How to Avoid “Starvation Mode” While Dieting

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve probably heard of “starvation mode.”

Maybe you’ve also heard of “metabolic damage” or “metabolic slowdown.”

You learn that when you cut calories and lose weight, your metabolism drops, and weight loss slows.

Then you’re stuck.

You know you need to eat less, but you’re also worried that you’ll slow your metabolism and make weight loss even harder.

In this podcast, you’ll learn:

  • Whether or not your metabolic rate actually drops while dieting. 
  • If so, how much of an impact this has on your ability to lose or maintain your weight.
  • 13 ways to minimize, avoid, or reverse metabolic slowdown during and after dieting.

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Show Notes

How to Eat and Train for Fat Loss with Eric Helms

How to Stay Super Lean (Without Going Nuts)

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**Armi Legge:** You’ve probably gone through this scenario before. You eat less. You move more. And you lose weight. You keep losing weight at first but then your progress slows. Eventually, your weight loss stalls. Even if you’ve been tracking your calorie intake, so you’ve been pretty sure you haven’t been eating too much, you still stop losing fat.

You surf the internet a little and see if anyone else has had a similar experience. Maybe you talked to a few friends. You start to hear about “starvation mode” and how dieting too hard can destroy your metabolism and now you have metabolic damage that is preventing you from losing weight.

Now you’re caught in a dilemma. You know you need to eat less to lose weight but you’re also worried that further restricting your food intake is going to slow your metabolism even more.

In this podcast, we’re going to look at whether or not dieting decreases your metabolism, how much of an effect this has on your ability to lose or maintain weight, and some strategies you can use to keep this from happening to you.

My name is Armi Legge and you are listening to Impruvism Radio, the podcast that gives you simple, science-based tips to improve your health, fitness, and productivity.

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Don’t forget that if you have a question, you can also ping me on facebook or twitter, or you can leave me a comment on one of the previous podcast episodes.

Now let’s talk about whether or not dieting damages your metabolism and what you can do to avoid or reverse these effects.

Let’s start by defining what we mean by “metabolic damage.” Some people differentiate between starvation mode and “metabolic slowdown.” The former is sometimes described as a whole set of responses to dieting, such as hunger, lethargy, etc. The latter is considered an actual decrease in the number of calories you burn while dieting and is considered part of starvation mode. You may have also heard this called “metabolic damage.” In this podcast, we’re going to use all these terms interchangeably.

So does your rate drop when you diet? Yes. When you diet, your metabolic rate decreases for several reasons. As you lose weight, you’re carrying less weight, so you burn fewer calories. You tend to move around less during the day, which also means you burn fewer calories through movement. You generally feel less motivated to exercise. You eat less, so you burn fewer calories through digestion. Your resting metabolic rate decreases as well.

These factors can vaguely be sorted into two categories: obligatory and adoptive– and there’s a lot of overlap between these but let’s cover them anyway.

The obligatory decrease in metabolic rate while dieting is caused by you losing weight and burning fewer calories through movement. It also includes the decrease in the number of calories you burn digesting food, AKA “dietary induced thermogenesis.” The main reason these calories are called “obligatory” is that they’re going to happen no matter what.

As you lose weight, your body weight decreases as you lose fat. Because you’re moving around less weight, you burn fewer calories with daily movements. So if I start my diet weighing 200 pounds and I lose 20 pounds, I am now only moving around 180 pounds. Imagine how many extra calories you would burn carrying around an extra 20 pounds of weight. Over an entire day, that would add up, sometimes significantly.

A pound of fat also requires about 2 calories per day to maintain. As you decrease your fat stores, you also burn fewer calories because those cells don’t need as much energy to maintain their state.

Second, when you restrict calories, you tend to have a drop in what’s called “non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” or NEAT, which is just a fancy way of saying all of the little movements throughout the day that don’t really count as formal exercise like fidgeting and standing. You stand less, you sit more, and you’re less motivated to get up and go places or move in just about any way. These little movements can add up considerably as we will talk about in a moment.

When you diet, you also generally feel more lethargic, are less motivated to exercise and don’t usually push quite as hard in workouts. This can also decrease the numbers of calories you burn.

Finally, since you’re eating less total food, your body burns fewer calories digesting that food.

For instance, if you need 2,000 calories per day to maintain your weight and switch to a 1,500 calorie per day diet, you’re consuming 500 calories less per day. The number of calories you burn digesting food is roughly proportional to the number of calories you consume. In general, you burn around 10% of the calories you eat through digestion.

So let’s say you cut your calorie intake by 500 calories per day. 10% of 500 is 50. That means your 500 calorie per day deficit is actually closer to a 450 calorie per day deficit just from the simple act of eating less total food.

Your metabolism is the sum total of entire energy expenditure so your metabolism does decrease while dieting. However, when people say “metabolic damage” or “starvation mode,” they’re usually not referring to any of these factors.

What people usually mean is a drop in your resting metabolic rate, or RMR. This is the number of calories you burn just keeping your organs alive and performing basic bodily functions. For most people, it’s around 1,500 – 1,700 calories per day. Bigger people have a larger resting metabolic rate and vice versa. People with more muscle mass also tend to have a greater resting metabolic rate.

This is what people really mean when they’re talking about metabolic damage or metabolic slow-down. This leads people to make several claims such as calorie counting doesn’t work or that eating a special diet with certain foods will help prevent your metabolic rate from decreasing.

Let’s clear up these two myths first.

The drop in metabolic rate is rarely enough to completely stop weight loss and never enough to allow someone to gain weight while dieting. As I’ve said before, it’s not that calories don’t count in these cases. It’s that these people are not counting them accurately, if at all.

Second, there’s no evidence that certain foods increase or decrease your metabolic rate except for a few exceptions we’ll discuss in a moment.

Now let’s talk about the actual drop in resting metabolic rate, which is what this podcast is mainly about.

For awhile, researchers weren’t sure if your resting metabolic rate actually decreased while dieting. It’s not always easy to measure because they have to control for all of the variables we just talked about. However, in recent years, more modern studies have consistently shown that your resting metabolic rate does decrease with calorie restriction. This is for several reasons.

Your basal metabolic rate, which is roughly the same as your resting metabolic rate, is largely determined by your sympathetic nervous system output and your levels of thyroid, leptin, and other hormones. When you diet, all of these things tend to drop.

I personally don’t think this should be considered metabolic damage as it’s more of an adaptation. Your body isn’t broken. It’s just adapting in a certain way to dieting.

The idea that you’re also either in or not starvation mode is a myth. Generally, the drop in resting metabolic rate is on a spectrum. The more weight you lose and the faster you lose it, the more your body starts freaking out and the more your resting metabolic rate decreases.

This decrease in your resting metabolic rate is part of the adaptive component of weight loss, which represents all of the little changes your body makes while dieting to burn fewer calories.

Dieting is a minor degree of starvation and your body doesn’t like starvation. To keep you alive, it fights back against calorie cutting by making you burn fewer calories.

Now let’s talk about whether or not this drop in metabolic rate has a significant impact on weight loss.

The truth is that the drop in actual resting metabolic rate is generally a very small portion of the overall drop in metabolic rate that occurs while dieting.

In the Minnesota starvation experiment, which we talked about in previous podcasts, the subjects were starved to lose about 25% of their body weight in 6 months. At the end of their starvation period, their resting metabolic rates had decreased around 15%.

So if you started out with an RMR of 1,500 calories per day, after 6 months of severe starvation, you’d have an RMR of roughly 1,275 calories per day, which is only a 225 calorie per day decrease.

Considering that the subjects’ total metabolic rate or calorie burn dropped about 40%, that’s still a fairly small drop overall.

Remember that these people were also consuming inadequate protein and were not doing resistance exercise like lifting weights, so much of this drop in resting metabolic rate was also due to a drop in muscle mass. If these people had been eating enough protein and lifting weights, the drop in metabolic rate would almost certainly be much less. However, in extreme examples, the resting metabolic rate can also decrease more significantly.

In some cases, where people eat really low calorie diets like 500 or 600 calories per day and do lots of exercise, they often lose about 30% – 40% less fat than is estimated using prediction equations.

Not all of this drop in total calorie burn is due to a decrease in resting metabolic rate, but some of it is.

In one study, where participants were exercising up to 1.5 – 3 hours per day and eating roughly 30% calories below their maintenance levels, their resting metabolic rates dropped by about 500 calories per day. However, these people were massively obese. On average, around 150kg or 330lbs. They also lost a ton of weight with severe calorie restriction and huge amounts of exercise for previously sedentary people.

These people also dieted hard for the entire study period and never inserted refeeds or diet breaks, which probably made things much worse. We’ll talk about refeeds and diet breaks in a moment.

However, even in this extreme example, they still had resting metabolic rates much higher than normal, at around 1,700 calories per day. This is because they were still overweight. Even at the 30th week of the study, the subjects were still eating around 2,900 calories per day and losing weight. That’s compared to eating almost 4,000 calories per day at the beginning of the study.

So even though their metabolic rates decreased significantly with severe calorie restriction and exercise, these people still had a fairly high resting metabolic rate despite the large decrease. Basically, you could say that dieting really crashed their metabolisms, but they were burning so many calories beforehand that it still made a pretty small difference.

In another study that measured participants’ resting metabolic rates after weight loss, the researchers found that people’s metabolic rates dropped by about 70 – 140 calories per day. However, their total metabolic rates dropped by about 430 – 520 calories per day. So that’s a pretty big difference.

Almost all of this difference came from a drop in movement throughout the day or the thermic effect of activity. This accounted for around 370 – 380 calories of the drop in metabolic rate. This is also after accounting for the loss in body weight and other variables such as gender, fat-free mass, etc. Basically, these people became far less active after losing weight, which accounted for roughly 70% – 80% of the drop in their resting metabolic rates.

In fact, other studies have found that around 35% of the drop in the thermic effect of activity, or the number of calories you burn during exercise and movement, is due to an increase in muscular efficiency. Basically, we move less and become more efficient in the movements we make when we’re dieting.

Another study in women who had lost weight found that one year after weight loss, their levels of physical activity explained around 77% of their tendency to regain weight. Basically, the people who moved the least were the most likely to regain all of the weight they lost while dieting.

So here’s the summary of what we covered so far.

When you lose weight, you burn fewer calories for 5 primary reasons.

1) You weigh less and thus don’t need to burn as many calories to support a large body mass.

2) You eat less food, which decreases the number of calories you burn digesting food.

3) You move around less because you’re more tired and lethargic, even if you delete realize it.

4) You’re less motivated to exercise and often exercise at a lower intensity.

5) Your actual resting metabolic rate also decreases, which is what most people consider to be starvation mode or metabolic damage. However, this effect is still fairly minor overall and probably has less of an impact than most people think.

The data still shows that there is a real decrease in resting metabolic rate with dieting, even if this isn’t for the same reasons people usually think it is.

In general, researchers estimate that your resting metabolic rate decreases by about 5% – 10% while dieting. However, I don’t think this is a very useful piece of information.

Some people have almost no drop in resting metabolic rate and others have a fairly large one. It really depends on your genetics and behaviors like pretty much everything else in your life. So there’s a lot of individual variation in how much your resting metabolic rate will decrease while dieting.

In any case, let’s talk about how to avoid and reverse these negative adaptations, AKA starvation mode while dieting.

The degree of metabolic slowdown generally depends on three things that you can control.

1) The total amount of weight that you lose

2) The degree to which you’re dieting (e.g. going to 5% body fat for a guy or maybe 8% for a girl)

3) The rate at which you lose fat

The more weight you lose, generally the more your metabolism slows. The lower and lower you push your body fat levels, generally the more your metabolic rate decreases. The faster you lose weight, generally the faster your metabolic rate slows down.

Based on this information, here are 9 recommendations for how to avoid metabolic slowdown while dieting.

1) Don’t get too heavy in the first place.

Ideally, you want to keep your body fat close to your ideal weight year-round. Obviously, this is mostly applicable to models and athletes and bodybuilders who are generally more controlled than other people, but it’s important for everyone to consider. Some athletes will still let themselves gain 30 or 40 pounds in the off season and then try to lose it again during the competition season.

A better approach is to keep your body fat no more than about 5% – 10% above your goal weight year-round.

2) Take a slow approach to weight loss.

In general, your metabolism slows more when you diet faster. If you use a slower, more gradual diet, with a smaller caloric deficit, your body doesn’t tend to freak out as much. Leptin doesn’t drop as much, thyroid stays higher, and you’re generally able to keep moving around as much without a lot of effort. Your resting metabolic rate also generally doesn’t drop quite as much.

3) Include refeeds and diet breaks throughout your weight loss period.

By having short periods where you overeat on calories, you can help reverse some of the negative adaptations that cause your metabolic rate to decrease. Leptin levels recover slightly. Thyroid goes up. And you generally feel more motivated and energized to exercise. This also helps your recovery from workouts and probably reduces your risk of injury.

4) Increase the frequency and duration of refeeds as you get closer to your weight loss goal.

As you get to lower and lower body fat levels, your body starts to fight back more severely. To help prevent this from being quite so severe, make the level of caloric restriction less as you get closer to your goal weight. This seems a little counter-intuitive but it works.

Also remember that the total number of calories you consume is still going to need to drop over time.

5) Taper off your caloric deficit as you approach your goal weight.

As you get closer to your goal weight, decrease your caloric deficit. Sometimes, this will take care of itself since your body weight is decreasing anyway but, especially with people who have a high level of physical activity, it’s important to slowly decrease your caloric deficit over time.

If you start your diet needing around 3,000 calories per day, you might need only 2,700 later on due to a lighter body weight.

So if you started with a 500 calorie per day deficit, you’d be eating around 2,500 calories per day. Later on, you decrease your caloric deficit to 300 calories per day, which means you would be eating 2,400 calories.

So at the beginning of your diet, you’d eat 2,500 and closer to the end, you’d be eating around 2,400 so your overall actual calorie intake didn’t change much, but the size of your caloric deficit did.

However, if you’re an athlete and burning lots of calories during exercise, you have to be more careful. Depending on your training, you may end up actually increasing the size of your caloric deficit by doing more volume. So keep in mind it’s not necessarily your total calorie intake that’s most important, but the size of your caloric deficit.

6) Don’t stay super lean for too long.

I think it’s important to let yourself gain a little weight throughout the year. Frankly, staying super lean year-round is probably not very healthy and it’s certainly not always very fun.

Being at a higher body fat level tends to help you keep your sex hormones higher, raise your leptin levels, and boost your metabolic rate, and improve your recovery from workouts. It also helps you gain muscle and maintain your libido and sexual health. It also gives you a little more time to take a break from dieting and focus not quite so much on food.

I think in general you should plan on being a little higher than your minimum leanness around maybe 3 – 6 months out of the year. Keep in mind this is an estimate, but it’s based on how long it generally takes most hormones to normalize after dieting, how long it takes to diet slowly back to your normal, super lean state, and how much it takes to increase your calorie intake after dieting.

For a lot of athletes who compete in the summer, like me, this might mean gaining a little body fat during the winter. Again, ideally, I think this should be kept to less than around 10% of your goal weight and possibly more if you’re training to gain muscle at the same time.

However, just as gaining too much weight is bad, I think it’s generally a poor idea to try and stay super lean year-round. Granted, this isn’t super applicable to most people, but it’s important for people who are pushing the limits of body fat levels like models, bodybuilders, and athletes. For men, I would say around 6% – 7% is the minimum of this “fat period” and maybe 12% – 18% for women.

Listening to this, you are probably thinking that is still really lean, and it is. For most guys, you’ll still have a ton of veins and a 6-pack. If you’re a girl, you’ll still have a super flat stomach and be considered probably one of the skinniest or leanest people that you know of. However, this is still a good way to give your body kind of a breath of air, so to speak, from being super lean all year round. And if you’re an athlete, it still means you’ll be at a very nice body composition for performance. And if you’re a model, it still means you can still go out for a photo shoot. It just means you won’t be “peaked,” or at the absolute leanness you can get.

7) Don’t pair a high level of physical activity with massive caloric deficits– at least for very long.

In most cases, severe calorie restriction and huge amounts of exercise don’t work very well. You’ll lose a lot of fat but you also tend to lose a lot more muscle mass, which decreases your resting metabolic rate. You also tend to have a much larger drop in resting metabolic rate because of lower leptin levels.

Although the drop in metabolic rate is still fairly small compared to the amount of calories you burn through exercise, this is still not an ideal approach. Basically, there’s a point of diminishing returns where a larger caloric deficit produces less fat loss over time as your body fights back harder and harder.

Ideally, don’t do a really low-calorie diet and lots of exercise. If you do, don’t keep it up for more than maybe 2 – 3 weeks, at most, before taking a break. And preferably, just do it as a way to kickstart your diet and not as a long-term strategy.

8) Make sure you consume adequate protein while dieting and lift weights.

In most studies where there’s a large drop in metabolic rate, the people usually are not consuming adequate protein or losing weights. Both of these thing are crucial to maintaining muscle mass and overall metabolic rate while dieting.

There’s still often a large drop of calorie expenditure that isn’t explained by the loss of muscle mass but it tends to be less severe if people lift weights and eat enough protein.

9) Slowly increase your calorie intake after weight loss.

As Eric Helms discussed in a previous podcast, it’s generally best to slowly increase your calorie intake after fat loss rather than jumping right back into maintenance. This helps prevent too much fat gain and gives your body time to reverse some of the drop in metabolic rate, sympathetic nervous system activity, and sex hormones that we talked about earlier.

Basically, before throwing a bunch of calories in your system first, you gradually reintroduce your body to the idea that it’s not starving to death.

So here are my 9 prevention strategies for avoiding metabolic rate slowdown while dieting.

1) Don’t get too heavy in the first place.

2) Take a slow approach to weight loss.

3) Include refeeds and diet breaks throughout your weight loss period, or diet.

4) Increase the frequency and duration of refeeds as you get closer to your weight loss goal.

5) Taper off your caloric deficit as you approach your goal weight.

6) Don’t stay super lean for too long.

7) Don’t pair a super high level of physical activity with massive caloric deficits– at least for very long.

8) Make sure you consume adequate protein while dieting and lift weights.

9) Slowly increase your caloric intake after weight loss.

Now let’s talk about what to do if you already dieted hard, lost a lot of weight, and are now burning a lot fewer calories than you had hoped to.

1) Exercise regularly.

For many people, especially the post-obese, there will still be a slight decrease in resting metabolic rate after weight loss. Not all studies have found this to be the case and it’s probably not true for everyone and the absolute amount tends to be minimal. However, this drop in resting metabolic rate is still present for some people.

As we talked about a moment ago, people who lose a lot of weight or who are shooting for the extreme edges of leanness often have a large drop in non-exercise activity thermogenesis that’s the main reason for the drop in resting metabolic rate. To help offset this decrease, keep exercising consistently after you’ve lost weight or if you’re trying to maintain a certain level of leanness.

Besides the benefits of regular exercise for your health, this will also help offset the drop in resting metabolic rate and movement that occurs after or during weight loss.

Most studies have shown that people who are able to maintain their weight after losing a lot through weight loss expend around 2,500 – 3,000 calories per week through activity. That may sound like a lot but keep in mind that this includes non-exercise activity thermogenesis, stuff like walking around and picking your nose, whatever.

So this doesn’t have to come all or even partially from formal exercise. So let’s say you burn around half of these calories from just moving around– walking up stairs, brushing your teeth, that kind of thing. That means you might want to work out for about an hour three times per week for the rest of the week or whatever split you prefer to get in that extra 3 hours.

Keep in mind these numbers are all estimates and the actual amount you may need to exercise will vary based on your body mass, genetics, and so forth.

2) Take a diet break.

If you’ve been dieting hard for awhile and aren’t losing weight or you feel like you’re maintaining your weight on a really low level of food intake, then take a break. This should help reverse some of the negative effects of dieting. I

n some cases, you may not gain any fat from a diet break, but it’s likely you may gain a small amount. However, the small gain in fat will almost certainly be offset by making it easier to lose weight again when you start dieting.

In most cases, this can be a very small gain in fat, maybe 1 – 3 pounds or less depending on who you are and how long you take a break from dieting. Naturally skinny people tend to gain a lot less fat when taking diet breaks and sometimes even lose a little. Naturally large people tend to gain more.

Even if your diet break doesn’t make a really big difference in physiological parameters, it can have a big impact on your mental state.

Often, when people are dieting hard, they tend to start underestimating their calorie intake even more. They get a little more sloppy with tracking their calories or sticking to their diet and end up frustrated and confused when they don’t lose weight. When they start dieting again after a break, they’re even more motivated after regaining their willpower and getting recharged mentally.

It basically gives them a nice contrast to being super strict all the time so when they start their diet again, they’re OK being a little more “stiff” about their dietary practices.

Often, changes in weight during or around these breaks are also due to shifts in water weight. People tend to get more stressed while dieting and calorie restriction tends to raise cortisol levels. This makes you retain more water and can make it look like you’re not losing fat even if you really are.

After a diet break, your cortisol levels go down, you lose water weight, and you experience what some people call “the whoosh effect,” where you lose a bunch of water and finally experience a break through in weight loss.

3) Slowly increase your calorie intake after losing weight.

Just as this works as a prevention strategy, it can also work if you’ve already dieted for awhile.

The one exception here, which my buddy Eigal recently asked about, is if you are severely restricting calories for a long time, like eating 1,000 calories per day or around that. In this case, it’s best to have a more rapid return to maintenance calories. However, I still don’t think you should jump right back into maintenance.

So let’s say you’ve been eating 1,000 calories per day for 12 weeks and losing a ton of weight, which you would. Instead of returning to your maintenance intake of 2,500 calories per day or whatever it is, you first go back to 2,000 calories per day for 1 week. You’re still losing a little fat, but your body has time to adapt. This approach is still not quite as slow as traditional reverse-dieting but it’s still not as immediate as most people do it, either.

Then after that first week or two, you might go to around 2,250 calories per day for a week or two. Then after that, maybe go up to maintenance levels of 2,500 calories per day. This is also assuming you have diet breaks and refeeds throughout this period.

4) Experiment with increasing your carb and protein intake.

Protein tends to have a much higher thermic effect than fat or carbohydrate, which can help increase your energy expenditure. Even if you don’t need the extra protein to help maintain muscle mass while you’re eating at maintenance, it can help you burn around 80 – 100 calories more per day, which, in some cases, is enough to help offset the drop in resting metabolic rate caused by dieting.

Carbs also tend to keep leptin and thyroid hormone levels much higher, which can help increase your resting metabolic rate. Most studies have found this boost in metabolic rate to be insignificant but over the long-term I think it may still have some benefit.

Carbs also tend to help people perform better when they’re training hard, which is very useful for athletes.

Well, that’s it. I’m sure I’ll probably think of something that I should have put in here, but if I do, I’ll be sure to mention it in a later podcast.

Thank you again for listening and I will see you next week. And if you’re wondering what that noise was in the background throughout the podcast, I’m actually on vacation on the beach right now and am staying next to the world’s largest naval base in Virginia Beach. So those are actually F-18 fighters going overhead, which I think is pretty cool.

I will see you next week and have a great day.


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