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TOPIC: The Starvation Mode Myth...again.

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October 6, 2012 9:00 AM
Read this awhile back and it's brilliant.

So sick of reading responses of people regarding diet and weight loss with everyone throwing around purported "facts" about starvation mode. So, here is a little research on the topic. Feel free to chime in with other studies, but lets keep it based on actual research, not personal anecdotes and not "my trainer says."

Starvation mode does not happen overnight or even in just a few days! Calories in, calories out. Simple, right? Short term, yes, it’s simple, long term, not so much. Let’s add some real science to the discussion:

First, a definition. Starvation mode does not mean going without food. It means that you cut your caloric intake to less than what the body would normally burn in the course of a day. I have seen so many posts where people offer advice and tell people they need to eat more to lose weight because they are starving their bodies. The idea postulated is that eating too few calories will reduce a person’s metabolism to such an extent that the person will gain weight instead of losing.

Now, a look at one of the classic scientific studies on starvation. Probably the most famous study done was conducted after WWII by researchers at the University of Minnesota. Starvation was widespread throughout Europe during the war and scientists were trying to figure out how to re-feed people suffering from starvation and determine the long-term effects. (Remember, tens of thousands of people died after liberation from concentration camps not only from disease but from the reintroduction of food that their bodies were no longer capable of digesting.) Scientists recruited 36 young healthy men to participate in a yearlong study divided into several phases: a 12-week normal control period, a 24-week starvation phase where calories were so dramatically reduced that participants lost approximately 25% of body weight; and, finally, a recovery phase to renourish participants. Results of the study were published in the two-volume, Biology of Human Starvation (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis, 1950). See more information here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment.

So, what did the results of the study find? First, all participants lost weight. Starvation mode does not result in your body hanging onto extra fat or calories in an effort to “preserve” your body. But, it’s more complicated than just losing weight. All of the participants also experienced a drop in their metabolic rates – approximately 40% below baseline. Now, you will see many posters here that will argue that you will start losing muscle and not fat within a few days of going into so-called “starvation mode.” Yet, the research shows that participants lost both. In fact, at no point did they stop losing fat until they hit a rate of approximately 5% body fat near 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… 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.

But, keep in mind that apart from weight loss, semi-starvation has other not-so-cool effects on your mind and body. The other physical effects from the Minnesota study on semi-starvation included a significant drop in physical endurance, reduction in strength of about 10%, and sluggish reflexes. Those that were the most fit initially showed the greatest deterioration. In addition, heart volume shrank about 20%, pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped. Concentration and judgment became impaired. Sexual function was reduced and all lost interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging. But keep in mind, this was a year-long study, not something that happened in a just a few days or two weeks of eating restricted calories.

The more dramatic effects of semi-starvation from the Minnesota study were psychological, similar to what can be observed in anorexic patients. The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. They became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; hoarding, etc.

Now, let’s look at another aspect. The folks at Cambridge University in England did a study to determine the different effects starvation had on lean people versus obese people. The study can be found here: http://www.unu.edu/unupress/food2/UID07E/uid0 7e11.htm. Let’s just cut to the chase with this study.

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

In the first 2 days of starvation, there is a small absolute increase in basic metabolic rate 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. Of course, this is just limited to the first few days. After that, studies in fact support that “starvation mode” slows down metabolism.

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. The loss of lean mass is not as critical to the obese person simply because an obese person has more lean mass than a person of the same age and height but normal weight. Here we get to a basic idea that makes sense – fat storage – the same way animals build up bulk to rely on during the winter, obese people have fat stores they can use (to a limited extent) in times of need. This means that the effects of a semi-starvation diet upon a normal weight individual are of course much more devastating than the effects on someone who is obese.

Finally, some conclusions. Does all this mean I should reduce my caloric intake below the minimum recommended as an effective way to lose weight? If you think the answer is yes, then you haven’t carefully read everything here, so I will spell it out:

Let’s start by clearing up that major myth I see repeated over and over again in the forums: that a single day or even a few days of extreme caloric restrictions forces your body into starvation mode, significantly reducing your metabolism and causing you to lose muscles. Not true. You may, in fact, lose weight in the short term. Your body does not go into starvation mode after a few days of extreme calorie restricted eating.

However, let’s look again at the Minnesota study for further compelling evidence why semi-starvation is not a good idea for long-term weight loss. In the latter half of the Minnesota Starvation Study the men were allowed to eat ad libitum again. Researchers found they had insatiable appetites, yet never felt full, these effects continued for months afterwards. Semi-starvation diets don’t work long-term for this simple reason – under ordinary pressures, when eating resumes, people put the weight back on and oftentimes, gain more.

And let’s not forget the other physical and psychological effects mentioned earlier. Any of those sound appealing to you? Reduced concentration or sexual function anyone? The Cambridge study also looked at several deaths from people who undertook extreme starvation diets, particularly those that did not create a good nutritional balance in the calories that were consumed.

Bottom line, you should do adequate research and dietary analysis to ensure you are getting the best nutrition you can for your calories.
November 13, 2012 12:26 PM
Solid information and summary. very insightful.. thanks!
November 13, 2012 1:14 PM
Interesting indeed

If one does measure their BMR and it is low and their TDEE is also low - then to lose weight in a healthy manner you have to be higher than BMR and lower than TDEE - right

So what if those numbers say BMR is 822 and TDEE is 1350 - 515 calories per day decfict for 1 pound per week loss = 835

Very low calorie in the scheme of things - correct?

What does this person do? eat 1200 only 150 deficit it would take them 24 days to lose a pound and be on the edge of 'maintenance' or eat 1,100 and lose about .5 lb a week?

I am just asking because some people really do have this issue with low BMR.

Except for building a bit of muscle which helps a very little to rasie the BMR (I heard the net is 2 calories a day for each lb of LBM) or taking stimulatnts like caffine I have not heard of a great way of boosting BMR.

So what is your advise in this case?
  20909613
November 13, 2012 1:36 PM
Good informative post. I wish this term and all the misinformation it represents would just disappear!!
November 13, 2012 2:05 PM
I see more posts like this of people trying to scientifically classify "starvation mode" than I do see posts of people incorrectly implying that skipping a single meal will result in "starvation mode".

Starvation mode is real and does exist and there have been plenty of studies on it. What most people on here encounter is NOT starvation mode, but something similar from hormonal imbalance due to cortisol and leptin levels in the body reacting to prolonged extensive calorie deficits.
  26097696
November 13, 2012 2:10 PM
BUMP
November 13, 2012 2:10 PM
Nice post.
  27247880
November 13, 2012 2:10 PM
I applaud your efforts, but starvation mode will never die on mfp
November 13, 2012 2:11 PM
Bump
November 13, 2012 2:12 PM
Thanks for the info! Very informative! flowerforyou
November 13, 2012 2:18 PM
Very interesting. I wonder how semi-starvation compares to normal dieting, especially in obese people? I'm just wondering if it made any difference that these men were dieting to get to be underweight, rather than to avoid being overweight. I'm thinking particularly of the final phase, when they had insatiable appetites.
  22334493
November 13, 2012 2:19 PM
QUOTE:
The idea postulated is that eating too few calories will reduce a person’s metabolism to such an extent that the person will gain weight instead of losing.


I don't see people postulating that they will gain weight. I see people saying that most people will have better success with eating above BMR and below TDEE than most people will by eating the default 1200, assuming that most people of average size or better has a BMR above 1200. AND it is healthier, for all of the reasons your studies conclude.
November 13, 2012 3:18 PM
bump
  7050949
November 13, 2012 3:57 PM
QUOTE:

QUOTE:
The idea postulated is that eating too few calories will reduce a person’s metabolism to such an extent that the person will gain weight instead of losing.


I don't see people postulating that they will gain weight. I see people saying that most people will have better success with eating above BMR and below TDEE than most people will by eating the default 1200, assuming that most people of average size or better has a BMR above 1200. AND it is healthier, for all of the reasons your studies conclude.


I have seen just that. People stating that they did in fact gain weight from eating too little and that others will too. Or that others will eventually stall in their weight loss as though it is fact.
  16047646
November 13, 2012 4:28 PM
Yes - I can't help but feel that in many cases people get a bit tired and actually over estimate exercise done as they don't do much (maybe using MFP figures), while underestimating food they've actually eaten.

Calories in vs calories out still always stands - it's just a case of working out the right figures :).
  27247880
November 13, 2012 5:07 PM
QUOTE:

Interesting indeed

If one does measure their BMR and it is low and their TDEE is also low - then to lose weight in a healthy manner you have to be higher than BMR and lower than TDEE - right

So what if those numbers say BMR is 822 and TDEE is 1350 - 515 calories per day decfict for 1 pound per week loss = 835

Very low calorie in the scheme of things - correct?

What does this person do? eat 1200 only 150 deficit it would take them 24 days to lose a pound and be on the edge of 'maintenance' or eat 1,100 and lose about .5 lb a week?

I am just asking because some people really do have this issue with low BMR.

Except for building a bit of muscle which helps a very little to rasie the BMR (I heard the net is 2 calories a day for each lb of LBM) or taking stimulatnts like caffine I have not heard of a great way of boosting BMR.

So what is your advise in this case?


I'm similar to this but thankfully not quite that low although my difference between BMR and TDEE is smaller. The 1200 is a rather arbitrary number that is definitely not the right one for everybody so completely forget about that. It depends on how fast this person wants to lose weight but I would imagine that about 1050 cal/day should be a reasonable amount which is about TDEE-20% It sounds very low but I can't imagine not feeling full at your TDEE so for this person it probably will feel okay. It's about 0.7lb loss a week which is slow for the smaller scale, but in the big picture it will add up before you know it. Although it's hard to say without knowing the current weight.

If that's not satisfactory, you try to add more exercise so that you have a bigger allowance to eat, and increase lean body mass (heavy lifting) which will increase your BMR (which won't happen in the short term, but will add potentially around 200 cals in the long term, though it heavily depends on the overall numbers of the person in question).
Edited by clairmuffin On November 13, 2012 5:12 PM
  12776486
November 13, 2012 5:10 PM
help! sick I'm in starvation mode and can't read it all!


Just kiddin! thanks for taking the time to post that!
November 13, 2012 5:13 PM
Great Post :O)
November 13, 2012 5:14 PM
QUOTE:

I see more posts like this of people trying to scientifically classify "starvation mode" than I do see posts of people incorrectly implying that skipping a single meal will result in "starvation mode".

Starvation mode is real and does exist and there have been plenty of studies on it. What most people on here encounter is NOT starvation mode, but something similar from hormonal imbalance due to cortisol and leptin levels in the body reacting to prolonged extensive calorie deficits.


Then we're clearly reading different parts of forums because I see "posts of people incorrectly implying that skipping a single meal will result in "starvation mode"" aaaaaaaall the time :)

And I think the point of this post isn't that starvation mode is not real, it's that the interpretation of "starvation mode" people love talking about here is nonsense.
  12776486
November 13, 2012 5:15 PM
I completely disagree with this scientific research. I ate 2 calories a day for five years and now I'm 200 pounds overweight. cry
November 13, 2012 5:15 PM
QUOTE:

Read this awhile back and it's brilliant.

So sick of reading responses of people regarding diet and weight loss with everyone throwing around purported "facts" about starvation mode. So, here is a little research on the topic. Feel free to chime in with other studies, but lets keep it based on actual research, not personal anecdotes and not "my trainer says."

Starvation mode does not happen overnight or even in just a few days! Calories in, calories out. Simple, right? Short term, yes, it’s simple, long term, not so much. Let’s add some real science to the discussion:

First, a definition. Starvation mode does not mean going without food. It means that you cut your caloric intake to less than what the body would normally burn in the course of a day. I have seen so many posts where people offer advice and tell people they need to eat more to lose weight because they are starving their bodies. The idea postulated is that eating too few calories will reduce a person’s metabolism to such an extent that the person will gain weight instead of losing.

Now, a look at one of the classic scientific studies on starvation. Probably the most famous study done was conducted after WWII by researchers at the University of Minnesota. Starvation was widespread throughout Europe during the war and scientists were trying to figure out how to re-feed people suffering from starvation and determine the long-term effects. (Remember, tens of thousands of people died after liberation from concentration camps not only from disease but from the reintroduction of food that their bodies were no longer capable of digesting.) Scientists recruited 36 young healthy men to participate in a yearlong study divided into several phases: a 12-week normal control period, a 24-week starvation phase where calories were so dramatically reduced that participants lost approximately 25% of body weight; and, finally, a recovery phase to renourish participants. Results of the study were published in the two-volume, Biology of Human Starvation (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis, 1950). See more information here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minnesota_Starvation_Experiment.

So, what did the results of the study find? First, all participants lost weight. Starvation mode does not result in your body hanging onto extra fat or calories in an effort to “preserve” your body. But, it’s more complicated than just losing weight. All of the participants also experienced a drop in their metabolic rates – approximately 40% below baseline. Now, you will see many posters here that will argue that you will start losing muscle and not fat within a few days of going into so-called “starvation mode.” Yet, the research shows that participants lost both. In fact, at no point did they stop losing fat until they hit a rate of approximately 5% body fat near 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… 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.

But, keep in mind that apart from weight loss, semi-starvation has other not-so-cool effects on your mind and body. The other physical effects from the Minnesota study on semi-starvation included a significant drop in physical endurance, reduction in strength of about 10%, and sluggish reflexes. Those that were the most fit initially showed the greatest deterioration. In addition, heart volume shrank about 20%, pulses slowed and their body temperatures dropped. Concentration and judgment became impaired. Sexual function was reduced and all lost interest in sex. They had every physical indication of accelerated aging. But keep in mind, this was a year-long study, not something that happened in a just a few days or two weeks of eating restricted calories.

The more dramatic effects of semi-starvation from the Minnesota study were psychological, similar to what can be observed in anorexic patients. The men became nervous, anxious, apathetic, withdrawn, impatient, self-critical, emotional and depressed. A few even mutilated themselves, one chopping off three fingers in stress. They became obsessed with food, thinking, talking and reading about it constantly; developed weird eating rituals; hoarding, etc.

Now, let’s look at another aspect. The folks at Cambridge University in England did a study to determine the different effects starvation had on lean people versus obese people. The study can be found here: http://www.unu.edu/unupress/food2/UID07E/uid0 7e11.htm. Let’s just cut to the chase with this study.

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

In the first 2 days of starvation, there is a small absolute increase in basic metabolic rate 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. Of course, this is just limited to the first few days. After that, studies in fact support that “starvation mode” slows down metabolism.

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. The loss of lean mass is not as critical to the obese person simply because an obese person has more lean mass than a person of the same age and height but normal weight. Here we get to a basic idea that makes sense – fat storage – the same way animals build up bulk to rely on during the winter, obese people have fat stores they can use (to a limited extent) in times of need. This means that the effects of a semi-starvation diet upon a normal weight individual are of course much more devastating than the effects on someone who is obese.

Finally, some conclusions. Does all this mean I should reduce my caloric intake below the minimum recommended as an effective way to lose weight? If you think the answer is yes, then you haven’t carefully read everything here, so I will spell it out:

Let’s start by clearing up that major myth I see repeated over and over again in the forums: that a single day or even a few days of extreme caloric restrictions forces your body into starvation mode, significantly reducing your metabolism and causing you to lose muscles. Not true. You may, in fact, lose weight in the short term. Your body does not go into starvation mode after a few days of extreme calorie restricted eating.

However, let’s look again at the Minnesota study for further compelling evidence why semi-starvation is not a good idea for long-term weight loss. In the latter half of the Minnesota Starvation Study the men were allowed to eat ad libitum again. Researchers found they had insatiable appetites, yet never felt full, these effects continued for months afterwards. Semi-starvation diets don’t work long-term for this simple reason – under ordinary pressures, when eating resumes, people put the weight back on and oftentimes, gain more.

And let’s not forget the other physical and psychological effects mentioned earlier. Any of those sound appealing to you? Reduced concentration or sexual function anyone? The Cambridge study also looked at several deaths from people who undertook extreme starvation diets, particularly those that did not create a good nutritional balance in the calories that were consumed.

Bottom line, you should do adequate research and dietary analysis to ensure you are getting the best nutrition you can for your calories.


Martin Berkhan talks about it here --> http://www.leangains.com/2010/10/top-ten-fasting-myths-debunked.html

And John Barban and Brad Pilon did extensive research on the subject and talk about it in their books:

The good thing is you don't have to worry about the starvation mode myth if you are fat. Only skinny people have to worry about starvation mode. It does not mean you have the capability to eat at a large calorie deficit if you have emotional eating disorders or other issues going on, but at least you don't have to be afraid of it anymore.

QUOTE:


The Theory of Fat Availability:
•There is a set amount of fat that can be released from a fat cell.
•The more fat you have, the more fat can be used as a fuel when dieting.
•The less fat you have, the less fat can be used as a fuel when dieting.
•Towards the end of a transformation, when body fat is extremely low you
may not have enough fat to handle a large caloric deficit anymore.

At the extreme low end, when your body fat cannot ‘keep up’ with the energy deficit
you've imposed on your body, the energy MUST come from SOMEWHERE. This is
when you are at risk of losing lean body mass during dieting (commonly referred to
as ‘starvation mode’). This happens at extremely low levels of body fat, under 6% in
men and 12% in women [Friedl K.E. J Appl Phsiol, 1994].

-Brad Pilon and John Barban (from The Reverse Taper Diet in The Adonis Index and Venus Index manuals)



Also I got scientific proof for myself during my 60 lb weight loss journey from obese down to 10% body fat. My doctor checked my hormone levels throughout the process. I have a low RMR, am short, older, and had to eat under 1200 calories to lose the 60 lbs. The DXA scan showed that I did not go into starvation mode or lose lean body mass. In fact in the end it shows I have higher lean body mass than most females my height. I am 5'1" and my lean body mass is 104 lbs. That is still pretty tiny because I'm petite, but it's high for my height and gender. Also the technician said my bone density is that of a super fit 30 year old and I'm almost 52. If that is not scientific proof that lifting weights keeps you younger I don't know what else is.
Edited by californiagirl2012 On November 13, 2012 5:20 PM
  16440072
November 13, 2012 5:16 PM
interesting info.. Thanks for sharing
  20600607
November 13, 2012 5:18 PM
*
  10186226
November 13, 2012 5:18 PM
QUOTE:

I completely disagree with this scientific research. I ate 2 calories a day for five years and now I'm 200 pounds overweight. cry


I seriously thought about whether you were serious for sarcastic for about half a minute there :))
  12776486
November 13, 2012 5:23 PM
Where's the source?
  21978318

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