The following material is featured in Starve Mode and The Fat Loss Troubleshoot. Disclaimer: Before taking part in any diet program, consult with your doctor or state board-licensed nutritionist. This information should in no way replace the information provided to you by your doctor or treating therapist.
Check out the video below for bonus information.
It’s astounding how long an idea can persist even when due to misconception. My hope is that this will answer some questions regarding what happens when we diet down, and the end result will hopefully be one less person who is confused by common myths regarding this topic.
These statements might seem familiar:
“No matter how much I exercise, I can’t lose weight! Is this starvation mode?”
“No matter how little I eat, I can’t lose weight!!! Am I in starvation mode?”
“If I eat this low amount of calories, will I go into starvation mode?”
“Starvation mode means your body stops burning fat and starts storing fat.”
My favorite is the last, as if the body is going to transition from being a pitcher to a catcher. It doesn’t work that way, but late night infomercials have been spewing these lies for decades. And who gets the raw end of the deal? You do.
You Can’t Avoid the Repercussions of Dieting Down
How fast, where, and to what degree are the details. Most people think the body flips a switch and no longer allows fat loss. Their explanation for what they can’t explain is that the process just stops working. They say, “The body stores fat instead of burning it!” This is a dangerous line of thinking that has been at the forefront of why we have all of the faulty fads, solutions, and diets we do. This is the ultimate aha! moment of fat loss. Pay attention—this might be the most powerful thing you will ever read about fat loss.
Any weight loss that takes place carries a significant change with it—a downgrade in metabolic activity. In fact, let me put it this way: in order to lose fat, you have to have a metabolic adaptation. You have to expect alterations to your hormones.
The changes that take place all work together to decrease the rate of metabolic drop, protect muscle mass, and ultimately protect you which is a good thing. You see so many people cursing their metabolic behavior, but your body working against you is hardly the worst thing in the world, or even the truth. The only time this is unfortunate is when you need to lose body fat due to health reasons. Because believe it or not, you are not supposed to physically manipulate your body for vanity. It wasn’t meant to do this, it doesn’t want to do this, and it will fight if you try to do this.
Let me restate that: your body does not want to maintain low body fat. It wants to make you hungry, slow you down, alter your mental stability, and manipulate your hormonal state for one purpose, one goal. What is that end goal? To achieve peak metabolic homeostasis by any means necessary. It doesn’t matter if that means you stuffing your face due to increased ghrelin (hunger hormone) or if your body decreases your NEAT (subconscious activity).
Chart of Predicted Adaptations During a Deficit
*Muscle mass can increase while in a deficit in newer trainees. It will only increase with the aid of resistance weight training.
These changes are predictable and expected. Fighting against change is futile. Understanding that changes happen and working with them is crucial to staying in an optimized metabolic state, even during a deficit.
As you can see in the chart, hormones shift when the deficit is created. The larger the deficit, the more aggressive the shift. The more weight that’s lost, the more permanent the changes. In my book, Starve Mode, I go into great detail about these hormones and reversal processes.
The Signs of “Starvation Mode”
It should be stated now there is not one blood test that will confirm you have achieved a slowed metabolic response. In a manner of speaking, losing weight at all means the process has begun. But, when referring to the more worrisome side of starvation mode, there are some things you can look for to see if it is time to move into diet recovery.
One of the easiest things to remember is this—if you aren’t losing fat (not just dealing with cloaking) it is time for a break.
Looking below, you can see some examples of what can take place when you have been in a deficit too long. It should be noted most of these things can be general side effects of fat loss or completely separate issues all together. This is not a list to diagnose or confirm any particular illness or disease and is based on review literature and anecdotal evidence.
- Sudden inability to complete workouts at standard performing level
- Stalled fat loss
- Increase in fluid retention on a regular basis
- Feeling unmotivated and lacking energy
- Increased susceptibility to colds, sore throats, and other illnesses
- Decreased body temperature from previous normal levels
- Alterations in appetite
- Decrease in performance
- Aches or pain in the muscles and/or joints
- Elevated morning pulse
- Disordered eating habits/thoughts
The Body Doesn’t Stop Burning Fat
To understand what happens to the body in a state of decreased metabolic behavior, you must first understand what is taking place in an optimal metabolic state. It is estimated that there are a hundred trillion cells in the human body. Of those, it is estimated a billion must be replaced every hour. The average person has roughly seven hundred muscles and over twenty miles of capillaries. It doesn’t stop there, between blood, organs, hair, and even taste buds, the human body is constantly in desperate need of fuel.
When the body senses a period of deprivation is taking place, it will evaluate all of those jobs and processes to determine what is most important and alter direction or priority. That means the second all those cells and all those billions of processes occur, your body takes stock of your current energy input; and if at any point it finds its storage or input of nutrients is lacking in efficiency, it will adapt. It will adjust accordingly to the given parameters.
In short, you providing less energy will mean you expend less energy. Less food intake will mean fewer calories burned to convert it. It will mean lower oil production in skin and hair follicles. It will mean less energy is being transported throughout the body. This is just to note a few examples.
On top of that, fatigue can increase as well as depression and apathy. Your sex drive can decrease and your willpower can lower. In a caloric deficit, we operate at a sub par level of our capable excellence.
The most valuable lesson of adaptation is that energy is not lost. I repeat, again, energy can’t be lost; it can only be altered or transferred. There is a often a lot missed between, and the point missed most often is the role of adaptation. You are not defying the laws of energy. You are merely operating at a lower output state of energy use and requirements. How much and how permanently depends on the length of caloric restriction and the amount of permanent body fat lost (being that weight determines a degree of your metabolic rate—sometimes significantly).
Note: Permanent body fat lost will alter overall caloric expenditure.
But there is good news…
The beauty of caloric restriction adaptation is that eating reverses the effects. If you were waiting for the big announcement—this is it.
Short-Term and Long-Term Refeeding: The Differences
Technically, I am unaware of a strict definition that has been established, so I’ll establish one for the sake of conversation and reference only.
Short-term refeeds are short breaks from a deficit state. The purpose is to maintain quality metabolic or psychological behavior. These can come in forms such as cheat meals, whole weekends off, long-term several-week periods, or your standard total break from dieting all together. When embarking on a break, I see the background information suggest you are staving off abnormal adaptation. In short, you are still in a good place, taking part in proper deloads, resting, and incorporating diet breaks on a regular basis. You are avoiding any detrimental negative consequences from dieting down, at least beyond normal adaptations.
Some people also call them cheat days, high days, carb-up days, etc.
Long-term refeeding is when you have gone beyond the point of standard dieting down adaptations. You need to replenish or reset an above-normal deficit period. This is going to be an instance where you’ve been dieting down for an extended period of time with few to no maintenance days. This is going to be especially increased if dieting and training habits include more aggressive protocols like PSMF, VLCD, or advanced metabolic training. When this has taken place, short-term breaks will do little to help reset or create a place of optimal metabolic homeostasis.
It should be noted that breaks or refeeds can be needed even for those not technically in a large deficit or a deficit at all. Recovering from a poor stressor system can have the same effects.
If You Are Losing Fat, Why Is This So Important?
The biggest reason you want an optimal and peak metabolic rate if you are wanting fat loss is so simple you might have missed it.
The higher your baseline metabolic rate, the more you can eat while in a deficit. That is a pretty significant reason. Otherwise, your only option is to keep eating lower and lower and moving further away from a healthy and optimized metabolic rate.
How to Incorporate Short-Term Breaking to Stave Off Excessive Adaptations
How you break is almost as powerful as how you diet. The break depends on the deficit and the person. You can simplify it and say, “Take a deficit break. Eat at maintenance for two weeks and then go back to dieting if needed.” This can work in theory, but it may not always be relevant to your situation. If you have been dieting down for an extended period of time, longer breaks are likely needed. Again, I talk in great detail about long-term refeeding and resetting in Starve Mode.
Generally speaking, you need to break every 5-7 days for every 3 weeks of dieting down. Here is a chart to explain what I mean.
Obviously there is room for adjustment and these are cautious figures. But it is a good rule of cycling thumb.
Fundamentals of a Break
There are a few fundamentals you want to keep in mind:
- Caloric intake needs to be at present maintenance or slightly above. Current maintenance is what your caloric needs are at the time of the diet break, not from the start of the diet.
- Caloric intake should not be excessive and it is not an excuse to be gluttonous.
- Always assess the role training plays in your break and recovery.
- If you intend to diet down again after the break, do not try to make up for lost time by gaining fat back. Planning to lose it again doesn’t make it okay.
- Expect to gain physical weight from food, water, and retention fluctuations.
Breaking To-Do List
- Eat at your estimated daily caloric burn or slightly over to ensure full refeed.
- Reject carbohydrate phobia. Research estimates a need for carbohydrates in the range of 150g (female)/200g (male) to start. Make sure to include starch based carbohydrates. Carbs are your friend.
- While you should lightly monitor your caloric intake, you don’t need to be extremely structured unless you notice an excessive increase in weight. It can sneak up easily.
- Protein and carb intake should be at the forefront of your mind. Fat intake is more important for females, especially those dealing with menstrual disturbances.
Again, this is a general look at breaking; it is not detailed and does not cover specific issues for those dealing with long-term adaptation. If you are looking for that, check out Starve Mode. Honestly, 99.1% of you will not need any further information than this or more advice than to just “eat more foodz.”
Hopefully this gives you greater insight into the myths and truths of starvation mode. Please pass it along and free your fellow human from dieting down confusion.