Starvation Mode: Are You Eating Enough?
About a year ago, I reached out to a real estate broker to help me find an apartment rental in NYC. As we were walking down Lexington Avenue in Gramercy, the conversation changed from real estate to fitness.
The broker mentioned to me that I looked like I was in good shape, but I could tell he was holding something back. After I told him I was a fitness professional, he confessed that he had been trying to lose weight for months and was even exercising 5 times a week (cardio, and strength training). He hadn’t lost a pound in months and was at a standstill.
I began asking him some questions about his exercise program, which wasn’t great, but it didn’t sound to me like the problem. So the conversation turned to what he was eating. Can you take a guess? He wasn’t eating 4,000 calories a day as you might imagine, or even 3,000 calories. It turns out he was eating less than 1,000 calories a day! He’d many times skip breakfast, have a salad for lunch with some lean meat, and a small dinner.
Because he was eating so few calories, his metabolism had slowed to a crawl. His body was deep within starvation mode and it was nearly impossible for him to change his body because his metabolism had slowed from chronic calorie deprivation.1 2
I estimated he would burn around 2,700 calories if his metabolism was functioning normally. There is some debate as to how large of a calorie deficit one should have in a fat loss program. You may know that a 500 daily calorie deficit equals 1 pound of fat loss per week, and a 1,000 calorie deficit equals 2 pounds of fat loss per week (in theory).
The better way to think about creating a calorie deficit is as a percentage of your total calorie burn, such as 15-20% (25%-35% on the high side). So if you are a small woman who burns only 1800 calories per day, a 1000 calorie deficit is far too high, because that means you will be eating only 800 calories. The smarter approach is to create a 20% calorie deficit, or 360 calories less than you burn, which puts you around 1440 calorie intake per day. The leaner you get, the more advisable it is to create a smaller calorie deficit as a percentage of your calorie burn. For more on calorie intake, check out “How Many Calories Should I Eat To Lose Weight?.
I ended up running into the broker at an event at Tavern on the Green in Central Park about two months later. He told me our conversation, “changed his life”. Fast forward another couple months and I learned in an email that he dropped 31 pounds of fat in 4 months (from 185 to 154 pounds at a height of 5’7”)! He had achieved the lean physique he always wanted.
So if you are in the camp of either constantly skipping meals, or not eating nearly enough (starvation mode), I hope you understand eating more of the right foods helps increase your metabolism. The key is to find balance between exercising and healthy eating, while tracking your progress to see what works for you.
- Kalm LM, Semba RD. They starved so that others be better fed: remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota experiment. J Nutr. 2005;135(6):1347-52. ↩
- Doucet E, St-pierre S, Alméras N, Després JP, Bouchard C, Tremblay A. Evidence for the existence of adaptive thermogenesis during weight loss. Br J Nutr. 2001;85(6):715-23. ↩