By Brad Pilon,
Author of Eat Stop Eat
The funny thing about starvation mode is that the definition keeps on changing.
It used to be said that, “If you donʼt eat every three hours your metabolism will crash and you’ll start losing muscle.”
This definition was used to promote the idea of eating 6 small meals a day. And it was
proven to be a big fat lie.
Then it became, “If you are on a low calorie diet for too long you can actually start
gaining weight, even while in a calorie deficit.”
This definition was more of an anti-dieting message, created to promote the idea that weight loss doesnʼt really depend on how MUCH you eat, but rather WHAT you eat.
Again, a big fat lie.
And then the concept of starvation mode grew up a bit. It became, “If you are on a low calorie diet for an extended period of time and you have very low body fat, you can start to see metabolic complications, including muscle loss and an altered metabolism — especially if youʼre undertaking constant strenuous exercise.”
This definition is kind of difficult to argue with, but I’d also hope that it should be somewhat obvious to most people, since this isn’t ‘starvation mode’ as much as it is the classic definition of ‘wasting’.
So this definition is the one I can agree with, and sadly itʼs probably the one most rampant in certain health fitness circles (ie fitness competitors).
Funny enough, people will still blame their diets for it, rather than their extremely low body fat levels and insanely intense workout programs…but I digress.
So yes, that type of starvation mode DOES exist. But thereʼs also another lesser known version that is equally as dangerous. This version carries the classic symptoms of ‘starvation mode’ — muscle loss and an altered metabolic rate. And, it can occur extremely quickly, with itʼs symptoms becoming evident within weeks.
This type of starvation mode is called ‘Disuse atrophy’.
“Disuse atrophy” occurs when a muscle shrinks in size as a result of not being used or stressed. It can occur quickly — just think of someone with their arm in a cast) or slowly (someone stops working out but isn’t bed ridden.
Interestingly, this is even more complicated than just losing muscle because you’re not using it.
When you don’t use your muscles, they become “anabolic resistant”. This means that the physiology of your muscles changes, and they become resistant to the anabolic affects of protein and amino acids.
In fact, in classic cases of disuse atrophy, this anabolic resistance can mean a 45% drop in whole body protein synthesis (1). And, Iʼm not talking about months of not doing anything, either. Even 14 days of bed-rest can cause an almost 50% decrease in rates of protein synthesis in otherwise healthy individualsn(2).
Interestingly, the changes seem to start occurring after 8 days. So, sometime between 8 and 14 days of non-use, MAJOR things start happening to the physiology of your muscles, (3) where you see a reduced muscle volume, decreased levels of overall protein synthesis and a blunted response to eating protein or amino acids.
Whatʼs worse is that this anabolic resistance can be made even more severe by chronic low energy intake. This is why dieting WITHOUT exercise is usually a bad idea (unless you have muscle to spare), and itʼs probably where the original idea of “starvation mode” came from, because unfortunately most people who diet still donʼt lift weights.
Oh, and in case youʼre wondering, you canʼt just fix this type of starvation mode by eating more protein, because thatʼs the entire problem — your muscles have become less sensitive to amino acids.
When a person is subjected to prolonged bed rest, feeding them amino acids or protein doesn’t help prevent the muscle loss that occurs. In fact, some researchers have found that if you feed amino acids to people who are bed ridden and they are not exercising, they could actually see an INCREASED rate of muscle volume loss (4), (5) (Note- I have no idea why this happens).
The only thing that does prevent this muscle loss is resistance training, especially when combined with protein or amino acids. So eating protein requires resistance training for it to exert its muscle building effects.
In my opinion, true “starvation mode” is what happens when you starve your muscles of meaningful contractions — movement, lifting, pulling, these types of things.
Under my definition, a very large percentage of the population is currently in “starvation mode”.
And this is why my Eat Stop Eat approach uses a combination of fasting for weight loss AND resistance training. It’s a two part system, and the two parts work together — the weight training make the fasting work better (point of this article) and the fasting makes the weight training work better (an article for another day).
With Eat Stop Eat you are never in a prolonged calorie deficit. In any given week you spend more time eating than you do fasting. And you are doing regular resistance training. his combination means no starvation mode, no muscle loss, no messed up metabolism.
No starvation mode, no muscle loss, no messed up metabolism.
In my opinion, the resistance training is just as important as the fasting, and I would never recommend fasting or any other form of dieting if you are not doing some form of resistance training.
Next: Accelerate Fat Loss naturally by increasing your body’s own growth hormone
(by Brad Pilon)
(1) Greenleaf JE, Kozlowski S. Physiological consequence of reduced physical activity during bed rest. Exerc Sport Sci Rev 1982; 10:84-119
(2) Ferrando AA, et al. Prolonged bed rest decreases skeletal muscle and whole body protein synthesis. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 270: E627-E633
(3) Brocca L et al. The time course of the adaptations of human muscle proteome to bed rest and the underlying mechanisms. J Physiol 590.20 (2012) pp 5211– 5230 5211
(4) Brooks N et al. Resistance training and timed essential amino acids protect against he loss of muscle mass and strength during 28 days of bed rest and energy defecit. J Appl Phsiol 2008;105:241-248.
(5) LEMOINE K.L. MUSCLE PROTEINS DURING 60-DAY BEDREST IN WOMEN: IMPACT OF EXERCISE OR NUTRITION. Muscle Nerve 39: 463–471, 2009