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Categories: General Health

Starvation Mode: Are You Eating Enough?

By Marc Perry / July 1, 2017

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.12

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.

Show 2 References

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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71 Comments

  • Sandy says:

    My question is if you have been in starvation mode for a very long extended period of time how do you increase your caloric intake. I weight train 4 times per week, do medium to high intensity cardio after weight training, HIIT training one day a week on off weight training days, and Vinyasa yoga one day a week, then rest days on Sunday. However, I haven’t lost any weight. After doing some research I realized I wasn’t obtaining enough calories per day. I am 5’8 and 165lbs female and have gained weight with the following activities. I believe my body is holding on to everything it can to sustain my activity level. I was only consuming around 1,300 to 1,600 calories per day. Everyone tells me I look great and it's all muscle not fat. However, my clothing size hasn't changed. If I was denser in mass my clothing size would decrease as well. Apparently, I need to get it up to 2,310 minus 20% or 1,900 calories per day to obtain weight loss and get into a fat burning mode; correct? If so, how do I achieve this without gaining weight but lose weight?

    Thank you.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Sandy - I wish I could answer your question, but it sounds like you need to trouble shoot the right calorie level. I've seen women with your activity level and body size lose body fat consuming 1500 calories per day. One thing to keep in mind is that hormones can have an impact, which is impacted particularly by carbohydrates, sleep, stress etc. A hormone analysis is beyond the scope of anything I've mentioned yet on my site, but I will eventually tackle it. Anyways, wish I could be of more help, but again, just stay positive and consistent. One other possibility to consider is maybe you think you are eating 1500 calories when maybe you are eating quite a bit more. Good luck!

  • Matt says:

    Oh dear... perhaps I'm having the same issue?

    I used My Fitness Pal to track an average day of eating, and I'd generally eat about 1,400 calories per day - I figured my eating was relatively balanced and healthy, but after reading up on it, I'm starting to think that it's not enough?

    At the moment, I'm going to the gym at least once a day, sometimes twice (an hour of cardio - bike/cross trainer per session, burning approx 600 calories per session).

    Should I be eating more?! Am I in starvation mode?
    I'm 77kg, 178cm, 28yo, and wanting to lose about 4 more kilos to get rid of my belly.

    I thought if I ate healthily and worked out as much as possible, I'd lose weight quickly, but after reading the above, I'm not so sure. I'm certainly not 'starving myself' as such?

    Hope you can help because I'm completely confused.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Matt - I wouldn't go much below 1800 calories, especially with how much you are exercising. My guess is around 1800-2000 calorie intake per day is fairly aggressive, and you may even be able to intake around 2200 and still lose body fat. Losing body fat is not a sprint, it's a marathon, especially as you get leaner. The last few pounds are the hardest and take longer. The idea is you want to preserve your muscle while losing only fat. Shoot for 1lb of fat loss per week, anything more than that is probably not a good thing.

  • Cameron says:

    Hi!

    I am a 23-year-old girl, 5'2" and weigh about 112-113 pounds. I do intense cardio (I've had to switch from running to HIGH resistance elliptical in the past months due to a minor knee issue) 5 or more times per week. On workout days I burn about 3,000 - 3,500 calories and on non-workout days I burn 2,200 - 2,500 (I still make sure I stay somewhat active even when I can't make it to the gym). I am NOT trying to lose weight, but in the past 2 weeks I have put on 3-4 extra pounds and do not feel as toned. My exercise program is not new to me, but it's possible I have been a bit more hardcore the past couple of weeks because I just have been in one of those moods where I never want to leave the gym! Also, the 112-113 pounds has been my stable body weight for years, so I am not rebounding from any rapid weight loss. Anyway, I ALWAYS make sure my calories burned are greater than the calories I eat. I do not aim for a specific deficit because I am only trying to stay healthy. However, I probably only end up eating an average of 1,500 - 2,200 calories per day (which would be too much I think if I didn't exercise), and technically some days I'm only eating 50-60% of what I burned. Is it at all possible I've been slowing down my metabolism this way? Would it be better for me to try and eat something like 2,700 calories on those days I burn 3,500 or more? I already make sure I eat breakfast and snack ALL day long. I try to drink enough water and watch my sodium intake. I don't understand this minor weight gain I've been dealing with!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Cameron - given your size, burning 3000-3500 sounds very high. That's roughly what a 200lb man who works out intensely 5x per week burns. Maybe you are exercising 3 hours per day, i don't know, but the amount of calories you burn is very dependent on your total body mass of which fortunately you have very little. Again, I'm not seeing your workouts, but burning 2500 calories for a woman your size is very significant in a day and 1500-2200 calorie intake sounds very reasonable to me, especially the 1500.

  • Van says:

    Hi there!

    I stumbled upon this article while googling a reason as to why I absolutely cannot lose weight... I'm hoping you could help me out. Everything in the article makes sense and I'm wondering if it explains MY difficulty with losing weight. To start off, I just want to say that I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa three years ago, and have since then recovered, but when my weight came back, more came with it. I've been trying to HEALTHILY lose about 5-10lbs. I am 21 years old, 5'4" and 130 lbs. ALL of my weight is distributed on my stomach... My arms and legs are very thin. I run everyday for 60-70 minutes on the treadmill at various speeds and inclines. (and sweat a lot!) Even though I run like crazy though, my weight doesn't budge. My diet is mostly lean proteins, I eat a lot of grilled chicken, turkey, fish, etc... No red meat. No fruits. I keep my carbs below 40 grams a day - getting them from veggies like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots... I NEVER eat bread, noodles, crackers, potatoes, junk food, etc... I started keeping a food journal two weeks ago and my daily calories usually add up to 500 calories... which is where your article interests me. Perhaps my restrictions are doing the opposite? I'm terrified to increase calories to test your theory. I've read elsewhere that after "starvation" you will keep gaining and your metabolism is totally screwed. Could you clear this up for me? Also - your program... you only show results from men, are women able to take part?? I'm very interested in trying it, seeing as my diet isn't doing anything for me. It's time for a change, and I want to do it right!!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Van - Sorry to hear you are experiencing these issues. I do know for sure that eating 500 calories per day is not sufficient. Your body will not get the nutrients it needs, so that's certainly not a healthy way to lose body fat. I recommend the following:

      1) See a nutritionist/dietitian who has experience helping people get lean and lose body fat, not the type that works with obese ladies. Even a nutritionist that has coached bodybuilders/fitness models would be ideal.

      2) You can get your hormones checked out to see if any supplementation may be helpful. I am not a huge fan of supplements, but in cases like yours they can make a pretty big difference. You can ak your doctor about adrenal tests etc. You may also consider consulting a credible naturopathic physician as well.

      My program can be used by both men and women. From a marketing perspective, it's easier for me to focus the program on men and use the type of language that attracts men. I think you have some eating issues you should get under control before trying my program. I wish you luck and hope everything works out well!

  • Miggy says:

    Hey, I'm trying to lose weight and gain muscle at the same time. I'm 6'1 and I'm 228lbs. I do basketball almost everyday and go to the gym every other day to lift some weights. My weight before is 245, from doing these activity I've lost some pounds without diet and starving myself but lately I've tried dieting eating w/o rice (asian) and when I went to the gym seems like I have no energy and while in the gym I'm starving and I can't do my normal routine. Any advice for weight loss and diet for me?

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Miggy - I don't think carbs are evil, but limiting their intake can sometimes make it easier to control calories. I would strongly suggest to track your calories for a few days to better understand your eating habits. Also check out this Top 10 Fat Loss Foods post.

  • Lisa says:

    Hi Marc,

    I'm 5'2 122 pounds, 21 year old female. I'm trying to get down to my goal weight of 115 pounds. I workout about 6 times a week running (5 miles), spinning, gym machines, kickboxing, etc. I eat 1400-1500 calories a day 3 meals, 2 snacks. I feel fine all day but I notice at night I feel hungry. Is 1400-1500 calories enough to avoid starvation mode? Is feeling a little bit of hunger okay?

    Thanks!

  • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

    @Lisa - Sounds like you aren't far away from your goal weight, which is great. 1400-1500 calories sounds reasonable and I would be VERY surprised if it was not enough to sustain your activity while still helping you shed some fat. From my experience, as low as 1200 can work well for even active women who are in the 120lb range. Hunger is a very complex topic because it is affected by so many things (the quality/type of foods you eat, how much you eat, hormone levels, sight/smell of food, body fat levels etc.). I think some hunger is absolutely ok and hunger is actually a very normal human trait. Think 5,000 years ago we always had access to food? Nope, so hunger is actually quite natural. Losing fat is changing your body, and your body doesn't want to be changed, so it may be a little uncomfortable as you reach your ideal weight. I would recommend focusing on foods that have a very high satiety factor and if you do get very hungry at night, eat some turkey.

  • Koby says:

    Hi Marc,

    I think it's more appropriate I leave my revised comment here as this is my problem. I'm 31/female/5'10/347lbs. The reasons for getting to this weight are numerous, but one of my biggest problems is not eating enough and/or going on meal replacement diets that restrict intake to 1000cals.

    Over the last 15years, I've listened to every expert tell me to stop eating so much, and exercise more, to the point where my general intake each day is 1300-1500cals (that's at a stretch, and is accurate as I have tracked), and I exercise 5-6/week, an hour each time - HIIT + weights 3 days and swimming 2-3 days (at one point last year I was consuming 1000cals/day, and execising 3hrs/day!). According to your "How to Calculate Your Calorie Burn" article, I'm probably burning 3486cals/day (based on my weight at 45% fat (which is what my scales say)). If I use you maximum deficit of 35%, I should still be consuming 2266cals/day, which means I'm still under by a fair amount.

    So, my problem is - when someone is used to under-eating for so long, how do I increase my intake so I don't feel nauseated/guilty (having this voice inside my head saying not to eat too much doesn't help!)? I tried Weight Watchers last year and had to stop because they were constantly telling me to eat 53pp/day, and I could only manage 40, and that was including nuts, etc.

    Any advice would be much appreciated!

    Thanks, Koby

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @koby - I don't think I've come across a case like yours before, but it does happen. It sounds to me like you have some metabolism/hormonal issues that are causing havoc with your weight loss. The first place to start is if you are getting any less than 6 hours of sleep a night, start getting at least 7, preferably 8 per day. Second, consider drinking plenty of water, preferably one full glass at each meal and snack and also when you workout. Third, I would consider going up to 2000 calories per day for 2 weeks and monitor your weight each week. Worse comes to worse, you may gain a few pounds, but more likely, it may be helpful for you. I'm not a huge fan of starvation diets because they are simply unhealthy; it's not possible to get the right nutrients without supplementation. Finally, some people are much more sensitive to carbohydrates than others. You may consider trying to get your calories mostly from lean meats, vegetables, nuts/seeds, oil/healthy fats, with some fruit and little starchy carbs (i.e. pasta, potatoes etc.). Of course, I'm not a nutritionist, but this is what I've found to help people who are experiencing a weight loss plateau of have a similar profile as yourself.

      • Koby says:

        Thanks for your input Marc. My sleep patterns can be irratic - I've worked night-shift the last 7 years. I generally drink 2L water/day and 3 cups of green tea. I've cut out all diet coke/coffee (which I did drink a fair bit of). Just another couple of questions -

        1. I've had my thyroid checked, and it's okay. Is there any other hormones I should ask my doctor to check? (My fasting glucose is 4.6, blood pressure was 117/88 at last check, and total cholesterol 5.5, so nothing wrong there).
        2. If, from my three main meals, I can get my intake to around 1500 with the diet you suggest above, would a protein shake for two snacks be something I could use to bump up my intake? The one I have is a meal replacement, but if I added a cup of skim milk to it, it would be 235 cals, 15.2g protein, 30.5g carbs.
        3. I have only started exercising again after 12mths of dealing with a bad back injury. Since I've started exercising, I've been trying to increase my intake, and I've noticed that I'm starting to lose cms (4cm from my chest, 2cm each from my waist and hips in one week) but the scales haven't gone down. Could I be retaining water from the increase in exercise/strength training?

        Thanks, Koby :)

        • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

          @Koby - I'm not able to prescribe specific foods, or a meal plan as I'm not a registered dietitian, or licensed nutritionist. I would prefer a cup of greek yogurt, or an apple to two protein shakes, but that's me. I think it is possible that you are possibly retaining water if you are losing cm, which is what ultimately matters. From what I can tell, just keep on exercising and take up that calorie level and you should do well. Losing weight is a marathon, not a sprint!

  • amy says:

    This article just sounds like BS to me! An urban myth!
    On what science are you basing your "starvation mode" theory? If the man (who I don't believe even exists!) seriously ate that much and did that much exercise and didn't lose weight, I would suggest he had some serious medical issues, none of which are related to starvation mode. It's just not physically possible. Good luck trying to sell whatever you are selling!

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @amy - the starvation mode is not BS, it's well documented by scientific literature.

      Here are some of the studies to look into:

      -Ancel Key’s Minnesota starvation study
      -Doucet, et al 2001. British journal of nutrition. “Evidence for the existence of adaptive thermogenesis during weight loss.”
      -Biochemical And Physiological Aspects of Human Nutrition by SM. Stipanauk, professor of nutritional sciences, Cornell University (WB Saunders company, 2000)

      I think I do need to update this article by listing more references and improving upon it. In fact, I have a project to update 10 articles with this being one of them that I've written (out of 170, so not too bad) that need to be updated. In the meantime, this article will give you a bit more clarity on the subject of starvation mode - http://www.burnthefat.com/starvation_mode.html.

  • Jessica says:

    Hi Mark, I'm a 14 yr old girl (5ft8 and 122lbs) and the past 3 months I've lost 8lbs but I've been feeling really tired and weak and I'm getting fatter although I'm getting lighter. I play intense volleyball 4-6 times a week for 2 hours each time and i have a personal trainer for my vertical once a week for an hour(his training is very intense, i lose 3lbs of water weight!). Today I ate
    1 cup of oatmeal + honey + milk + cranberries
    3 scrambled eggs
    Sandwich with 3 slices turkey + lettuce
    1 apple
    Organic stone field yogurt with fruit at the bottom
    1 fiberOne bar
    and I did a 20min moderate intensity workout in the morning. I have vball 7-9 tonight, and I was wondering if I need to eat more before? Although I ate 1:30 hours ago, I was starving and ate the fiberOne bar :/

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      @Jessica - First, i would make sure to verify that you are gaining fat despite losing weight, which I find hard to believe. This would imply that you lost almost all muscle, which is very unlikely. Consider measuring and keeping track of your body fat percentage to verify your concerns. Our minds can play tricks on us. I'm not a registered dietician, so I am unable to give you a specific diet plan, or meal prescription. What I can tell you is to add up your calories you are eating and see if they are roughly equal to your total calorie burn. For figuring out your calorie burn, check out this article - How to Calculate Your Calorie Burn and also Best Free Online Calorie Tracker and App | Part 2. As an athlete, my guess is you should not feel hungry. Finally, the more concerning thing is your low energy levels. You may consider checking in with your doctor to see what he/she says. Good luck!

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