What is starvation mode and how does it affect weight loss

Question: I have been told that when I eat too little, my body goes into starvation mode to protect itself, and that it will slow down my weight loss. Is this true and how can I avoid starvation mode?

Answer: Many weight loss coaches use the term “starvation mode” to describe your body’s natural response to protect itself when you don’t eat enough for extended periods. When you regularly eat too little food to provide your body with the necessary nutrients, it perceives itself to be in danger from starvation. Since your body is wonderfully designed to protect you, it will slow down your metabolism to conserve energy so it can keep vital organs such as the brain and the heart going for as long as possible in the face of the perceived threat. While it will burn fat for fuel, it will also start burning lean muscle mass for fuel, which will slow down your metabolism even further. People on starvation diets invariably find that they regain all the weight they’ve lost (and then some) very quickly as soon as they start eating again.

While a starvation diet may help you lose weight quite fast in the short term, you will pay a heavy price because you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of weight problems. Your metabolism gets progressively slower with each day you remain on a starvation diet. This resultant slower metabolism needs less fuel, so you consistently have to eat less and less to lose weight! As your metabolism slows down even further and your lean muscle mass dwindles you will also find that you become more and more tired. This in turn means you will get less exercise, which leaves you with less lean muscle, and an even slower metabolism. It really is a vicious cycle. The importance of protecting your lean muscle mass to boost your metabolism can not be stressed enough.

The question arises: when does your body go into starvation mode? As with anything that involves the human body, there is no one single answer that will be true for everyone. The levels at which starvation mode kicks in vary from person to person. What we can do though, is understand how it gets triggered so we can avoid getting our bodies in that state. Your decision of how much to eat should be based on your individual Total Daily Energy Requirements, which takes into account a variety of factors including height, weight, age, gender and activity levels. If you want to lose weight safely, without setting off the alarm bells in your body; aim to eat approximately 300 – 500 calories less than your total daily requirements. This will provide your body with enough fuel to keep it going comfortably, but will still create a sufficient caloric deficit to ensure that you lose weight. To protect your metabolism even further, make sure your diet contains enough protein and that you maintain / increase your activity levels.

Note. You will find that many experts advise you not to eat less than 1 200 calories per day to prevent starvation mode. This is just a general rule of thumb to provide advice in the absence of enough information. To be safe, get your individual Total Daily Energy Requirements calculated, and follow the advice above.

26 Responses to “What is starvation mode and how does it affect weight loss”


  • I agree with you 100%. I’ve been telling people that for years.

  • ok, so say you’re already in this ‘starvation mode’ because really, you have spent years with a poor regular eating pattern to where you dont typically eat breakfast, you have coffee, or you sleep right through it… you eat a low fat bread/sandwich of turkey and swiss for lunch, and at dinner you have a small piece of chicken and some broccoli.. you’re eating, but obviously not enough and you’re in starvation mode.. you decide to eat even less, and yet you’re not able to lose weight. You’re not much for going to the gym but you certainly are no couch potato.. you are constantly on the go, cleaning the house, parenting your children and well.. you’re about 20 lbs heavier than you were 7 years ago when you were 37. What do you supplement yourself with (naturally) that will help you shed the extra weight you’ve seen creeping up around the hips thighs, backs of arm, and tummy? – no, you’re not obese, you would just look a heck of a lot better at age 45 if you were about 20 to 25 lbs less in weight? People in their 20′s and 30′s say, you, at some point, need to just ‘accept it’ .. boy oh boy, I cannot wait til these same people reach 44, go into a menopausal state, and, then I’d be interested in hearing what they have to say for the perfect remedy.

  • LOL – “wanting to know” – I enjoyed your post so much! I am right there with you early in my forties and I can tell you – I am also waiting for some of these well-meaning folks to get to our age. I’ve also been on the low fat bandwagon for many years now, and like you, ended up having to eat less and less just to maintain. Gradually I gained weight until I was about 30 lbs overweight. I gained weight just by looking at a muffin, never mind eating it. I tried many of these so-called supplements and believe me – it does not work, with the exception of CLA, and then it only helps if you exercise. The only thing that is actually starting to work for me is exercise with a more balanced diet. I now eat more avos, nuts and use olive oil in my food – so low fat is out as far as I am concerned. Still on lean meat though. Lots of fruit and veggies and lower on the carbs. I took up yoga, social tennis and walking and now, about three months in it seems to be starting to pay off – guess the lean muscle mass is coming back. The yoga also helps with many other little problems I’ve been experiencing such as headaches etc. I am working full time so I am limited in how much exercise I can do – but it really helps. Good luck and hope to read some of your posts again!

  • Hi I hope someone can answer this ? that I have. I have been eating around 900 – 1000 calories a day while walking between 20 min – an hour a day on the tread mill which says I am burning between 100 – 300 calories a day. I believe that I am in stvation mode cause I have not lost a thing for around 3 weeks now. I have uped my calories to 1200 – 1400 a day for the last couple of days and I am starting to gain weight. Is this normall if a person is coming out of starvation mode.

    Thanks For Any and All Replies

  • Hi Richard, yes its normal, but the only way to get out of this cycle and rev up your metabolism is to increae your caloried, like you’ve done, space it out (small meals through out the day) and continue with exercise. The best and most accurate thing to do is to get a calorie counter such as the one available for free on this site (myOBW) that will tell you how much calories you consumed.

  • Okay so if I weigh 95 pounds but I’m only thirteen and if I go on starvation mode will I lose any weight? What are some good exercises to lose weight? And how do I learn to do the splits fast?

  • ok first off if your 95 pounds and 13 and still tryin to lose weight somethins wrong with you unless your like height of 4’4 ok i need to be losing weight. im 6 pounds over the average weight limit for my height and age. ok i run 5 miles every day. i need help gettin of the extra fat that keeps commin back. helpp

  • I think i found out what i was looking out for. Thanx guys..could anyone advice as to how to manage these smaller meals; day throughout for loosing weight? I am 25, weighing over 100kgs.

  • Hey , can you please answer my question ?
    See I’ve been doing low calories eating for two weeks now and I didn’t know about this starvation mode .. Low I mean from ”300 to 500″ calorie a day .. I read about this today and I freaked out !!!! .. Iam afraid I have entered starvation mode … I have lost around “3 kilograms” by exercising and eating low calorie
    How long do I have to do this untill it get serious and metabolism lever goes very down for me ?

    Is two weeks is an enought period to totaly change my metabolism or is it safe ?
    Am I in d starving mode ? How to make sure ? .. Will I gain all the weight I lost ? .. If iam in it how to get out ?

    Thank you for your time

  • Dear mohamed think this: If you escape from a shipwreck to an unknown island where there are only fruit trees (apple trees, bananas etc) and nothing else, you will eat low calories (since fruits have very low calories and how many will you eat in a day? and there is no much food). In such conditions your body will turn into starvation mode. Lets say you stay a month on the island before they find you. You will surely have lost much weight and your metabolis “should now be changed” as they say. So what now? you are forced to eat little food for all of your life? that’s ridiculous! Your body starts working normally again. you just have lost your weight. Remember human body is formed to live under this-nature conditions, not in city conditions. Do you see animals have weight problems? Thats because they sometimes eat much, sometimes they are in “starvation mode”. That’s how nature works so stop listening all those bullshit and stop worrying. If you feel you re in need of food just eat and every problem goes away!

  • I think that a daily intake of protein shake is important. A must for Those of you on a low-calorie diet. What this article has missed out on is that your body is using the PROTEIN from your muscles as fuel. By having as little as one shake a day (one scoop whey protein powder [30g!] with water = 130 calories). This will enable your body to have an additional protein source

  • I need help and advise,I am 41 year old,5 Feet 10inch tall,and weight around 92 Kilograms,Never did dieting or conted calories,and was eating what ever i get,was drinking Beers and Alcohol,Max 4 can of carling or 2-3 shots of whisky for last good 20 years.

    Now i have decided enough is enough,Now for last 2 weeks i am doing this

    breakfast….Egg white scramble(no yolk),just put 2 egg whites in nonstick pan(no oil)add some onions and tomatoes cook it and eat it
    150 ml of Grapefruit juice

    Lunch…..1 piece of roasted Fish or Chicken with boiled veggies or salads,and some low fat plain yoghurt

    Dinner…….simple Veggie soup(home made)

    I am also doing 40 mins walk on treadmill at 5mph,6 days a week

    Also taking 1000mg L-caranite tablets ,bought from Holland and Barrets,Not from ebay
    1 tablet of Multivitamins

    I am pretty very active,like household chores,or doingup garden and everything

    BUT i am also taking around 150 ml of Whisky at night time,because cant sleep without it,Hope everyone understand,I have been drinking for last 21 years,But its not like heavy drinking anymore ,150 ml is max,NO BEERS AT ALL

    But i am not losing much weight,any advise?its like 2 pounds in 2weeks,I guess diet wise i am taking very few calories,and also excersising…..any help?any advise??
    Basically I need advise on these particular issues…..

    Calories intake/day?is is right or loo less?(including calories from alcohol)
    why there is not much weight loss yet?

  • I am twenty five and usually eat one small meal a day late at night even though I start work at 6am. this has been my eating habits for teh past three years.

    I have been this way for years, my wieght did drop initially but for the last two years i have been around dress size 10 and anout 9 1/2 stone (which is still overwieght for my five foot frame)

    my friends think Im wierd that I dont eat all day. Im always tired and always getting sick even though i am quite bubbly so I hide it well..

    My fiancee is always on at me to change my eating habits so Im gunna make a big effort this week and would appreciate tips on how to force myself to remember to eat lunch and some easy to stomach recipies would be good

    i actually dont mind my size and I dont mind that Im not losing wieght. Id like to mantain my size but also just really want to impove my health (i have recently been told I may have chrohns disease and I have IBS) and then I can think about getting married and having kids.

    :)

  • I’ve been trying to lose weight for the last 6 months by calorie counting and interval exercising and haven’t lost a pound. My trainer tested my calories burned during resting and at first it was 1350 then 12 weeks later it was 1275! I’m burning about 350-400 calories a day (5 days a week)with both cardio and core exercises and eating about 1500 calories a day. No weight loss. When I increase my calorie intake by adding the calories burned to the resting rate of 1275 …I gain more weight. I’m 50 years old and pre-diabetic so I have to watch my carbs and eat many small meals or times a day. I’m frustrated!! How do you get out of starvation mode and what is the right amount of calories per day given I workout 5 times a week. I would like to lose 5-7 pounds. Thanks for you help.

  • I thank the person who posted this, i lost about 45 lbs rather quickly and then suddenly leveled off. Then i started doing karate. I noticed that whatever i do i cannot drop below 193 lbs. Now i am using an android app and find that i am intaking 1500 cal. and exerting over 1500 cal. a day 3 days a week doing karate. So my net for those 3 days is 0 which is REALLY bad. I have to adjust my diet on those days to intake like 5 cereal bars through the day to make my net intake 1200 – 1300 and on the off days I was still 900 short.
    I am in severe starvation mode i think as my muscles ache after 2 straight days of practice. They are growing muscle and destroying it over and over again.

  • Um no. if you want to loose weightyou have to have a calorie defecit. And that is different than starvation mode. If you eat 1500 calories a day then exercise to burn 1600. The larger calorie defecit you have the more you loose. A man is supposed to eat around 2000 calories a day and a woman about 1500. The point of a calorie defecit is to make sure you are getting proper nutrients and enough to burn that you arent burning muscle mass, only fat. the aching muscles arent being destroyed they are being built, and the pain you feel is most likely attributed to that or lactic acid. take a salt water bath and that will fix you up.

  • Oh and when you level off increase your defecit. if you were eating 1500 calories and burning 1600, eat 1700 calories and burn 2000.

  • @gimmie2011 – Um No! You didn’t factor in the BMR. Most men have a BMR around 1800+. Those are calories your body burns just staying alive! So if you have a BMR of 1800 and are eating 1500 and burning an additional 1500 through exercise, then you will have an 1800 calorie deficit. That would send your body into starvation mode for sure.

  • Alcoholics have their addiction, and with it comes serious health risks, those who skip meals have their reasoning and can rationalize what they want, there are risks, the obese have their risks and the regularly eating well balanced diet consumers have their own risks with possible vitamin over consumption . Life is simple, the body works for you when it’s able, and I will tell you what I think is going to happen to those who skip meals and slowly kind of adapt to starving and you’ll find I might be correct, do not experiment on yourself, you’ll wind up in a state of survival your body dictates to your mind. Basically the mortally obese go through this as well, you will share a common factor, both you and that obese person will be sleepy, possibly overly alert malnourished or with too many vitamins in your working body systems, due to the body’s need to rest instinctively to conserve or utilize at a certain rate of activity you might be confused, it’s a lot of work on that obese body, and that starving one, you’ll both quite possibly stink as in smell once you get to sweating, or just being inactive, you, starver, you will be surprised that it won’t take very long at all before that natural aroma gets stout, real stout. You will find that your mind doesn’t work like it did when your diet was stable, and you might even find yourself at the psychiatrist anyway from regularly skipping meals, and you cannot hide that your starving yourself, any well educated doctor will notice right off and then the blood test and etc testing will show plainly how your body functions, no fleeing now, just wait, the medication that makes you eat is next. You, obese person, you already know what medications are coming. Either way get the advice of a licensed practicing medical doctor, both of you, before making any dietary changes, you might be appreciative or feel rewarded for dong so, they can tell you all about balanced meals, caloric requirements and why it is important. Get a check up, credit is repairable, don’t skimp on health.

  • Calorie counting might make for entertainment, however portions and what it is you are intaking makes better sense to learn about. For example, one could take in a meal that has nutrients of a sort and minerals of a kind at a caloric level of low and lack and gain weight. Balanced means balanced and calories, well, a licensed practicing medical doctor needs to explain it all to you, about minerals and vitamins and calories and how you have to have a certain this and that and those to even utilize what you eat.

  • hey guys ,i need help
    i want to lose around 15 pounds in 2 months
    i tried in once,i excerised alot and ate upto 1000 caalories per day but nothing happened
    frm the previous 10 days ive been eating alot to get out of starvation mode,
    hw should i cope up wid this ,i want to start dieting,hw much calories should i eat per day ,my bmr is 1600,thankuu

  • This is a load of crap. Your metabolism will slow down whether you lower your calories drastically or by 500…the less you weigh the lower your metabolism regardless of how you got there. It is also important to ask yourself how much your metabolism slows down? Not enough to stop weight loss! And once you are in a maintenance phase your metabolism will rise slightly due to the increased amount of calories.

    Moving on, you do not have to eat less and less to lose weight. For instance if it takes 1500 calories a day to keep you at the weight that you are and you only eat 900 you will lose weight…let’s say you lose ten pounds and now it takes you 1300 calories a day to maintain your weight..you still have a 400 calorie a day deficit, yes you may be losing weight a bit slower but you are still losing weight. As long as you are eating below what it takes to maintain your current weight you will lose weight, how much and how quickly depends on how much of a deficit you are creating.

    Lastly, yes you will lose muscle as you lose weight. There will be more muscle mass lost if you are lean than if you are overweight. The reason that people often gain so much weight back after going on a very low caloried diet is not because they have damaged their metabolism but rather because they have felt so deprived for so long that when they do resume eating what they perceive to be a “normal” diet they gorge themselves and that’s what puts on the excess weight. Not because their metabolism slowed down or because of muscle loss or any of the other things that people would have you believe to make you less responsible for your own weight problem.

    Weight loss is really very simple calories in versus calories out. Eat less consistently and you will lose weight. That’s it.

  • My entire life I have been over weight. I am not a big eater and when I do eat I always put thought into my meals health wise (grilled chicken breast, ground turkey, salads, fruits, veggies etc.) My son who is a powerlifter has yelled at me for years that I do not eat enough and therefore my body is in starvation mode. After two shoulder surgeries from an injury the scale jumped higher than I have ever seen! For the past 6 weeks I have been eating on a regular basis through out the day (good healthy foods) and I have dropped 15.8 pounds. Not everyone who is over weight is an over eater.

  • I found this to be fairly interesting. I’m 19, wiegh over 200 lbs, have lost 80 thus far, over the expantion of a few years. I eat twice daily, I grew up and am still fairly broke, And a vegan, so for the past 5 years or so I’ve lived, literally, off of peanut butter sandwhiches and sometimes, plain green leaf salads, and of course- water. I entered my info in to Ediets to set up an account before realizing you have to Pay- and it says with my height (5′ 5″) I should be intaking well over 2500 calories a day, But I’ll eat maybe a sandwhich or two a day, if that. And I drink a ton of water to help fill me up. When I keep track of my own calories, I take in between 6-800 daily, if that. This has been going on since I was 14. Do you have any tips on how I can boost my metabolism and lose weight, regularly? I work out once a day at Anytime Fitness, and go for jogs every other morning- But I don’t see many changes happening. :/

  • Hey question!
    I have been doing insanity workout (I dont know if you have heard of it) and this is my second time doing it and I am into week 4. I started thinking I was going in to starvation mode because I was doing the training 2 times a day and resistance training in addition every other day. I don’t know if its my imagination but it seems like my belly has gotten bigger which is very strange because the last few weeks I have been so busy with school and training and work I have had hardly any time to eat and when i do it its all healthy. (I’m also a vegan).
    If I’m not in starvation mode can you give me an idea of what might be happening?
    any info you could give me would be great.

  • Okay–I’ve always been overweight. When eating healthy and exercising didn’t work, I ate less and exercised harder. Got down to 200 cals a day and up to 1-2 hours of intense aerobics and strength-training. But every year, I kept putting on weight. Now I’m in my 20′s and weigh 205 lbs, so my basal metabolism is really high. Now, honestly, I don’t look 205 lbs. I look more like 150 lbs, but I’ve got to lose weight. 205 lbs is just too much to be hauling around, and I don’t know what to do. All my tests come back normal. Now, I think I might have celiac disease. I’ve lost 20 lbs on a gluten-free diet, but the weight stopped coming off at 205. I think after so long of eating hardly anything, and possibly having celiac disease taking even more nutrients and cals away, I’m in starvation mode. My aunt and grandma eat anything they want and don’t have a weight problem; me and my mom hardly eat at all and have always had a weight problem. I’m upping my caloric intake and cutting way back on exercise, but I’m so afraid I’ll gain weight and not be able to lose it. I think I’ve already gain like 5 lbs. It took 20 years just to lose 20 lbs. Please, someone share some encouraging advice or a similar life story that ends happily.
    Thanks for reading…

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