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Starvation Mode Myth

January 27, 2012

The Starvation Mode (SM) is the idea that if you eat too few calories, your metabolism will drop in an effort to conserve energy and your body will stop losing fat and start storing it, as well as break down muscle for energy. SM is oft discussed online, with many bloggers/commenters giving dire warnings, such as, “If you go below ________ amount of calories, you will go into SM! If you go more than three hours without eating, you will go into SM! When you’re sleeping, your body goes into SM!” These comments are slightly irritating, and certainly disturbing. There's the point.
Fear not, while SM is a real issue, it is not so easily initiated as above. The Minnesota Starvation Study (1950), put 36 healthy, young men on a starvation diet. The least amount of calories that they were allowed to eat was 50% of their recommended, maintenance calories, but this is still a drastic cut in calories. The Results: The men’s metabolisms were significantly lowered, but not to the point where they stopped losing fat. It was not until the very end of the study, when the men reached 5% bodyfat, that their fat loss halted.

“Lyle McDonald explains it this way:

But here’s the thing: in no study I’ve ever seen has the drop in metabolic rate been sufficient to completely offset the caloric deficit. That is, say that cutting your calories by 50% per day leads to a reduction in the metabolic rate of 10%. Starvation mode you say. Well, yes. But you still have a 40% daily deficit.
“He says, further, that no study that he’s aware of where people were put on strictly controlled diets failed to acknowledge weight or fat loss.” Source

Furthermore, muscle loss in starvation mode is also difficult to achieve. For a really excellent article detailing this, see this article from the blog Fitness Black Book.

I used to fear Starvation Mode and eat religiously every three hours. I know this kind of eating is very beneficial and works well for many people because it keeps you from getting ravenously hungry, spreads your food throughout the day, and keeps your metabolism humming along. However, it can be a pain in the a** (or a PITA as my mother would say). I was so obsessed/religious about it that I would get upset if I could not eat every three hours. If I was somewhere without food and had not eaten in three hours, I would freak out. I imagined my metabolism crashing, and my hard-earned muscles being devoured for energy. It caused me quite a bit of anxiety. I would get grumpy and irritable, not because my blood sugar was crashing, but because I was so mentally dependent on eating every three hours (and fearful of SM). Obviously, religiously eating this way was not benefiting me. It was harming me; it became a source of obsession, anxiety, and irritability. So, I had to let it go. I’ll eat when I’m hungry. Other than that, I’m not worrying.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. jennyheffernan permalink
    January 27, 2012 1:27 pm

    A book that really nicely explores the idea of not being consumed and obsessed with food is Marianne Williamsons “A Course In Weight Loss”. Even if you don’t have weight to lose, it really puts the whole food obsession in perspective and highly supports your idea of Eat When You’re Hungry!!

    Thanks for the great article!!!

    Jenny Heffernan

    • January 27, 2012 1:29 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation! Obsession with food is definitely something that I have struggled with and something that I will continue to talk about further in my blog. I’ll go look for that book at my library.
      Thanks again!

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