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Your body is an amazing adaptive engine. Throughout history we’ve had to survive droughts, famine, freezing temperatures, angry bears and sabertooth tigers trying to eat us and stuff.
You don’t survive a historic and consistent pile of crap being heaped on your species without developing ninja-like adaptive skills. While we don’t experience the life altering scenarios of our ancestors, our adaptive engine is still firing on all cylinders.
Sometimes it works in your favor, like the innate fear of things that might eat you. Sometimes it works against you, like when you restrict calories and try to rapidly lose weight in a short period of time.
Starvation Mode Theory
The number one systemic goal of your entire person is to not die. That seems overly dramatic, but it’s the essential tenet of life. When we get sick, our white blood cells fight off the intruding virus. We feel pain to signify something is wrong, and needs to be tended to.
So what happens when you restrict calories, like a diet?
That’s the theory behind “starvation mode”. If you were in a prolonged, life threatening famine how would your body adapt in an attempt to survive?
Your primal instincts, and adaptive mechanisms don’t know you aren’t a caveman anymore. It doesn’t know there’s a Costco three blocks away. All it knows is you aren’t shoveling hot dogs down your throat at the anticipated rate.
Your behavior has changed, your eating habits have changed — something must be wrong! You’re clearly on a deserted island, devoid of Cheetos and double fudge ice cream.
The adaptive engine kicks in, and like Batman, saves the day.
Here’s the simplified process:
1) You’re consuming excess calories which, over time, causes you to gain weight. You consistently eat a high volume of food maintaining your current weight.
2) You start a diet and dramatically reduce calories for several weeks and months.
3) In an attempt to conserve energy, and reduce the amount of calories you need to continue functioning your body dramatically slows your metabolism.
4) As your metabolism crawls to a stand-still, your weight loss also slows. You’re not losing weight at the same rate anymore. You also feel sluggish, irritated, and are considering changing your name to, Juan. (Okay, that’s just me)
If your body adapts, and fights your weight loss goals how can you possibly sustain a weight loss diet for more than a few weeks?
See Also: Why you aren’t losing weight
Is Starvation Mode Real?
There’s no doubt or debate as to the existence of starvation mode. It does exist, and we do have an ability to adapt and adjust to our behavior in a consistent and predictable manner.
The question is, does it really matter on a diet?
The answer is yes, and no.
Our body has amazing adaptive skills, but when visualizing how it works it’s more like a huge Navy carrier sailing the ocean and less like a speed boat. Our body will adapt but it takes time to change directions.
For starvation mode to reach a critical level, you would need to be literally starving. Like, kind of dying. Skipping a meal once a day isn’t going to get you there. Skipping two days of meals, won’t get you there.
But eventually, you will. Our system wants to make sure the situation is real, prolonged and truly life threatening before making long-term hormonal changes.
That’s why it takes time to put on weight, and takes quite a bit of time to take off weight. Making split second changes to our body and hormones can also be harmful, and would not help the species survive.
Always remember your body wants to live, dammit! Live! Like a young boy frolicking through the woods in feety pajamas… also, just me.
How To Diet, Smartly
Yeah, that’s right, I said smartly.
1) Don’t shock your system.
The more shocking and dramatic your behavior changes, the more likely you are to get an adaptive response. Will you lose weight if you cut your calories by 50%? Yes, absolutely. But it will also cause a hormonal response in a very short amount of time.
Your metabolism will eventually slow, you’ll stop losing weight, and you’ll begin to lose muscle tissue as your body searches for available resources.
Think, progressive. Ease into diet changes over long periods of time, allowing your body to accept new behavior as normal and not life threatening.
2) Avoid gimmick diets.
The “one food” gimmick diets are just bad. They taste bad and deserve a firm talking to — and perhaps light flogging. They deprive you of much needed nutrients from a variety of diverse food your body wants and needs.
It also reinforces poor eating behavior, and doesn’t establish long term habits needed to sustain prolonged weight loss. You might lose a few pounds, but trust me, all that weight is coming back once gimmick ends.