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Starvation Mode: Is it real? Is it a myth? What are the symptoms?

Yes starvation mode is real. In fact, it is arguably the most agreed upon phenomena in all of dieting research.  Only it is not called “starvation mode”.  It is called adaptive thermogenesis.

Here at Metabolic Effect we call it the Law of Metabolic Compensation. We call it a law because it seems to happen anytime you attempt to lose weight.

It is the body’s natural protective mechanism developed through millions of years of evolution to keep you from starving when food was something you had to work to get.

Starvation Mode? What are we really talking about

We realize there is a ton of noise out on the internet regarding “starvation mode”, “metabolic damage” and “weight loss resistance”. Because of that it is difficult to make sense of what people mean by these terms.

Whether you are a lean bodybuilder, an elite athlete or your average Jane or Joe trying to lose some weight, you will be impacted by the metabolic compensation of the body. It is a natural response of the metabolism and not some crazy disease state. Here is how it works in bullets so you can easily follow the narrative:

  • You go on a diet.  By diet I mean you do some combination of “eat less, exercise more”.
  • At the start you do just fine and may actually lose a few pounds.  You’re happy. YAY!
  • A few days or weeks in and your body starts to compensate. You start feeling more hungry, your energy becomes unstable, you start getting cravings and your metabolic rate declines. This is metabolic compensation. It’s the body’s normal protective response.  Lets called this starvation mode phase 1.
  • Because of this metabolic compensation your weight loss slows, halts or, if you have a very large drop in metabolic rate and/or can’t control the hunger and craving urge, even reverses.
  • Being a good little dieter you decide to double down on the eat less, exercise more approach. You think, “I just need to work harder”.
  • Things may change briefly.  Maybe you lose a few more pounds or at least stop the weight regain.  But the body compensates again and this time more quickly.
  • Perhaps you try even harder, but the body slowly becomes more resistant to your attempts.
  • Now you are eating like a bird and spending hours in the gym and nothing seems to be happening. We call this metabolic resistance. You can think of this as starvation mode phase 2.
  • You don’t understand what is happening, but you have an iron will.  All you need to do is work harder.  You hit the internet and immerse yourself in the best “thinspiration” you can fine.  Maybe you play some Rocky theme music.  You quadruple your effort!!
  • You see some results, but now you have other worries.  You start feeling gassy and bloated all the time.  If you’re a women, your menses becomes irregular or disappears. Your libido is shot.
  • Your sleep is disrupted and you are exhausted.  You may feel a “wired but tired sensation”. You feel sick and unwell. Anxious or depressed but usually both.
  • You just can’t keep up any more. Now you are slowly gaining weight no matter how hard you try. This is metabolic damage. Phase 3 and the final stage of starvation mode.
  • You go to a physique coach.  Tell them what is going on and they say “you are in starvation mode”.  You need to eat more and ease up on the exercise.  They tell you to move from an eat less, exercise more approach to an eat more, exercise less approach.
  • Guess what happens?  You gain so much weight so fast you could swear someone stuck an air pump in you!  Not good, not good at all.  You gain 15 pounds in 7 days and feel worse than ever.
  • You go to seek answers, but no one has them. What do you do?  You go back to the eat less, exercise more model. But it still does not work and continue the cycle doing more damage to your body and your psyche.

The escape from starvation mode

Here is the information you have never been told. Your body does not work like a calculator.  It works like a thermostat.

What happens if your heater breaks in the winter and starts pushing out cold air?  You don’t turn up the fan speed do you? You turn it off and find another way to keep warm.

When you play the game described above you are playing an UN-winnable tug-o-war game. You pull as hard as you can and the metabolism pulls back just as hard or harder. So you pull even harder and the metabolism once again responds in kind.

If you keep playing this game you will end up in a heap of exhausted rubble on the ground. You can’t win this game, so stop playing.

Remember that trick in tug-o-war when you were matched against a team that you knew would beat you? When they pulled, you let the rope go and they went flailing to the ground as you looked on in laughter!

That is how you beat starvation mode.

Fixing starvation mode

Whether you are in metabolic compensation (phase 1), metabolic resistance (phase 2) or metabolic damage (phase 3) the beginning steps are the same.

You stop the eating less, exercise more approach and instead let go of the rope by matching your intake of food with your output of energy.

You either 1) eat less and exercise less OR 2) eat more and exercise more.

These are your only two options, and the only way you start to decrease the stress on your metabolism while not gaining weight in the process.

If you happen to have gotten all the way to stage 3, your only real option is the eat less, exercise less approach.

Steps to take

Metabolic Compensation (phase 1):  This phase is pretty easy to deal with.  Just simply move to an eat less, exercise less OR and eat more, exercise more approach. The approach you choose does not really matter. This will almost always solve the issue. Expect to be back on track within a week.

Metabolic Resistance (Phase 2): If you find yourself in this phase you will need to cycle the diet.  Spend 2-3 weeks in the eat less, exercise less phase and then switch to an eat more, exercise more approach for a time.  You will likely need to take some other steps involving rest and recovery activities like prioritizing very low intensity activity like walking and muscle regaining activity like weight training over intervals and traditional cardio. Expect to be back on track within 1-3 months.

Metabolic Damage (Phase 3):  Here you have no choice.  It’s eat less, exercise less.  It is also relaxing and restorative activity and no intense exercise or cardio.  Even the popular short intense metabolic conditioning workouts will be too much at this stage.  You will likely also need to consult with a functional medicine doctor who can evaluate thyroid, adrenal and gonadal function. This is beyond the scope of a physique coach to deal with. Supplements and or hormones may be required at this point. Expect to be back on track within 3 to 15 months (if you get the right help).

Here is a series of videos that explain the issue in more detail.  Also check out these blogs HERE, HERE and HERE

Rehab From Starvation Mode

The Self-Paced Metabolic Damage Course. Get all the information you need to heal the metabolism and get back on track

About Jade Teta

Integrative Physician, Author The Metabolic Effect Diet, Founder CEO Metabolic Effect Inc., Health, Fitness and fat loss expert. Find on Google+

6 Responses to "Starvation Mode: Is it real? Is it a myth? What are the symptoms?"

  • mxh326
    January 19, 2014 - 11:36 PM

    How will you know when your metabolism is back on track and what do you do afterward to maintain weight?

    Thanks!

  • ezerkenegdo
    January 25, 2014 - 1:42 AM

    After doing much research in all of the ways to heal metabolic damage (via internet etc)..listening to many viewpoints including Jonathan Bailor..and now watching your videos I have to agree with much of what I hear from everyone. However, many points still conflict. Many of your points make sense and resonate rather perfectly with me…especially when you mention “blowing up like a helium baloon” in a matter of days or developing automimmune disorders..yep that’s me. But my main issue I have with your idea to “eat less, excercise less” for those who are in stage 3 is that for someone like me: who ate 1300 cals/day at the age of 18-20 with exercise, then stopped exercising and continued to eat the same for about 5 months..gained weight…and now at age 21 is in “binge/gain mode”(started these last few weeks)…your suggesting I go back to eating 1300cals/day or less? What does it mean to “eat less”? I must be confused. Someone like me who has suffered with an eating disorder who needs to learn how to eat an adequate amount (somewhere in between my restricted 1300 and binging 3000), what does it mean to eat less to get to my optimal weight? I am at an average weight now however I would still like to loose a little, but I have been starving myself for 3 years I cant possibly keep up eating this low of calories let alone any less or i will continue to binge..

    • Jade Teta
      January 30, 2014 - 8:51 PM

      Great question Ezerkenegdo. “Eat Less” simply means eat as little as is required to keep yourself full and satisfied, with high energy and free of cravings. One of the misleading beliefs in this industry is that there is some magic caloric number that if you go under automatically means you are now starving, have an eating disorder or are otherwise unhealthy. The body is a very smart intelligent machine and naturally attempts to move you back in balance. Eating 1300 calories a day or less may not be an issue for your body and when it does become an issue, your body will naturally let you know that by prodding you to eat more by increasing hunger, cravings and lowering energy. So, you are correct that the term “eat less” is ambiguous and the reason it is is that we simply do not know. Eating too little for one person may be going below 2000 calories. Eating to little for another may be dropping below 800 calories. The trick in this game is to avoid the belief that there is a defined amount that is too much and a defined amount that is too little. Let your body decide that. That is the first point. The second point is that eating less in the context of very little energy output is an entirely different thing than not feeding your body during periods of high energy output. It is the disconnect between increased energy output along with decreased energy intake that is the real problem and the one that leads to most issues. If your HEC is in check, you are optimizing body composition and your blood labs are moving toward health, then you are not eating to little no matter what you think. Your body’s own internal sensations will guide you far better than some arbitrary belief about how many calories are too much or too little. While learning to listen to your body is a skill we all must learn it is a far better and more useful skill to develop than to memorize calorie math numbers that may or may not be true for you.

  • ezerkenegdo
    February 2, 2014 - 1:23 AM

    Jade-thank you SO much for your response. I appreciate it more than you know!
    I understand the concept, which I’m sure your scientific findings provide sufficient evidence for, as well as the overall point you are making is resonating with me in a new way . Even regarding the idea that we are mislabeling people as having “eating disorders” just because they are simply restricting their calories. For me, that is a mere symptom, not the basis of my disorder. I guess the questions I am still faced with, regarding metabolic compensation, 1) is it possible to create a new “set point” after years of restriction? Or is eat less, exercise less the temporary transition for recovery to one day eat more? 2) I’m concluding I may have caused a leptin (maybe insulin too) resistance from eating so low carb low cal, is this a possible hypothesis? And this is obviously fixed through diet but do you have any other initial recommendations for a protocol? I’m currently struggling with severe sugar addiction (high pulse and extreme lethargy) with these binges and cannot seem to ever get full or control of this. After thinking I came out of this years ago, I find myself deep in the pit right now, much more educated yet stuck in regards to getting out of this cycle. So again, thank you for your time. THANK YOU! Your hunger for new knowledge and helping people is what will save the now and future generations from believing and suffering these false claims!

  • Cassie
    July 14, 2014 - 12:45 PM

    Hi Jade!
    I have literally spent the past 4 hours working through your blog, pod casts, and taking notes on your You Tube videos. I am feeling so lucky to have found you and hunger for this information.

    I am going to give it a try-though it goes against “what feels right”. I want to try the ELEL/EMEM models to see if I can re-balance and feel better! (Yes, I am guilty of being of the mindset of digging deeper, focusing more, or working harder-when you don’t get the results you are looking for.)
    I am a registered respiratory therapist, long time group fitness instructor, personal trainer, and blogger. I am a do-er, a busy body, and people pleaser which I know can get me into trouble.

    I have struggled with chronic headaches (which have manifested into other chronic pains) for the last 7 years. Despite every treatment, traditional and holistic, we could try to find relief, my husband and I went to the Mayo Clinic last fall looking for answers. We needed to “go to the best” and try to move on.

    Backing up a bit, over the last seven years I feel like my health spiraled downward. Chronic fatigue, decreased libeo, loss of menes (anywhere from 3 -10 months at a time for several years in there), new food intolerances, horrible sleep patterns, belly distention, bloating, and gas, and of course the headaches.

    I pride myself on the discipline I have with my healthy diet and exercise regimen (it is my passion and I enjoy attempting to balance a healthy lifestyle, which is why this is so incredibly hard for me.

    The result of the lean body I once had due to healthy eats and exercise is far off in the distance (over 3 years now- as I am about 10-15 lbs more and even carrying it differently). Though I am not overweight (I am 32, 5’5″ and anywhere from 134-139 lbs), I have struggled because I have believed that someone who “eats like I do (and is always trying to get it right), and knows how to exercise should truly not be struggling as much as me to take off a few pounds.” It’s as if nothing worked…Teaching multiple classes, working out on my own, and training others were good for me mentally (as I had taken time off of exercise on a couple different occasions to see if it was affecting my headaches-but it has always been my time “on” that proves to help me in feeling better. Of course now I wonder if I was doing too much…and my body was “pushing back”. I look at my symptoms and feel I have my answer.)

    Currently I am living in London as an expat wife for the next few months. I have had time to myself and want to get healthy and get over this once and for all. The Mayo clinic put me on some medication-something that I had tried to avoid these last 7 years, but what else did I have? They were unsure of the cause of my headaches. The medication dulls the pain though it’s not gone yet.

    I am so open to trying this, and will give it a go! If you have specific thoughts/tips on me getting started I am open and ready!

    Thank you so much for your gross knowledge and for putting it out there.
    Cheers!

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