“YOU’RE NOT EATING ENOUGH TO LOSE WEIGHT” IS AWFUL ADVICE
“You’re not eating enough to lose weight” sounds like the news we’ve all been waiting for, right?
Bring on the pancakes!
But is it true? Could it be possible that you’re not eating enough calories to lose weight?
I’ve often heard trainers tell clients this in gyms, so today I’m going to run through how it works and discover whether you’ve been dieting ‘wrong’ this entire time… oh, and ‘influencers’ beware, because I’m bringing the science down HARD on this one!
ABOUT “STARVATION MODE”…
If you tell someone you’re eating 1000 calories per day and not losing weight, they’ll probably say it’s “starvation mode”.
Word has it this is where your body decides to rebel against your low calorie diet by clinging onto stubborn body fat, making it impossible for you to see any further progress and eventually putting you into a state of fat GAIN despite the fact you’re eating fewer calories than a hamster.
It sounds like a total s**tnado of a**.
But here’s the thing…
Starvation mode isn’t real.
If it was, then starvation itself wouldn’t be a thing.
This was well-documented in a crazy 1944 study from the University of Minnesota, which used some of the most extreme methodology we’ve ever seen in a clinical trial. The researchers were trying to figure out the best ways to refeed a starving population after World War II, so they worked with a group of 36 participants and quite literally starved them (!).
The participants endured about 3 hours of physical activity per day while eating just 50% of their daily food requirements – and this madness lasted a whopping six months!
“Starvation mode” never arrived.
Instead, most of the participants lost about a quarter of their entire body weight, and a few of them nearly died. (1)
Before we move on, we must talk about metabolic adaptation.
This is the process by which your body begins to slow down your metabolism as you lose weight, causing you to burn fewer calories throughout the day. Many people confuse this with starvation mode, but it’s not the same thing at all. Metabolic adaptation is perfectly normal (as you carry less mass, you expend fewer calories) and it’s nowhere near as restrictive as most people believe. (2, 3)
Science is conclusive in the notion that in order to lose weight we must eat fewer calories than we burn. Humans are hard-wired this way. There has never been an instance in any study where a person “wasn’t eating enough calories” to lose weight. (4, 5, 6, 7)
SO WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM?
The popularity of things like “starvation mode” leads many people to wrongly believe that their body is working against them the moment they hit a weight loss plateau.
However, what’s REALLY happening is much more straightforward.
I’ve worked in the fitness industry for 18 years, and helped thousands of men and women to get in shape, and almost every time someone has said to me:
“Hey Russ, I’m eating 1000 calories per day and can’t lose weight!?!”
… it’s because their personal trainer (or fitness app) has given them an unsustainable meal plan.
The client follows the plan for the first few days of the week, and then frustration would kick in causing them to fall off plan and throw their numbers out of sync. Make sense?
A stubborn trainer could argue that this is a simple lack of self-discipline from their client, but in my experience that’s rarely the case.
Instead, I’d suggest the calorie target is incorrect.
In the graph above we can see that the client is averaging 1857 calories per day when they factor in those off-track days, so I’d recommend setting setting a target somewhere around the 1500 mark and seeing how they respond. In most cases this would lead to superior long-term results because a) it’s fewer calories than they currently eat, and b) it’ll increase the likelihood they can remain consistent throughout the week.
After all, research shows us that “the best diet” is the one you can stick to. (8)
- Keys A., et al. The Biology of Human Starvation. Civilian Public Service (1944).
- Camps S., et al. Weight loss, weight maintenance, and adaptive thermogenesis. Am J Clin Nutr (2013).
- Zinchenko A, et al. Metabolic Damage: do Negative Metabolic Adaptations During Underfeeding Persist After Refeeding in Non-Obese Populations? Medical Research Archives (2016).
- Howell S., et al. “Calories in, calories out” and macronutrient intake: the hope, hype, and science of calories. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab (2017).
- Leibel R.L., et al. Energy intake required to maintain body weight is not affected by wide variation in diet composition . Am J Clin Nutr (1992).
- Golay A., et al. Similar weight loss with low- or high-carbohydrate diets. Am J Clin Nutr (1996).
- Golay A., et al. Weight-loss with low or high carbohydrate diet. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord (1996).
- Stewart T. M., et al. Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite (2002).