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Starvation Mode

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I thought I’d research this subject to see what the research studies show about starvation mode (a.k.a calorie deficit), what gets you into it, and what the short-term and long-term effects are.

First, what is starvation mode?  I found this direct answer on netwellness.org —  A starvation diet does not mean the absence of food.  It means cutting the total caloric intake to less than 50% of what the body requires.

What will happen if you eat less than your body expends in a day?  Will you lose weight or gain weight?   The obvious answer is that you will LOSE weight.  And the opposite is equally true.  If you take in more calories than you burn in a day, you will GAIN weight.  So if it’s that simple, where does this notion of “starvation mode” come in?  This idea is that you may not be losing weight because you are in the “starvation mode” from eating to few calories.  And, in response to the intake of this low calorie level, your body has gone into “starvation mode” and slowed down your metabolism and is holding on to the weight.   The usual recommendation to get out of starvation mode and allow the body to lose more weight, is to consume more calories.  Eat more calories, to lose more weight.

I experienced this while on my first round of P90x.  I was losing approximately 3 lbs a week on the fat shredder plan.  When I started the second month, I decide to stay with the fat shredder plan to lose more weight, however two weeks into month two I stopped losing weight.  For two weeks of eating clean and working my tail off I had stopped losing weight.  Naturally I want to find a solution, so I went back and read the P90X nutrition guide.  After researching the problem I decided that I was not taking in enough calories and my metabolism had slowed to the point that I had stopped losing weight.  After two weeks of not losing a pound I decided to add another small meal to my daily meal plan.  The result . . . after eating more calories than I had in the previous six weeks I lose 4 lbs that week.  The most of any week before.

I believe it all comes down to METABOLISM.  When we eat less than our body needs to maintain it’s weight, we will lose weight.  However, our metabolism will also slow down.  And when we eat more than our body needs, our metabolism will speed up.  So the change in our metabolism is what you need to consider.

In other words, if we want to lose weight and drop the calories, it will work for a for only a short time, but then our metabolism will slow down a bit, and the weight won’t continue to come off (or at least not like it did initially).  This is what I think happened to me.  To jump start the weight loss, we either need to drop the calories more, or increase our metabolism (by eating more of the right foods) to break the “plateau” we are in.

I’ve seen research studies showing that when a group of people were put on a calorie-deficit, their metabolism remained at pre-diet levels for about 3-4 weeks, then the metabolism slowed by about 25%.  So the dieters who were at a bigger deficit than 25% still lost weight (no “starvation mode”) but that the weight didn’t continue to come off as fast as it did initially.  Those who were at a smaller deficit (less than the 25%) found that the metabolism equalled out their calorie deficit and the weight loss stopped altogether.

Many fear that going into starvation mode will drastically reduce their metabolic rate and cause them to hoard calories and gain weight instead of losing.

Lyle McDonald explains it this way:

In general, it’s true that metabolic rate tends to drop more with more excessive caloric deficits (and this is true whether the effect is from eating less or exercising more); as well, people vary in how hard or fast their bodies shut down. Women’s bodies tend to shut down harder and faster.

But here’s the thing: in no study I’ve ever seen has the drop in metabolic rate been sufficient to completely offset the caloric deficit. That is, say that cutting your calories by 50% per day leads to a reduction in the metabolic rate of 10%. Starvation mode you say. Well, yes. But you still have a 40% daily deficit.

Does starvation mode slow down the metabolism?  No, and Yes.

Does Starvation mode cause our bodies to catabolize (devour our muscles and other lean mass)?  Yes and No.

Lean individuals lost great amounts of fat-free, lean tissue during starvation, but obese individuals lost much more fat tissue.  Obese individuals have a mechanism that conserves lean mass and burns fat instead.  In the study, an example of a lean subject studied after death from starvation: it can be deduced that loss of body fat accounted for 28-36% of the weight loss and fat-free mass 64-72%. In obese individuals, the proportion of energy derived from protein (Pcal%) is only 6% compared to 21% in the lean individual. More than half the weight loss in the obese is fat, whereas most of the weight loss in the lean individual is fat-free mass.

And the loss of lean mass is not as critical to the obese person as to the lean person simply because an obese person has more lean mass than a person of the same age and height but normal weight.

THE BOTTOM LINE:

Everyone has a different metabolism and a different calorie intake or deficit to lose weight.  You should experiment with different calorie levels and find what works best for you.  If you are eating a certain amount of calories and you gain weight during that week . . . I suggest you reduce your calories by 500 for the next week and go from there.

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