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The Truth about "Starvation Mode"

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Since brokentink's thread received such a strong reaction, I thought I'd research this subject to see what the research studies show about starvation mode, what gets you into it, and what the short-term and long-term effects are.

First, what is starvation mode?  I found this direct answer on --

A starvation diet does not mean the absence of food. It means cutting the total caloric intake to less than 50% of what the body requires.

Using myself as an example, my current weight is 183 lbs. and my bmr is 1450.  So, I would have to cut my calories to below 725 per day.  However, if I were at my goal weight of 109 lbs., my bmr would be 1129, and so I would have to cut my calories to below 565 calories.

Many fear that going into starvation mode will drastically reduce their metabolic rate and cause them to hoard calories and gain weight instead of losing.

This is not borne out by the infamous Minnesota Semistarvation Study (1950), 36 young, healthy, psychologically normal men while restricting their caloric intake for 6 months.  Their calories were restricted in various phases, but the least amount of calories they were allowed was 50% of the "normal" maintenance calories.  Notice, this was dubbed a "semi" starvation diet.

Yes, their metabolic rates were significantly lowered -- to something like 40% below baseline.  Yet at no point did the men stop losing fat until they hit 5% body fat at the end of the study.

Lyle McDonald explains it this way:

In general, it's true that metabolic rate tends to drop more with more excessive caloric deficits (and this is true whether the effect is from eating less or exercising more); as well, people vary in how hard or fast their bodies shut down. Women's bodies tend to shut down harder and faster.

But here's the thing: in no study I've ever seen has the drop in metabolic rate been sufficient to completely offset the caloric deficit. That is, say that cutting your calories by 50% per day leads to a reduction in the metabolic rate of 10%. Starvation mode you say. Well, yes. But you still have a 40% daily deficit.

And then he follows with the note about the Minnesota men still continuing to lose fat even thugh their metabolic rates had dropped to 40% below baseline.  He says, further, that no study that he's aware of where people were put on strictly controlled diets failed to acknowledge weight or fat loss. lyle.htm

Did the Minnesota men suffer negative consequences from the experience.  They most certainly did, and, interestingly, many of the same consequences that anorexics experience.  You can read all about the various negative consequences at this site and the implications for EDs. age=EffectsOfSemiStarvation

Another starvation study was done in England, at Cambridge University, to determine the different effects starvation had on lean people versus obese people.  It's findings are quite relevant to our discussion.  The entire study is found at 7e11.htm.

Does starvation mode slow down the metabolism?  No, and Yes.

In the first 2 days of starvation, there is a small absolute increase in BMR relative to values obtained from overnight fasting. Overnight fasting is what every one of us does during our sleeping hours. 

So it is not true that going below recommended calories for one day is going to slow down your metabolism -- quite the contrary, it may speed it up just a little. 

Does Starvation mode cause our bodies to catabilize (devour our muscles and other lean mass)?  Yes and No.

Lean individuals lost great amounts of fat-free, lean tissue during starvation, but obese individuals lost much more fat tissue.  Obese individuals have a mechanism that conserves lean mass and burns fat instead.  In the study, an example of a lean subject studied after death from starvation: it can be deduced that loss of body fat accounted for 28-36% of the weight loss and fat-free mass 64-72%. In obese individuals, the proportion of energy derived from protein (Pcal%) is only 6% compared to 21% in the lean individual. More than half the weight loss in the obese is fat, whereas most of the weight loss in the lean individual is fat-free mass.

And the loss of lean mass is not as critical to the obese person as to the lean person simply because an obese person has more lean mass than a person of the same age and height but normal weight. 

Grossly obese individuals (FORBES, 1987; JAMES et al., 1978) may have over 30% more fat-free mass than lean individuals of the same height. In the example shown in Figure 3, the obese individual weighting 140 kg has a fat-free mass that is 29% greater than the 70 kg man. Obese individuals appear to have more muscle and bone than lean individuals, and these help support and move the excess body weight. Obese subjects have large vascular volumes and larger hearts, which are necessary to pump more blood around larger bodies, especially during weight-bearing activities. Obese individuals may also have visceromegaly (NAEYE and ROODE, 1970).

But when you think about it, doesn't that make fat storage sense?  Why would our Maker create us with the ability to store fat if it couldn't sustain us and preserve our lean mass in cases of extreme want?

So the effects of a starvation diet upon a normal weight teen would be substantially more devastating than to me, a morbidly obese person. 

Now, if the above gives anyone "permission" to undertake a starvation diet, I recommend remedial reading classes.

My opinion is, you should not go below your goal weight maintenance calories to lose weight, and you should do adequate research and dietary analysis to ensure you are getting the best nutrition you can for your calories.

If reducing your calorie intake to goal weight maintenance creates greater than 1000 calorie a day deficit, then I strongly suggest that you do a value half-way until you have lost some of your weight.

Now some advice for those unfortunate individuals who are suffering from EDs or who have foolishly ventured into starvation dieting.  This comes from .htm

Hi, I`m a RD. Have a client that is in the starvation mode. Know your are supposed to not change amount of calories consumed but help them to eat differently. Not sure what this means. Not had a client like this in past. Also, know it will take ~ 6 months for this client regain an appetite. Client states not hungry. I`m out in an area with not a lot of access to information. Hope you can help me to help them. God Bless
Thank you for your question. Many people think that starving themselves will lead to fast weight loss. A starvation diet does not mean the absence of food. It means cutting the total caloric intake to less than 50% of what the body requires. The body responds by using its own reserves to provide energy, and these reserves are not just the body`s extra fat. Initially, glycogen stores are broken down for energy. Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrate in our body. There is little glycogen available so this energy source is depleted during the first hours of starvation. When glycogen is used, water is released which is noticed as a drop in weight on the scale. These labile stores are quickly replenished when feeding is resumed which is noticed by an increase in weight.

The individual`s initial weight when starting a starvation diet will dictate to what extent fat is lost. Those individuals who are not obese (Body Mass Index (BMI) < 30) will tend to lose their lean body mass more easily and quickly than those who are obese (BMI > 30). It is dangerous for these smaller individuals to go on a starvation diet because the lean mass that is lost may come from organs such as the heart. In the 1970`s there were several deaths resulting from starvation-type diets. Death is a rare side effect, though.

The more common problem resulting from starvation-type diets is the resultant weight regain. Weight is typically regained because there has not been a change in the lifestyle that led to the original weight gain. When the starvation diet is ended, the individual returns to the same old habits. The scale will indicate the weight regain, but it will not identify the composition of the added weight. When weight is regained, it is fat. When fat replaces the muscle mass that was lost during starvation, the metabolic rate (the number of calories needed to maintain the current weight) is decreased. The frustrated individual typically initiates another starvation-type diet only to continue this cycle.

To help an individual break this cycle, begin with a diet history, and help the client make some small changes. The goal should be 4 - 6 small meals/snacks that result in a balanced intake. Also get the patient started exercising. Weight training will be important for rebuilding the lost muscle mass. Increasing muscle mass and increasing aerobic exercise will help increase the appetite appropriately. Don`t forget to help the client identify a realistic weight loss goal. That goal should never exceed 10% of initial weight in a six-month period. After six months, the client should try to maintain the loss for a few months before considering further weight loss.

65 Replies (last)
Wow!! Thanks for putting all this information together!! YOU ROCK!! I've tagged this thread for future reference!
Ditto what lollipopfairy said! 

You really put alot of time & effort into gathering the info & putting it all together.
I'm trying to better educate myself on nutrition & your post is very helpful.

I really appreciate you doing this...Thank You!! :-)
Thanks for the info - good presentation.  A+
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Yeah, but... if you just don't eat at all, won't you eventually lose weight? (Yes, I read it.)
Edited Mar 18 2007 16:37 by lollipopfairy
Reason: Please no all bold messages. Thanks! =)
Thanks! Great info.

kiyoukashi, that is exactly what she is saying. The men in the study, while their metabolism slowed they were still always losing weight. Yes if you don't eat, you will lose weight.
Mar 18 2007 03:31
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kiyoukashi - yes, but you starve yourself and hurt your body and thin people lose too much of their muscle and organs and can even have heart attacks.  At it's extreme it leads to death.

manewell - i understand your information explains a starvation diet. 

Isn't that different than starvation mode?  Significantly different? 

One is starvation which has extreme consequences, but isn't starvation mode simply the body slowing down it's response as a person dips too low or has too large of a deficit.

Perhaps I missed the distinction. 

Why is 1,200 calories a day widely recommended as a threshhold?  There must be a reason?
Those articles are great... fine perspectives... took me three hours to get through them though.  Honestly there's nothing new there though... except the conversation about amino acids... I learned some new stuff there.

"One day starvation speeds up metabolism" is something I've read here on Calorie Count... that's nothing new at all!... "mixing it up"... is how it's put here.

What pisses me off though is the complete LACK of discussion on catabolism.

Well done!  This is excellent!!  I think this is worthy of being added to the library for everyone to read.

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!
heres an article i found just to add. i liked it because it was simple and geared towards the dieter. /burning_calories/starvation.htm


So how many calories should I have to prevent starvation mode? Unfortunately, there's no single answer to this question. As everyone's metabolism varies in the first place, so too will the point when the body starts to use muscle to provide it with calories in a 'famine-type' situation. That's why WLR works out suitable calorie intakes for each member on an individual basis and never lets you opt to lose more than 2lb a week, which would require a severely restricted calorie intake. In other words, if you stick to the calorie intake recommended by WLR, you can be sure your body won't go into starvation mode.

As a general rule though, most nutrition experts recommend never going below 1,000-1,200 calories a day if you're dieting on your own. It's also worth bearing in mind that the body doesn't suddenly 'enter' and 'leave' starvation mode, like crossing the border from Devon into Cornwall. It's a gradual process - so you don't need to panic if you do go below your calorie intake very occasionally." 


"Death is a rare side effect, though"

Gotta love it!!

Good post and very informative.
Bravo Manewell!!   Love the research!!!

Ok ya'll I am more confused than ever.  If this is so then my bmr being 1881, that gives me 990 without going into starvation mode... Why wasnt I losing loads at 1200-1300?  I am now doing this calorie cycling thing and feel like maybe I shouldnt now...  It really should be easier than this!!!

I was thinking also my thyroid tested high ...but some other test normal so she said it was ok... the uptake or something.  Which leads me to believe I have a very good metabolism, with that, my bmr is probably higher than the guidline right?  So maybe thats why it doesnt work for some to even go near 1200?  I am getting REALLY frustrated with not losing, I keep thinking about my goal every day, not cheating and about where I could have been if my loss was where the numbers say it should be (should be 14 lbs by now!)

So I started looking at body type info today and even that was frustrating!  I thought I was a mesomorph-pear but I am not muscular and dont have broad shoulders, and how can you be an ecto-meso?  I just want to scream!!!!

yak said:

One is starvation which has extreme consequences, but isn't starvation mode simply the body slowing down it's response as a person dips too low or has too large of a deficit.

yak, I can't see any difference between the two terms.  Starvation mode is what starving people are in.  Yes, the metabolism does slow down, but the starving person still continues to lose weight.

antoinette -- there is a very good reason for recommending 1200 as the baseline for calories, and that reason is:  it's very difficult to get good nutrition for under 1200 calories.  And since I am a very short person, 4'11, and I know that probably 99.9% of the American adult population is taller than I am, and I can have 1350-1550 calories per day and still lose weight, then there is no reason that I can think of to restrict oneself to 1200 and lose out on all that nutrition.

Another very good reason is it seems to be an inherent human tendency to rebel if we feel too restricted.  And less than 1200 calorie diet can be very restrictive.  From my own personal experience, having just recently followed a 1200 calorie a day diet and then switched to 1350-1550 calories -- it's much easier to follow, much more flexibility in planning, and much more variety in what I can eat. 
oh i know. i feel like total crap under 1000.

but i also have a maintain count of 1900.
and i dont always eat healthy as possible.

that 1000-1200 is what the article said based on doctor reccomendations they sourced is what you shouldnt drop under if you are dieting alone without a doctors supervision and checkups.

personally i find it hard to eat everything nutritional wise at 1200 cals. and i totally stall out if i go under 1000 more than a day. 1000-1200 doesnt stall me out.
(i am not active)

Thanks a bunch for putting that together. I had been wondering about the effects of starvation for a while (the link was really interesting).
just an additional article that stats 1000-1200 is ok:
not to pick a fight but to clarify that i am not just making this up:

"adebotton: What about a calorie deficit that's too drastic? In other words, how much can someone realistically scale back without starving -- or messing up their metabolism?

jim_karas: I would never recommend anyone eat less than 1,000 to 1,200 calories. Many case studies demonstrate that severely restricting calories does diminish metabolism. Don't do it!" g/diet/nutrition/articles/0,,284558_406187,00.html

but just like everything else with shoe does not fit all: htm

"WARNING! 1000 Calories per day is only suitable for a small framed woman who engages in minimal amounts of exercise. This is a very low level of calories, and it would be more advisable to follow a nutritionally-balanced program such as Medifast 5 and 1."

and thats me. a small frame which leaves those charts without the frame option as wrong for me too.

i still like 1200 -1400 better though.
My question is, what happens after starvation mode, when you start eating normally again?

Can people who diet in starvation mode maintain the lost weight?
Thank you so much for putting this together.  :)  It is indeed a very good post and will be quoted often.  hehe.
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Thanks so much for that great information!

I'm going to tag it as well! :)
digdig, what happens after starvation mode? Most people either:

A) Never gain back weight, keep losing out of fear to raise their calories, and die.
B) Manage to maintain their new weight on 800 calories a day, or some other insane number.
C) Start eating a proper amount of calories..and balloon.

I did number C.

I went from 70 lbs (BMI 14.1) to 106 lbs (BMI 21.5) one month.
From eating 1700 calories a day.
Seems impossible, right? But it happened. And it wasn't water weight either, because it never came off.

Then I slowly went from 106 to 137 lbs over the course of a year.

And here I am now..a year later..having to lose weight all over again.

So it is just a waste of time, really.
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