Can UNDEREATING actually cause you to GAIN weight?

Spend any time perusing nutrition information on social media, and eventually you’ll see a video describing the dangers of eating too few calories.

The author will then explain that if you under eat your body will go into “starvation mode” and cause you to gain body fat. Is that really true?!

As I bring more common sense and logic to the world of health and fitness I ask you this– “Have you ever seen pictures or videos of people who are starving that are overweight?”

Of course not. “Starvation mode” is a completely fabricated term that, like most things was probably created with good intentions and all went downhill from there. 

Let me repeat this…

If I kept you in the gym 7 days a week under constant supervision and you only ate 1000 calories per day, I guarantee you would lose weight. 

The ONLY way to gain body fat is to be consuming more calories than your body is using for energy on a daily basis.

Now this wouldn’t be  very interesting if I stopped here. Let’s dive deeper. Here are a few of the major things people need to consider when thinking about “eating too little.”

First, we need a true account of how many calories you’re consuming on a daily basis.

Accounting for your food intake is similar to sitting down with your accountant. With your finances, the first step is seeing how much money you’re earning and how its spent. When we do this for nutrition, we often notice that clients drastically underestimate their calories.  

“Do you use cream or sugar in your coffee?”

“Yes but I don’t really count that”

“How many coffees do you have a day?”

“2 to 3”

That could be a couple hundred calories right there.

“Ok what about this salad. Did you use any dressing?”

“Yeah but not much, just put some olive oil on top.” 

When not measured, what a client believes to be a tablespoon is often actually 2-3 tablespoons.  That’s an extra 250 calories each day.

Remember that your body doesn’t care whether you are 10 calories over your maintenance level or 100. If you’re not in a caloric deficit your weight WILL NOT CHANGE.

The conversation continues…

“It looks like Saturday is blank… what happened there?”

“That’s my cheat day, I don’t track on that day.”

If you remember my previous article about “Keeping Weekends on Track,” one day of indulgences will offset your work throughout the week by just enough to keep you from making progress.

Next let’s look at activity.

Here is where I think the idea of “starvation mode” may have originated.

I am often asked, “Brian, if 1900 calories is good, is 1300 even BETTER?”

Well the truth is your body WILL lower it’s metabolism to match your caloric intake. 

So even if you go hardcore and “only eat 1000 calories a day,” your progress will come to a screeching halt. The reason isn’t a “starvation mode.” Your body is simply efficient at keeping things in balance.

Your steps if not closely monitored will drop. (less calories burned)

The intensity you can put into your workouts will drop. (less calories burned) 

Things as simple  as the amount you fidget and move around will lower. These changes may appear insignificant, but to your body, every calorie counts.

In about a week your body naturally adjusted down to match your intake. Now, any extra calories you consume  become more costly.

You lower your calories yet again, because that must be better, and so the cycle repeats.

The important takeaway here is that lowering the calories TOO low didn’t CAUSE a starvation mode. It simply altered your body to lower your activity and metabolism to try and match the intake.

To review, a caloric deficit is necessary to lose body fat. Going too low may cause your workouts to suffer and for you to move less. It also makes it less likely that you’ll stick to your plan and the likelihood of binge eating increases. The combination of all these factors makes it much easier to begin overeating calories.

The solution is simple.

Learn to be patient and set the smallest deficit possible to get yourself started.

Reasonable weight loss is around .5-1% of body weight per week. This equates to 1-2 lbs for men and .5-1.5lb for women depending on their starting body composition.

A more comfortable sustainable rate would be  .25-.5% of body weight per week. About a pound usually for men and .5 lb for women. The diet modifications to create this slower change amount to very small changes in your daily life and are more easily integrated into your routine

If you are progressing at that rate you are likely in the sweet spot in terms of your activity and nutrition.

I hope this article armed you with some knowledge to defend yourself from friends trying to lose weight at parties, or fitness influencers looking to sell you a magic tea to reverse “starvation mode”

Keep moving forward,


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