Starvation Mode: Is It a Real Phenomenon?
Starvation mode. I used to tell my clients that whenever they would hit a weight loss plateau that lasted for a month or longer. At that point, the client I was working with would have cut back her calories to roughly 1,300 a day, and even though I am not a fan of “chronic cardio” for weight loss, I would recommend that my client kick up her physical activity outside the gym in an effort to start losing weight again. More often than not, the weight still would not come off. To be clear, at this point my client would still have a fair amount of fat to lose. She would still be hovering around 25% or so, meaning she did have a long way to go to see some good definition (and to simply be healthier overall). The plateau was real. “Starvation Mode” was in full effect.
What exactly is starvation mode anyway? After all, we all know that if we go without food for a long enough time, we would literally starve to death. This is not a mystery. But yet, the weight loss seems to stop cold turkey when we try to stick to a diet and exercise program for a long time. Does the body adapt to slow down fat loss?
It turns out that yes, the body does adapt to the new stimuli. It will slow down the metabolism in an effort to conserve energy. There is plenty of research to demonstrate that this is a real phenomena, and the one that drives home the point most clearly is the study done on the contestants of The Biggest Loser. On a superficial level, the show is very motivating because it would take people who are severely overweight and downright obese, put them on a structured diet and exercise program and all of the contestants would lose a remarkable amount of weight in short order (as a side note, I just found out that the show was cancelled because the contestants were given weight loss drugs like adderrol and ephedrine which help with suppressing appetite and increasing energy expenditure. You can read it here). The upside, no doubt, was dramatic weight loss during the show, but the after effects were not so good. A study was done on a group of contestants a few years later, and the researchers found that the metabolism did indeed slow down. It slowed down more than it should have from simply losing weight, and the average slowdown was close to 600 calories a day. The actual definition of starvation mode is adaptive thermogenesis.
When the metabolism slows down from a prolonged diet and exercise program, it tends to stay at the lower point, thus making it easier to gain all the weight back and then some when the dieter resumes a normal eating pattern, even if she eats fewer calories than she did before she started the diet and exercise program. Dr. Liebel calls this the set point theory, and he believes that once the set point has been adjusted downward, it is nearly impossible to get the metabolism to return to normal. To further reinforce this point, the researchers of the biggest loser had this to say:
Despite relative preservation of FFM, exercise did not prevent dramatic slowing of resting metabolism out of proportion to weight loss. This metabolic adaptation may persist during weight maintenance and predispose to weight regain unless high levels of physical activity or caloric restriction are maintained.
Ouch. This news is pretty bleak, is it not? You gain some weight, meaning you are eating more food than you need for caloric maintenance, so you start exercising to use the excess calories in conjunction with eating fewer calories on a daily basis to ensure you are in a negative calorie balance. You should lose fat. And you do. At first. Then the weight loss slows down. You up the ante by adding more exercise (usually cardio), and cutting the calories. Then the real problems arise. You are constantly hungry. You have lower energy levels. You are tired all the time. And yet, the weight loss just does not happen. Adding insult to injury, now your metabolism seems to be stuck at a lower level.
So Now What?
Years ago I would be in a bit of a conundrum when a client would stop losing weight from adaptive thermogenesis. I looked at the problem as a calorie in/calorie out situation, and the only advice I could think of was to continue cutting calories…but not cut them too much. Sometimes I even recommended adding more calories back into the diet so the body would believe all is well….and maybe it would start dropping fat again. And of course, I would often times recommend adding more volume of exercise, even though I was convinced that it would not help. I was grasping at straws I admit, but I did not know what else to do. There had to be another way to overcome this problem.
A More Sane Approach
Gaining or losing fat is not a simple matter of managing calories. What we know just from the process of adaptive thermogenesis, the body will adjust energy expenditure given the signals from its environment. We most certainly do not want the body to burn less overall calories than it is used to, so we do not want to be on a heavily calorie restrictive diet, nor do we want to use excessive exercise protocols for prolonged periods. We simply want to tell the body to use fat for fuel instead of storing it.
What drives fat storage? The hormone insulin. When insulin levels are high, the body is storing energy as fat. When insulin levels are low, the body will use stored fat for energy. Of course, the whole process is more complicated than that, but you get the idea. Insulin levels go up from:
- Eating. Anytime we eat, we produce insulin
- Processed foods. Most boxed and bagged foods will drive insulin secretion
- Simple carbohydrates
- And yes, complex carbohydrates produce insulin too
The recommendation that most nutritionists and fitness trainers give about eating 4 to 6 small meals a day is not very good advice. Eating this often, especially carbohydrate rich foods, will keep insulin levels high even on a low-calorie diet. This will make it very difficult for the body to use the fat stores for energy. It is more beneficial to eat two or three times a day and maybe even less often than that. Moreover, a lower carbohydrate/higher fat diet (the good fats like monounsaturated fats and saturated fats believe it or not) not only does a better job of keeping insulin levels low, but helps keep the hunger pangs away. And we all know that processed foods are not good for us. Just stay away from them.
There is no need to count calories. There is no need to do excessive exercise for fat loss. And of great value is that the metabolism will not slow down. “Starvation Mode” is avoided. Our clients have been much more successful losing excess body fat and keeping it off this way.