Starvation Mode: The Biggest Myth in Weight Loss

For my March 8 article about the enormous and far-reaching misconceptions about ‘starvation mode’, Starvation Mode: The Biggest Myth in Weight Loss, either click here or scroll down!


In my last column, I talked all about weight-loss plateaus — what they are, why they happen, what to do about them and what not to do about them.

One of the big things not to do? Do not tell yourself that you aren’t losing weight because you aren’t eating enough. Though it may sound silly to some of us, a shocking amount of people buy into this notion that if you don’t eat enough, your metabolism will shift into ‘starvation mode’ and you won’t be able to lose weight. As I said before, there is an Internet epidemic of overweight people telling other overweight people that they’re overweight because they don’t eat enough.

It’s a pretty self-congratulatory approach — basically telling yourself that you aren’t losing weight because you’re too good at your diet. And if the roots of this notion originated solely from a feel-good mentality, I might be more understanding. But it’s deeper than that.

In fact, much of the misinformation stems from a University of Minnesota study published in 1950. Intended to help effectively ‘re-feed’ the tens of thousands of Europeans chronically underfed throughout the Second World War, the study examined the long-term effects of starvation on the body. Over the course of a year, researchers studied the effects of a drastically calorie-reduced diet on otherwise healthy young men. And though one aspect of the study is still widely known today — the term ‘starvation mode’ — the rest is widely misunderstood and misrepresented.

Starvation mode has become almost mythical; an entity all on its own. It seems that we don’t really know when it happens or why, but we do know it’s bad. We hear that if we skip meals, we’ll definitely fall into it. Fitness magazines tell us that to really avoid it, we should eat every two hours. Over in the reality-TV world, a weight-loss driven Kardashian stuffs her face with pizza, because she’s afraid that if she doesn’t, her “metabolism will shut down.” I’ve even heard of people waking up to eat, just to avoid starvation mode.

It’s a metabolic urban legend.

It takes months, if not years, for your body to go into the ‘starvation mode’ described by the researchers that penned the term. And even then, it won’t stop you from losing weight (not until you’re at about 4% body fat, anyway). So if a busy day at the office made you skip your lunch, you won’t pack on the pounds. If you forgot to pack your afternoon snack, your metabolism isn’t going to come to a screeching halt. And if you simply don’t want to eat every two hours, you aren’t going to plunge into the terrifying depths of starvation mode.

Even if we leave the exact timeline aside, we know that from a purely body mass point of view, very rarely does not eating result in anything other than losing weight. When the University of Minnesota subjects consumed half of their recommended daily caloric intake (a drastically low number), did their metabolisms slow? Yes. By 10% … which still left them with a 40% deficit. Your metabolism won’t slow enough to make up for the lack of calories. It can’t. This is why severely anorexic people are underweight.

Not eating is not keeping you from losing weight. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to back up that it is. It just isn’t how the human body works, plain and simple.

The other factor at play here is that, in general, we overestimate the number of calories we burn in a day, while underestimating the number we consume. According to a Harvard University study, the average American underestimates their daily caloric consumption by 450-500 calories, while overestimating their daily caloric burn by 350-450 calories.

In short, it’s very easy to trick your brain, but a lot harder to trick your body.

Now, let’s be clear about one thing: this is not an endorsement of starvation. I’m a person who has spent a decade battling an eating disorder — the last thing I’m going to recommend as a weight loss plan is starvation. Starving yourself will kill your physical endurance. You’ll get headaches, chronic fatigue, dizzy spells and muscle atrophy. You won’t be able to concentrate, be chronically cold and suffer from diminished sexual function. You’ll age faster, and the longer you go, the more you’ll put the functionality of all of your organs as risk. You’ll develop all sorts of psychological problems — depression, anxiety, social withdrawal and bizarre eating habits and obsessions. Your body can and will mentally and physically shut down — it’s not for nothing that anorexia is the most fatal psychological disorder. It is not a wise choice to make for your body, nor is it worth the weight loss it brings.

But by understanding the facts surrounding the starvation mode myth, we can understand what actually is a healthy approach to weight loss.

Do what works for you and don’t overcomplicate things. Unless you have a really good reason, stick to a traditional three-meal-a-day model, as it’s the easiest to maintain. If you find yourself hungry between meal times, drink a glass of water and wait 10 minutes. If when the 10 minutes are up you’re still hungry, have a healthy snack. If you’re new to this or unsure about your portion sizes, consider buying a food scale to help you gain some insight and lose some pounds (it’s also immeasurably helpful for cooking). Losing weight is hard, and we’re an instant gratification society — don’t expect an overnight transformation. Rome wasn’t built in a day … your bikini body won’t be, either. But with consistency, hard work, and honesty, the weight will come off.

Just don’t cheat yourself out of results in the name of your metabolism.

Molly Daley is a nutritionist and runs the healthy eating, fitness, and wellness website Diary of a Formerly Fat Girl. Find her at or follow her on Twitter, @DOAFFG