What is starvation mode? And can you avoid it? We asked weight loss researcher Dr Krista Varady Ph.D. for the low-down on metabolic slow-down.
Starvation mode. *Cue dramatic and suitably scary music* It’s diet industry’s equivalent of the boogieman. At some stage, especially if you’ve tried intermittent fasting, you’ve probably been warned about it. But is it really something we should be worrying about? And, more importantly, how do you avoid it, especially if you’re trying to lose weight? We asked superstar scientist, weight loss researcher and Associate Professor of Nutrition, Dr Krista Varady Ph.D. to separate the facts from the flim-flammery and give us the low-down on metabolic slow-down.
What Is Starvation Mode?
Starvation mode is the body’s natural response to long-term reductions in calorie intake. Scientists also refer to this phenomenon as adaptive thermogenesis. When you start losing lots of weight, your body will try to conserve its energy stores by reducing the number of calories you burn. This won’t prevent you from losing more weight, but it will probably slow down your weight loss a bit.
Why Does Starvation Mode Happen?
This metabolic slowdown is the body’s way of protecting itself from starvation. If this mechanism didn’t exist, humans would have been extinct a long time ago. When we lower our food intake, our bodies start to break down fat stores so they can be used for energy. Unfortunately, our bodies also start to break down a bit of muscle. Muscle is a key factor in determining metabolism or metabolic rate. When muscle is lost, metabolic rate slows down. When muscle is gained, metabolic rate goes up.
The good news is that it takes a while to get into starvation mode. Most people will only see their weight loss slow down after they’ve lost about 5-10% of their initial body weight, which generally occurs after 3-6 months of fasting.
Does Intermittent Fasting Cause Starvation Mode?
Actually, no! And here’s another bit of good news: intermittent fasting may actually help preserve muscle mass during weight loss.
With traditional dieting or calorie restriction, 25% of the weight lost is muscle mass and 75% is fat. In contrast, with intermittent fasting, only 10% of the weight lost is muscle mass and about 90% is fat. Therefore, fasting diets can actually help to retain muscle and keep your metabolism from grinding to a halt.
How Do I Avoid Starvation Mode?
Here are some other things you can do to keep your metabolism high and prevent starvation mode:
- Eat lots of protein on your fast and feast days: Eating high amounts of protein can boost metabolism and prevent muscle breakdown. Aim for at least 50 grams of protein on fast days and 100 grams of protein on feast days. Consuming higher amounts of protein will also help you to feel fuller longer, which will help you keep on track with your calorie goals.
- Build muscle mass by lifting weights: Doing resistance training is another great way of keeping your metabolism high. Regularly lifting weights will prevent muscle loss while you are losing weight, and in some cases, even add muscle. Research has shown that women who did resistance training while restricting food intake maintained their metabolic rate, while women who did cardio, experienced a slowdown in metabolic rate.
- Take a short break from fasting: Recent research has shown that taking a 2-week break from fasting now and then can boost weight loss and keep your metabolism revved up. However, it’s important to monitor your food intake during your 2-week break and make sure you are not overeating. Be super vigilant about sticking to your maintenance level of calories so the weight doesn’t creep back on.
Hopefully, this has helped to slay the starvation mode monster once and for all! What are your fears about trying intermittent fasting? What are some of the things you’ve been warned about? Let us know by leaving a comment below. We love myth-busting and we’ll happily take on some other intermittent fasting boogiemen too!
If you’re interested in some more intermittent fasting facts, check out The Myth of Metabolism and What’s The Difference Between Intermittent Fasting and Calorie Restriction?