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Is starvation mode real? Will fasting cause starvation?

Will intermittent fasting cause you to enter starvation mode?

The Whole Truth Team
3 min read • 
9 August 2023

“Don’t starve yourself or your body will go into Starvation Mode and all your efforts will yield the opposite result.”

Just like me, if ‘starvation theory’ has been on your mind, it’s highly likely that you may have heard or read the above logic quite a few times.

The most elaborate explanation I’ve come across so far has been something along the lines of, “If you don’t eat for too long, the body goes into self-preservation mode. Unclear when the next meal will come in, it starts saving its stored fuel reserves (fat) and starts converting proteins (muscle) into energy.”

Now, at first glance it does sound logical, doesn’t it? Well, I must confess, I did fall for it.

I’ve been guilty of peddling this ‘starvation mode’ theory for a while now. Without getting into the scientific depth of it.

But then, I started 16/8 Intermittent Fasting (IF).

Which means not-eating for 16 hours every day. In an attempt to lose weight, primarily fat.

But, hey, wouldn’t 16 hours of ’starving’ myself, put me into this scary ‘mode’? And wouldn’t that lead to fat-preservation, not fat loss?

I’d hit someone (myself) if that is how it panned out.

I needed to, at least theoretically, be absolutely sure of this before I jumped head-first into IF. So I did the research and found that ‘starvation mode’ isn’t a real thing in the modern world. It’s the colloquial usage of the term that did us all in.

Allow me, hence, to bust this stupid myth today in 5 common-sensical ways. This is me atoning for my sins. Of having contributed to the spread of this spurious theory.

Here’s what I want to tell you:

1. Starvation mode

Fat stores are the body’s fuel for hard times. We all know this. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors used to find a lot more game during the summers when they ate and became fat. And then during harsh winters, they stayed indoors and the body used up these fat stores to keep them alive and active in the absence of regular food. Right?

2.  Is starvation mode real?

The myth is already busted if you agree with the point above. If ’starvation mode’ was true, then all the cavemen would, post-winters, emerge from their caves with rotund tummies and stick-thin arms and legs. Because the body should’ve held on to the fat and burnt the muscle.

But why would the body do that? Why would it store fat for such ‘no-food’ days and then, when the time came, act ignorant of its own plan and go for muscle instead? Let’s stay with our ancestors for a bit more. 

Remember Grandpa Jo from this article about Legs?

Let’s say Grandpa got all fat and plump during the summers. Then when the winter came, Grandpa would go out looking for food for a few hours every day. In this case, he’d need to be active and strong and alert even more than what he was in the summers, if he were to return with some meat in this short window of longer nights, shorter days.

Now, after 36 hours of no food, Grandpa’s body would start using muscle (and not fat) to get its energy, then that’d leave grandpa weaker and less agile. Which would substantially reduce his chances of landing a kill. Which would mean no food for another day. And this in turn would mean even lesser muscle. Which…you get the point.

This is the kind of behaviour that would put Darwin off. Why would the body do a thing so detrimental to its own survival?

3.  Starvation and fasting 

The age-old Islamic month of fasting. Also the longest-standing human study of IF.

For me in fact, this was the proof that finally converted me.

Whenever I speak to Muslim friends of mine, they all confirm 3things:

  1. The first few days are tough. They feel quite hungry.
  2. The body adapts in about a week and then energy levels are back to usual (in many cases better)
  3. No matter how much they eat after sunset (and they eat a lot), they rarely see anyone gaining weight or looking fatter after Ramadan.

I rest my case.

I’m kidding.

I am yet to tell you about my strongest revelation.

4.  What does starvation mode look like?

Close your eyes and tell me what you see when I say starvation. Do pictures of starving adults from German concentration camps come to mind? Or of malnourished kids from Africa and India?

Ever seen someone who doesn’t look like this die of starvation? Ever seen a fat guy die of malnourishment? Doesn’t the question itself sound silly?!

Because, how can he! There is so much nutrition left for his body to consume before it decides to shut down bodily functions and kill itself.

Which brings me to my last point. And the reason why this confusion started in the first place.

5. What is starvation mode?

Starvation is when the body has run out of both external and stored nutrients and energy sources. That’s when our body, literally, starts eating itself. That’s when it turns to muscles and organs and whatever else it can to convert to life-sustaining energy.

At 3 meals a day, we eat about 1000 meals every year and 60k+ meals over our lifetime. Do you really think skipping 1 or 2 meals out of this would switch on such an extreme response?

6.  Will intermittent fasting make you enter starvation mode?

So here’s my verdict.

Fasting on a fixed schedule will NOT turn on Starvation Mode.

Missing meals at random though can be potentially harmful. Because the body reacts to patterns and doesn’t know what to do when there isn’t one.

A very good question someone recently asked me was about whether I am just checking body weight and not body fat. It’s true, I’m just checking weight. My faith on the body-fat machine has gone sub-zero ever since it was reported that my trainer, a guy with a proper six-pack, has 19.7% body fat.

I track my weight and look in the mirror to see where I’m shedding it from. And to be sure that it’s not muscle (not majorly muscle), I’m tracking my performance in the gym.

Since I’m still able to hold my max weight ranges (although for a reduced number of sets), I’m guessing it isn’t primarily muscle. And I’m liking what I see in the mirror.

And so, I carry on…


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