More About Starvation Mode

- POSTED ON: Oct 24, 2012

"We never repent of having eaten too little.”
Thomas Jefferson (1743 -1826)

When Jefferson was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he was around 33 years old, and he lived until age 83 during a time when food was not as easily obtainable. Even though he did not experience our modern readily-available-highly-processed-food world he seemed to understand the value of eating less.

How little is "too little"?

I’ve noticed that people who eat far too much, seem to spend a lot of time worrying about eating too little. Why do people who are obese, or even merely overweight, fear eating too little, and just how little is too little anyway?

Many overweight and obese people appear to have an irrational fear of starvation mode.
However, one really can't eat too little for weight loss - Starvation Mode (the way most dieters define it) is a Myth.

"Starvation mode" is a phrase that gets thrown about loosely. Many people think that eating below 1000 to 1200 calories a day, will cause their metabolism to slow down so much that their body will stop losing weight. The reality is that until a male has only 5% excess body fat, or a female has only 10% excess body fat, it is very unusual for a person to go into “starvation mode”.

When it seems impossible for a dieter nearing goal to lose weight, they assume their metabolic process is slowing down, and think that they are “in starvation mode”. However, people with extra weight obtainable to oxidize, can oxidize extra body fat per second. The less human body fat one has, the less fat oxidized for each moment. So as one gets closer to the body’s individual reduction limit of human body weight, the slower one will burn up what body fat one has. This is why taking off the final 10 pounds happens very slowly, NOT because one is wrecking one’s metabolic process with an aggressive diet regimen.

By the way, I’m using the term…”excess fat”… to define the entire genetic make-up of an individual body, not “troublesome” fat on specific body areas that one wishes were leaner… like stomach or thighs, etc. It is not uncommon for someone who is “normal weight” or even “underweight” to be unhappy with the way their own body’s necessary fat is genetically distributed.

The article quoted below makes a number of good points:

Are You In The Starvation Mode or Starving For Truth?

Recently we discussed the myth that dieting can lead to an eating disorder and saw this common dieting myth was inaccurate.  Another common dieting myth held by people is that they may not be losing weight because they are in the "starvation mode" from eating too few calories. And, in response to the intake of this low calorie level, their body has gone into "starvation mode" and slowed down their metabolism and is holding on to the weight. The usual recommendation to get out of starvation mode and allow the body to lose more weight, is to consume more calories. Eat more calories, to lose more weight.


Well, for anyone struggling to lose weight, this may sound sensible, but as you will see, it, like most other dieting myths, it is inaccurate. A few things to consider before we get to the "starvation mode."

First, the human body, as is our world, is governed by the laws of physics. Body weight is a product of energy balance. We can not violate the laws of physics and thermodynamics. The energy we consume must go somewhere, and to maintain a certain level of weight, an equivalent amount of energy must be consumed and an equilibrium must be achieved.

Second, in regard to metabolism, about >70% of our base metabolism is driven by our brain and other vital organs and is not really effected by food consumption as I discussed in the metabolism blog. We have little impact on this basal metabolic rate.

Third, most attempts to accurately track food consumption under report (intentionally and/or not intentionally) by about 30% and attempts to track exercise and activity levels over report by up to 50%. Even professionals can be as much as 30% off or more. This is usually part of the problem. Fat people are not accurately able to determine their caloric intake and output.

Now, in regard to the "starvation" mode, someone who has extra body weight and body fat is not in any "starvation mode" where they need to 'kick start" their metabolism by eating more calories. You can not "eat more" calories to force your body to "lose weight".

In regard to metabolism, if you are overweight/overfat, you can not cause your metabolism to decrease below a level needed to lose weight while you have extra weight/fat on you, and you can not "lose more weight by eating more calories/food." This is a misunderstanding of the principles of metabolism that does not apply to overweight people trying to lose weight.

Let's say we look at someone who says they are only eating only 800 calories and not losing weight. A well meaning and good intentioned friend (or professional) has told them they are in starvation mode and in order to lose weight and/or kick-start their metabolism, they need to eat more. But, what if instead of eating more, what do you think would happen if instead they just stopped eating altogether? Would they go further into starvation mode and continue to stay at the same weight or maybe even "gain" weight?

Clearly, they would lose more weight if they stopped eating altogether.

We all know (especially those who are familiar with fasting) that if you were to stop eating completely and just live on pure water, you would start to lose weight almost instantly and would continue to do so.

But according to this theory of the "starvation mode," if you were really in it and you fasted, by its own rational you would lose less weight ... if any at all, not more. We know this is not accurate.

So, where did this myth come from?

There is a true phenomenon known as the starvation response and it is well documented in the Minnesota Starvation experiments and the Hunger Fasts that have been studied. However, it only happens in humans when they lose enough body fat that they fall below the level of essential fat. In a man, this would be below around 5% fat and in women just above that, about 10%.

Most humans will look like holocaust survivors at that time. Here is a picture of some of the subjects from the famous Minnesota Starvation experiments from the 1940s.

Even at this point, after months of a low calorie diet with heavy exercise, they were not yet in the so-called "starvation mode" where they experienced significant metabolic changes. If you have more weight/fat on you than them, then neither are you

In addition, when this point is truly reached, the body does make several metabolic shifts to preserve itself, and if it is not fed more calories, can cease to exist. It is a matter of life and death. Hence the name.

This is not the same thing that happens when someone who is overweight and has a high percentage of body fat, is not losing weight. Usually this is due to an inaccurate assessment of their energy balance.

Now, it is possible that a medical condition, like hypothyroid could contribute to a slowed metabolism. However, if someone was to have a thyroid problem, it can be diagnosed and treated. But, then we are right back to my points above and dealing with an energy balance issue.

So, if you are overweight and/or overfat and not losing weight, the most important thing to do is re-evaluate your energy balance. And the best way to do this is to focus on foods that are low in calorie density (and high in nutrient density) and maintain a healthy level of activity.

The above-article was written by Jeffrey S. Novick, MS, RD, LD, LN, in January 2009 at

MS = master of science,

RD = registered dietitian

LD = Licensed dietitian

LN = Licensed nutritionist 

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Existing Comments:

On Oct 24, 2012 wrote:
Great blog with lots of information to be 'digested' no pun intended. "Third, most attempts to accurately track food consumption under report (intentionally and/or not intentionally) by about 30 and attempts to tract exercise and activities levels over report by up to 50%. Even professionals can be as much as 30% off or more. This is usually part of the problem tat people are not accurately determining their caloric intake and output". Obviously these professionals never heard of DietPower.....

On Oct 24, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Hi John. DietPower is a great tracking device and incredibly helpful, but even that terrific computer tool doesn't guarantee accuracy... Because... The law permits up to 20% labeling error, with small food companies often have an even higher percentage of error. Due to the nature of food sales, that error percentage tells us we are eating LESS calories, not MORE calories than we are really eating. Plus even calories in natural foods, like fruit, are different at different stages of ripeness etc. Pieces of meats can be marbled with different amounts of fat. Our own individual measuring methods can be different than the methods used by the food manufacturer on the food labels or the various calorie charts. -- With a careful use of DietPower, we can reduce our error rate, but a certain percentage of error will always exist. The possibility of an error rate of 10 to 20% is probably reasonable to assume .. even with a daily use of DietPower. However, it appears to me that with consistency of use, our error range should be rather consistent, and simply result in the fact that while we BELIEVE and our records INDICATE that we are eating (for example) 1000 calories a day, perhaps we are actually eating 1100 or 1200 because of these inadvertant, and unavoidable errors.

On Oct 26, 2012 jethro wrote:
Here is a link that affirms the above article:

On Oct 26, 2012 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Thanks Jethro, I'll check it out.

On Jan 16, 2017 Carolyn wrote:
I really respect Jeff Novick and Dr. McDougall but my attempts at a 100% whole food plant based diet always seem to fail. :( Maybe I don't give it enough time - I think the longest I've been able to stick with it is about 2 months and I'm sure they would say that is not nearly long enough, that it has to be closer to a year. As a result, I don't see much "external" benefit in terms of weight loss. I really think a plant based diet is the healthiest but I become absolutely starving on an ad libitum high CHO diet, even when the carbs are on board with fiber and water with whole plant foods. I seem to become a bottomless pit. I can try doing my 900 calories daily with only plant based foods (or 2 of three meals plant based), as maybe if I have a "structure" around an end point of quantity, I will be able to maintain some control over these foods. Thanks for posting this great piece by Jeff Novick.

On Jan 16, 2017 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Hi Carolyn. I think the advice above from the guru above .....<<<<<<<<<<<< "So, if you are overweight and/or overfat and not losing weight, the most important thing to do is re-evaluate your energy balance. And the best way to do this is to focus on foods that are low in calorie density (and high in nutrient density) and maintain a healthy level of activity".>>>>>>>>>>>..........SOUNDS really reasonable and good, but my own experience and observation is that it isn't the "BEST" way for everyone. First ..... a "healthy level of activity" means different things for different people. Everyone isn't young and strong with the interest or time to engage in lots of exercise activity. Some people are old or disabled who are fortunate that they can get out of bed and walk around their house to sit on the living room sofa, eat at the kitchen table, and get themselves to and from the bathroom. For THESE people, that would be a "healthy level of activity". ...................................... NEXT, a "focus on foods low in calories and high in nutrition: .... isn't the same for everyone. For Example, it doesn't have to be "plant based food"... very small amounts of plain greek yogurt, protein powder, eggs, meats, fish, chicken, etc together with very small amounts of plant based products like breads, veggies, fruits ..... also known as a "balanced" diet work best for ME as well as for a great many other people. I, personally find a diet made up of "plant based foods" highly unsatisfying, and I can eat massive amounts of that food all day long and never feel satisfied. ..............................Each of us needs to do what works for us INDIVIDUALLY....... and what I always remember is that ......................................Just because any diet guru is right about SOME things, doesn't mean they are right about ALL things. I take what I like and leave the rest.... No matter how highly respected or knowledgeable any diet guru appears to be.

On Jan 16, 2017 Carolyn wrote:
I agree with you. It's also worth noting that Jeff Novick has consistently touted the "regular" amount of calories using a plant based diet (2,000 for men; 1,800 for women??) when doing calculations about getting nutrients and the healthfulness of the WFPB diet. Unfortunately, people like me (and you and MANY others) would gain like crazy eating 1,800 a day and I never felt satisfied when I was eating plant foods all day long. Like you, I couldn't satiate myself. I'm a 57-year-old fairly sedentary female, the MOST I can do in a day is walk 3-4 miles and that is not every day, and how many carbs does a person like me really need? I'm finally coming around to understand that for me caloric restriction no matter what I eat is going to be the most "livable" scenario in terms of maintaining long-term. Whether that's two Snickers bars in a day, or plant based 2x a day and 1x meal with beef, or something in between, monitoring calories for me is the only thing that's going to work and I can't go over 1,000 and 900 is more optimal for me. Before I found your website, none of this really registered with me. It wasn't until I saw your calorie level and your menus (and your photo!) that I realized it's not any one food - it's being acutely aware day in and day out of your calorie numbers, and probably for me a carb number since I'm fairly sedentary. Thanks for the great discussion.

On Jan 16, 2017 Carolyn wrote:
I also wanted to add that in addition to finding your amazing website, learning about the Newcastle diet made me realize that at the low calorie levels some of us require, it's not about the specific foods. They were drinking shakes and eating veggies in the evening and they reversed diabetes. And it was modeled on the low calorie diets of bari patients. It's all been very eye opening indeed.

On Jan 16, 2017 Dr. Collins wrote:
             Carolyn, you might be interested in reading an older article I just reposted today which talks about the freedom of counting calories.

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