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Does Starving Yourself Lose Body Fat? Why You Should Avoid

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: August 2, 2022

Losing weight can be a huge challenge for anyone who has struggled with obesity and even athletes who need to go through a cutting phase after some muscle weight gain.

And as a personal fitness and strength coach, I've had plenty of people ask me whether they could speed up their weight loss with a starvation diet.

The theory of practically eliminating the number of calories you consume is appealing, but most people aren't aware of what actually happens or the risks.

Let me explain what my research has revealed.

Quick Summary

  • Many people who struggle with fat stores fall for extreme diets to lose weight rapidly.
  • Your body weight is largely dependent on how much you eat and a calorie deficit diet, but starvation brings some issues that most people aren't aware of.
  • There are safer and more effective ways to achieve weight loss that don't include a starvation mode.

Do You Lose Belly Fat If You Starve?

A woman holding her sides

You will initially lose a certain amount of belly fat when you starve, but that effect can quickly wear off.

And what's even worse, the weight loss effect can affect lean body mass and even your organs.

More on these side effects shortly.  Ordinarily, when you consume fewer calories, you force your body to source energy from fat reserves [1].

That's a great feature of the human body where evolution has made sure that we can fatten up in summer and autumn to prepare for less food availability in winter.

But, when you switch to a full starvation diet and stop eating food altogether, your body will interpret that as a threat. And studies have shown that prolonged and extreme calorie deficit diets may make the body preserve fat [2].

As a result, you might not lose weight anywhere near as effectively as taking a less severe approach to limiting the number of calories.

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How Does Starving Affect Your Body?

A person eating a small food on a plate

When you eat so little that you're in a state of starvation, you won't just limit weight loss. There are other side effects that you have to be careful of.

Metabolic Adaptation

Studies have shown that when you drastically reduce how much food you eat, it can initially trigger significant weight loss. But as the body realizes what's happening, it changes the basal metabolic rate (BMR) [3].

This means that you don't burn as many calories, and that limits how you lose weight and puts a floor under your body fat percentage.

Organ Function

As you lose fat and your body starts burning fewer calories, it can also result in vital organs shrinking in size to preserve energy [4]. How quickly this happens is unclear, but some of these reductions in organ sizes can become a serious issue that leads to permanent damage.

Mental Impacts

The other thing you have to consider is that when you take drastic steps for your weight loss, like not eating at all, you can trigger mental health issues and eating disorders [5].

While it's not a guaranteed side effect, becoming obsessed with fat metabolism and losing stomach fat can ultimately cause significant psychological problems and problems with self-esteem.

Muscle Mass

This is something that especially bodybuilders and performance athletes need to be aware of. A drastic reduction to near-zero food intake will cause you to lose weight fast in the form of lean body mass [6].

Studies have shown that there can be a 5% reduction in muscle tissue, and that can completely undo all the work you did in a bulking phase.

And when the body begins sourcing energy from lean muscle mass, then you can quickly run into more serious trouble for your overall health.

Starving vs Intermittent Fasting

Measuring tape around utensils

No, starving yourself and intermittent fasting is not the same.

Starving yourself as a form of diet involves not eating for many days and even more than a week in extreme cases.

Such an extremely low-calorie diet might show positive signs of improvements for weight loss goals at first, but as your metabolism slows to the available energy levels, so will your fat loss slow down.

On the other hand, intermittent fasting involves extending the amount of time between your last meal of one day and the first meal of the next day.

For example, let's say you eat your evening meal at 6 pm and then only drink water after that. The next day you get up and don't eat your breakfast until 10 am or 11 am. Or maybe you skip breakfast and don't eat until lunch at 1 pm [7].

"The 16:8 protocol is a type of intermittent fasting (known as time-restricted eating in the scientific literature) that involves abstaining from calories for 16 hours of the day, and then eating within an 8-hour window."

- Nick Milazzo, MSc in medical science, MPH, Examine.com. 

This is very different from starving yourself as you will still be eating a healthy diet with a reduced calorie intake. It shouldn't have a drastic impact on your metabolic rate, and you'll burn calories more efficiently, especially if you do physical activity while fasting.

Do Starvation Diets Really Work?

No, starvation diets don't really work for weight loss. Your body is highly reliant on a certain amount of macro and micronutrients. And along with all the body fat you might lose, you'll also lose lean muscle tissue and other fat-free mass like organs.

It's also not uncommon for people to go through a starvation diet and then gain weight at a faster pace when they start eating again.

The lost weight is gone once they gorge on food to make up for the starvation, and they end up with greater body mass.

Safer And Healthier Ways To Lose Weight

Writing a meal plan

Rather than resort to starvation, it's better to choose a safer and more effective way to lose weight. I have coached a lot of people to achieve significant weight loss goals, and there really are just two things to focus on.

Healthy Dieting

The number one most important part of sustainable weight loss is to stick with a calorie restriction diet that starts with a 10% calorie deficit. This still gives your body all the nutrients it needs to sustain healthy organ and muscle function.

Once you've done that for a week, you can take away more calories, but I would limit it to about a 30% to 40% reduction of calories.

That'll be tough enough to sustain without struggling with hunger.

One option you have is to also take a natural fat burner supplement. These products also often contain ingredients that help you lose weight by curbing your hunger cravings.

Physical Exercise

The second thing you'll need to do is plan for at least three aerobic exercise routines per week. And on the remaining days, you'll need to stay active and do lots of walking or other light cardio.

This is one of the easiest ways to increase your energy-burning and target more fat.

For bodybuilders in a cutting phase, it will take 4-5 trips to the gym, and you still want to keep up the same intensity with a slightly lower weight load and a few more reps to reduce the fat mass.

FAQs

How Much Weight Will You Lose If You Stop Eating For One Day?

You can lose about half a pound if you stop eating for one day. But it's important to note that you'll mainly lose water weight. To lose body fat, you'll need to restrict your calorie intake for many weeks.

Is Starvation The Most Effective Way To Deal With Body Fat?

No, starvation is not the most effective way to deal with body fat. Losing body fat consistently requires you to supply your body with critical micro and macronutrients. It's more sustainable to slightly reduce your calories for lasting weight loss.

Take The Safer Approach For Your Weight Loss Efforts

Many people are tempted by extreme dieting techniques, only to figure out that the lost mass is a mix of water, muscle, and organ tissue.

That's not a sustainable solution and can lead to many health issues, as mentioned above.

Instead, stick with reducing your calories slightly and exercising more regularly. You can also add one of the next supplements to your daily routine and burn some extra calories each day.

It's not a magic pill, but over the weeks and months, this will have a significant impact.


References: 

  1. https://us.humankinetics.com/blogs/excerpt/the-bodys-fuel-sources
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3673773/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3943438/
  4. https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/01/20/463710330/what-happens-to-the-body-and-mind-when-starvation-sets-in?t=1655842862323
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24925491/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26399868/
  7. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/intermittent-fasting-what-is-it-and-how-does-it-work

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