Are you in starvation mode?

Has someone ever told you that you aren’t losing fat because you aren’t eating enough? Has your weight loss stalled even though you’re eating less? 

Starvation mode is a term that is thrown around and often blamed for a lack of weight loss results. Let’s discuss whether or not this actually exists and why your weight loss efforts may not be working!

What is starvation mode?

Starvation mode is the idea that prolonged dieting or an extremely low calorie intake will drastically slow your metabolism and stop you from losing weight or even cause you to gain weight.

Unfortunately, this is completely FALSE. A true calorie deficit will continue to result in weight loss.

Let’s use a real world example to prove it. Anorexia is a severe eating disorder caused by self-starvation that results in excessive weight loss and very low body weight. The body uses stored body fat as emergency fuel until there is none left to use. Starvation will continue to result in weight loss, to the point where it can actually be fatal due to organ failure from lack of energy.

If it doesn’t exist, why am I not losing weight?

If you are no longer losing weight or perhaps gaining weight, it is likely because you are not in a TRUE calorie deficit. An honest review of your compliance to your diet needs to be considered first.

There are many instances where people may claim they are on a low calorie intake but because they are struggling to stick to such a low intake, they don’t account for the little extras they consume throughout the day such as the treats they had at the office morning tea, the handful of nuts they ate, the sneaky bites of their kids’ meals, the wine they had while making dinner etc. These extra calories over a week add up and may be the difference between being in a calorie deficit or not and therefore the cause of not losing weight (or even gaining weight), even though they think they are eating “low calories”.

What if I’m not making progress despite sticking to my diet?

If you are no longer losing weight despite being compliant to your diet, usually this is attributed to the fact that your calorie expenditure has reduced as a response to dieting, otherwise known as metabolic adaptation.

To better understand metabolic adaptation and how it occurs, we first need to understand how we burn calories. Calorie expenditure, also known as Total Calorie Energy Expenditure (TDEE), tells us our body’s baseline caloric requirements. This refers to the amount of energy we need to consume to maintain our weight. 

In order to estimate our TDEE, the following components are added together:


Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) – is the energy your body essentially needs to stay alive. Age, weight and gender are the largest factors that determine your BMR. Genetics and hormones also play a role. BMR is the largest component of TDEE.

Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) – calories your body burns through incidental activity such as walking, standing, fidgeting, typing, etc.

Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) – is the amount of energy required to digest and process the food you ingest. TEF depends on the amount of protein, carbohydrate, and fat you consume, not how often you eat. 

Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT) – calories you burn during planned exercise. The duration of exercise and intensity at which you work out will be the major determinants of your EAT. This accounts for the smallest portion of your TDEE.

By being in a calorie deficit for a period of time, our body activates a defence mechanism that lowers the amount of energy we burn in response to a lower calorie intake and a reduced body weight. These compensatory mechanisms occur to help protect the body by conserving energy and keeping our weight stable.

The longer you are in a calorie deficit, the more your metabolism will adapt and the lower your TDEE will become. How does this occur specifically? As we know BMR is a component of weight, the more weight you’ve lost, the greater your BMR will have reduced. Our NEAT is also reduced in a calorie deficit as our body’s self-defence mechanism is to move less subconsciously (less fidgeting, less movement, etc). All these factors contribute to a lower TDEE and as a result, you experience a plateau in your weight loss.

So how do I break through a weight loss plateau?

To break through a weight loss plateau, you need to re-establish a true calorie deficit again. This can be achieved through:

  1. Reducing calories further  
  2. Increasing calorie expenditure – options include adding/increasing cardio, increasing training volume or increasing daily steps.
  3. A combination of both

However, you may already be on a very low caloric intake with a very high amount of physical activity and these options are just not feasible for you. If this your situation, it may be time to focus on increasing your metabolic rate first before continuing with your calorie deficit, a process commonly referred to as reverse dieting.

Reverse dieting is the process of increasing your calorie intake from a caloric deficit back up to your maintenance or to a surplus. The primary goal of a reverse diet is to minimise body fat gain while re-establishing your metabolic rate and increasing your caloric intake. As a result, you will also slowly increase your metabolic capacity, making future fat loss efforts much easier and more sustainable!

As the popular saying goes, it may be necessary to take 1 step backwards in order to take 2 steps forward. At the end of the day, our goal is long-term, sustainable results and to accomplish this, your metabolic, physical and mental health have to be a priority.

If you’ve stopped making progress and you don’t know where to go from here, we’re here to help! Our May intake is now open for our 1:1 Personalised Coaching! Click here to find out more. Places are limited.

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Why your diet keeps failing & what to do about it
Why your diet keeps failing & how to set yourself up for success

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