“You’re not eating enough to lose weight” sounds like the kind of news we’ve all been waiting for, right?
I’ll get the pizza!
But hang on a sec…
We’ve all heard some f**knuckle in a gym say this line, but is it really true?
You’ll find out today, because I’m going to run through the science on all things weight loss, dieting, and even the dreaded “starvation mode”! Let’s begin!
Let’s Talk About “Starvation Mode”…
If you tell someone you’re eating 1000 calories per day and not losing weight, they’ll probably say you’re in starvation mode.
This is where your body decides to rebel against your low calorie diet by clinging to stubborn body fat, making it damn near impossible for you to see any further progress and eventually even putting you into a state of fat GAIN!
To put it lightly, that sounds like a f**ktacular 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 – we’d just have humans who had found a way to survive without eating food.
This was well-documented in a 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 attempting to figure out the best ways to refeed a hungry population after World War II, so they quite literally starved 36 participants.
Not joking. (1)
The trainees endured three hours of exercise 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 body weight and a few of them nearly died!
Before we move on, I’d like to address metabolic adaptation.
This is the process by which your body begins to slow down your metabolism during weight loss, causing fewer calories to be burned throughout the day (because you have less mass). Many people confuse this with starvation mode because, essentially, it makes weight loss harder. However, it’s not the same thing at all. Metabolic adaptation is perfectly normal (as you carry less weight, 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, and there has never been any research depicting a person who is “not eating enough calories to lose weight” (not ever!). (4, 5, 6, 7)
So What’s The Real Problem Here?
The fact that beliefs like “starvation mode” are still popular in most gyms usually leads people away from the real culprit in these situations.
Instead of zoning in on the issue, they start believing that their body is working against them, or even worse, that they are “broken”.
But what’s REALLY happening is much more straightforward.
Every time someone says 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.
Every. Single. Time.
(And considering I’ve worked in gyms for almost 20 years, that’s a LOT of people!)
As such, the client follows this unsustainable meal plan for the first few days of the week, before frustration kicks in, causing them to fall off track and over-eat at the weekend and throw their numbers out of sync.
See the red line below?
We have someone who believes they eat 1000 calories per day, only to discover they were really eating on track until Friday and then consuming 3000 calories over the weekend. This makes their daily average calories 1857, significantly higher than the thousand they thought they were eating.
Now a stubborn trainer could argue that this is simply a lack of self-discipline from the client by not sticking to the plan, and many do, but in my experience that’s not the case.
Instead, I’d suggest the preset calorie target is wrong!
In order to create a successful transformation you need a diet you can actually stick to. In the graph above the client is averaging 1857 calories per day, so for this person I recommend aiming around the 1500 mark and seeing how they respond. What usually happens is the person experiences better results because they don’t feel the need to go off plan as much, and let’s not forget that 1500, while seeming higher, is actually lower than what they’re currently eating (1857!).
So would I describe this situation as somebody who is “not eating enough to lose weight”…?
The reason they weren’t losing weight is because they were eating TOO MUCH – they just didn’t know it. It’s more like they’re not eating enough to stay consistent. Research shows us that the best diet is the one you can stick to, so that’s how I’d correct the issue. (8)
I also recommend monitoring your intake with a top app like Carbon Diet Coach, because as I always say, “If you don’t track, you don’t know.”
- 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).