Starvation Metabolism

Our ancestors, the caveman and woman, faced daily hardships that meant they couldn't always count on where their next meals were coming from. During lean eating times, their bodies automatically went into starvation metabolism. So can yours. This is not good.

Starvation metabolism refers to a slowing of the basal metabolic rate brought on when the body is undernourished. The body, instinctively fearing starvation, naturally burns calories more slowly to survive longer. It also hoards energy, builds up fat stores, and causes the yo-yo dieting syndrome.

Weighty Warning

Going on a strict diet to lose just enough weight for a class reunion, wedding, or special party is ultimately fattening because your body shifts into starvation metabolism and makes up for lost time after the big event.

It's a cruel joke that our bodies will kick into starvation metabolism at the most inopportune time. We're not starving. We're just trying to lose weight! Most people who slip into starvation metabolism do so when they go on a highly restricted diet for a couple of weeks or a couple of months. Few people can sustain this kind of diet for long. Then, when the diet is abandoned, the dieter starts making up for lost time. The maintenance plan goes right out the door and in come the cookies, cakes, pastries, and candy. Adding insult to injury, the body then swings into excess mode and starts storing fat in anticipation of another perceived famine. Unfortunately, we willingly prolong the vicious cycle by again starting a highly restrictive diet.

The solution to this modern form of feast or famine is to eat balanced and nutritious foods in a weight-loss system that includes exercise, good eating habits, and positive thin thoughts. The system needs to be gentle, forgiving, and healthy so that a person can stay on the system over a lifetime, not just for a quickie weight loss.

Suppose that you have already given up restrictive diets and have sworn off the ensuing compensatory food flings. You could still be putting yourself into starvation metabolism, perhaps on a day-to-day basis. Here's how you could be doing this and the corrections to make.

When you get a hunger signal from your stomach that you are now at 0 and it is time to eat, be sure you eat within an hour or so. Do not skip this meal. If you do, your body will get the message that food is not available and that it must start hoarding energy. It begins to store fat. If it's time to eat and you are not hungry—that is, if your stomach is not at 0—you can miss a meal and not go into starvation metabolism. If you are hungry, however, be sure to eat.

Monday morning is often diet morning. Sally, who repeatedly struggles with her weight issue, decides that this Monday is the perfect time to start a new diet. So how does she begin? She skips breakfast. Think of all the calories saved right off the bat, she thinks to herself. She also limits herself to some kind of light food for lunch, maybe even skips that meal, too. Sally is feeling quite proud of her willpower and self-discipline.

But come late afternoon when Sally arrives home from work, something inside her cannot stand it any longer. She might feel depressed, fatigued, and/or discouraged. She starts to eat, and by bedtime has eaten enough food for three or four meals, getting more food than she needs. Overall she ate more food for the day than she eats normally. By evening, she was feasting. What happened?

By skipping a good breakfast and lunch, Sally put herself into starvation metabolism. The body started storing fat and slowed metabolism to conserve energy. By late in the day, Sally was “starving,” so to speak, and her biology insisted that she eat. And eat our dieter did … to make up for the skipped meals. Within one day's time, the body had slowed metabolism, begun storing fat because the dieter was acting like she was in a famine, and later stored fat because the dieter was feasting.

For many people, the same scenario plays itself out day after day, and they are at a loss for why they are gaining weight. Even if dieters eat the same amount of calories in a day of feast and famine as they do on a normal day when they eat three meals plus snacks, feast-and-famine eating makes them gain weight.

The very best way to avoid slipping into starvation metabolism is to eat when your body is hungry. Skip meals only if your hunger level, as measured on the 0-10 scale, is above 0 (that is, it's 1, 2, 3, or higher).


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Healthy Weight Loss © 2005 by Lucy Beale and Sandy G. Couvillon. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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