Is Starvation Mode A Myth?

Is Starvation Mode real, is it a fact? Most people take its existence for granted. Today, I would like to discuss this topic. I am not a scientist, but I like to use common sense and consider reasons why some form of starvation mode might exist, and why there is also a lot of myth and legend involved.

The harsh truth

Let's dive right in with a piece of inconvenient truth: No person in the history of mankind has ever "failed" to starve when food was not around. No matter how much suffering was involved, no matter how long it took, not matter what circumstances were involved: Nobody ever survived true starvation.

So when it comes down to it, people always lose weight. We know this not only from the poor, pitiful people in Africa, but also by reading about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment. What was the bottom line of this experiment? People lost weight. I'm pretty sure there were no secret snacks involved, and people didn't cheat in any other ways. Whatever you may say about the experiment, the participants looked very skinny (and not in a good way) when the experiment was over.

Moreover, This study shows that animals and people who died from starvation had no fat left at all in their bodies, which means that fat reduction was present until the very end.

Does this disprove the theory that some form of metabolic slowdown occurs? I guess not. But it does prove that you can't totally stop losing weight (or even gain weight) because of some starvation effect. Your body is not capable of that unless you are actually eating too much when trying to lose weight.

The next question is: How do you want to lose weight? Like the Africans or the Minnesota guinea pigs? Probably not. But whatever you do differently seems to be a reason for what you perceive as starvation mode.

Why counting calories is a weird way of analyzing metabolism

I always cringe when someone starts talking about calories. I mean, the basic idea is okay: You definitely burn energy in your body, and you definitely take energy into your body by eating. These things make sense, and in that sense, it's okay to talk about calories.

But one thing doesn't make sense to me: If I have the choice between a huge plate of chicken salad on the one hand, and a bunch of sugar-coated cookies on the other hand, and both of them happen to have the same amount of calories, why would that not make any difference to me? Just because the calories are the same? Well, from a calorie counter's point of view, I'd have to argue that it's all about the calories, so just go and satisfy your craving by eating the cookies. Weird, right?

We have to face the possibility that calories from carbs, calories from fats and calories from proteins are not the same. Proteins, for example, are very precious to the body and are preferably used for many different tasks such as muscle repair, enzyme-building and improving the immune system, but not for senseless burning of energy.

So is it surprising that people allegedly consume just the right amount of calories, but still fail to lose weight, although the maths seem to suggest weight loss must occur? I'm not surprised because in my opinion, the whole idea of counting calories is very inaccurate. If, for instance, all your calorie intake consisted of foods high in carbs (like sweets or noodles), I'd say that you would lose a lot less than if the same amount of calories was consumed by foods high in fats and / or proteins. Calories are not calories, if you know what I mean. Common sense should allow us to see this.

How can you explain starvation mode?

Image courtesy of Ohmega1982 /

Here are some attempts to still explain starvation mode:

1. If you lost a lot of weight already, you already downsized, which means you lost fat, muscle and water, and are now a "smaller" person, so to speak. As a result of this, you need to get used to eating less food than before, so what you perceived as a calorie reduction some months ago may now already cover your calorie needs!

2. If you ate too little protein, your muscles may have fallen victim to your body's attempt to save fat and reduce muscles. Why would it do that? Because muscles are the ovens of your body. By reducing the engine power in your body, your body requires less energy, and that means: Less fat to be burned in the future. It's an easy way for the body to cheaply preserve energy in the long run.

3. Perhaps you are weighing yourself too often, like every other day. Of course, your weight won't show any significant and meaningful progress, and sometimes it may seem like you gained weight. Add the psychological suffering that comes from eating the wrong or too little food, and it feels like it has been ages since you last lost weight. Remember there is A Best Time To Weigh Yourself.

4. You may suffer from a yo-yo effect. This can especially happen when you are eating sweet foods out of frustration, but at the same time keeping the calorie intake at what it's supposed to be. Like I said: It makes a big difference to your diet whether you eat a bowl of salad or the same amount of sweets in terms of calories.

Where does this leave us?

Starvation mode and metabolic rate are topics that could lead to endless discussions. I hope I have cleared up some things and I hope my arguments sounded logical and convincing to you.

From my point of view, I would answer the question "Is starvation mode a myth" like this:

Most of what people believe about starvation mode is either a myth or a make-believe scenario in order to excuse failed attempts at losing weight. However, there are reasons to believe that eating too little, or eating the wrong foods, leads to a loss of muscle tissue, which will slow down metabolism and leave the person with poor muscles and high fat depots. Therefore, some form of starvation mode might exist, although this is quite far from the original idea of what the term "starvation mode" sounds like.

So: With less muscles to support, the body automatically needs fewer calories than before, and this is the metabolic slowdown mentioned earlier.

Losing weight in the long run is better achieved by eating enough, and especially by eating the right foods: Much of proteins, little of carbs. Even if the calorie intake seems ridiculously low, there is no starvation mode if you eat the right foods. Your body does not just think in terms of calories. It likes to distinguish in terms of quality.
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