Starvation response

Starvation Response

Since the beginning of human existence the body has had one main goal: SURVIVAL. Our bodies have hundreds of protection mechanisms designed to keep us from harm. One example of this is the starvation response. It’s a primitive response that ensures the body maintains energy during periods of little or no food. It does this by burning up ‘energy hungry’ muscle tissue thereby lowering metabolic rate and producing hormones that promote energy storage. The problem is, it doesn’t really fit into modern society and can have huge negative effects on people trying to lose weight.

Here’s the science:

Adipose tissue (fat cells) produces several hormones, which have different effects on metabolism. One of these hormones is leptin. Leptin is known to reduce appetite and increase energy expenditure. As fat cells increase in size they produce more leptin (increasing metabolism and basically saying you don’t need anymore food by making you lose your appetite).  It’s a common misconception that overweight people have slow metabolisms. The fact is that the bigger you are, the higher metabolism you will have. When fat loss occurs fat cells reduce in size and this has a subsequent effect by lowering leptin levels. If sudden, dramatic weight loss occurs and leptin levels decrease significantly. This has a knock on effect and other hormones are released to counter act the loss.

An interesting fact: You can make more fat cells but you will never lose them, they will only shrink. 

Low levels of leptin trigger the enzyme Lipoprotein lipase (LPL) to be released. It is responsible for transporting fat (triglycerides) into fat cells. The more LPL in your body the more fat will be stored. The starvation response can be triggered from drastic sudden dieting so that when you return to normal eating your body just wants to store not burn.

Are you a Yo-Yo dieter?

Have you gone through a cycle of trying new diets that have severe calorie restrictions? For example, trying the cabbage soup diet or the maple syrup diet. After losing a substantial amount of pounds within a two-week period did you find the weight crept back on with a few extra pounds added? This is because your body has hit the storage zone. Your metabolism will have slowed as more muscle is burned to conserve energy. To gain successful long lasting weight loss you need to maximise your metabolism to it’s full potential.

You may be Yo-Yoing without realising it. How many of you have to be up at 6am and leaving the house by 7am and how many of you aren’t returning home until the same time in the evening or even later? In between working, travelling, children doing the recommended exercises and getting 8 hours sleep all packed into one day, when are you going to find to the time to eat a sensible balanced diet. Life makes it very easy to skip meals and before you know it its “snack o’clock” and you’re eating your daily calories in one sitting. Skipping meals or having long gaps between eating plays havoc on blood sugar levels and if blood sugar is too high and muscle glycogen stores are full the body will store the extra energy in your fat cells.

Can the effects of the starvation response be reversed?

Good news! Yes! Bad news! It can be a slow process.

First things first, increasing metabolism. This can be done in two ways. Eating more regularly (nutrition) and increasing muscle mass (exercise). The starvation response can be triggered if there is a drop of more than 500kcals a day and so we need to create an energy deficit that does not trigger it. Look at the maths:

Creating an energy deficit:

  • Reducing 250kcals from daily calorie intake
  • Increasing 250kcals from daily physical activity
  •  This equals 500kcals loss a day. Over 7 days it’s 3500kcals
  • 1 pound of body fat is equal to 3500kcals

Weight loss should be monitored on a monthly basis. As well as considering weight I always think it’s good to take note of how your clothes are fitting. Taking measurements of your chest, waist, hips, arms and legs are important too as increasing muscle mass will make the scales look as though they are not moving.

Tips for ensuring a successful weight loss plan without triggering the starvation response:

Be organised – prepare meals/menu’s in advanced so you are not caught out. Shopping online can help you keep control of what you’re buying and will avoid the temptation to bung rubbish in your trolley when you go to the shops on an empty stomach.

Keep a food diary

Try to eat within these times.


Divide your daily calorie intake either equally amongst 5 or have 3 main meals and 2 snacks to ensure that sugar levels are kept constant throughout the day. (Modify it if you work unsociable hours. The aim is to eat at least every for hours)

Eat everything in balance. Each meal should have protein, carbohydrates and fat in it. It is the type and amount that’s important.

Protein is good for making you feel full. It also costs the body 2 kcals per gram to digest and absorb. Protein stimulates your metabolism!

You need to eat fat to metabolise fat. Fat is an essential dietary requirement not only are many hormones made from it, fat is also essential in order to absorb fat soluble-vitamins into the body. They include Vitamin A, D, E and K.

You shouldn’t be scared of eating carbohydrates. Eating carbohydrates that are low on the glycemic index scale will ensure you don’t get sugar spikes leading to storage as they take longer to be absorbed by the body. You can still eat the same things as before but you just eat them in a different form

Switching to a Low GI Diet

  • Use breakfast cereals based on oats, barley and bran
  • Use breads with whole grains, stone-ground flour or eat sour dough
  • Reduce the amount of potatoes you eat
  • Eat all other types of fruit and vegetables
  • Use Basmati rice
  • Eat wholegrain pasta, noodles and try quinoa
  • Eat plenty of raw salad vegetables with vinaigrette dressing rather than ranch or Caesar dressing.

Research suggests that certain foods can boost your metabolism here are 10 that have been known to aid weight loss.

  • Water
  • Green Tea
  • Soup
  • Grapefruit
  • Apples and Pears
  • Broccoli
  • Low-Fat Yogurt
  • Lean Turkey
  • Oatmeal
  • Hot Peppers


Cardiovascular training is good for improving aerobic fitness and keeping your heart healthy and so should be part of your routine. However, to boost metabolism muscle mass must be increased. Muscle building exercises will involve using resistance machines or free weights at the gym and performing body weight exercises. Don’t worry ladies you won’t be walking around like a pumped up bodybuilder after a couple of weeks. Building muscle just isn’t that easy!

The biggest muscles are in your legs. To increase muscle mass the correct rep range is between 8 and 12 for 3 or more sets; this is known as hypertrophy. Squats are a good exercise to perform as well as lunges. Chest press and bent over rows or press-ups should be included to work the chest and back muscles in order to achieve a balanced workout. The higher your muscle mass the more energy your body requires a day to function; therefore you’ll have a higher metabolism.


Sleep is crucial to ensure metabolism stays elevated as not getting enough sleep can affect the bodies’ ability to function. Lack of sleep can affect your sugar levels. Have you ever had a night or little or no sleep and woken up craving carbohydrate rich foods? Your body is suffering low energy levels and is searching out simple sugars to give you an instant energy boost. Also to get the best out of a workout you need to be motivated and so feeling tired or low means that you won’t perform the best workout possible. Also, remember that you recover from exercise when we sleep. The recommended amount is between 6 and 8 hours so, if your aren’t getting enough, you are hindering your recovery form exercise.

All of these things keep your metabolism strong. I think the biggest message though is to maintain balance and consistency. Get your body to trust you again. Start listening to its signals so you know when you’re hungry or thirsty or tired. Don’t go for long periods without eating, your body just doesn’t like it. It’s time to change the hording ways and turn your body into a use it or lose it fat burning machine!