The Reality of Starvation Mode Fact vs Fiction

The Reality of Starvation Mode – Fact vs Fiction

October 29, 2018

Can you starve yourself to lose weight? Can it hurt for the short-term or what about long-term? Let’s face it, losing weight is a battle. You can set your mind to eating healthy, cutting calories and exercising, but when you see little to no results from your efforts, it can be more than frustrating. So, how long should diets last? Why do I lose weight and then gain it all back plus more? Does my metabolism ever slow down? All good questions and I hope to shed some light on the subject in this article.

The Reality of Starvation Mode - Does It Really Happen?

Opinions range greatly about the “Reality of Starvation Mode” - some say it is a crazy notion to entertain, while others say it truly happens. The starvation mode has been defined as the body’s response to very low or no calories. The body adapts its method to feed the brain by breaking down fat stores into glucose, which is the preferred energy source. Metabolic adaptation is another phrase used to describe the starvation mode as it refers to our bodies adapting to a new fuel source. Some metabolic changes function naturally within our life cycles.

When we are younger, our bodies are in an anabolic state as our bodies are growing so more calories are needed and will be burned. As we age and are less active, the fewer calories we need and to burn. In both cases, without enough calories, you are negative energy state.

So what is metabolism? Metabolism happens in every cell of your body and is measured by how fast your body coverts the food you eat to energy every day.

Interestingly, obese patients could have higher metabolisms due to their large body mass. To help understand the body’s metabolism and usage of calories, we must look at energy balance, which consists of energy in, energy out and energy storage. Energy balance is a mechanism that happens naturally to conserve energy stores in the body to avoid changes in body mass. If there is calorie restriction or excess calorie expenditure, the body will defend itself and salvages what it has as energy stores by maintaining current body weight.

How Calories Are Burned

Now let us look at how calories are burned. There are three ways: your resting metabolic rate, these are calories burned by your body at rest and represents 60-80% of total calories burned; thermogenesis which is the body burning calories by eating(digestion) which counts for 8-10% of calories burned and lastly, physical activity, which is the most variable in calorie burning.

During a study using a metabolic chamber at the National Institute of Health, a participant wrote an article describing her experience, stating, “Yet the truth of the metabolic chamber is that there’s a lot of variation in how people respond to diets and exercises, and so far, no single approach has worked to help everybody. That’s why so much of the one-size-fits-all weight loss advice we’re steeped in is so frustrating and futile for so many.”

So, how does your body respond to calorie restriction? Short-term calorie restriction can help you lose weight; however, this can increase cravings for high-calorie foods, so you could potentially gain back the weight originally lost and possibly more.

Excessive exercise can also increase your cravings for more food as calorie expenditure increases. Liquid diets, fasting and fad diets all can help you lose weight temporarily, but in the end, when you go back to eating a regular diet, the weight comes back. Since prolonged calorie deficit can cause the body to conserve energy by storing it away this can cause a decrease in the number of calories necessary for your resting metabolic rate. This means you may need to intake fewer calories than the person next to you with the same weight, height, gender, and age.

Physiological Mechanisms Play A Role Obesity

Obesity, however, is more than calories in and out. Many physiological mechanisms play a role such as genes, hormones, fat distribution, plateaus in weight loss, medications, lack of exercise, etc.

For example, a study from the Biggest Loser reality show, contestants were followed to see if their weight was kept off. As many of you know, some gained the weight right back. Leptin levels in obese contestants who lost weight rapidly with low calorie, high exercise plans were abnormally low. Leptin is a hormone that controls food intake and expenditure long term. As adipose tissue increases, leptin is then released from fats cell into the bloodstream, sending a signal to the brain that energy stores are full. This decrease influences of suppression in appetite and can increase hunger.

In bariatric surgical patients, leptin levels have shown to stay at normal levels.

So what is the answer? Bottom line is there is no quick fix for long-term results. Eating balanced meals 5-6 times a day with a heavy emphasis on protein, non-starchy vegetables, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and drink plenty of water are basic ways to maintain a healthy weight and increase your energy level. Try to keep healthy snacks and leave the junk food at the grocery store.

Eating at home more often will help with portion sizes, knowing your ingredients and get you moving before and after dinner. Maintaining muscle mass is also important to maintain weight. Activity is important in conserving and building muscle mass, which helps in weight control and maintenance. When muscles are activated and fed correctly, they will burn fat, even as we sleep! Since exercise is not always easy to find time for, try to fit it into your daily routine as a habit where it keeps you more active.


  1. Bray, G. A., & Champagne, C. M. (2005). Beyond Energy Balance: There Is More to Obesity than Kilocalories. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105(5), 17-23. doi:10.1016/j.jada.2005.02.018
  2. Hill, J. O., Wyatt, H. R., & Peters, J. C. (2012). Energy Balance and Obesity. Circulation, 126(1), 126-132. doi:10.1161/circulationaha.111.087213
  3. Hingle, M. D., Kandiah, J., & Maggi, A. (2016). Practice Paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Selecting Nutrient-Dense Foods for Good Health. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(9), 1473-1479. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2016.06.375
  4. Follow this link to see more on the Biggest Loser reference:
  5. Follow this link to see more on the Metabolic chamber study:
Rebecca Luttrell


Rebecca Luttrell is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist from the north Fort Worth area. She helps educate patients regarding their diets before and after surgery. She became interested in bariatrics in doing intensive dietetic internship rotations. This exposed her to bariatrics both in the clinical and nutrition counseling settings. She joined the My Bariatric Solutions team in May 2017 and her favorite part of being there is appreciating and supporting the population of people they serve.