BG2: Myth busting

About 6 day ago I regurgitated the concept of “starvation mode”.  Reader and BG2-er Wayne was quick to tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and went on to explain.  You may have missed it, so here it is again.

As for starvation mode, the basic concept is that if you fast or skip a meal, or reduce your calorie intake even slightly (you’ll find many variations) then your body enters “starvation mode” where is is more efficient. Therefore skipping meals, fasting etc is useless/counter-productive/will make you gain weight.

This is completely false.

The idea based on a tiny kernel of truth from one very old study. To summarise, if you are truly starving (say about 10 days without food), then your basal metabolic rate will drop slightly as your body enters this “starvation mode”. For most people this was a drop of about 3-6%. The most extreme drop was 10%.

Now your basal metabolic rate is how many calories you would burn if you lay in bed without moving – no finger twitching – nothing voluntary. You can estimate this at about 1200 calories per day. So at the most extreme, if you entered starvation mode by not eating at all, you might eventually burn 120 calories less per day than you otherwise would. Realising that you have to not consume over 2000 of calories to reach this state. So you will still be losing weight.

In short, “starvation mode” as it is popularly presented

a) will never happen, because you are not, in fact, starving
b) is only a tiny effect
c) does not in fact negate the effect of fasting, skipping meals, or actual starving
d) only affects the basal metabolic rate

Furthermore all forms of exercise, jogging, cycling, swimming, walking to the fridge, digesting food, all burn the same number of calories whether you are in survival mode or not. And unless you are in a coma, these calories burned from moving around are far in excess from any “starvation mode” savings. And remember this saving for most literally starving people is a saving of less than 8g of fat per day.

One thing to realise is that your body is breaking down (“eating”) both muscle and fat all the time, even when you are eating. There’s a dynamic equilibrium as old cells die and new cells are formed. If you aren’t loading your muscles (“keeping fit”) then there is less demand to create new muscle cells, and so there is a net loss. If you are consuming more calories than you burn/excrete then there is a net gain of fat cells. But the two are being create and consumed all the time. The net effect is the concern.

A side issue is that a fat cell can be fat (stuffed with fat) or skinny, and once a fat cell is made it is easier for it to store more fat. But the above paragraph is still true.

– Wayne

Thanks for that Wayne, good stuff.

I’ve certainly found that on my “normal” days, I am probably eating a little less than my basal metabolic rate, which is why the weight loss tends to continue.   Once you do fasting days where you eat only 600 cals over a day, then 1500-2000 cals a day is a feast, even if your basal rate is more than that.

I did have two chocolates yesterday.  Yum.  snigger


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  • Bugger. First backward day today. Discipline slacking…

    • Brian Badonde

      It is to be expected. Don’t be discouraged and keep it up. I went backwards over the weekend and then suddenly dropped over a kg.

      • Grizz30

        It sometimes depends on how much excess water, urine and bowel contents you are carrying at the time of weigh in. My best weights are before breakfast, when fasted and probably a bit dehydrated.

        • Brian Badonde

          That’s when I do it. Straight after I get up and have been to the toilet. At least I know it will be a fair and consistent comparison every time. I’m like Pete and have to weigh myself every morning to get my data. The result may influence what I do that day. It is also kind of exciting to see what it is (sad I know) and it gets me out of bed just that little bit quicker.

          • Mags

            That’s how I defeat myself. If the scales are okay I give myself a little bit of an easy day so I never end of getting to where I want. If I don’t weigh myself each day I just stick to what I know is healthy.

          • Strange how our personalities are so different that the same otherwise banal and neutral information is positive for some and negative for another.

          • Wayne McDougall

            This is a *really* important point. I do get frustrated with people saying “only weigh yourself once a week. Weighing yourself daily makes you fatter”. Not for me, but everyone is different.

            But there is a universal truth – look at long term trends – there can be major daily fluctuations, and even a weekly weighing may show upward blips on a long term weight loss program.
            So don’t obsess about the figure. Not easy for some people, so do what you can to manage that. But monitoring progress towards a goal does help, even if it hurts. Blips are normal!!!

          • Mags

            Ain’t it great!

    • Curly1952

      Hell Pete, I am too scared to get on the scales this week. Had family here all weekend, leaving this morning. You can’t have BBQs etc without a stubby or more in your hand plus I think it would be rather rude not to join in the imbibing.
      Target weight will start again this weekend!!
      My mother is coming up this coming week but she won’t be cooking so that will help. I am sure she still thinks I am 18 and can still demolish half a side of lamb for tea.

    • Wallace Westland

      Chin up mate. Ya just back from Ma’s flow on affect catching up. You’ll burn it off in a couple of days.
      Less time doing stuff for everyone else and more doing stuff for Pete maybe huh?

      • Nah, I know what I did wrong. Instead of one treat, I had several throughout the day. It probably caused my to stop burning fat a lot of the time even though in all other respects I was on a pretty low calorie day.

        Been 100% disciplined again today, with the exception of H2Go Zero, which is sparking water, with some Stevia and a little taste of something. Not drinking tea, coffee and exclusively water, it was quite a treat to have carbonated bubbles in my mouth.

        Some of the experiences you lose through dieting are actually quite tactile, like carbonated drinks and the crunch of potato chips.

    • Mags

      Tomorrow’s another day. Just start tonight.

  • caochladh

    The next WO barbecue perhaps…………

  • jsb1685

    I do wish we could ‘upvote’ articles as well as comments! Thanks for this one.

  • cod

    It is interesting to note that exercise is the same process as starvation but telescoped in time.

  • Wallace Westland

    Thanks Wayne. You pretty much summed up what I’ve always believed, hence the way I’m losing weight. Which is eating next to nothing, drinking naff all booze and exercising.
    I just do not accept that this is bad for me.
    I do however suspect the whole weight loss industry would not be happy if this were common knowledge, nor do I believe they would encourage it.
    My personal philosophy is to get the weight off before it kills me, change my lifestyle which I’m doing and then adapt the radical short term changes into long term healthy living. I.E eat small portions, exercise and limit intake of alcohol.
    Your article has given me hope I’m on the right track. Thanks again.

    • Wayne McDougall

      Wallace, I noted your earlier concern about rapid weight loss. There is no evidence that rapid weight loss does any harm at all, unless you have some existing condition such as diabetes. See

      The only (!) medium term study of long-term fasting is for one patient who fasted (water only) for 382 days (!), but with vitamin supplements. Still maintained the weight loss after 5 years. – it’s an interesting read.

      Intermittent fasting, as advocated by Pete is the fastest way to lose weight. Certainly the cheapest. And in my opinion the best if if you have the willpower. The first article referenced above also says the easiest. I’m not certain of that. Perhaps the easiest successful method.Ongoing choices not to eat need to be made – distract yourself and remove temptations. Have support people, and have a good reason for the goal – strong internal motivation (a nagging spouse is not internal). The simple advice is drink water whenever you feel hungry so be prepared to pee a lot. During the night. But keeping hydrated is important.

      It’s worth noting that will power – making the right choice – is a finite resource. Plenty of study show that the more decisions we make, the harder it is to do what is right as opposed to what is easy or convenient. So fater a hard day at work where you may lots of decisions, it is easy to “decide” to watch TV and eat snacks rather than cook or go for a run. Our will power has been used up. Even choosing what clothes to wear uses up some of this will power. It can be strengthened over time (like a muscle) by exercising will power, but when starting your diet, especially intermittent fasting, make an effort to remove all unnecessary and trivial decisions from your life, and make the big positive ones (like going for a run) early in the day, and remove temptations from your life later in the day.

      While rapid weight loss is not a problem, absent any existing medical issues, suddenly taking up exercise can be a problem – sometimes a deadly one, which is why you will always see the advice “consult your doctor before taking up this exercise”. And I support this. Walking would usually be safe, unless your are already dangerously unhealthy. You should know if you are in this situation. But going to a doctor and saying I’m planning to start exercising – check me out – well that’s a worthwhile investment in my opinion.

      • Wallace Westland

        Thanks Wayne. I have no (other) health issues. I gave up smoking and piled on the weight.
        Those who have never been a heavy smoker have no idea what we go through. An acquaintance once told me it was 8 years before he finally realised he had quit. At coming up to 6 I’m still battling but have recently realised that a lot of bad habits have stopped. Eating mint lollies and random snacking for example.
        But I gave it up and my will power cannot be denied. I can do this too.
        Blubbergedon is a fine place to feel supported, I’m afraid there are no special people in my life to do that except my kids and they are my reason not my crutch.
        I’ve spent most my adult life working in isolated areas, this is the price we pay, with old friendships not so close etc. I do not regret my life, just saying.
        The exercise is doing me the world of good and building up my confidence. Today I walked up two flights of stairs instead of taking the lift. :-)

        • Wayne McDougall

          Choosing he healthy option (stairs over lift) is a *great* way to make progress. Just be aware that each of those good choices consumes your daily will-power allowance. Don’t let that one good choice allow you to have a chocolate cake later in the day. I don’t think you are _that_ guy Wallace, but I’m offering that comment for any other readers.

          I think giving up smoking is the hardest act of will. Congratulations to you.

          And consider sugarfree chewing gum as an alternative to mint lollies and random snacking. It is a standard recommendation for intermittent fasting.

          • Wayne, mind sharing your background that led you to the point where you have a fairly good grasp of these issues?

          • Wayne McDougall

            Sure but it’s not very helpful to you Pete. No qualifications in the area of health or nutrition, although married to a doctor. Who assumes everything I say is false and everything anyone else says is true, so I have to be able to back up anything I claim. I have lawyer friends who also assume everything in Listener, NZ Herald and Woman’s Weekly is true, that I am wrong, and like to argue. So again I need to be able to back up anything I do or say.

            So for example I went on a low calorie (914 per day) diet to lose 20kg over six months before my first child was born. And I was told this would put me into starvation mode. So I researched what that would mean – what would trigger it, what the actual quantified effect would be.

            People who make unquantified, unsourced claims – well a lot of it turns out to be Chinese whispers, often of mice diets.

            I have a scientific mind, read a lot and have a good memory. So I don’t appreciate any claims that break the second law of thermodynamics.

            I have found that anyone promoting a column, book, selling supplements or something, cannot be relied upon as a source of truthful information. I like to think these people aren’t actively lying, but are happy to repeat something they have heard that seems to back up what they are promoting, without checking it out. It seems you can become a nutritionist or dietician without any understanding of physics.

            So just personal interest that I’ve had to defend against sceptical friends and relatives. A quick summary of my conclusions:
            a) doing more exercise will not help you lose weight, but is important for health and fitness
            b) you have to eat less to lose weight. In fact you have to be hungry. Which most people don’t like. And drink water. Only water. Tea and coffee are OK. There are health reasons to drink a small amount of alcohol (one glass of wine or beer per day maximum)
            c) intermittent fasting is the best way. But since it’s cheap and free and won’t make people read your newspaper columns, no one wanting to earn a buck will promote it. It does take willpower
            d) second best is reduced portion sizes, smaller plate, no snacking (or use carrot or celery snacks). This can take a very long time – as people say, it took 20 years to get this fat, it will take 20 years to lose the weight. Maybe 10. It takes discipline to accept a lifestyle change and slow longterm improvements
            e) People claim that VLC (very low calorie) or fasting diets fail because the response is binging. There is no evidence of this. Of all the diets, these are the most successful. But that may be because the people who choose these sorts of extreme diets have the personality who would succeed at any diet
            f) Most people stop dieting. Most regain a large portion of any weight loss. A significant number maintain a small gain
            g) the greatest likelihood of maintaining lost weight is to reach your goal weight. This suggests to me that getting to your goal as quickly as possible may help
            h) there’s a whole lot we don’t know. For example, the calorie count in food is only an estimate. People don’t absorb all the calories of food they eat. The calorie count makes an estimate of what percentage you will retain in your body. That retained amount is going to be different for different people (and I imagine it would change when you are actually fasting). But no one is interested in checking out the variation in the nutrtitional content of a large sample of people’s poop over the long term. Lazy scientists!
            i) Another thing we don’t know is how the bacteria in your gut that help you digest your food vary from person to person. We know the microflora is different, there’s suggestive evidence that it can make a significant difference, but we don’t know
            j) these two factors can vary genetically (and also family exposure – if you “catch” microflora” it is possible you can catch bugs that make you more (or less) inclined to becoming obese. But the effect is relatively small. Personal responsibility still rules
            k) so burn more calories than you consume to lose weight is still true, but “consume” is a variable that depends on your poop and microflora – you have to measure results
            l) some suggestive evidence that grapefruit and possibly grapefruit juice helps burn fat in your body
            m) water is definitely need to help burn fat, so never get deyhdrated
            n) it’s a myth that when you feel thirsty you are already dehydrated, as is you should drink 8 glasses a day
            o) nearly all vitamin and nutritional supplements can’t be absorbed by the body – best way to get minerals and vitamins is to eat real food
            p) there is way too much sugar in processed food, and you’re better to cook your own meals from natural ingredients. Hard to find time, I know
            q) the fatter your friends (even Facebook friends, even friends overseas), and the fatter society is, the fatter you become (socially acceptable); the reverse is also true. So you losing weight helps your friends and family and their friends!
            r) the various low-carb, low-protein, Atkin diets ; the *primary* effect seems to be that you are having a reduced calorie intake. There are probably some smaller additional effects that are not well-understood by science. While beware of anecdotes, if it works for you, then great
            s) sleep. Enough, quality sleep is essential to weight loss. I do suspect that this is largely due to the more time you spend awake the more time you have to eat and snack
            t) eat real food, not too much, drink water, exercise, sleep

            So I have no qualifications. I have personal experiences, observed experiences of others. And I’m happy to defend any of the above.

      • I like to make one observation that if you lose weight gradually your excess skin has more time to regain some tone rather than hanging off you like an unsupported awning.

        prepares himself for being wrong on that count too


        • Wayne McDougall

          I have no authoritative comment to offer – I’ve not had the personal need to research. I did follow the prominent social media back and forth exposure of one poor woman and associated comments.

          For what it’s worth, I haven’t see any evidence of awning where there isn’t still significant remaining subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. So my belief (no evidence) is that people with an awning need to keep going with their weight loss program. Observational points: women’s skin bounces back amazingly after birth (yes I know stretch marks, etc etc – it’s still amazing), skin loses elasticity as you age, sun exposure and smoking both damage skin and its elasticity, so it may be more of a problem for some people.

          If I had a choice I’d rather have an awning than be overweight – just for health.

          • Without doubt. Awning it is.

      • David Moore

        “There is no evidence that rapid weight loss does any harm at all,”

        The problem is more that people on a VLC diet tend to fail and bing, then rebounding even worse than they started. The most important part of a weight/fat loss diet is it’s ability to be sustained for long enough to work effectively.

        People who are at the extreme end tend to have more scope to drop calories than those in a more normal range.

  • mommadog

    A good summary. There is a lot of data about this long before the 5:2 diet became trendy. One of the early pioneers was Roy Walford (now deceased) that proved through good research that eating less is important for health and longevity and when you do eat, eat nutrient rich foods. Weight loss is only part of the picture. However, fasting and cutting back will do you no good if you only eat donuts when you do eat. More recently I have read Jason Shon Bennetts (2013) book “Eat less, live long” and would recommend that if anyone wants some more background from a NZ author.

  • la la land

    I love this post Grizz – this is basically what I am trying and it is so good to hear its paying off for you. I am just weaning myself off the carbs at the mo and its quite hard. I am all ok but then a craving overpowers me and I will have 5 little squares of dark chocolate… but its getting less each day and I have eaten no carbs or processed food (apart from the chocolate squares) for 5 days now…

    • Grizz30

      Tenacity will pay off. I have a question for you. Is it the chocolate that you crave or are you just peckish? This is the time to rethink how you react to your body’s signals. I used to crave bread and cheese. I now eat nuts and seeds or simply fruit. I find a few nuts tie me over now rather than 2 sandwiches. Remember hunger is a good thing. It signifies that your body is mobilising your fat stores.

      I am expecting a big day tomorrow. Just finished prepping lunch, dinner and snacks.