Ever skipped a lunch break only to be warned by a well-meaning buddy that it could put your body into “starvation mode” and damage your metabolism? Before you dash off to stuff a dollar into that vending machine, it’s important to understand the different ways that people define starvation mode and how it differs from actual starvation.
WHAT IS STARVATION MODE?
“Starvation mode” is a slippery term. While one camp wishes that the starvation mode myth would die already, another staunchly defends its existence. Unsurprisingly, this boils down to the differences in definition. The two most common definitions are:
- Starvation mode is a phenomenon where metabolism slows down because you’re not eating often enough.
- Starvation mode is a phenomenon where your metabolism slows down because you’re not eating enough calories.
“STARVATION MODE” IS NOT EATING OFTEN ENOUGH
The implied horror of being in starvation mode is that your weight loss stalls because your metabolism is broken. Where did this idea come from? It came from the popular weight-loss tip that you should eat six small meals per day instead of three square meals. Because digestion requires you to burn calories to get calories from food, eating six small meals was supposed to keep you at an elevated metabolism for weight loss. Conversely, not eating frequently enough means you burn fewer calories and your metabolism slows down (aka starvation mode).
By this definition, “starvation mode” is a myth. You don’t need to constantly eat to keep your metabolism elevated. Your metabolism doesn’t break just because you decide to skip a meal every so often. Additionally, when it comes to weight loss, the overall calories consumed matter more than how often you eat.
“STARVATION MODE” IS NOT EATING ENOUGH CALORIES
If you regularly slash a reasonable number of calories (e.g., 250–500 calories per day) to lose weight, you may run into the dreaded weight-loss plateau after a streak of scale victories. It’s a very real and normal consequence of losing weight. Here, starvation mode and weight-loss plateaus are two sides of the same coin. Both refer to what happens when you weigh less — you consequently have a lower metabolism and burn fewer calories. While it’s a bummer to be handed this reality in a calorie-rich environment, the adaptation was useful in the past when food shortages were common.
If you drastically slash calories and are eating a very low-calorie diet (Think: less than 1,000 calories for women and less than 1,200 calories for men), “starvation mode” can actually be starvation. Starvation from chronic undereating can be counterproductive to weight loss and dangerous to your health. Eating very low-calorie diets for extended amounts of time puts you at risk for malnutrition because it makes it very difficult for you to obtain all the vitamins and minerals through food alone. Additionally, your metabolism drops way down to conserve energy, and your body breaks down valuable muscles and organs in a futile effort to maintain adequate fuel for your brain. (If you want to learn more, read Why Undereating Won’t Actually Help You Lose Weight.)
In both definitions, the hallmark characteristic of starvation mode is a slower resting metabolism and increased hunger — both of which threaten to boot people off the weight-loss horse. This is more likely to happen when you use calorie restriction as the only tool in your weight-loss kit. If your goal is to lose weight and to keep it off, you have to focus on changing your lifestyle. No two bodies are the same, so be open to different strategies, find the ones that work for you and stick with it! Need some inspiration? Check out these 67 science-backed weight loss strategies to get you started!