Metabolic Behavior and Starvation Mode
The single most common question I get asked on a DAILY basis is, “My trainer at my gym said I’m not eating enough to lose weight. Won’t I go into starvation mode if I don’t eat enough?”
I always have to shake my head when I hear this objection to dieting for weight loss because it makes no logical sense.
The simplest answer is usually the correct one. Not losing weight? Eating too much. Human beings store fat mass when eating in a surplus and we lose fat mass when eating in a deficit.
The answer is as simple as this: Eating less is how people starve to death.
If “starvation mode” could overcome this and cause you to pile on excess fat while eating in a deficit, then people would NOT starve to death. Simple answer.
One of the most common and pervasive fitness myths is that you should eat MORE to weigh LESS and that you should eat early and often throughout the day to jump start and speed your “metabolism”. In reality, your body works just fine all on its own, metabolizing energy and storing excess as necessary all day long and as you sleep. It doesn’t need constant feedings to maintain proper functioning.
In fact the most recent and well designed studies have shown that eating FEWER times per day (3 normal meals vs. up to 14 small meals) actually IMPROVED insulin stability, satiety levels and numerous other markers of metabolic health and function.
In today’s world, we are bombarded by fitness and nutritional advice yet we have more obesity than ever. Looking closely at this it is plain to see that we don’t work as hard as we used to due to post industrial revolution advancements, we move less, we have greater access to convenient, calorie dense foods and we eat more of it. So therefore, we are heavier.
In past generations, people moved more and ate LESS. There was no advice to eat MORE to lose weight and certainly no advice to eat early and often to improve metabolic function. People’s bodies worked just fine and the general population was far leaner than ours is today.
The TRUTH is that your body uses stored fat as energy when food is scarce. If you are eating early upon waking and frequently throughout the day, you are never giving your body a chance to use its stored fat. You are giving it energy to use instead and your fat stays put. And if you are giving it too MUCH energy for the activities you’re doing during a given time frame, it will store the unused energy you just fed it as fat.
Doesn’t this make WAY more sense than all of these counter-intuitive and complicated myths we are fed about your oh-so mysterious and complicated “metabolism”?
Let’s look a little closer at the #1 most misused and misunderstood word among the so-called mainstream fitness “experts” today: METABOLISM.
What is the metabolism anyway?
The metabolism is a collection of metabolic BEHAVIORS. Most people think the metabolism is simply the body’s system of burning or storing fat, in essence, the ONE thing that can potentially make you THIN. In reality, the processing of energy is just ONE of the functions of the metabolism. The metabolism is EVERYTHING your body does that requires energy including beating your heart, brain function, internal organ function, processing and digesting food and liquid, sleeping, not sleeping, hair and nail growth, reproductive function, energy levels, mood and much, much more.
And what is “Starvation Mode”?
Starvation Mode is a concept that arose from the bodybuilding and competitive fitness world where people are dieting to critically lean levels as in, they have NO or very little non-essential fat on their bodies. At this point, it is very important to pay close attention to proper nutrition and adequate calorie consumption to prevent the slowing of metabolic behavior.
What happens when your metabolism slows down?
According to popular starvation mode myth, when you’re in starvation mode, your body will preferentially store FAT despite your being in a caloric deficit. This is totally incorrect.
What actually happens during starvation mode is a gradual slowing of the less necessary and most expensive metabolic behaviors such as hair and nail growth, optimal sleep patterns, reproductive functions, and waking energy levels. This is your body’s defense mechanism to slow the process of starvation. What it means is that your body becomes extremely efficient and will require less caloric intake for survival.
When in this state, it is of course easier to overeat, but on the flip side, a deep enough calorie restriction can still overcome this safeguard, resulting in continued fat loss, malnutrition resulting in grave symptoms and illness, and eventually death by starvation. Of course, this is the extreme and ULTIMATE outcome, but it does illustrate how it is NOT POSSIBLE to make yourself FATTER by dieting!
Research studies have shown that this phenomenon is MUCH more rare than you have been led to believe. In normal healthy subjects it tends to start occurring when men fall well below 10% body fat and in women below about 15% body fat. Some of these behaviors can also affect those who have extreme metabolic disorders, but again, that is very rare.
Generally speaking the things that happen to the body during “starvation mode” will not affect you if you are of normal health and you have any reasonable amount of non-essential fat on your body. Our bodies store fat to be used when resources are scarce. That is the way we are built.
Sadly, in the mainstream fitness community there is a tendency to take “good advice” for an individual GROUP of people (i.e. fitness competitors) and disseminate that advice among the general population. Most average fitness enthusiasts or casual consumers of fitness information who are simply looking to shed some weight and look better in their clothes will never approach this level of leanness and have nothing in common with the group of individuals for whom this knowledge and advice is remotely important.
If you have stored fat on your body, your body will USE it to perform its functions while you fast overnight and into the morning and while you diet in general. That is what it is there for. It is simply not true that the body will just preferentially store FAT instead of using the fuel you give it on an hour by hour basis if you skip meals or restrict calories during the course of a normal and responsibly designed diet protocol.