Starvation Mode – Why You Probably Never Need to Worry About It

Starvation mode is a term that gets thrown around loosely.

Many people believe that too little protein or too few of calories in a day will cause loss of muscle mass. What if I told you that it is extremely difficult to go into starvation mode until you get down to 5% body fat(10% for women)?

Brad Pilon and John Barban have given me permission to give you access to the first 15 minutes of one of their paid recordings: “Starvation Mode”. Brad and John discuss surprising findings of a military study, where they purposely tried to get the soldiers to lose muscle and get into starvation mode. They found it took extreme conditions to reach this point.

starvation mode

[Just a cool vintage restaurant sign. This reminds me of something you would see on a road trip in Nevada or Arizona on a 2 lane highway, hours from the big cities.]

Brad and John Show You How to Get Into Starvation Mode?

These guys take an interesting approach. They show you exactly what it takes to reach starvation mode. By showing how difficult it is to reach starvation mode, they destroy a lot of muscle loss myths.

Once you listen to this, you can relax and not stress out about losing muscle when you are dieting and exercising to lose body fat. As you will see, you don’t even need to begin to worry about this until your reach crazy low body fat levels. Here’s that recording:

How to Get Into Starvation Mode

[Click on this old school cassette tape. Using sophisticated computer technology, my blog will play this bootleg in fancy MP3 format.]

My Notes From the Starvation Mode Recording

All of this is covered in the recording, but I wanted to put some of this in text as well. You can also right click and save this recording and listen on your computer or iPod.

I’ll post my notes below like I typically format my blog posts.

Why Are Brad and John Examining a Military Study?

Brad and John mainly look at a military experiment done by Karl Friedl. They point out that the military has less restrictions and can push people much harder than they can in a typical university study.

There is no way this stuff would get approved by a university, but no problem for the military.

In their words…To find limits to what the body is capable of, you need to dip into military research.

Step 1 to Get Into Starvation Mode—> Start Out Lean

Karl Friedl used fit and athletic soldiers with an average body fat of 14%. This is what John Barban calls “4 pack lean”.

There were guys as low as 6% body fat and as high as 18% body fat. Think along the lines of a fit and muscular soldier to get an idea of the participants of this study.

Karl Pretty Much Tortured These Guys for 8+ Weeks!

Karl had these guys eat between 1,000-1,200 calories…but burn upwards of 6,000 calories per day with crazy activity levels and sleep deprivation.

So deficits in the 3,000-4,000 range on some days. Average deficit was 1,200 calories per day. They trained like mad and also went through extreme sleep deprivation.

Here’s what happened during the 8 weeks (avg height 5’9″):

  • At Start… 167 lbs & Adonis Index of 1.4
  • 2 Weeks…156 lbs & Adonis Index of 1.44
  • 4 Weeks…152 lbs & Adonis Index of 1.45
  • 6 Weeks…146 lbs & Adonis Index of 1.50
  • 8 Weeks…140 lbs & Adonis Index of 1.52

Note: Adonis Index refers to the shoulder circumference divided by the waist circumference. As an example, my shoulder measurement is 50 inches and my waist is 33 inches. If I divide my shoulder by my waist I get 1.51. The ideal Adonis Index is 1.61.

The video below explains why a 1.61 ratio is pleasing to the eye in not just body proportions…but in art, architecture, etc.

[It is interesting to note that so many things follow the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio. This video claims that even many cereal boxes are made with these proportions to be more pleasing to the eye…so the cereal companies can sell more cereal.]

In This Experiment, They Were NOT Trying to Preserve Muscle

The important thing to remember in this study was that they were trying their best to beat these guys down.

They weren’t doing things that normal people would do while dieting, like proper resistance training. Here are some of the tactics they used to try to get into starvation mode.

  • Severe Caloric Restriction
  • Severe Amount of Exercise
  • Severe Amount of Mental Stress
  • Extreme Sleep Deprivation

Began to Lose Lean Body Mass Between Weeks 6 and 8

At around the 8 week mark a lot of guys who were in the 5%-6% range could not drop any more body fat. This is when they began to lose lean muscle.

The guys who started out the leanest, reached their limits at week 6. These were the guys who lost the most amount of lean body mass.

They Didn’t Lose Muscle Just Because They Were at 5%-6%

They lost muscle because they were still having days where they were running at a 3,000 calorie deficit. Once someone reaches their lower limits of body fat percentage it makes sense to eat close to maintenance levels.

This strong calorie deficit at this low body fat level also caused extreme hormone disruptions: Testosterone dropped, thyroid issues, mood changes “starvation mode”.

Why People Think Their Metabolism is Slowing Down

People with more fat available to oxidize…can oxidize more body fat per minute.

The less body fat you have, the less you can oxidize per minute. So as you get closer to your lower limits of body fat, the slower you will burn what body fat you have. This is why those last 4-5 pounds come off slowly, NOT because you are wrecking your metabolism with an aggressive diet.

Most People Never Need to Worry About Starvation Mode

Most likely, starvation mode isn’t happening to anybody reading this. The average person thinks starvation mode happens between meals.

It isn’t about not having enough calories. It isn’t about not having enough protein. It only effects people at their critical low body fat mass.

You have to be in a massive deficit and already at your critical low body fat level. You are “6 pack ripped” before ever getting to starvation mode.

79 thoughts on “Starvation Mode – Why You Probably Never Need to Worry About It”

  1. Great post there! Just to echo the other commenters thoughts – this pretty much flies in the face of conventional thinking!
    I’m cutting at the moment so am severely restricting calories – hitting 1800 per day to be exact.
    Still, what the article didn’t mention is the fact that protein intake still needs to be adequate. Daily protein requirements will still need to come from somewhere – so sub 10% bf or not, you won’t get away without consuming the right macro nutrients.

  2. I get such horrified looks when I tell people “I’m fasting today.” I’m already a thin person and people immediately think I have anorexia! It’s great to have this article to direct them to and educate them. (I’m not dead yet!)

  3. Those are some interesting findings. This clashes with my research that shows a shift in several different hormones when calories are restricted for an extended amount of time. I’ll have to look into it further.

  4. Yes; I agree with that Meade. Intermittent fasting and short term calorie restriction are no problem, but restricting calories too much for months on end will certainly slow down your metabolism. Though I believe there are ways to increase it again – HIIT and a nutrient dense diet for instance.

  5. Great post; very reassuring. I started doing intermittent fasting a few weeks ago, having been convinced of its many health benefits. But this further convinces me that there should not be any negative effects.

  6. Thank you for this article! It is one of the very few that truly reflects what starvation mode is and why the vast majority of people will never have to worry about it!

  7. I have quite a bit of body fat (230 lbs and 25%) to be exact. What has ruined my metabolism is from years of trying to starve myself. Now I find it near impossible to lose weight. I try everything. I just stay the same. Maybe starvation mode isnt true for some people, but it is true for others. And not extreme cases, either. If you restrict calories below say 1600 (if you are male), then over time your body will start getting better at storing fat. It will be harder for you to lose weight because it wants to hold on to fat , believing you are in a famine. This is why my metabolism is basically ruined. Im not talking about skipping a few meals every now and then. Im talking about what most dieters try to do , which is severe calorie restriction.

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  9. Hey question!

    I have been doing insanity workout (I dont know if you have heard of it) and this is my second time doing it and I am into week 4. I started thinking I was going in to starvation mode because I was doing the training 2 times a day and resistance training in addition every other day. I don’t know if its my imagination but it seems like my belly has gotten bigger which is very strange because the last few weeks I have been so busy with school and training and work I have had hardly any time to eat and when i do it its all healthy. (I’m also a vegan).

    If I’m not in starvation mode can you give me an idea of what might be happening?

    any info you could give me would be great.

  10. This is a very interesting article because it features a real experiment on what starvation brings about. It made me realize that doing any weight-loss method excessively will only bring harm to my body. Thank you for posting this.

  11. Pingback: Starvation mode – Your body will starve and you’ll lose all your muscle. » » Crude Fitness Crude Fitness
  12. First time I’ve come across this, I guess there’s a paradigm that revolves around the fitness industry and few people challenge it. I’ve been in China for the past several years and found that the Chinese have a much different perspective on fitness and health. They have one of the healthiest nations, in fact there was a bestseller written about Chinese health and fitness.

    Anyways a little off topic, but I like that you challenge the norm.

  13. The more I think about it, the more I realize what an amazing mechanism our bodies really have regarding energy supply and consumption.

    I mean the one thing you might want to watch out for is adequate protein supply –and even for that you seem to have a 48-hour window!– but as far as calories?
    You really simply don’t need to worry about eating at all.

    It’s actually quite a funny idea to eat every couple of hours, like some hospital patient hooked to a life support system opr something.

    I guess our bodies are a little smarter –and more efficient– than all that.

    Thanks Rusty for once again providing AWESOME value info man, you ROCK, as always! 😉


  14. While this information is great. I believe there is a different level of “starvation mode” that can be detrimental to many dieters efforts. It is fairly easy for your body to think it ay not get enough food and therefore put the brakes on efficiently processing the nutrients. In other words it will make getting rid of the calories consumed much more difficult as well as requiring much more activation energy to get up and running again. For many people in decent shape this is not a concern. I agree with being very difficult for your body to eat muscle due to starvation mode. But for the beginning dieter it is vital to keep a constant stream of calories entering the system. After all it is used to getting plenty of food and your body will get scared if something radical is happening. Radical in this sense could be not getting a fresh supply of calories every few hours.

  15. Interesting post; it certainly confirmed what I have always suspected about the “starvation mode” scare.

    Cassette tape very clever.

    BTW, the recording ended mid-stream as they were talking about the significance of neck circumference. Would love to know what that was.

  16. I think muscle loss can occur when eating 1600 like maeda said.

    However many factors come into play. I believe the body can tell what the useless body mass is. If you are built like a bodybuilder and you stop working out when cutting calories, your body will say “oh this is not needed”. On the other hand if you are obese your body will eat through the massive amounts of fat. Like this article indicates if your 5% fat and in the military you probably have more lean tissue, so your body will probably consume muscle in a calorie deficit.

    Moreover protein is necessary so if your not getting any… then your body will break down your muscle to some level. How much do you need? I don’t know. But if protein is consumed when in a massive deficit, it should probably be consumed before a state of rest when the body is not going to use it for energy.

    What is important about this article and Rusty’s site is that he points out that we really should be lean. But we think we need to eat so much or we will be unhealthy. How many fat people do we know who need to eat five times a day so that they can get lean? The reality is most people should be eating 2000 calories or less a day in this world to maintain a real healthy weight.

    By the way I ate 1500 calories a day for five months and my muscle looked more impressive due to the fact that it had 60 lbs less fat covering it.

  17. Good info to keep handy, I set some fat loss goals about a month ago and actually convinced myself I wasn’t eating enough and was losing muscle when I was probably at most running with a 1k calorie deficit. I’m looking to get a six pack for the first time in nearly 20 years but I have been pre-occupied with the notion that I might lose muscle while cutting.

  18. I really like Brad and Martin’s science based approach. They are more on target than the vast majority of so called science writers in major newspapers (NYTimes’ Jane Brody is quite egregious in her babble. Her latest story is absurd and would leave the average reader to believe one can’t lose weight without taking a year to lose 20 pounds ! )

  19. @meade: i think the research makes fairly clear (and sense, i believe) that you need to be at the extreme end of body fat levels and be in a continous state of significant and constant caloric deficit for starvation mode to occur, ie for the body to start drawing energy from muscle tissue and, at the very final stage, from the organs, to survive. however, in your defence, some muscle loss is inevitable, because the one question the research doesn’t consider is how much muscle the body actually needs at the stage they were at with their research? if you’re at 225lbs with 5% body fat, then as sure as night follows day you will lose some muscle mass, as there simply is no call for that much mass to be lugged around ….. and i guess it gives rise to the bigger question: how much muscle do we really need? i dunno, would be keen to hear other opinions on this matter.
    great post & provides lots to think about, that’s what matters.

  20. @Meade – the point is that it is real, but not something the normal, everyday person is going to ever experience from not eating breakfast, skipping a meal, or fasting like the mainstream fitness dogma presents.

    As for the AI Ratio, having been a member of AI since early last year, reachign 1.61 is possible, yet it can be difficult if one has much muscle to gain. I’ve watched I dont know how many guys come thru the program and hit 1.6 and talk about how their lives have changed after hitting 1.5. I hit 1.7 at one point last year. It is very much possible and if you don’t believe it, go check out the contest winners on their blog.

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