Why The 'Starvation Mode' Debate Ignores The Bigger Picture

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I'm sure many of you have heard the term 'starvation mode' crop up in circles where calorie restriction is discussed. More often than not, the term sparks a heated debate over whether or not it exists. My response is this: it doesn't actually matter if it exists or not.

For those of you who have not heard this term before, the concept of it is this: If you restrict your calories too much with the aim of losing weight, your body will panic, slow down your metabolism and hold on to it's fat stores, preventing you from losing any further weight. Here is where the idea of 'eating more to lose more' comes from, which you can read more about in books such as The New Rules of Lifting for Women. In many ways, this makes evolutionary sense. Back in the cave man days, the lack of Tesco Express meant a greater need for the body's ability to store fat and hold onto it when there were no animals to hunt or berries to gather. 

One way of looking at it, is that those of us today who hold onto our fat stores when calorie restriction is too great, would have long outlived the rest during a food shortage, it's just that our modern-day diets conflict with this evolutionary survival mechanism. 

You could even further argue that the 'starvation mode' makes logical sense as it's is similar to water retention, in that it's caused by a lack of something (i.e. calories or water) resulting in retention (fat stores or bloating) and by increasing what we're lacking in, we actually lose these stores (i.e. a reduction in fat stores or loss of the water retention, often referred to as 'water weight').

Frequently though, we see the counter argument. This is usually along the lines of 'the weight will have to go eventually on a large deficit, look at the starving children of Africa or those who suffer with anorexia'. Yes, true, a large deficit in these circumstances has resulted in weight loss rather than stalled metabolisms and fat stores. My argument, is that debating over whether or not 'starvation mode' really exists, is irrelevant as it ignores the bigger picture of healthy weight loss. 

Let's say for example, that it does not exist and a dieter restricts their calories to no more than 1000 a day. This is a huge deficit of 1,000-1,500 calories for a sedentary person. Suppose they continued to lose weight on this restriction, at what cost would it be? It could be the case that muscle mass is being lost along side the fat mass. Furthermore, it is virtually impossible to obtain sufficient nutrients from so few calories, leading to  multitude of problems caused by malnutrition. 

There's also the question of sustainability, which is where those faddy '14 day bikini diets' fail and why afterwards the weight that is lost goes straight back on. To maintain the weight loss, whatever you are doing right now needs to be continued for the rest of your life, otherwise you will just get stuck in a loop of losing and gaining the same pounds. This is the very reason many people refer to it is a 'lifestyle change' rather than a 'diet'; you simply cannot reach your goal weight and return to no exercise and eating junk food. This is likely to happen if you rapidly lost the weight through not eating or skipping meals, as it's simply not enjoyable or sustainable. 

It's far better to find the balance your body needs between enough calories for nutrition, and a deficit significant enough for weight loss. Getting in enough calories makes your life (and workouts) far easier. Additionally, you'll reap the health and beauty benefits of getting sufficient nutrition, ranging from increased energy, brighter complexion and shiny hair, to better concentration, deeper sleep and improved mood. 

For a guide to how many calories you should be eating, use a website such as MyFitnessPal.com to track our food, water and exercise, or use the this equation.


  1. To this day, we are taught to fear starvation mode and slow metabolism, a state when the body clings on to fats. However, military research proves otherwise!
    Starvation mode / slow metabolism - military says no fear


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