Starvation Mode – Is It a Thing?

Starvation Mode – Is It a Thing?

I’ve been lurking…


I’ve been lurking in FB communities to see what people are saying about fat loss. I’m looking for the most damaging trends or lines of focus that trap women in the diet industry for life. Let me tell you – I have HEARD some THINGS.


One of the topics I have seen very often is the term “starvation mode”. There are people – like, a LOT of people – who think that they have lowered their calories so much that their body shifted – in a panic – into fat storage mode though they are in a calorie deficit. That their bodies just keep creating fat cells out of thin air and piling them on their hips and thighs overnight. I’ve heard things like “I gained 20lbs in a month though I was eating 1000 calories a day!” 


That’s not how it works. Period.


I’m going to give you a primer on how fat loss works:

Every body requires a set number of calories to function. I know it’s popular to think that everyone needs 2200 calories per day and really, we can thank our very well-intentioned Canada’s Food Guide for this. Health Canada’s interest is in having every Canadian consume as many micronutrients as possible for optimal health. This is an important goal! So, if we aim high, it gives us the freedom to eat the things we enjoy that might not be on the food guide (ice cream, fudge, cookies… just me?), and eat the nutrient-dense recommendations as well – which are excellent recommendations all based on what we currently understand about nutrition science. 


That being said, I’m sure you can see that it can’t possibly make sense for every adult on the continent to have the same caloric needs, regardless of age, activity level, height and weight, and health status. So, they really do have to average it out and it’s going to be a VERY broad brush they use to cover the entire shore to shore canvas. In fairness, how can health Canada possibly produce a table that addresses the needs of every Canadian? How do you even approach making a chart with sections for height, weight, previous experience with obesity, medical backgrounds like thyroid dysfunction, auto-immune diseases, activity level, and even testosterone count and menopause? It just isn’t reasonable. So, here’s your 2200 calories – enjoy.

So, let’s say you’re a 5ft 8in, active mid-30’s woman. Your calorie intake will be higher than that of a 5ft tall, middle-aged woman who is sedentary – we can all agree on that. So, if the 5ft tall, middle-aged woman eats the 2000 calories per day that the younger, taller, more athletic woman does to maintain her weight, she will gain weight because it’s in excess of what her very different body needs. Alternatively, if the taller, younger, athletic woman eats the much lower calories that the other woman’s body requires, she will feel completely lethargic and probably run the risk of eating her young out of sheer hunger. We have all been here. I spent my entire bodybuilding prep in this state and it was the least fun I’ve ever had in all my life – and that is including a midwife putting 37 stitches in my unmedicated vagina after my daughter shot out of me like a 7lb flaming missile. My family loves when I tell that story. My son says “MOM, GET OVER IT! IT HAPPENED FOREVER AGO!”. I can’t wait to tell that story at his wedding. 


So, I hope you can see now that calorie recommendations are very difficult to choose without a solid understanding of the energy requirements of each individual body. This is why it’s a TERRIBLE idea to take advice from strangers on the internet who have no education in the subject. Even well-meaning ones. Yet, I’m always amazed at how willing people are to accept this information. That just goes to show you how desperate we are to change our body composition – and how little solid, science-based nutrition information is out there. Or, is there plenty but everyone is looking for the path of least resistance. I suppose that would be the winner but that defies logic when one of the paths that many choose is Keto – which is currently the diet with the highest failure rate. Annnnyway.


Let’s say you take the terrible advice from Keto Karen on the 100 thousand strong Facebook group: Fat Loss Tips, and start eating 2000 calories per day even though you’re 5ft tall and inactive. That would put you in a caloric surplus of around 700 calories per day. No matter how you feel about the fact that an inactive woman who is 5ft tall might only require 1300 calories to avoid fat gain – that’s just how it goes. As is often said, science doesn’t care how you feel – it’s just science. After 10 days, the advice of Keto Karen put our poor unsuspecting advice taker in a position to gain 2lbs of fat. Why?


Because her body only need 1300 calories each day and it didn’t need the other 700 per day. So, it did exactly what it was designed to do and converted that excess energy into fat cells and stored them on her body.


Not to fear! Body fat we store can be converted to energy when our body needs it – when our body is in a caloric deficit. That means our poor unsuspecting advice taker now has to eat fewer calories per day than she needs so her body will go – “the tank is empty – take it from storage! We have a brain to run!”.


So, that’s how fat loss works. That’s it – that’s the only way. You’ll notice I didn’t say cover yourself in Preparation-H and wrap yourself in saran wrap, or buy a waist trainer, or take keto supplements, or drink apple cider vinegar with pepper, or rub cellulite cream on your thighs and a huge “UGH” to that – it will absolutely be the topic of another episode.


Here’s the thing about the metabolism. It WILL slow down as you lower calories but it does this for 2 reasons.

  1. You are losing weight and there is less OF you. So, that means it doesn’t take as much energy (calories) to fuel your basic functions. Remember that our younger taller example needed more calories than our shorter, older, inactive example? That’s why. Many people don’t realize this and when they stop losing weight at the calorie deficit they produced to get that loss, they assume they’re at a plateau – and they aren’t – they just have to adapt their energy balance. Their body isn’t done losing weight – it just needs fewer calories to do that.
  2. Your body will lower metabolism in order to preserve the fuel onboard (gain, calories) when calories are low because if the fuel depletes it will need to access stored body fat to convert to energy in the absence of food. But, this is how fat loss works – so, yes, the body might lower your metabolism for a moment – but if you remain in that caloric deficit it will say “FINE!” And convert stored fat to energy and keep on burning.


So, that slowing is literally temporary until it gets at that body fat. Then, the engine is revving again. I have clients report to me that they really start to slow down and feel tired, cold, and grumpy around four days into their deficit. Then, they will suddenly feel a huge upswing in energy out of nowhere and feel amazing. The scale rewards their efforts at the end of the week with a fat loss. Again, this is how fat loss works. If you interrupt that process with extra calories, the body has no reason to access stored fat for fuel and you won’t lose any body fat.


Here is where people get confused:

I often have women email me and say “I eat 1000 calories a day and I just can’t lose weight!”. Then, when these women come on for coaching they’re asked to track their intake for several days without cleaning anything up, so I can get an idea of their patterns.


I do in fact see that they’re eating 1000 cals/day – for about 3 days. Then, they ate 2500 calories and called it a “cheat meal” or they succumbed to a binge. So, this ends the caloric deficit. Let’s say they were eating 1000 cals/day 4 days of the week and 2500 cals the other 3. This means the weekly average is 1642 cals per day. Let’s say that same person is 5ft tall, 175lbs and doesn’t exercise. Her base calorie need is likely around 1400 cals/day which puts her in a caloric surplus of 1694 per week. 1lb of fat is produced from approximately 3500 excess calories so she is gaining every week.


So, it wasn’t starvation mode – it was a caloric surplus. She only THOUGHT it was fat storage from nowhere because she didn’t factor in the high intake days. 


Are you with me so far?


The other issue there is that when we do eat in a substantial deficit for too long and then we eat in surplus of our daily needs, our bodies are going to store fat more quickly because it is in a significant deficit. So, if you’re dieting for months and months without a break – this is going to be problematic. Remember, your body is literally designed for survival and so if it senses that fuel isn’t coming on board regularly it will – in essence – “hoard” the excess that is consumed when it becomes flooded with excess glycogen. Because science. AGAIN – this will NOT be stored as fat unless you are in a caloric surplus!


One way to avoid this from happening is to have a weekly “relaxed meal”. We don’t call it a cheat meal because that implies it is a gluttonous binge episode and if you recall, when we’re in a deficit our body is primed to store excess fuel faster when there is a surplus presented. So, that relaxed meal might be 200 or 300 calories extra one day of the week and you go back to your deficit for the rest of the week. If that relaxed meal is 500 or more calories, some of it could very well be stored as fat depending on a  number of factors. But, remember – you’re not in a deficit anymore – so it’s not fat being produced out of nowhere.


Think of it as a cup. Every meal you eat goes into a cup. Every meal you eat should fill the cup but not spill over. As your day progresses and your brain is working hard – your heart is working hard – your digestive system is working hard – your cup is emptying. The body is pulling from that cup to fuel what you’re doing. If you suddenly overflow the cup – guess what happens? The body calls for a clean up in aisle four and sweeps up the excess and store it nicely as body fat.


If you don’t overfill that cup, you’re not gaining fat. 


If you’re working with a coach or someone who knows what you’re doing, your cup will never be FULL but will have some space left at the top so you can refuel to boost that metabolism once a week or so – like the relaxed meal I mentioned. If you fill the cup every single day, right to the top, that relaxed meal could cause a spillover but ideally, if done carefully, it will not. It can be a delicate balance.


That’s exactly why my advice to the folks on the these FB pages is to find a professional to help them identify their base caloric needs and guide them to avoid a surplus. 


So, there you have it. Help spread the word – Starvation Mode is NOT a Thing!

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