We have all experienced a point in our fat-loss journey where our progress stalls. Why does this happen when we’re training so hard and it feels like our food rations are comparable to war times? Either we are eating more than we think or there’s some other worldly sorcery at play here. Starvation mode in a fitness context, is the perceived idea that our metabolisms slow down when our calories are low during a fat-loss phase. This is said to be the cause of plateaus or even why we start to gain weight after weeks or months of dieting. Nobody is dying from this idea of starvation mode so we should not mix it up with the literal meaning of the word ‘starvation’.
What actually happens to our metabolism when we diet?
As we lose weight from dieting our metabolisms have to adapt to a certain degree. We have less metabolically active tissue that relies on energy from the foods we eat. So the heavier we are the more calories we need to maintain that weight. As we become lighter we rely on fewer calories to maintain that new body-weight. This is why we need to slowly taper down our calories during a fat-loss phase when there is a slowdown in progress. To a lesser degree there is an actual reduction in our metabolism (adaptive thermogenesis) when in a caloric deficit for a prolonged period of time. Studies have shown that despite these changes in metabolism, you can still manage to lose weight after staying in a true calorie deficit for long enough. It may be hard psychologically for some people to do this but it is definitely possible.
In countries where starvation is a problem on a larger scale, this idea of a starvation mode does not hold true. People are severely underweight and dying from not eating enough. They do not suddenly gain weight because of a damaged metabolism. It seems that this idea of a starvation mode is reserved for first world countries.
Why do people believe there is a starvation mode?
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) can be dramatically affected when we eat in a calorie deficit for long enough. NEAT is any physical activity that is not planned exercise such as a gym workout. These include things such as walking the dog, tidying up your room, and any other activity that burns through calories. Although highly subjective, we begin to reduce our NEAT when we consistently consume less calories over a period of time. Our body wants us to preserve energy so it becomes more tiring to be more active. A way to counter this is to keep tracking your daily steps to make sure there is not a drop off in the calories burned outside of your regular training. There is evidence showing that your NEAT can be reduced by up to 2000 calories during a fat-loss diet. Some people will be affected more than others but it’s worth making sure you stay as active as possible even when on low calories. So even though you think are you eating few enough calories to lose weight, your levels of NEAT might have reduced to the point that you are no longer in a calorie deficit. The result will either be a plateau or even some weight gain.
Unless you are getting your food cooked and prepared for you to match your caloric needs, there is a large risk of human error when it comes to accurately tracking your calorie consumption. Eating out a lot or a busy work life could potentially make it harder to estimate your intake. Many dieters have been proven to miscalculate their daily calories to the extent of taking them above maintenance and into a calorie surplus. Unintentionally eating 2000 calories instead of 1500 will certainly prevent you from losing weight. This is not starvation mode. This is simply you eating too much for your goal.
We have to consciously try to keep our NEAT levels high and accurately track our calories and macro nutrients better. I always find that planned re-feed days (basically a controlled cheat day) are good for keeping your metabolism up, keep your leptin levels balanced, and also for motivation. It’s always better to not diet too aggressively because that can lead to more muscle loss and worse metabolic adaptation. If you diet at a slower pace (0.5kg-1kg a week) you will be more likely to sustain the progress and your levels of NEAT will not drop down too low or fast.
Starvation mode is not something we need to worry about as it does not truly exist. However, we should be prepared to deal with any metabolic and behavioral changes that may occur when we diet.
By Coach Rishi Haria