I have received several separate emails where Burn The Fat readers had been told by other fitness experts that what I’ve been teaching for years about starvation mode and being cautious about very low calorie diets is wrong. I’ve reprinted one of them below with my answer - including all the scientific proof you need. Starvation mode is real. Very real. Apparently even some fitness professionals don’t have all the facts and are attempting to debunk myths when instead they may be perpetuating them.
Unlike my Burn The Fat E-Book which was written with the layperson in mind, this article below is a bit scientific, but I urge you to invest the time to read it.
IS STARVATION MODE A MYTH? NO! STARVATION MODE IS VERY REAL AND HERE’S THE SCIENTIFIC PROOF
Tom, I was wondering if you had seen the 6 part e-mail series sent out by [name deleted] from [website deleted]. if you look at the last part, he basically states that “starvation mode” is a bunch of
crap made up in order to sell diet programs. He didn’t
mention you, but it almost sounds like he’s talking about you
specifically. How do you feel about this?
I’m afraid the person who wrote that article is
mistaken about starvation mode. Not only does his article contain technical errors, but anyone who sees what kind of products he promotes will realize where all his biases come from if you simply read between the lines a
little bit. The pot calls the kettle black.
He accuses those of us who use the term “starvation mode” as being
unscientific and he even says “dont buy diet books if they mention the starvation mode.” Yet in a moment, it will become clear that he is
the one who doesn’t appear very well read in the scientific literature on
the effects of starvation and low calorie diets.
The effects of starvation mode are indeed sometimes overblown and
there are myths about the starvation mode, like it will completely
“shut down” your metabolism (can’t happen - you’d be dead if your
metabolism stopped), or that if you miss one meal your metabolism
will crash (doesn’t happen that fast, although your blood sugar
and energy levels may dip and hunger may rise).
Another myth about starvation mode is that adaptive reduction in
metabolic rate (where metabolism slows down in response to decrease
calorie intake) is enough to cause a plateau. That is also not true.
it will cause a SLOW DOWN in progress but not a total cessation of
As a result of these myths, I have even clarified and refined my
own messages about starvation mode in the past few years because I
don’t want to see people panic merely because they miss a meal or they’re using an
aggressive caloric deficit at times. I find that people tend to
worry about this far too much.
However, starvation response is real, it is extremely well documented
and is not just a metabolic adaptation - it is also a series of
changes in the brain, mediated by the hypothalamus as well as hormonal
changes which induce food seeking behaviors.
Here is just a handful of the research and the explanations that
I have handy:
Ancel Key’s Minnesota starvation study is the classic work in this area, which dates back to 1950 and is still referenced to this day. In this study, there was a 40% decrease in metabolism due to 6 months of “semi-starvation” at 50% deficit.
Much or most of the decrease was due to loss of body mass, (which
was much more pronounced because the subjects were not weight
training), but not all of the metabolic decline could be explained
simply by the loss of body weight, thus “metabolic adaptation” to
starvation was proposed as the explanation for the difference.
Abdul Dulloo of the University of Geneva did a series of studies that revisited the 1300 pages
of data that keys collected from this landmark study, which will
not ever be repeated due to ethical considerations. (it’s not easy
to do longitudinal studies that starve people, as you can imagine)
Here’s one of those follow up studies:
“Adaptive reduction in basal metabolic rate in response to
food deprivation in humans: a role for feedback signals
from fat stores. Dulloo, Jaquet 1998. American journal
of clinical nutrition.
“It is well established from longitudinal studies of human
starvation and semistarvation that weight loss is accompanied
by a decrease in basal metabolicrate (BMR) greater than can be
accounted for by the change in body weight or body composition”
“the survival value of such an energy-regulatory process that
limits tissue depletion during food scarcity is obvious.”
Also, starvation mode is a series of intense food seeking behaviors and other psychological symptoms and if you do any research on the minnesota study and other more
recent studies, you will find out that starvation mode as a spontaneous
increase in food seeking behavior is very, very real.
Do you think sex is the most primal urge? Think again! Hunger is the most primal of all human urges and when starved, interest in everything else including reproduction, falls by the
wayside until you have been re-fed.
There are even changes in the reproductive system linked to
starvation mode: It makes total sense too because if you cannot
feed yourself, how can you have offspring and feed them - when you
starve and or when body fat drops to extremely low levels, testosterone decreases in men, and menstrual cycle stops
Starvation mode is not just adaptive reduction metabolic
rate - it is much more.
There IS a controversy over how much of the decrease in metabolism
with weight loss is caused by starvation mode, but the case is
For example, this study DIRECTLY addresses the controversy over
HOW MUCH of a decrease in metabolism really occurs with starvation
due to adaptive thermogenesis and how much is very simply due to a
loss in total body mass.
Doucet, et al 2001. British journal of nutrition. “Evidence for the
existence of adaptive thermogenesis during weight loss.”
“It should be expected that the decrease in resting energy
expenditure that occurs during weightloss would be proportional
to the decrease in body substance. However, in the case
of underfeeding studies, acute energy restriction can also lead
to reductions in resting energy expenditure which are not
entirely explained by changes in body composition.”
Starvation response is even a scientific term that is used in obesity science textbooks - word for word - CONTRARY to the claim
made by the expert mentioned earlier who thinks the phrase, starvation
mode is “unscientific.”
Handbook of Obesity Treatment, by wadden and stunkard
(two of the top obesity scientists and researchers in the world )
“The starvation response - which is an increase in food seeking
behavior - is most likely mediated by the decrease in leptin
associated with caloric deprivation.”
Textbooks on nutritional biochemistry also acknowledge the decrease in metabolism and distinguish it as an adaptive mechanism, distinct from the decrease in energy expenditure that would be expected with weight loss. In this case, the author also mentions another downside of very low calorie diets: spontaneous reduction in physical activity.
Biochemical And Physiological Aspects of Human Nutrition by SM. Stipanauk, professor of nutritional sciences, Cornell University (WB Saunders company, 2000)
“During food restriction, thermic effect of food and energy expenditure decrease, as would be expected from reduced food intake and a reduction in total body mass. Resting metabolic rate, however declines more rapidly than would be expected from the loss of body mass and from the decline in spontaneous physical activity due to general fatigue.
This adaptive reduction in resting metabolic rate may be a defense against further loss of body energy stores.”
Granted, it is more often referred to as “metabolic adaptation”
or “adaptive reduction in metabolic rate.” However, starvation
mode and starvation response are both terms found in the scientific
literature, and they are more easily understood by the layperson,
which is why I choose to use them.
Another effect of starvation mode is what happens after the diet:
A sustained increase in appetite and a sustained reduction of
metabolic rate that persists after the diet is over. Although controversial, this too is
documented in the literature:
American Journal clinical nutrition 1997. Dulloo “post starvation
hyperphagia and body fat overshooting in humans.”
American Journal Clin Nutrition 1989, Elliot et al. “Sustained
depression of the resting metabolic rate after massive weight loss”
“Resting metabolic rate of our obese subjects remained
depressed after massive weight loss despite increased caloric
consumption to a level that allowed body weight stabilization.”
and Dulloo 1998:
“The reduction in thermogenesis during semistarvation persists
after 12 weeks of restricted refeeding, with its size being inversely
proportional to the degree of fat recovery but unrelated to the
degree of fat free mass recovery.”
By the way, this explains what some people refer to as “metabolic
damage” and although this is not a scientific phrase, you can
see that it too is a reality. It is the lag time between when
a diet ends and when your metabolism and appetite regulating mechanisms get back to normal.
Last, but certainly not least, and perhaps the best indicator of
starvation mode is the hormone LEPTIN. you could spend
weeks studying leptin and still not cover all the data that has
been amassed on this subject.
Leptin IS the anti starvation hormone.
Some people say leptin
IS the starvation mode itself because it regulates many of the
negative effects that occur during starvation.
leptin is secreted mostly from fat cells and it signals your
brain about your fat stores. If your fat stores diminish (danger
of starvation), your leptin decreases. If your calorie intake
decreases, your leptin level decreases.
When leptin decreases, it essentially sounds the starvation alarm.
In response, your brain (hypothalamus) sends out signals for
other hormones to be released which decrease metabolic rate
and increase appetite.
In summary and conclusion:
There is no debate whatsoever about the existence of starvation mode - IT EXISTS and is well documented.
There is also no debate whatsoever that metabolic rate decreases
with weight loss. It happens and is well documented, and it is
a reason for plateuas.
There’s really only ONE debate about starvation mode that is —
HOW MUCH of the starvation mode is comprised of adaptive
reduction in metabolic rate and how much is due to loss of
total body mass and increased feeding behaviors?
Researchers are still debating these questions, in fact just
earlier this year another study was releasd by Major and Doucet
in the international journal of obesity called, “clinical
significance of adaptive thermogenesis.”
Here’s a quote from this latest (2007) study:
“Adaptive thermogenesis is described as the decrease in energy
expenditure beyond what could be predicted from the changes in
fat mass or fat free mass under conditions of standardized physical
activity in response to a decreased energy intake, and could
represent in some individuals another factor that impedes weight
loss and compromises the maintenance of a reduced body weight.”
I respect the work that other fitness professionals are trying
to do to debunk diet and fitness myths, but this fellow didn’t seem to do his homework and
totally missed the boat on this article about starvation mode.
What’s really odd is that he didn’t quote a single study in his article, despite his repeated reference to “scientific research.”
If he wanted to argue against adaptive reduction in metabolic
rate and chalk starvation mode up purely to increase in food seeking
behaviors… and if he wanted to attribute the decreased metabolism
with weight loss purely to lost body mass, he easily could have
done that. But he didn’t cite ANY studies. He just expects us to take his word
for it that “starvation mode is a myth,” and people like me who use the phrase starvation mode are “unscientific”
Either way you argue it - and whatever you choose to call it - “starvation response” is a scientific fact and that’s why low calorie diets are risky business and mostly just quick fixes.
The rapid weight loss in the beginning is an illusion: Starvation diets catch up with you eventually… just like other habits such as smoking appear to do no harm at first, but sooner or later the damage is done.
For years I’ve considered it so important to understand the
consequences of starvation diets that my entire burn the fat program
is built around helping you recover from metabolic damage from past
diet mistakes, to avoid the starvation mode, or to at least
keep the effects of the starvation mode to a minimum so you can
lose the fat and keep the muscle.
Your friend and “Burn The fat coach”
Tom Venuto, CSCS, NSCA-CPT
PS. For more information on getting lean without starving yourself or
harming your metabolism, visit my website at www.BurnTheFat.com.
About Bodybuilding & Fat Loss Coach, Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilder, an NSCA-certified personal trainer, certified strength & conditioning specialist (CSCS), and author of the #1 best selling diet e-book in Internet history, "Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle. Tom has written hundreds of articles and been featured in IRONMAN, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development and Mens Exercise. To get more information about Tom's e-book about natural fat loss, visit the home page at: www.BurnTheFat.com
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