September 6, 2013
Are you in Starvation Mode?

In the land of diets and weight loss there is a common term tossed around that may be ruining your results. That term is, “starvation mode.”

Here is how the story goes: you start a diet and you reduce your calories. You lose weight at first but then you hit a plateau. You search online and ask your other dieting friends about what may be the cause of your plateau. The answer is clear; you are in starvation mode. You have reduced your calories so much that now your body is trying to hold on to everything it can and it absolutely will not let you lose weight. You could decrease your calories even more, increase your exercise, and still nothing would happen. After staying at this plateau because you are stuck in starvation mode, you get frustrated and stop your healthy diet. I mean, why keep struggling so much only to be stuck at a certain weight? Your body won’t even let you get to a lower weight, anyways. The weight comes back on in a hurry, and there goes another failed plan to get healthy.

The starvation mode that we all hear about is an exaggeration on what really happens. Every person has a resting metabolic rate, (RMR) this is the minimum number of calories needed to survive. Everyone’s RMR is different and has genetic components, but your lifestyle affects RMR as well. Think of your RMR as an idle on your car. If you leave your car running it will need to burn a certain amount of gas to stay running. Your body has an idle as well, and while it can increase or decrease, it will never drop to zero (then you would be dead). RMR’s can range from 1,400 kcal to 2,800 kcal and can be even higher depending on the person. If you would like to get a rough estimate of your RMR visit this site:

When you start a diet and clean up your eating, this typically comes with a reduction in calories. Reducing your calories will reduce your RMR. Again, dieting WILL reduce your RMR. Conversely, eating more will increase your RMR (it takes energy to digest food). When you go on a diet, your RMR may drop anywhere from 5-15%. This means if your RMR was originally 2,200 kcal per day, dieting will drop your RMR to 1,900 kcal per day. This still leaves you plenty of room to create a negative caloric balance to lose weight.

Now, let’s say you are eating 1,200 kcal per day on your meal plan. Your RMR is at 1,900 kcal per day so you should be in a 700kcal deficit each day. If my math is correct, then you should lose about 1 pound every 5 days (1 lb of fat equals 3,500 kcals). I say “about” because you will have fluctuations in metabolic rate based on your diet and your activity level. But if you have been in this situation and you are eating 1,200 kcal per day and NOT losing weight…. Then what must be happening? I can promise you that you are not in starvation mode. The answer: you are eating more than 1,200 kcal. “What? No way! That can’t be the case. I track all my food.”

Yes, this is the case. Just as the idle of the car must always run to keep the car going, your RMR must always be going to keep your body alive. And unless you are 4’9” your RMR will not be under 1,200 kcal. Eating additional food is the only other answer. There is no medical mystery to why the weight loss has stopped. But it sure can feel this way if you are tracking your food. It has been shown in the research that people who track their food often under report their calories. Many times with differences as large as 1,000 kcal! This is not intentional. You may not be hiding calories or being sneaky. But if you are not losing weight, you are eating more calories than your body is burning. So how can we fix this? Here are some things to do if you hit a plateau:

1. Track everything that goes in your mouth. We like to say, “if you bite it, write it.” This includes any handful of snacks, lattes, small desserts, and any single thing that goes into your mouth. Everything counts! Everything. So track it.

2. Measure out your food to make sure you have the right serving size. After eating the same food a billion times, it is easy to give yourself a little more and think it is the same serving size you have always had.

3. Take a picture. If you are not sure where you might be getting extra calories then take a picture of everything you eat and show it to your dietitian. With your camera phone handy, this should not be an issue.

Starvation mode does not really exist as we think it does. Your RMR will never stop. Watch your calories. Learn about what you put in your mouth. Own up to everything you eat. You are not a bad person for eating ice cream, but if you don’t admit to it, you will go nuts trying to figure out why your weight loss has stopped.

The next time you hear the words “starvation mode” think about your RMR and where you might be getting extra calories!

Written by Clark Masterson

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