How to Get Your Body Out of Starvation Mode

Hitting a diet plateau because of a sluggish metabolism can be frustrating, but the good news is that with the power of knowledge and a little bit of commitment, starvation mode recovery is not at all difficult to achieve.

Eat a healthy diet to get out of starvation mode. (Image: barol16/iStock/GettyImages)

Starvation mode occurs when you deprive your body of calories past the point where it has to burn stored glycogen or fat for fuel to where it stops burning anything and starts hoarding every calorie you take in. This is especially likely to happen when you are following a fad diet that not only restricts calories but also does not provide adequate nutrition from the empty calories you are eating.

Getting your body out of starvation mode is not all that difficult, but it does require some planning and a whole lot of flexibility. You may have to change up your calorie counts from day to day so that your body to keep your metabolism working hard. It also helps to vary the intensity of your exercise routine in order to keep your body burning calories — whether it wants to or not.

Deconstructing Diet Fads

While not all food fads or food movements are dangerous, fad diets are another thing altogether, explains Jenna Glenn, DC, of the National University of Health Sciences. Glenn advises that it is a good idea to know the difference between a food movement and a fad diet.

Food fads can be as simple as putting pesto on everything or the ubiquity of pumpkin spice in autumn. Food movements include ideas such as farm to table or nose to tail. The farm to table movement encourages eating locally sourced produce, meats and dairy, while nose to tail advocates using every part of food animals.

Dr. Glenn points out that while food movements can be used to promote rapid weight loss, they also share the long-term goal of offering a sustainable, nutritious lifestyle. Fad diets, on the other hand, promise that you will lose a lot of weight in a very short time, but are not practical as a way of eating for the long term.

It is not hard to tell whether your chosen meal plan is a healthy food movement or an unhealthy fad diet, according to Dr. Glenn. Food movements tend to focus on long-term health benefits. Signs of a fad diet, Dr. Glenn cautions, can include a long list of rules, extreme restriction, or odd food combinations such as having grapefruit with every meal or eating only cabbage soup for days at a time.

If you cannot imagine eating according to these rules for the rest of your life, Dr. Glenn concludes, you are probably looking at a fad diet.

Understanding Starvation Mode

Before you can embark on a program of starvation mode recovery, it is a good idea to learn and understand what causes your body to start hoarding calories even when you're on a low-calorie diet. The main cause, explains a September 2017 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is that your body always wants to maintain its current weight.

This is fine if you are at your goal weight, but can be frustrating if you have some extra pounds to shed.

According to the study's authors, David Benton and Hayley A. Young, there are several factors that all come together to help your body hold onto calories when it thinks that it is starving. One of the most important things to know is that not all calories are the same.

Eating a low-calorie diet that is mostly made of simple sugars may encourage your body to believe it is starving because it is receiving both too few calories and too little nutrition.

Consistently starving your body can cause long-term changes in your hormone levels, which affects your metabolism, Benton and Young caution. This is why so many people who lose weight do not just gain back those pounds, but often gain even more.

So before you decide to drastically cut calories to lose weight, Benton and Young suggest that you also look at the quality of the calories you take in as well as considering behavioral changes and changes to your emotional relationship with food.

Starvation Mode Symptoms

There are several signs that you may be in starvation mode — and not all of them are obvious. Hitting a weight-loss plateau where the numbers on the scale just do not seem to budge is perhaps the easiest to point to as a symptom, but is only one of the possible signs of starvation mode.

Other common and easily recognizable body starvation mode symptoms may include:

  • Chills
  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Hair loss
  • Lethargy

When your metabolism slows down, you get chills because your internal body temperature drops too, according to the National Institutes on Aging. This can make it hard to warm up in cold temperatures in the long run, NIA cautions.

Constipation can occur because you are probably not taking in enough fiber, which is necessary for healthy elimination. Depression, hair loss and lethargy can all be caused by the hormonal changes associated with not consuming enough nutrient-dense calories.

Facts About Fasting

"Will a three-day fast slow my metabolism?" is a good question to ask if you are concerned about the effects of starvation mode, or adaptive thermogenesis. This effect occurs when you deprive your body of calories and nutrients to the point that it panics and starts hoarding calories by storing them as fat.

It's an evolutionary function designed to keep caveperson-you alive during times of famine or long-range migration. Unfortunately, evolution did not foresee a time when there were luscious calories readily available anywhere.

One way to keep your metabolism on its toes is through the technique of intermittent fasting. Scientist Sai Das at Tufts University explains that intermittent fasting does not mean you have to avoid food completely for several days or even one day. Intermittent fasting can mean only eating for a certain number of hours each day.

For example, Sai Das suggests, you might only eat between noon and 8:00 p.m. Another way to fast intermittently is to eat half your normal amount of calories, or drop down to 500 calories one or two days per week.

The value of intermittent fasting, Sai Das reveals, is in its ability to keep your body from fearing that calorie restriction will become the norm and triggering a slowing of your metabolism to put you into starvation mode.

Restricting calories for very short periods of time encourages your body to burn stored fat, and then increasing your caloric intake right after fasting reassures it that you are not facing famine.

Managing Your Metabolism

It seems reasonable for someone wishing to melt off some extra pounds to ask, "Will I lose weight if I eat 1,000 calories a day?" but this question does not actually have a simple yes or no answer, explain the experts at Rush University.

Metabolism is the process by which your body converts food into the energy it needs in order to function in every way, including breathing, circulating your blood, building and repairing muscles, fighting off infection or disease, and fueling your brain.

The rate at which your body metabolizes food is pretty much set, and it differs from individual to individual, explains Rush. Factors that contribute to whether your metabolism is efficient or sluggish include how old you are, your gender and your body size.

Another factor, the university reminds, is the type of food you consume. Fatty foods and sugary, empty calories are far more likely to be stored as fat than lean, nutrient-dense foods.

One way to help keep your metabolism functioning efficiently, advises Rush, is to build your diet around a varied menu of classic healthy foods.

A metabolism-friendly diet includes a continued and significant emphasis on an array of vegetables, fresh fruits, lean proteins such as chicken or fish prepared with little to no added fat, beans, seeds, nuts and legumes, low-fat or nonfat dairy, and healthy fats such as those found in avocados, mackerel, salmon and olive oil.

Starvation Mode Recovery Methods

The best way to get into starvation mode recovery so that you can lose weight and keep it off is to approach weight loss using a multi-pronged strategy, advises Liz Weinandy, RD, of Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center.

Find your basal metabolic rate, or BMR, by using an online calculator — and then drop your calories by no more than 200 to 300 calories per day, Weinandy advises.

The second step in getting out of starvation mode and staying out is to incorporate at least one hour of exercise into your daily routine, Weinandy advises. Make sure that you do both cardiovascular exercises and weight training to get the full benefits of working out.

Exercise boosts your metabolism and burns more calories while you are working out and for only about one hour afterward, so make sure that you keep an eye on the number and quality of calories you take in after you work out.

The best way to keep the weight off, Weinandy says, is to make sure you start every day with a lean and healthy breakfast. This helps rev up your metabolism and can keep you from getting so hungry that you make unwise food decisions later in the day.

Choose an eating plan that is high in protein while being low in calories and fat. Do both cardio and strength training, and weigh yourself once every week, Weinandy suggests.

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