The Myth of the Starvation Mode

by Anne Bennett on October 27, 2009

I hate to be the bearer of sad tidings, but current research is debunking the theory of the “starvation mode”. The theory goes like this: when we are dieting and we don’t eat enough food, our metabolism slows down so much that our bodies go into a starvation mode and we stop losing weight altogether.

But according to the Center for Exercise Science and Cardiovascular Research at Northeastern Illinois University (among other venerable academic institutions), it just doesn’t work like that. Yes, when we eat less our metabolism lowers, because our bodies become more efficient and thus need fewer calories to perform daily functions. But while eating less may slow weight loss, it doesn’t stop it.

Here’s what they think happens: let’s say your body needs 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight and you go on a diet and eat 1,500 calories (a deficit of 500 calories per day).  You’ll lose about a pound a week.  If you reduce your intake to 1,000 calories per day, you’ll lose about 2 pounds a week.

But go as low as 500 calories a day, and that’s when the lower metabolism really kicks in and slows weight loss. Even though the math says you should lose 3 pounds per week, it will probably be more like 2 1/4 to 2 1/2 pounds instead. That’s still nothing to shake a stick at, but who can live on 500 calories a day?

Wait a minute, I should know. I tried it in the 1970’s and let me tell you, I was not a happy camper. Come to think of it, I remember a stint where I didn’t lose any weight for several weeks. And I was “starving” myself, eating massive amounts of stewed zucchini and canned tomatoes served with a mere dusting of Parmesan cheese. No meat, no leafy greens, no other food at all, just the zucchini/tomato melange and Tab. (You wouldn’t have wanted to know me then.) Eventually my weight began to drop again, drastically, but my overall health was compromised in the long run.

Did I care? Are you kidding? I was 24 years old. All I wanted to be was thin. Who needed health?

Fast forward 35 years, and I can now say that I have truly been there. I know how hard it is to lose weight. I’ve done it countless times over the years and I’ve suffered the consequences of eating too much and too little, and of sacrificing health for beauty (a broad term, I assure you). From my seasoned perspective, the bottom line remains a simple mathematical equation: eat fewer calories than your body needs and you’ll lose weight. Eat just enough, and the scale will stall.

As Walter Cronkite so eloquently put it, “That’s the way it is.”

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Joe Ruder June 23, 2015 at 8:06 am

I have often struggled with and wondered why/how weight loss can “stall” on serious calorie reduced diets for so long! There are times that I have gone very low for a couple weeks at a time with no movement on the scale. Then other times where just “eating healthy” works out just fine. I think my body hates me sometimes.

Joe

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