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People who have tried to lose weight by dieting often experience plateaus, in which weight loss slows or stops entirely for a period of time. This frustrating experience often results from something called “starvation mode.” What exactly does starvation mode mean, and is it even an accurate description of what’s going on? This article will review starvation mode and how it affects weight loss.
What is starvation mode?
When restricting calorie intake while attempting to lose weight, starvation mode is often blamed when weight loss slows down or stops even with a calorie deficit. But is starvation mode real?
Not really—well, it’s not an accurate depiction of what’s happening to your body. People often think that starvation mode means someone has restricted their calories so much that their body holds on to the weight because it thinks it’s starving. However, starvation mode isn’t the most accurate way to describe this issue because the body isn’t actually starving.
True starvation, when someone doesn’t eat anything and doesn’t get enough calories, can lead to significant malnourishment and health complications (Peterson, 2019). This can occur with an eating disorder, such as anorexia, or when a person doesn’t have access to adequate nutrition.
So, if your body isn’t actually starving when your weight loss plateaus, what’s happening? The true culprit is a phenomenon called adaptive thermogenesis.
Adaptive thermogenesis and your metabolism
The body burns calories every day to complete the processes it needs to survive—like breathing, pumping blood around the body, and digesting food. This is what makes up your body’s metabolism, and the rate of metabolism changes as someone loses weight (MedlinePlus, n.d.).
When weight is lost, this decrease in metabolism is called adaptive thermogenesis, also sometimes called metabolic adaptation. Over time, as more and more weight is lost and fewer calories are consumed, your body responds by decreasing the rate of metabolism. Decreased metabolism means your body uses less energy to perform its functions—and the result is that weight loss slows or even stops. This process is what most people mean when they use the term “starvation mode.”
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How to avoid a weight loss plateau
Although it may not be possible to avoid adaptive thermogenesis completely, there are ways to help prevent a plateau in the weight loss journey.
Take diet breaks
Dieting for long periods can not only be hard mentally, but it may be detrimental physically as well. Taking a break from dieting can be a helpful tool for avoiding a plateau. One study looked at two groups of people: one followed a calorie restriction for 16 weeks, and another alternated a cycle of two weeks of restriction with two weeks of a higher maintenance calorie level. This study showed that the group who dieted intermittently lost more body fat and kept the fat off better than the group who dieted consistently (Byrne, 2018).
Eat a high-protein diet
Making sure you’re eating enough protein can be another helpful tool to prevent a weight loss plateau, as protein intake has been linked to success in continued weight loss. A recent study found that those who lost weight eating a high-protein diet increased the amount their bodies burned at rest more than people who ate a moderate-protein diet (Drummen, 2019).
The high-protein group also experienced less impact on adaptive thermogenesis, suggesting that higher protein diets may improve long-term weight loss outcomes (Drummen, 2019).
The study defined a high-protein diet consisting of 25% daily calories from protein, with a moderate-protein diet of 15% daily calories from protein.
Protein-rich foods include the following (USDA, n.d.):
- Red meat
- Greek yogurt
- Whole grains
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As weight loss through calorie restriction occurs, sometimes some of the weight loss is due to the loss of muscle mass. Although any form of physical activity is better than none, resistance training (sometimes referred to as strength training or weightlifting) can be especially helpful because it encourages muscle maintenance or even growth.
Resistance training is a form of exercise that places external resistance against your muscles. It can aid weight loss and combat adaptive thermogenesis by building muscle.
One study showed that women who followed a program of regular and progressive resistance training experienced improved muscle mass and resting metabolic rate (Hunter, 2012).
You can use your own body weight as resistance (with exercises like push-ups, situ-ps, and squats), or you can use things like resistance bands, dumbbells, kettlebells, or barbells. Some examples of resistance training exercises include (Hunter, 2012):
- Bench presses or push-ups
- Mountain climbers
- Bicep curls
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The bottom line on starvation mode
Starvation mode is a not-quite-accurate name for the normal process the body goes through when adapting to weight loss. It’s common for weight loss to stall, and it’s even possible to experience some weight regain.
Though it can be frustrating, there are ways to help prevent a plateau in weight loss or keep it from derailing progress for too long. Eating a high protein diet, exercising regularly through resistance training, and taking the occasional break from a low-calorie diet can be helpful when trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight.
And if you don’t know where to begin, that’s okay! Reach out to a registered dietitian who can look at your eating habits and energy expenditure and help you determine your caloric intake for your weight loss or weight maintenance goals.
- Byrne, N. M., Sainsbury, A., King, N. A., et al. (2018). Intermittent energy restriction improves weight loss efficiency in obese men: The MATADOR study. International Journal of Obesity, 42(2), 129–138. doi:10.1038/ijo.2017.206. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/ijo2017206
- Drummen, M., Tischmann, L., Gatta-Cherifi, B., et al. (2019). The Journal of Nutrition, 150(3), 458–463. doi:10.1093/jn/nxz281. Retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/150/3/458/5637681
- Hunter, G. R., Byrne, N. M., Sirikul, B., et al. (2012). Resistance training conserves fat-free mass and resting energy expenditure following weight loss. Obesity, 16(5), 1045–1051. doi:10.1038/oby.2008.38. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1038/oby.2008.38
- Mahaffey, K. (2022.). What is resistance training? Exercises & techniques to try. NASM Blog. Retrieved on June 19, 2022 from https://blog.nasm.org/resistance-training
- MedlinePlus. (n.d.). Metabolism. Medlineplus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved on June 19, 2022 from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002257.htm
- Peterson, K. & Fuller, R. (2019). Anorexia nervosa in adolescents. Nursing, 49(10), 24–30. doi:10.1097/01.NURSE.0000580640.43071.15. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/nursing/Fulltext/2019/10000/Anorexia_nervosa_in_adolescents__An_overview.8.aspx
- US Department of Agriculture (USDA). (n.d.). Protein. FoodData Central. Retrieved on June 21, 2022 from https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/?component=1003
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.