What Exactly Is Starvation Mode?

If you've ever tried to lose weight, you have no doubt heard the term "starvation mode." This scary-sounding phrase haunts most plans, and it's usually used to convince people not to eat too little for a prolonged time. Starvation mode is very real—you shouldn't eat so few calories that your body thinks it's starving because that can mess with your metabolism and your mind. But there are some misconceptions surrounding starvation mode that you need to clear up so that you don't think you're ruining your health every second of the day.

What Does This Phrase Mean?

Starvation mode is the state your body is in when it thinks it's starving. Your metabolism slows so that your body can conserve energy. Calories from whatever you eat get conserved as much as possible so that you have stores of caloric energy to see you through what your body thinks are tough times. If you're trying to lose weight, starvation mode makes your body ignore your wishes and keep what it can, making your weight loss slow down or even stop. It is possible to eat a diet that's so low in calories that your body refuses to lose weight.

Why Is Starvation Mode Bad Long-Term?

Starvation mode, in the short term, is simply mean to your body. Don't make it think it's starving when there's plenty of food around! In the long-term, starvation mode is more insidious. Your body remembers that supposed famine (even if it was self-imposed), and your metabolism may become slower, even when you start eating more. This doesn't happen to everyone, and it happens in differing amounts, but why negatively mess with what you have?

Plus, when you don't eat enough, you get brain fog, feel tired, and act cranky. If you're trying to revamp your diet for health or weight-loss reasons, make sure you're eating a good amount of calories.

Does Any Caloric Reduction Trigger Starvation Mode?

Of course not. Bodies are flexible when it comes to calorie intake. Dipping below your "maintenance" level of daily calorie intake by a couple hundred calories won't send you into starvation mode. Even fasting for a day and drinking only water won't send your metabolism into a starvation panic. One day of not eating may be annoying and make you very hungry, but your body can handle it—as long as you eat on other days.

Reducing your calories to very low levels, like only a few hundred, day after day after day, is quite different. This is why extreme low-calorie diets, like those liquid diets that have you drinking 500 calories a day for weeks, have to be supervised by a doctor. These levels make your body think something is very wrong.

If you want to reduce your calorie intake or if you are interested in one of the intermittent-fasting plans that people seem to like, keep in mind that the key to success is to keep eating. If you overdo it, then you really can trigger starvation mode. Speak to a registered dietitian to learn about weight loss programs that let you cut calories safely.