What is Starvation Mode?

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“If you don’t eat every few hours your body will go into starvation mode.”

We’ve all heard that phrase before.

Most likely you’ll hear your gym friend talk about how you have to eat every few hours or that your body will stop burning fat, you’ll go into starvation mode, your body will start eating away muscle, and you’ll quickly shrivel up and look like Christian Bale in the Machinist.

I’m warning you that I go a bit “nerd-mode” here, but let me start right off the bat and say this is complete crap and we’re going to clear some of this up.

What is the Real Deal with Starvation Mode?

First we need to clear up the difference between ‘starving’ and ‘wasting.’

Starving, sometimes referred to as ‘starvation mode,’ in the health and fitness world is when your body’s metabolism drops after a prolonged period without nutritional calories.

First, let me define what metabolism is for this blog. I’m referring to your Basel Metabolic Rate (BSM) which is, in other words, how many calories you would burn if you were just to sit around all day being you. We are not taking into consideration the metabolic increase of exercise here; instead we are just talking about how many calories you would burn not moving at all, all day.

Your body begins the process of the “starvation response” when your body’s metabolism begins to slow down due to you NOT consuming calories for an extended period of time.

Wasting, on the other hand, is much more extreme where “your fat reserves are almost completely used up and can no longer supply your body with enough energy to meet its needs. This is when you see abnormal physiology such as muscle wasting (loss) and a slowed metabolism. So ‘wasting’ is the end result of prolonged extreme calorie restriction – occurring after months or even years of a chronically low intake and possible nutrient deficiencies” (1).

If you want a good example of “wasting,” think of all the late night TV commercials that you see about the hungry kids in Ethiopia.

That is wasting and true starvation.

People have been lead to believe that ONCE you stop consuming food after a set period of time that your body will instantly begin go into starvation mode and then waste away…

Let me again tell you how stupid of a concept that really is.

Think about it for just bit; pull yourself away from all the mass media and gym bro-science for a minute and think about basic human physiology.

IF that was true, IF we went a short period of time WITHOUT consuming calories AND thus we started wasting away, we as a human species would have died out LONG ago.

We as a species were not designed to consume food every few hours and the fact that we do has led to some serious health issues.

How many of our ancestors had the luxury of consuming food every few hours? I can assure you not many. The individuals that actually had the luxury of doing so had impressive conditioning and physiques that we, even today, idolize.

 

So how long does it take to go into true ‘starvation mode’?

To be honest, there is not one set time period that as soon as you cross your body is instantly ‘starving,’ but I will go on to say that to go into true starvation mode, it definitely takes a lot longer to get into this mode and a LOT less calories that you may think.

In a study conducted at the University of Nottingham (Nottingham, England), researchers found that when they had 29 men and women fast for 3 days, their metabolic rate did not change (2).

A study published in 1999 found that people who were on very low calorie diets and on a resistance exercise program did NOT see a decrease in resting metabolic rate, and these people were only eating 800 Calories a day for 12 weeks! (3).

In even more studies performed on men and women between the ages of 25 and 65, there was no change in the metabolic rate of people who skipped breakfast, or people who ate two meals a day compared to seven meals per day (4) (5).

There are a whole lot more studies to back up this notion, but as science shows that individuals can go three days of caloric abstinence without any decrease in metabolic rate, there’s not much more to debate.

So much for the whole “eating every three hours” gig.

 

Won’t my muscles waste away?

Let me go on and say that at one time I was a BIG practitioner and advocator of eating every few hours; for years I did that (see the blog about breakfast) for fear that as soon as I stopped eating that my muscles were going to instantly start wasting away.

I can say this: your muscles will NOT start to eat themselves because you have not had protein in the last three hours.

Again, if we were to go back and think about this from a biological standpoint: IF it was true and we HAD to eat protein every three hours to maintain muscle mass, we as a species would be extinct.

Think of how many times in YOUR life, or in the lives of those around you, that anyone had protein every three hours. I’m sure that there were full days that you did not eat protein but you still had your muscle mass.

Muscles mass does not waste away if you don’t eat every three hours.

What causes muscles to eventually shrink is when you do NOT use them; in other words, if you don’t do some form of consistent resistance training.

Research published in 1999 found that when men and women followed a 12 week diet consisting of only 800 calories and around 80 grams of protein per day, they were able to maintain their muscle mass as long as they were exercising with weights three times per week (3).

In another study published in 1999, obese men restricted their caloric intake by eating 1,000 calories less per day than they normally ate for 16 weeks. They took part in a weight-training program three days a week and were able to maintain all of their muscle mass while losing over 20 pounds of body fat! (6)

If you don’t think I’m being nerdy enough yet I can site even more studies.

The point being: all of these individuals went on VERY low calorie diets with a combination of resistance training and still preserved ALL of their muscle mass and did NOT have a decrease in their metabolic rate.

So, skipping a meal (or even several meals) will NOT result your body all of a sudden consuming all of its muscle mass.

 

You will NOT starve

You will not starve or all of a sudden start dropping crazy amounts of muscles and go into a metabolic downward spiral if you don’t consume calories every few hours. (Take a look at this previous blog).

To sum it up: the body doesn’t want to break itself down; it wants to maintain a period of homeostasis. It doesn’t want to be fat nor does it want to lose the muscle that we use on a consistent basis to complete activities (think resistance training). Our bodies were not designed like that.

Instead look at it this way: it’s OK if you miss a designated meal time and it’s OK to take a break from food for a bit of time. Rest assured, you will NOT go into starvation mode and you will NOT waste away.

Instead, you may find that you actually feel a bit better just taking a break from eating and no longer have to be stressed about your next meal.

 

 

References:

(1)Pilon, Brad. Eat Stop Eat, 5th Ed. Ontario, Canada: Strength Works, 2012. E-book.

(2)  Webber J, Macdonald IA. The cardiovascular, metabolic and hormonal changes accompanying acute starvation in men and women. British Journal of Nutrition. 1994; 71:437-447.

(3) Bryner RW. Effects of resistance training vs. Aerobic training combined with an 800 calorie liquid diet on lean body mass and resting metabolic rate. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 1999; 18(1):  15-121

(4) Verboeket-Van De Venne WPHG, et al. Effect of the pattern of food intake on human energy metabolism. British Journal of Nutrition. 1993; 70:103-115

(5) Bellisle F, et al. Meal Frequency and energy balance. British Journal of Nutrition. 1997; 77: (Suppl. 1) s57-s70

(6)Rice B, Janssen I, Hudson, R, Ross R. Effects of aerobic or resistance exercise and/or diet on glucose tolerance and plasma insulin levels in obese men. Diabetes Care 1999; 22: 684-691

 

 

 

 

In Health and Awesomeness,

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Travis Merritt, BS, CPT, CES, RBT is the owner of Fitness Revolution in Rowlett, TX.

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P.S. I give lots of credit of this blog to Brad Pilion of Eat Stop Eat. Its a great book that I constantly refer back to for a lot of the studies that I have in regards to intermittent fasting.


Comments

  1. Donyell Teal says:

    Love this article, and your response is profound.
    I can feel you’re passion in your wording.
    Your humor is funny too 🙂
    I do love being very thin.
    I prefer to be called Slender, but this very fat world we live in
    is sometimes unkind to people who have self control over there diets.
    I eat to live, not live to eat.
    At 5’8 and 118 lbs I love my weight.
    Jealousy has a lot to do with people always having something derogatory about my very slender physique.
    I Model and I pays more the thinner you are.
    Unfortunately in the Fashion world they see very thin people as Beautiful.

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