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 low calories? 

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

What is “starvation mode”?

Starvation mode is the idea that your intake calories are so slow that your metabolism compensates for this by signalling your body to stop losing weight or even to start gaining weight even when in a ‘calorie deficit’. This is completely FALSE.

Let us give you a real world example – Anorexia Nervosa is a severe eating disorder caused by self-starvation that results in excessive weight loss, very low body weight and body image distortion. 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.

So what’s actually happening?

If you are no longer losing weight or perhaps gaining weight, it is because you are no longer in a calorie deficit. Usually this is attributed to the fact that your calorie expenditure has reduced, otherwise known as metabolic adaptation.

There are also instances where people may think they are on low calories but because they are struggling to stick to such a low intake, they don’t account for the treats they had at the office morning tea, the handful of nuts they ate because they were hungry, the sneaky bites they had of their partner’s pizza, the couple of wines with the girls etc. These extra calories can easily add up over the course of a week and may be the difference between being in a calorie deficit or calorie surplus and therefore the cause of not losing weight (or even gaining weight).

What components make up calorie expenditure?

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 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.

So what is metabolic adaptation?

This is when the metabolism slows down as an adaptive response to a lower calorie intake and reduced body weight, causing a plateau in weight loss. It is part of the body’s way of conserving energy and maintaining homeostasis. But it does not cause the metabolism to slow to the point of stopping weight loss from occurring.

The longer you diet 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 levels also reduce as our body’s self defence mechanism is to move less subconsciously (less fidgeting, less movement) when less energy is being consumed. All these factors contribute to a lower TDEE and as a result, your weight loss plateaus.

How to break through a weight loss plateau?

There are a couple of different options when it comes to breaking through a weight loss plateau, if you haven’t reached your weight loss goals yet, which focus around re-establishing the 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.

However you may already be on a very low caloric intake with a very high training volume or have been in a calorie deficit for an extended period of time and still not be at your weight loss goal. If this your situation, it may be time to focus on building up your metabolic rate first before continuing with your calorie deficit, which you can do by returning to maintenance calories or even a slight surplus. By spending time at a higher intake, you will increase your metabolic capacity, making future fat loss efforts much easier and more sustainable!

If you feel like you’re no longer making progress despite eating low calories – we can help! Check out our 1:1 Personalised Coaching for more information!

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