“Starvation Mode?” – How Dieting Down Affects Us & How To Reverse It

starvation-mode

The following material is featured in Starve Mode and 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 something can go on due to misconception. My hope is that this will answer some questions regarding what happens when we diet down. The end result will hopefully mean one less person who is left confused by very 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 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 is where the details live. Most people think the body flips a switch and no longer allows fat loss. These people’s 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 is the most powerful thing you might ever read about fat loss.

Any weight loss that takes place carries a significant change with it. We should expect to see 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 have alterations in hormones.

The changes that take place all work together to decrease the rate of metabolic drop, protect muscle mass, and ultimately protect you. It 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. Believe it or not, you are not entitled 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 you if you try to do this.

Let me restate that again: 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? 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 the body decreasing your NEAT (subconscious activity).

Chart of Predicted Adaptations During a Deficit

deficit-adaptation-chart

*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 in mind 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 no one blood test that will confirm you have achieved a slowed metabolic response. In one 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 gain 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
  • Decrease body temperature from previous normal levels
  • Alterations in appetite
  • Decrease in performance
  • Insomnia
  • Aches or pain in the muscles and/or joints
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • 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-worth 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, all of those jobs and all of those processes will take stock of importance and will alter direction or priority. That means all those cells and all those billions of processes a second that occur are going to take stock of your current energy input. If at any point your body 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. Less food intake will mean lower oil production in skin and hair follicles. Less food intake will mean less energy transport through the whole body. This is just to note a few instances.

On top of that, fatigue can increase as well as depression and apathy. Your sex drive is lowered and willpower is decreased. In a caloric deficit, we are operating at a subpar 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 lot between which is often missed, 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 permanent depends on the length of caloric restriction and the amount of permanent body fat lost (being that weight determines a degree of metabolic rate – sometimes significant).

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 – that was 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 as short forms like 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 as suggesting you are staving off abnormal adaptation. In short, you are still in a good place, taking part in proper deloads, resting, and 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.

Is should be noted 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 presents the same effects.

If Losing Fat, Why is This So Important?

The biggest reason you want an optimal and peak metabolic rate if trying for fat lost 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 2 weeks and then go back to dieting if need.” This can work in theory, but it may not always be relevant to your situation. If you have been dieting down for a very 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 5-7 days for every 3 weeks of dieting down. Here is a chart to explain what I mean.

Deficit-break-chart

 

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 diet break, not from the start of the diet.
  • Caloric intake should not be excessive and it is not an excuse to be a glutton.
  • 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 OK.
  • Expect to gain physical weight from food, water, and retention fluctuations.

Breaking To-Do List

  • Eat at of 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 caloric intake, you don’t need to be extremely structured unless you notice an excessive increase in weight. It is easy to sneak up.
  • Protein and carb intake should be at the forefront of your mind. Fat intake is more important for females, especially those dealing with menstrual disturbance.

Again, this is a general look at breaking. This is not detailed or covering those dealing with long-term adaptation. If looking for that, check out Starve Mode. Honestly, 99.1% of you will not need any further information than this or to just “Eat moar foodz.”

Hopefully this gives you a much bigger insight into the myths and truths of starvation mode. Pass it along and free your fellow man from confusion.

Before starting any new diet and exercise program please check with your doctor and clear any exercise and/or diet changes with them before beginning. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. I do not claim to cure any cause, condition or disease. I do not provide medical aid or nutrition for the purpose of health or disease and claim to be a doctor or dietitian. This is merely an opinion blog. Read full disclaimer here - http://www.leighpeele.com/disclaimer

27 Comments

  1. Zak
    Reply

    So it looks like a good rule of thumb would be: after 3 weeks of dieting, take a one week diet break. By the way Leigh, your stuff is the bee’s knees when it comes to the hormonal aspects (and psychological!) of dieting. Lyle McDonald and Martin Berkhan both have awesome info in their own areas, but no one else that I have read gets these aspects of dieting as well as you do. Thank you for your work!

  2. Armi Legge
    Reply

    Great article Leigh. Do you ever use shorter more frequent refeeds for people who are dieting to lower body fat percentages?

    • Leigh
      Reply

      With lower body fat percentage goals, I think shorter cycles are the way to go. To me I feel if you are in it for a show level appearance you shouldn’t (hopefully) be legging it out at the last minute. You should have time to alternate days and stave off any noticeable decline. Obviously, that isn’t always the case for some. If people would allow themselves to have enough time to get done what is needed, with a shorter cycle system, it be the most optimal system in my opinion.

      *Shorter in this instance meaning weekly implemented high/low days.*

      But that isn’t reality nor is it always best for everyone’s compliance.

      Sometimes there can legitimately be a compliance issue for some trying to get that mode. Some people just do better going for longer stints at a time. Even with the best of intentions, the rebound effect on cycle days makes getting back into a deficit harder (for some). Not to mention the issues with female dieters being able to handle the crazy weight flux.

      I think shorter spaced diet cycles are the most technically optimal, but not always the most logical to application.

  3. Stefani
    Reply

    I’d like your take on zig-zag dieting:

    if I have a BMR of roughly 1850, and am eating 1700/day and working out to burn approx. 350 cals/day, would the zig-zag plan (eating a cycle between 1400-2000 per day, but totaling 1700/day over a week) allow one of the higher days to count as a short-term refeed? Or would the average -3500 cals/week negate that?

    Any thoughts on the zig-zag concept in general would be appreciated, as well.
    Thanks! Great info here.

  4. Abe Aslan
    Reply

    Thanks for the very well worded and insightful article, Leigh. Ideally, I’d like to never take a diet break! But if my fat loss will stall and energy levels will drop if I don’t, I’d rather just take the plunge!

    Lyle McDonald also recommends diet breaks but his optimal time period varies depending on your body fat percentage (every 7-12 days for <15% body fat, 4-6 weeks for 15%-25%). I can see where the logic comes from; I imagine the body would like to stay away from such low levels of body fat. Do you agree with this?

    Thanks,
    Abe

  5. Andy Morgan
    Reply

    Excellent article Leigh, well received when shared at the weekend and very timely. May I ask, who did you use to get the animations done? It’s a really good idea.

  6. Rich Priest
    Reply

    Great video and read

  7. Doc Zombie
    Reply

    This starts to sound more and more like a plan I was recommending for my animal patients!!! I wanted to set-up a research protocol for animals, but just didn’t have enough time to do all that would be required AND handle a busy veterinary practice. So I just laid it out for my clients verbally. We had good success with this protocol … unfortunately, I never got it published. Good luck with trying this. REMEMBER: check with your physician or nutritionist / dietician.

    DAY 1 Feed full maintenance requirements of a balanced feed.

    DAY 2 Feed 75% of maintenance.

    DAY 3 Feed 50% of maintenance.

    DAY 4 Feed 25% of maintenance.

    Every day should include some form of exercise … jogging / running, walking, frisbee, ball throwing, etc., etc.

    This plan should do the same as seen in the charts above, but without going on such a long “break period”. It may: 1) prevent gaining too much weight back (if at all); 2) easy to adjust to new maintenance levels almost immediately as weight is lost; and 3) easy to keep track of how much to feed (eat) because of the short duration of the feed / break cycle.

    Try adapting this to a human protocol. Again, good luck and good health!

  8. Doc Zombie
    Reply

    BTW: cool video!!!

  9. Mike
    Reply

    Ok Leigh, I am going to give your book, “Starve Mode”, a shot and I will let you know how it all works out. Little background. 55 year old guy, been in the Marines, (38 years ago), wrestled in high school, stayed in shape up to about 40. Had some physical issues/change in jobs (became a teacher) and found I could not work out like I used to. Weighed 145 when married 26 years ago and found myself 176 and completely out of shape about 3 years ago. I am 5’7 by the way. 2 years ago I started exercising again using P90x, then Insanity and started running again about 3-4 times a week. I have gotten into pretty good shape but started becoming obsessed with getting lower in weight to around 150 and getting rid of this fat around my waist. Started tracking my calorie intake with Fitness Pal and started with 1200 calories for about 2 months. Figured it would burn away that little tube that refused to go away but alas it did not and weight stayed around 155. Jacked up the calories to 1500 with even more working out and the impact has been minimal. I am going to get your book, read it 2 times and use the information to the best of my ability. I am not going to worry about the weight. I just want to do my own “clinical trial” and see how things shake out. I simply want to establish this little comment so I have a reference point to look back on and see how it all shakes out. Your book will be the first book I have ever ordered on-line and this is the first comment I have ever posted. I will give you my honest appraisal in 6 months or so. Thanks Mike

  10. Amy
    Reply

    Thank you for throwing out such valuable information! I’ve been in deficit for a looooong time. Nobody ever told me I need to break! Do you happen to have a transcription of the video? I’d love to save that info too! Thanks so much, can’t wait to buy your book :)

  11. Janelle Deeds
    Reply

    Thanks again Leigh! Important information. ~j

  12. Doc Zombie
    Reply

    Darnit! I forgot to add: DAY 5 BACK TO MAINTENANCE and repeat cycle on following days, etc. That way your body (or your pet’s) won’t “sense” the lack of food so severely. Remember to adjust the “maintenance” as weight is lost.
    Thank you.

  13. Leigh
    Reply

    Just letting people know that in a few more days I will get back to these comments on an appropriate level.

  14. Katherine
    Reply

    What do you think about people such as myself that have a large percentage of body fat to lose. Through years and years of dieting I now cannot eat at maintenance with out gaining weight, which I really don’t need. I all but gave up dieting or trying to fix this issue at this point, but I am willing to try. Do you do a long term re-feed and then drop back down in calories?

    Thanks for the wonderful article! I have hope again!

    • Sharon
      Reply

      I am in the same situation. My BMR is 1527 and I exercise everyday about 500-700 cal. Whenever I eat >1800 calories the weight comes on like crazy.
      I think this is a result of very VLCD in all of 2012. Here is the kicker, when I stopped VLCD and started 1500 cal/day and intense exercise, I went from 140lb to 170lb/32% body fat to 37% in 12 weeks! Now I can’t seem to lose an ounce and am very tempted to go back to VLCD because no matter what I do, I can’t lose weight. Any suggestions before I gain any more weight? Thank you in advance

  15. Jay Scott
    Reply

    As someone who has a lot of experience dieting down – but has always had a phobia of “taking a dieting break” – I can say that Leigh’s book has helped reform me in that area immensely. I’m losing the final 4-5lbs of “stubborn” fat right now and normally I would just PLOW THROUGH on the same caloric deficit until it is gone.

    That usually leaves me weak and smaller (I’m a bodybuilder, albeit not a very big one).

    This time around – after reading Leigh’s book – I’m going to incorporate about a week of maintenance calories for every 3-4 weeks of dieting. It’s actually in the plan now. Listen to Leigh, she knows what she’s talkin’ bout’. ;)

    Jay

  16. Kristen
    Reply

    Thanks for all of your hard work on this (and your other book). I devoured them over the weekend and have them on my ipod to listen often while out to reassure me.

    You reference a lot about lower body fat levels but what about obese? I’ve lost 50 lbs (since last August) and have about 66 to go. I like your stance on aggressive deficits. My plan is 1272 cals for 1 week at a time with 1 day at maintenance. At 8 weeks, a full week. 5×5 program 3 days and light walking 3 days with 1 day off. I was at 1650 and the weight was crawling off of me…looking for a little faster clip. Want to be done with fat loss and want to try my hand at maintenance.

    Your water weight chapter is on a constant loop on my ipod. ;)

  17. Teri Chadwick
    Reply

    Hi Leigh,
    Thank you for writing this post AND your new book! I am very interested to read it.

    You may want to correct your book title (as it appears in the paragraph just before your chart on Deficit Period and Break Period). You typed it as “Stave Mode.” Don’t mind me… I loved the article, but I tend to be a grammar/spelling Nazi. : )

  18. Vanessa Loera
    Reply

    Great Post! I do have a question , if one had been dieting for extending period of time , dropped 35lbs but lost her menstrual cycle around -25lbs(secondary amenorrhea since June 2012,blood test are normal except Estradiol 15, been cleared for thyroid issues, PCOS , and hypothalamic amenorrhea, know my hormones have to be imbalanced considering my hair is falling out I’m only 24 years old) .Never had low body fat (never past 19%) My fat loss plateaued for a long time even though I was in a caloric deficit ,doing cardio and weight training.The past two months ,I decided to up my calories , ditch cardio and stick to weight training 5 days a week. I feel great, more energy, more strength, I even regained 10lbs which I know is not all fat but still no period. Should I wait for the return of my period in order for me to press on in my fat loss journey? I also don’t want to risk my fertility for the future but at the same time I don’t want to be stuck feeling puffy lol

    Thanks again for the article :)

  19. Kyle
    Reply

    There’s a truth to be learned about the true passage to a healthy life. We are taught at an early age in school about Health and Fitness. Eat healthy, exercise, stay fit, and grow up strong are the slogans of this failed idea structure. What is wrong with the health and fitness industry is that they have all the answers but do not know the question. Do I disagree with eating healthy and daily exercise of course not, that’s not my point. If you then ask “what’s missing?” then you’re on the right track. What the human neglects above all is a healthy mind and that in it lies the True “Starvation-Mode” purging the mind of hatred, fear, shame, guilt, and envy. Humans are so hungry for knowledge that we’ll believe anything they’re are selling us. “Gotta look sexy in your new bikini” and everyone just gobbles it up. Explain why today there is a double standard between men and women, or that racism still exists? Why do these things exist when everybody knows it’s wrong? Because we forget to starve.

    Happily Starving,

    Kyle

  20. Paul
    Reply

    I have a question regarding this: I generally eat to maintenace (or slightly over) 5 days/week. 2 days/week i eat about 1000 cals under maintenance.
    I have been doing this for about 6 months. Does this still require a break since 5 days/week i am eating to maintenance? If so how long would you recommend? thanks…

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