficit shrinks, even at the same caloric intake.

The second part of the metabolic slowdown is adaptive. This means that when you restrict calories and lose weight, your metabolism slows down even more than you would predict from the total weight loss alone. This is formally known as adaptive thermogenesis (some people call it “metabolic adaptation”). This has been studied for years, and although we’ve discovered that it is very difficult to measure, new research (discussed below) has confirmed its quantitative significance and clinical importance to the study of obesity .

Starvation mode is not a myth, but there IS one big myth about starvation mode

Most people believe that ”adaptation” means your metabolism will slow down so much that you stop losing weight completely. Obviously, that doesn’t happen. Everyone will lose weight on a very low calorie diet (VLCD).  Metabolic adaptation means that your metabolism drops enough that your weight loss slows down as your diet progresses (sound familiar?) and you don’t lose as much weight as predicted/expected (sound familiar?) On starvation diets, you also may suffer from undesirable side effects that make life miserable (sound familiar?) and make regaining the weight more likely (sound familiar?)

The best example of this myth in action is the girl who is not losing ANY weight and she swears she’s eating only 800 calories per day. She thinks she’s damaged her metabolism and has gone into “starvation mode.” Although that may be partly true, it’s funny how, if we put that mythical girl in a metabolic ward (locked her in there nice and tight… no Domino’s deliveries…), and fed her a carefully measured and enforced 1200 calories per day, she would suddenly start losing weight…

How could she be stuck at 800 calories and then start losing at 1200 calories? It’s not that she was in starvation mode and eating more took her out of it, the truth is, she was eating more than 800 calories per day to begin with - maybe even twice that (she had a major compliance problem). Most likely, she didn’t realize it, especially if she wasn’t tracking it (that’s why counting calories and weighing and measuring food is the first step to getting clarity about your situation and then breaking your plateau). She simply blamed her lack of progress on the wrong thing, without checking her compliance first.

Am I recommending 800 calorie per day diets as a sure thing for losing weight? Absolutely not! (quite the opposite). I’m fully aware that some doctors put patients on VLCD’s, often as low as 800 calories a day. However, that’s under medical supervision to make sure it provides adequate macro and micronutrition, and it’s usually done because the patients are obese and sick. The doc makes a judgement call and weighs the risks/side effects of using a VLCD vs the benefits of getting some of that weight off fast to improve vital health parameters.

My philosophy for almost everyone else is eat more, burn more; train hard and eat as much as you can while still acheiving fat loss at an acceptable rate, even if it takes you a little longer to reach your goal. What I’m saying about our stereotypical “I’m in starvation mode girl” is that metabolic adaptation was not the only cause of her lack of weight loss. Her problem was lack of compliance AND metabolic adaptation: She was losing her calorie deficit from both sides: extra calories coming in and fewer calories going out.

She also may have been experiencing other symptoms of starvation mode like hunger, cravings and perpetual thoughts about food which may have led to bouts of bingeing or unconscious eating. That further cut into her calorie deficit. Her activitity levels through the day may have spontaneously decreased and her workouts may have lacked the usual gusto. That chipped away even more of her deficit, to the point that she actually did hit a total plateau…

THAT is starvation mode as I have defined it above: Not just decreased metabolism, but  ALL the bad stuff – behavioral, psychological and biological - that makes continued weight loss and subsequent weight maintenance more difficult, caused by extreme and prolonged dieting, but which doesn’t happen so much with sensible and cyclical dieting.

The latest research, by experts in thermogenesis and bodyweight autoregulation,  now say conclusively, that the metabolic adaptation part alone plays a significant role in obesity and long term weight management.

What the latest research says about adaptive thermogenesis

Outside of simply wanting to silence the internet know-it-all “keyboard warriors” (er, I mean, clear up the confusion), my motivation to revisit this subject was twofold:

One reason is the large surge in reports of “metabolic damage” in the physique and figure competition community. The other is to share the newest research I came across in the current issue of Obesity Reviews.  It was a review paper by Dr. Abdul Dulloo from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

Dulloo’s research says that it’s not a question of whether human metabolism adapts to changes in food intake – it does. It’s a question of how much we adapt.

The two biggest new findings he reported about adaptive thermogenesis were:

  • We may never be able to quantify precisely how much metabolism decreases because there are so many confounding factors that make measuring it and analyzing the data extremely difficult. However, we know for sure it’s happening.
  • Even a small adaptive decrease in metabolism, as little as a few percent of daily energy expenditure,  is clinically significant and helps explain the paradox of “why diets make us fatter” (at least over the long term).

The other findings, which reflect years of accumulated study, combined with the most recent research, include:

  • In some circumstances, the adaptive decrease in metabolic rate may be much larger than previously thought. Though it may typically only be 5-10% or even only a few percent, the possible range is much broader. One study showed a 31% adaptive decrease in metabolic rate. In another paper this year by Dulloo, Explaining the Failures of Obesity Therapy (Int J Obes 2012), he pointed out, “There are clearly individuals capable of showing a large capacity for adaptive thermogenesis amounting to 300-400 calories per day.”
  • How much metabolism slows down can vary dramatically from person to person. This is known as “inter-individual” variability.
  • Inter-individual variation in metabolic adaptation has a hereditary component. How much it affects you may depend on your genetics.
  • One of the starvation responses is increased appetite,  psychological and hormonal. Either way, a symptom of starvation mode is persistent hunger, cravings for specific foods or you’re simply thinking about food all the time. Starvation mode then, includes not only an adaptive decrease in metabolic rate, but also an urge to increase calorie intake.
  • Adaptive thermogenesis includes reduced activity (calories expended) and some of this activity is unconscious. Researchers are now even splitting up non-exercise activity into Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), much of which is under conscious control (walking, house work, etc) and spontaneous physical activity (SPA) which is completely out of your awareness (fidgeting, or even tossing and turning at night while sleeping).  That means starvation mode also means moving less while dieting and you often don’t even realize it.
  • Too much cardio combined with starvation dieting can decrease your metabolism even more than starvation dieting alone. This is such an important point, that I wrote a complete blog post on how too much cardio can decrease your metabolism while dieting. Yoni Freedhoff also did a nice write up on how this is hurting participants on The Biggest Loser even though starvation responses via dieting usually don’t impact obese people as much as leaner people.

Having read and understood this punch list of science-supported facts, you now know more about the starvation response than 90% of the top diet and fitness experts in the world. And this list, though it does sound worrisome, is exactly what points us to the solutions to this problem.

The alarming trend in physique sports: bodybuilding, physique, figure and bikini competition

Solutions are needed now more than ever, because more people are crash dieting and over-exercising while starving themselves than ever before. Concerns are now coming from two different communities: the mainstream diet world as well as the physique competition world. In the last year alone, more articles, videos and podcasts about metabolic damage in physique sports have been published than I’ve ever seen before.

Metabolic damage, like starvation mode, is not a formal scientific term. But it’s not difficult to be convinced that metabolic damage is also real. It happens when your metabolism is already not running at peak efficiency due to chronic dieting, and instead of eating more, cycling into a phase of less intense training and recovering (or into a hypercaloric muscle-building phase), the athletes continues to drive themselves harder to lose. They eat even less and train even more. The metabolic decline reaches the point where it is legitimately hidering further fat loss and it lingers even after the diet ends.

Metabolic damage then could be defined as serious metabolic adaptation and the (extended beyond normal) lag time between the time the diet ends and when metabolism gets back to normal.

Some trainers believe this is reaching “epidemic proportions,” especially in women’s physique sports. Although the research on how metabolic adaptation and metabolic damage affect women is sparse, it is not a stretch to believe that it hits women more than men. That’s especially true when you combine that with the fact that the average woman burns/requires a third fewer calories than the average male.

The irony is that many trainers, nutritionists and contest prep coaches are the responsible parties, as they are the ones prescribing the starvation diets. Many of these coaches, sadly, will only accept half of the picture – that their clients are non-compliant, because they are among those who aren’t educated about metabolic adaptation and how to minimize it, or they’re not thinking about the long term consequences, only the current show prep. So what do they do next? They prescribe even more cardio and even fewer calories, and a vicious cycle begins.

What to do about it

I can’t tell you how to turn off your body’s starvation responses because they can’t be turned off. This is your body’s automatic reaction to calorie restriction.

Some people have translated that to, “My body hates me!” On the other hand, we could easily say, “Your body loves you” … you’re just not loving it back – you’re abusing it. Remember, this is a protective mechanism. Without some kind of weight regulation system, very small perturbations in energy balance would cause huge gains or losses in body weight much more quickly because almost no one eats precisely in energy balance every single day. We would also not last very long in a food shortage. With these amazing feedback systems we have, our bodies are incredibly resilient.

What I can do, and will write about in more detail in the future, is tell you how to mitigate the effects of metabolic adaptation, avoid the consequences of metabolic damage and recover if it has already happened to you. Perk up – it’s not permanent.

Just so I don’t leave you on a huge cliffhanger, let me say that the crux of the solution should already be self-evident: Don’t starve yourself on crash diets, don’t over-exercise if you choose a very low calorie diet approach and above all else don’t diet chronically. Instead,  learn the secret of smart bobyduilders and fitness models: dieting in cycles and seasons, including muscle-building phases.

Many people are failing on all the above. There are still lots of regular people going on self-prescribed 800, or even 500 calorie day diets. Are you kidding? My right bicep needs more than 500 calories a day! There are also male and female physique athletes dieting on 1600 or 1000 calories per day, respectively… with competition level training! That’s insanity!

Summing up

When you’re compliant to a low calorie (hypocaloric) diet, you’re going to lose weight. If you got a nutrition education in the process and you can ease into the lifestyle phase with a smart maintenance plan, you’ll be able to keep it off. But make no mistake, cut calories too much, for too long, and bad stuff happens, including losing the wrong kind of weight (muscle) and increased risk of regaining what you lost. Being impatient and using quick fixes has consequences, and a great danger is that many of them don’t show up immediately.

Make training a part of your lifestyle, and train sensibly, but train hard. This allows you to eat more, and when you resistance train, more of what you eat is likely to be partitioned into muscle and not fat. That’s the difference between transforming your body and simply losing weight, and this is the message I have preached for the last decade in Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle.

References:
Adaptive thermogenesis in human body weight regulation: more of a concept than a measurable entity? Dulloo AG, Jacquet J, et al. University of Fribourg, Switzerland.  Obesity Reviews, 13 (supp2) 105-121, December 2012

Postscript: I know this was a long post (you might want to call it “epic”), but one more thing… I  realized after the fact that there is more than one myth about starvation mode and it’s VITAL to finish making sure I’ve mentioned all three:

Myth #1 (already discussed in this post), was that starvation mode means if you go on  VLCD, your metabolism will slow down so much that you reach energy equilibrium at a very low calorie level and at that point, your weight loss will stop completely  (false).

Myth #2 is that the starvation responses affect each person equally (false). There’s a genetic component, it probably affects women more than men, and starting body fat level is a hugely important variable.  Obese people can tolerate much larger calorie deficits with much less risk than lean people.

Myth #3 Is that these starvation responses are acute (false). Remember, this discussion has all been in the context of restrictive chronic dieting and the negative side effects that may bring, including metabolic adaptation. We are not talking about “missing one meal and going into starvation mode” (so anyone who makes a strawman out of that in the comments below will be publicly flogged, LOL :-) )

Tom Venuto, author of:
Burn the Fat Feed the Muscle
Founder & CEO:
Burn the Fat Inner Circle

Copyright Burn the Fat Publishing/ Burn the Fat Blog. Do not copy

Related:

Calorie restriction for life extension… or starving for life?
http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2009/04/calorie-restriction-for-life-extension-dr-oz-on-oprah.php

Can too much cardio decrease your metabolism?
http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2011/04/cardio-and-metabolism.php

The truth about slow and fast metabolisms:
http://www.burnthefat.com/slow-metabolism-problems.html

How Bodybuilders and Fitness Models get so lean and muscular
http://www.burnthefat.com/bodybuilders_fitness_models_fat_loss_secret.html

DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE FAT LOSS REPORTS!

Big Fat Lies! A Shocking Expose of the 12 Biggest Scams, Cover-ups, Lies, Myths and Deceptions in the Diet, Supplement and Weight Loss Industries!

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59 Responses to “Starvation Mode Revisited: Is This The Cause of Slow Fat Loss, Frustrating Plateaus And Weight Re-Gain?”

  • ruth

    my version of the starvation mode/reponse (historic) induced behaviour similar to a homicidal vaccuum cleaner; anyone getting between me and food was in serious danger, and food of any kind was in even more intense danger . . . because i would eat ridiculously small amounts of food (or nothing) for as long as possible, and then break into massive overeating attacks – usually of the worst possible foods. great reading, and this article will make my dad really happy – as he has always claimed that NO ONE can stay morbidly obese on a true 800 cals a day. he will smile his little socks off.

  • Nightparrot

    Hey Tom , nice article. I’m guilty of starving myself during these last weeks, although not to severe lengths ( definetly not 500 calories ) . Odd enough I still had more than enough energy to beat my gym records , and my cardio records every day ( guess my goals kept me going ) . I lost around 9 pounds in the last 2 weeks of my training but I had to stop because I got a bad cold ( did my starvation had any effect on my immune system? ) . I’m still doing whatever workout I can at home and I’m eager to hit the gym again ^^ . I now keep a more watchful eye over my calories ( quantity and quality ) so I can safely loose my bodyfat without loosing my health .

    • Tom Venuto

      It would be interesting to find out whether extremely restricted calorie diets (independently) have been connected with lower immune system – thats a good question. And if so from what degree and duration. I think its pretty safe to say that once having reached extremes of low body fat as a result of prolonged severe calorie restriction that immune system is compromised and perhaps we could add that to the list of the “cluster” of starvation mode symptoms and the checklist of questions to ask yourself if you’re experiencing it: “getting sick a lot?” Thanks!

  • Nightparrot

    Hello again Tom, thanks for your reply ^^ . I’m not the one who can easily catch a cold and a mean one at the same time ( I haven’t had one for years ) but then again I’ve seen some very ill people this winter so who could say what really happened . In any case, even with good weight loss results , starvation might be my downfall since I probably would have been in better shape right now . I should have sticked with my basics . Thanks and best of luck ! : )

  • Norm

    Thanx Tom again, great and awesome article!

    Please start doing videologs on youtube, like Layne Norton!

    Norm
    The Netherlands

  • Diederik

    Very nice article, always good to check my mind whether the fundamentals are still in place. I note that the more I eat (clean but with small deficit) and the more I vary (different fruits and veggies every day)the easier it get´s to obtain great results. I exercise 8-10 x per week and lose weight with 2500 calories a day, once a week I increase my calories to well over 3500 calories. Besides that I made an image of the genie question: option 1 with photos is my current body and all the things I do that delay my success (overeating, binging, skip cardio, alcohol and sweets) option 2 is a photo of my dream body plus all the actions I have to take to obtain that (small calorie deficit, go hard in the gym, train my abs and eat clean and varied). Every time I want to make a non supportive choice I remember myself of the pain that is causing that decision and that I can do whatever I want but what I want is the body without delays. Having this picture on my mobile viewing it a couple of times a day keeps me focussed.

    What is your opinion of doing 5 x weight plus 4-5 x cardio (10miles run, boxing classes, spinning) cycling my calories once a week if fat loss is my main focus and secondary focus muscle growth? My current bodyfat is 14% and my goal is to get very shredded 6-7%. Do you recommend more/less weight training, more/less cardio? And should I determine my calorie intake per day according to how active I am that day?

    • Tom Venuto

      Thanks for your post Diederik. Yes, checking back to fundamentals (for compliance to them), should be first line of business if youre plateau’d but most people are off looking for more convoluted explanations and solutions. 5X weights and 4-5X cardio is a fairly heavy training schedule but quite typical for advanced / serious trainees and bodybuilders. I think the cardio volume 4-5 X is totally reasonable and with good diet – totally sufficient to get nicely shredded and on topic with today’s post, not excessive at all. one thing to consider is that when your cardio volume gets up there 4, 5, 6, 7 days a week, then it pays to alternate between high intensity and more moderate cardio sessions, as daily intense cardio when combined with intense training 4-5d/wk can increase risk for overtraining, especially the legs since almost all cardio involves legs. Cheers, Tom.

  • Diederik Kroese

    Thanks for your reply Tom. I always track my food but as you say, there´s a difference between tracking and tracking. An extra banana here, some extra olive oil there and before you know it calories are on maintenance or above. Last week I´ve been tracking/eating exactly as planned and it flat out works. I think in most cases people are just counting themselves rich counting with less intake than actual intake. The same occurs with the financial position of people, they get a raise and even before the raise they start spending more and still have no money to spend. Thanks for the feedback, it´s good to know that I´m not overdoing it. Normally I intent to combine low intensity with high intensity cardio as I notice that with more than 2-3 intensive cardio my weight training starts to suffer. I just don´t have the same energy to get through the training. Thanks again for the feedback and valuable information!

  • Tom Rogers

    Tom, great article: but if Starvation Mode really is real, how do you explain the fact that there are ZERO fat anorexics?

    • Tom Venuto

      Tom, no one stays fat when they are compliant to very low calorie diet that keeps them in a deficit. That was clearly explained, including an example. starvation mode as we define it here means that with weight loss AND calorie restriction, especially with extreme restriction, the deficit shrinks via multiple mechanisms that lead to increased intake and decreased energy expenditure (some of these adaptations are unconscious and automatic). If one does not check compliance and use weekly results as feedback and make changes to intake and expenditure accordingly, to keep the deficit, that smaller deficit leads to slower weight loss than predicted at baseline, and people who pay no attention and make no adjustments very easily plateau. With severe and prolonged restriction, effects can linger after the diet ends (aka metabolic damage). Ie, there is a recovery period and bingeing and fat overshooting are more likely. Id recommend reading it again if you sincerely want to understand it – you didnt get it yet. It may help you and – many people – if they get away from thinking about “starvation” and recognize that this is as much about compliance, recognizing the dynamic nature of energy balance, and making proper adjustments (troubleshooting) as anything else.

  • Kelly

    Excellent article Tom. This is a very timely topic for me and something I have been pondering while setting goals for the upcoming year. I will be anxiously awaiting Part II. This will be a personal test to see if I can predict your solutions to these issues. :) As always,thanks for the good information and doing some of the homework for us.

  • Keith

    Thanks for the excellent review. I know from my experience that compliance can easily slip. Measuring food is so boring and after a few months I just know what 3/4 cup of oatmeal looks like or 6 ounces of chicken breast so why measure?
    Before long results start to slip. Thanks again.

  • Brandy

    Tom,

    Would this explain why someone could be eating under their “calculated” caloric intake for maintenance, while working out, and still maintain or gain muscle?

    Let’s say someone ate around 600 calories a day for a year… (weight loss surgery) could that then change their TDEE to something much lower than their calculated TDEE therefore not allowing them to lose fat or causing them to gain muscle because their body viewed it as a caloric surplus?

    How long would that last? How to do you get it back to “normal?”

    I had weight loss surgery in January of 2010 and ate probably 600 calories max for approximately a year. I have then been able to eat more the past year.

    My BMR is 1549
    My TDEE is about 1800

    The truth is, I can eat about 1400-1600 calories and gain muscle or maintain my weight. My body isn’t turning lose of fat the way I feel like it should.

    My question is, is it possible that my body has changed my metabolism to a much lower BMR and TDEE due to over a year of only eating 600 calories a day? And how long will it take to get it back and HOW do I do it?

    • Tom Venuto

      After a big weight loss, you need fewer calories than before. So what was once maintenance could now a surplus and what was once a deficit may now be your maintenance. There are other explanations for gaining lean mass when its unlikely (ie, in a deficit) too including genetics (good predisposition for muscle gain, aka mesomorph), stating body fat level which influences muscle gain or loss, as well as the the newbie gains where a beginner gains muscle quite easily – then the muscle gains get slower later as your body gets more used to training (its not easy to gain muscle when youve been training for decades like I have).

      Surgery is a somewhat unique and interesting case, as the metabolic adaptation doesnt seem to occur as much (see Dr. Freedhoffs link – his article mentions that), so you probably shouldnt be worried about anything, especially if you gotten a good education in nutrition so youre ready for maintenance for the long haul and if youre working out , thats great especially weight training will be very helpful to have in the exercise mix.

      If you gained muscle GOOD FOR YOU! Celebrate! but if you havent reached your long term fat loss goal yet, indeed you dont want to be in a calorie surplus. If youre getting ready to move on to another fat loss phase, you may simply need to make some adjustments because your situation is different now than it was a year or two ago. your weight has changed, maybe your activity has changed, etc so maybe its just a matter of re-establishing a calorie deficit and those numbers arent the same as they were a couple years ago. Its good to re-calculate new calorie numbers for a new starting point for new goals. Then with a little trial and error within a couple weeks you can reconcile the on paper calculations with actual real results.

      Im going to discuss answers to some of your other questions in part 2 but keep in mind the part about honestly checking compliance (are certain youve ruled out your eating more than you think you are), and have you re-checked your calorie needs to see how they may have changed since you started.

      Cheers,

  • Brandy

    Yes, the caloric intake “calculations” I gave you were for my CURRENT weight (Which is 200 pounds… 39% body fat) Still very much overweight.

    January 2010 – 302 Pounds
    January 2011 – 200 pounds (Lost a LOT of muscle however)
    January 2012 – 200 pounds (believe I have put some muscle back on and lost a little more fat)

    Current intake of calories is NEVER more than 1800 calories, impossible. And usually around 1400-1600 yet I’m not turning lose of the fat the way the “numbers” say I should; having a caloric deficit.

    Thank you for the response and look forward to part 2

    • Tom Venuto

      Brandy, i will be back in part 2 soon – but remember – the scale plays tricks with you sometimes… total body weight is not the same as body fat or body composition. If you’re gaining muscle that offsets some of the weight loss… and water weight gains can mask fat loss too. This makes it seem like your weight loss is dreadfully slow sometimes, I understand that. But if you shift your focus to body composition instead of just body weight, you can appreciate your muscle gains and have patience with the slow body weight loss, because you’ll know your body composition is improving. celebrate all your progress, as long as you’re moving in the right direction… In the long run, I think more “tortoises” win this game than “hares”

      • Karina Cerda

        HA! (: I MAY NOT BE *BRANDY* (: BUT I SO TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU ON THIS WON!!! THAT’S WHY I NEVER WEIGH MYSELF !! I PREFER TO LEAVE THAT PART FOR MY FATHER IN HEAVEN!!! (: -*CHEERS* FROM MY *RUM*TO YOURS (:

  • Craig Morris

    Tom, I found this article most interesting. It succintly puts into words what I have been trying to explain to people for years. Firstly, that as a person loses weight, they will require fewer calories simply because of the loss of weight, and secondly, that as your body and brain realises calories are becoming scarce, the amount and intensity of activity will reduce. Neither will be noticed by the dieter.
    With regard to the above, I would love you to write a piece on “slow and fast metabolism”. Many, many people I know believe that two people of the same weight, height, and body composition, can have significantly different metabolisms. I am sick of explaining that, at the end of the day, calories in versus calories out is what counts. I’ve heard so many people say “My friend can eat what she wants and not put on any weight, whereas I’ve only got to look at a cake and I put on 5lb.
    I always argue that when people who believe this to be the case are monitored, it turns out not to be the case at all. It turns out that the larger person is – without exception where activity levels are the same – consuming more calories than the smaller one.
    One thing I have noticed about people who are slim. They either eat very little, do a lot of exercise, or both. You cannot eat what you like and stay slim, unless you like to eat very little!
    Personally, as a triathlete, I have to balance a love of food with a lot of cycling, running, swimming, and gym work.
    Would love to hear your thoughts on the above.

    • Tom Venuto

      Yep you got it! And don’t forget, there’s also an adaptive reduction in metabolic rate on top of that too, thats been the controversial part ie, what would qualify as what most people think of as “true starvation mode” which has now been proven clinically significant.

      So all together you have:. smaller body/lower metabolism + adaptive reduction in metabolism + less activity AND + drive to eat more/increased hunger/cravings = all these forces conspiring to CLOSE THE CALORIE DEFICIT… mostly unknown to the dieter who is not tracking, counting, etc because some guru or diet book, said never count calories, throw away your scales, blah blah blah.

      Tracking everything ie “SELF-MONITORING” correlates with higher success in every study that has every looked at it and every type of self monitoring. Checking compliance is tracking your numbers and charting your progress

      re fast and slow metabolisms, here’s the article you’re looking for which shows A) overweight folks have faster metabolism (larger body), and B) everyone under-reports calorie intake and over-estimates calories burned:

      http://www.burnthefat.com/slow-metabolism-problems.html

      Cheers!

      Tom V.

      • Craig Morris

        Excellent, you’ve done it already! I’ll have a look later and give my verdict :)

  • Barbara M.

    This is soo good and spot on of course! Exactly what I was asking last summer (or last winter, forgot which) about how I was single and on low income for years, eating just enough food to survive so that my kids could eat (I have two amazing young men, who are built like brick walls now, and two young girls, still growing taller every day,) and I stayed around 115 lbs, 5′ 5″, no real idea of my fat percentage at that time, but I did workout and run/walk daily. I actually felt great! Had very few cravings and if I did, I had the minimum of whatever it was since I couldn’t afford a lot. When I remarried, I realize now that yes, of course, I’m eating way more than I did then! And when I try to diet since now that I’m 125 and a lot of it is fat (27% at this time,) I’m famished, grouchy, tired. Ugh. Never felt like that before when I was accustomed to very low cal; I had a ton of energy. So I am going to be fasting this coming week with my church. Not sure exactly what or how, going to see what the church is doing. Last year it was the Daniel Fast, all veggies. I am hoping not only for a spiritual re-awakening, but maybe it will jumpstart my weight loss a bit too?

    • Karina Cerda

      I am not a supporter of *FASTING* personally I find myself
      *SPIRITUALLY STRONGER* when *I FEED MY MIND ,BODY AND SOUL* but good luck ,I pray you can *CATCH UP TO DANIEL* (: *CHEERS* (:

      • Barbara M.

        LOL, Karina! I really hated the Daniel Fast (Vegetarian, clean food, no coffee or alcohol for 21 days); as much I truly LOVE my veggies, I am NOT a vegetarian by any means! I have to have my protein!! :)

    • Brandy

      Barbara,

      Might your church consider that “fasting” is just not eating solid food and therefore you could at least supplement with protein shakes to ensure you’re getting your daily protein amount and calorie intake? I know most fasts are “liquid” and therefore this would comply. If you fast the way you’re speaking, (and just as Tom’s article states) you’re harming your system and losing precious muscle. Not to mention you won’t be pleasant to be around. It’s just a suggestion.

      • Barbara M.

        Brandy, I have considered that exact thing. :) Because we also do agree that fasting other things which take our focus off of God is allowed, such as “fasting” media, like TV, internet, or video games, or “fasting” coffee, cigarettes, or whatever it is which takes your time, affections, attention, so that your main focus when you are “hungry” or craving becomes God and His voice instead. It works best for me with fasting food. I used to be accustomed to that hungry-all-the-time feeling and honestly, a little of that can’t be too bad for me. Yet, you are absolutely correct that nowadays it will make me edgy and cranky and weak. So great idea, and thanks!

      • Karina Cerda

        I AM REALLY GLAD YOU MADE THAT SUGGESTION.I HAVE A GREAT FEAR FOR THE HEALTH OF INDIVIDUALS WHO DECIDE TO PARTAKE IN A FAST BE IT JUST FOR DIETING PURPOSES OR SPIRITUAL PURPOSES.THE IDEA YOU SUGGESTED ABOUT SUPPLEMENTING OOOPS ): I HAVE TO GO NOW …GOODBYE

  • Barbara M.

    I started the Winter Challenge, didn’t keep up the posting and membership, (money challenged right now, but my son is completing) and yet, I kept up my workouts and eating well, and I do look much better; might let him post a pic of me on the blog for posterity. I am happy I didn’t quit on myself!

    • Karina Cerda

      That’s the spirit Barbara (: The way I see it (:when it comes to health and fitness….there is no finish line or deadline (: its a daily race and the only end is the point of quitting. fmhty xoxoxo

      • Barbara M.

        Thanks, Karina! What I can see in the mirror is better :) I looked good last year this time but fell ill which rendered me exhausted for months, unable to even do daily chores. I now have my energy levels back up, so doing more is possible. I know what you mean about it being a daily race, as I see it the only end is death, lol, same as my spiritual race actually, and it’s all good.

  • Brian Nordberg

    Great article Tom, as always. It is easy for people to forget there is a difference between theoretical estimates and actual numbers. Your feedback loop is the only sure way to keep getting results. Many people “think” they are burning 1000 calories in a workout, very few are regardless of what the machine readings say. Many people think they are 100% accurate with their food intake calorie tracking. Very few actually are regardless of what website or book they get their numbers. To me, adaptive thermogenisis or starvation response means my Actual TDEE is less than I think. If I try to maintain at my theoretical TDEE I may gain. What I “think” is a 500 cal daily deficit may only be a 100 cal daily deficit for whatever reason.
    Thanks as always for the clear, consice, and well reasoned discussion. I am looking forward to part 2.

    Regards,
    Brian Nordberg

  • Noelle

    My question is: if you’ve binge dieted/starved chronically, can you reset your metabolism or will you be forever beholden to those starvation mistakes? Granted, everyone’s different, but what kind of time frame are we looking at if there is a way to reset the metabolic gauge?

  • Patricia D'Onofrio

    Tom I cannot thank you enough for enlightening me about the sensible way to go about fat loss. It has been a good year for me losing over 70 pounds patiently. I started obese at 236.5 at 5’3 and am now down to 160. I know the journey is not over for me yet but over the last year I have learned to guesstimate calories like a pro. I have been working out with weights for the first time in my life thanks to my son, and I cannot tell you how much better I feel. Obviously no body builder I have still applied your techniques to get the best results I can and they have worked. I know the next 30 pounds or so will take more effort but I am up to the challenge as I am on a high of feeling good and I don’t mean about my looks I just feel better. Slow and steady does win the race and at 52 I am determined to maintain my new physique and improve on it every day. Thank you for the pertinant information and encouragement! Sincerely, Patricia D

  • Toni

    Awesome read!! Getting rid of body fat has always been a struggle for me, no matter how strong and fit I get. This article is is very informative and helpful, thank you.

  • [...] Poor timing of meals (the dreaded “starvation mode“) [...]

  • Karl

    Great article Tom, well explained and with enough detail to give clarity, I found the auto response of the body to stop moving (SPA) as much fascinating (and on reflection logical!). I really need to share this with my friends as they are still uneducated about starvation and the body’s response to such circumstances. Thanks again.

    -Karl

  • perhaps it is interesting to follow the latest trend in holland? sport-fasting? a short period (9 days) of crash diet/fasting combined with short relative intense taining (1/2 h) to realise a “metabolic switch”that stimulates fat burning..
    it works wonders..

    • Tom Venuto

      “sport fasting” for 9 days? the world is coming to an end after all… (The Mayans were just a little late I guess). On a serious note, the direction some of the diet trends today are taking is alarming. cyclical dieting is one thing, dieting for body recomposition is one thing. But seems to me a lot of programs, which are being widely embraced today, are encouraging starve – binge behavior

  • Jeanne Rickert

    As usual, you always give me something to think about. It is worth learning how to listen to your OWN body even if it takes the rest of your life. Just my opinion :)

  • Dion

    How does this relate to the idea of intermittent fasting, skipping as meal or even fasting for day once in a while? Do you think it is good, bad or doesn’t matter?

    • Tom Venuto

      Its not related – as my post specifically mentioned – its not about acute effects. People in IF community only rally against “starvation mode” concept because they dont understand everything this post explains. (with that said I dont like entire days of fasting, especially for bodybuilding. Makes me hungry just thinking about it).

  • Obsessed with Fat

    Thanks for this article, it explains many confusions regarding starvation mode!

    I am a mother of 2 who suffered from starvation mode for a long long period! My metabolism was pretty destroyed due to my decision to cut as much calories as possible! Then i decided to change my life, include strength work outs in my routine and don’t leave my body without food for more than 3 hrs and this literally saved my life! I succeeded to increase my metabolism almost 100% (from 1800 to 3200 calories), i replaced 8 kgs of fat with muscles and i escaped from this torturing downward spiral!

    • jellybelly

      Wow, you give me hope! Maybe being too restrictive is the problem sometimes. Eating frequently and regularly… I am going to try that! Thanks for the post!

  • This is what I keep telling my friends who rely too much on starving themselves. Instead of helping you lose weight, you frustratingly gain more when you regularly skip meals.

  • [...] Is this the cause of slow fat loss, frustrating plateaus and weight regain? Don’t Make This Huge Mistake in 2013a onclick="javascript:pageTracker._trackPageview('/outgoing/www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2012/12/starvation-mode-revisited.php');" title=" a href="http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2012/12/starvation-mode-revisited.php"http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2012/12/starvation-mode-revisited.php/a” target=”_blank”> http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2012/12/starvation-mode-revisited.php [...]

  • [...] So, we want to find out on our possess regarding the starvation mode, how we land up there and How to Get Out of Starvation Mode . The biggest trouble here’s that we are not able to even arrive to when we are to the [...]

  • [...] – Was it Wrong?)Quick List of Protein Options for Fastest Fat LossQuick & Easy Breakfast OptionsStarvation Mode Revisited: Is This The Cause of Slow Fat Loss, Frustrating Plateaus And Weight Re-Ga…Inner Thigh Lies – Discover the Truth about Inner Thigh ExercisesWhat to Stretch – What to [...]

  • [...] Is this the cause of slow fat loss, frustrating plateaus and weight regain? Don’t Make This Huge Mistake in 2013 http://www.burnthefatblog.com/archives/2012/12/starvation-mode-revisited.php [...]

  • [...] feel hunger, then we’ve been in starvation mode. To the other hand, it could be stated that long starvation mode can be deadly for you [...]

  • Very informative article Tom.

    I have tried restrictive diets and they are not sustainable. The goal should be to keep the fat off and not just lose it. I have never been able to stick to a diet until I made changes to my lifestyle.

  • Hannah Hardy

    Really interesting article tom. I have one question. I have a history of eating disorder anorexia and then bulimia. My attitude to food, calories and exercise is a little strange. But i am taking greater responsibility and thought into the science behind everything. I am concerned that i return to eating 1200 i will not lose weight? (by the way I’m not underweight any more I’m 131 lbs i would like to be back to 115 which was where i was pre eating disorder. At the moment i try to reduce my calories and then i cant comply and i binge. If i stick to 1200 over a prolonged period will i lose weight if I have been used to starve-binge cycles.

  • Hi

    I found that starvation kicked off my fat loss journey. I was given a medical procedure and had to fast for over 24 hours. This is the same time I decided to go on my fat loss journey

    When I returned from the procedure my “old me” would have binged on rubbish food. However because I planned it I started a nutritious diet and fat loss program and lost 4 inches off my waistline very quickly

    I have no evidence of course but I believe its the best way to start the journey – a good kick. I found a more healthier relationship with food and it put me on the right direction.

    I cant claim any credit for this of course because I found it by accident however I like to share with others

    Thanks for a good post!

  • Kristi

    I wonder what your thoughts/research are on Alternative Day Fasting?

    • Tom Venuto

      I think it makes me hungry just thinking about it…

    • John

      many doctors recommend this and for good reason- the amount of obese and highly overweight people should be doing this because nothing else seem to be working for the majority – obviously at the same time being taught to make changes to their current diet – but either way the body will thank them for the break and repair some damage that the daily barrage of food was doing to their body – also there is research that shows it is great for your brain in the long term – but more research on humans which is happening now needs to be done

  • Carly

    Hi,
    If anybody has experience with this, I would really love some feedback! I am a collegiate endurance athlete and I’ve struggled with restrictive eating for years, which culminated last year in a roughly 10 month period of starvation. For a few months I was able to continue training but eventually I was too weak, shaky, lightheaded etc… to continue. I did not strictly count calories for this whole period, but I estimate that my intake was between 500 and 1000 cal/day for most of the time. While training I was burning 600-1500/day in exercise. I went through a miserable process of re-feeding and am now (8 months later) feeling strong and training normally. But I have gained more weight than I initially lost while restricting. I would really like to lose some of this in a healthy way, but my body seems to be resisting this despite my efforts. I am focusing on limiting simple carbs and sugar and I have also tried rigidly tracking my calories and trying to restrict by about 200-400 /day but I am stuck in the same cycle I’ve been in since re-feeding (approx .5 lb gain/week). Is this normal in recovering from starvation mode? How long might my body need before being ready to lose a little weight? All help appreciated!! Thank you

  • Lindsay

    Dear Tom,
    Thank you so much for this article. I am truly looking forward to reading the follow up on how to repair this…. As someone who is I. Recovery for an eating disorder this is especially important to me. I am struggle so much with how to repair the damage I have done, and I am truly hoping you can help me. I have been clean eating, doing cardio (in the form or running 5 days a week… 3 to 5 miles a day) and teaching yoga (hatha) 5 days a week….all while mainintaining a 1200 calorie diet. I am gaining weight. I am so frustrated and trying so hard not to backslide, because I am finally at a point in my life where I want health more than being “skinny”. The sad truth is that I don’t know how to do this … I am the kind of person that needs rules and structure…. That is why loosing weight through restriction worked… I knew what rules to follow… But feel lost in knowing how to be healthy… What is appropriate size, shape and health for my body? What diet do you follow? How much is too much and how much is too little? There is information overload out there and quite frankly, it is exhausting. I trust you, and your honesty, and am truly hoping you can help me. Please. What do I follow to be healthy, and fit, for the rest of my life? I am going to be 36 this fall, and I am so tired of this battle. I am hoping by 40, I will not be focused on calories and “thinness” but health and wellness. How do I reverse this damage, and what do I do from here? Please help me. I honestly am not sure where to go from here.
    With much gratitude

  • jellybelly

    Hi Tom,

    Your info is always really to-the-point and useful and it’s been a Godsend for me to find you, but I find this article confusing–it sounds like you are saying that it’s impossible not to lose weight if you are eating a low-calorie diet–i.e. suggesting that in fact there is no starvation mode and that people who are having trouble are lazy and non-compliant.

    Unfortunately… For me, anyway… I’ve seen my body go through lots of ups and downs, from times when I was a competitive athlete to times when I literally starved myself and lost a lot of muscle mass. Now, perhaps because of long-term unrelenting stress… It just seems broken. I’ve spent months over the past several years trying various things, from intense lifting to intense cardio to intense lack of food. I enjoy working out, but I HATE not seeing results, and I have to disagree with you and say that sometimes it’s not the calorie count. I’d like you to tell me more about when it is smart to *raise* calories to lose weight, and when it’s not.

    Also… Wondering if you can look into medical conditions other than hypothyroid that might make the body resistant to weight loss. I have been tested for low thyroid because my mom has it; I am very low normal for T4, but not clinically hypo. I think my clean lifestyle might be masking something, because it’s truly ridiculous. Cortisol can lead to insulin resistance so I need to get my fasting glucose tested, but because I have a great diet and work out regularly, I’m not sure it will be impaired enough to read in the red zone.

    When I go running with girls 12 years younger than me, I am at the head of the pack. I am fit–and yet the scale is going the wrong way and I cannot shed body fat. I can change it up yet again and hope for different results but I feel like I am banging my head against a brick wall. It’s just Einstein’s definition of insanity in 19 different forms. You can’t say I don’t train hard because if you know me you’d see that when I was lifting heavy I’d put more plates on the leg press than the guys. My trainer made me do plyo that was *evil.* On the bike, I’m a beast. And in the kitchen I promise you there have been the tofu, broccoli and protein shake phases… And yet I look like the “before” photo, where you can see the contour of the 6-pack and the triceps but they never never pop out. It kills me.

    I will tweak and look to be more stringent with my diet, though I am a really healthy eater and don’t overindulge except for alcohol; I like wine with dinner sometimes, but keep that in the calorie count of course.

    In the meantime, though, I would appreciate it if you would be able to update this post with something that does not suggest everyone having trouble with fat loss is a fat, lazy liar. I really don’t fit that definition and am a bit upset by it. But more upsetting–much more–is working hard without seeing results.

    • Tom Venuto

      thanks for your feedback, but i think youve completely both misread and misinterpreted this article. I do realize this subject matter / topic is one of the most misunderstood of anhy in the field. but the article says neither directly nor implies that people are lazy. in certain ways it says the opposite. achieving and maintaining weight loss is a real challenge for a lot of people for a lot of realize and I empathize with the struggle.

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