Q: This is me right now. 8 months of hard work. Then I was STARVING!!! Can’t figure out why suddenly I am Always hungry. Trying to ignore it but I am struggling with that. I am far more physically active than I was but I have plateaued after 35 pound loss. I am going to go back to the calorie drawing board next week after a good grocery shopping trip. I find I am starving all through the “right” amount of less calories though. I pay attention to protein and sugar (have to with kidney troubles) but it doesn’t seem to change the constant growling. The moment I stop counting the calories I slip back into the “eat more than I should” problem. Dr. says Thyroid is fine. I have an autoimmune B12 deficiency(thanks for the kidney probs jerk disease) so I take needles. Is everyone this hungry going through weight loss? Thinking about tweeking it so I stop cutting the daily amount of food I would normally eat and see if increasing the amount of exercise to compensate would be better than calorie reduction. But that’s a good bit of exercise that I may not have time for. Not sure if the hunger is all in my head. Makes me cry. He’s spot on with what he’s saying. Been life for 10 years now. Slowly going up not down. Going down leaves me shaking and hungry.
So, here’s what I’m gathering.
You’re eating far too few calories, and you’re eating the wrong amounts of your macronutrients – your carbs, your fats, your protein—and it has resulted in you experiencing a plateau that forces you to cut even more. It’s something we should all be mindful of, because it can quickly turn into an obsessive kind of fear if it goes on unchecked for too long.
Many people think the best thing to do is merely to cut as many calories as possibly as quickly as possible, with little regard for what those calories consist of when they cut them. And, because of the basic laws of thermodynamics, that’ll work…but only for so long – your body will, eventually, revolt.
Far too often, people believe that they should “eat the amount of food that you’d be eating at your dream size,” and they’ll automatically lose the weight it takes to get there. (Never mind the fact that this means that the way you look at that size is being left entirely up to chance.) This might work for people who have 5lbs they’d like to lose….but the rest of us? The consequences are complicated, and long-standing.
Let’s talk—again—about metabolism. Your body is made up on bones, muscle, fat, water, blood. They’re all metabolically active in one way or another, all to different degrees; in other words, they all burn different amounts of calories per hour just for merely existing. That’s commonly referred to as your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Of them all, your muscle is the most metabolically active, meaning it burns the most calories per hour.
Now that this is out of the way, let’s just put it out there: if you cut too many calories, your body will inadvertently begin to believe it is experiencing a famine, and begin to do what is necessary to help it preserve your life for as long as possible. This means cutting back on non-essential bodily functions—reproductive processes (because why would you want to be reproducing in the midst of a famine?), hormone regulation, and so on—and, yes, eating away at the most metabolically active mass on your body. It starts to eat away at your muscle. This is only worsened by the fact that exercise makes you hungry, and if you’re not eating enough to fuel those workouts… well, let’s just say the situation only goes downhill from here.
To some people, this is great because they’re still losing weight, unintended famine be damned. Beneath the surface, however, is a more complex – and frustrating – story.
When you lose weight, your BMR goes down. This is a given. However, when your body loses large quantities of muscle, your BMR goes down drastically. This is why we try to differentiate between the desire for weight loss and the desire for fat loss. Just losing any ol’ weight often results in a situation where you’re careening towards a plateau.
If you’re starving, it’s likely that it’s because you cut too many calories, but it’s also likely that your diet consists of something that is low in fiber, low in protein, low in complex carbohydrates, low in healthy fats. These are the things that fill you up and leave you satiated and satisfied until the next meal. You can’t cut all the calories at once because that runs counter to the goal: you cut small amounts of calories at a time in order to help you understand what meals look like and feel like inside of you at that particular size, and it makes it easier to develop habits that accept meals at that size. Cutting too much at once—to the point where you’re left feeling like you’re starving—will result in your body fighting you…hence you creeping back up in portion size.
This is how you damage your metabolism. This is how you become a yo yo dieter. And the fix, I’m sad to say, isn’t easy.
The first fix is to understand what percentage of your diet is going to carbs, what percentage to fats, and to protein. Talk to your doctor and get a referral for a registered dietitian to help you understand what percentage of your diet can safely come from protein, and abide by that. The average person should be working around 30-35% of their diet coming from protein, and that’s not to say a third of the plate should come from animal flesh—protein is in dark and leafy vegetables, beans, lentils, dairy and, yes, meat. It’s not hard to come by. You need this in order to feel satisfied instead of starved.
Take a week, and keep a food journal. Write down what you’re eating, how much, and when. At the end of the week, set down with a cup of tea and do all the math. Figure out where the calories are going, and what percentage of your diet is going where. The MyFitnessPal does a great job of giving you this info.
You also need to assess how many calories you’re eating, and find ways to shift that with meals that actually fill you up. Meals that consist of brown rices and whole wheats and quinoa and so on have both the protein and fiber necessary to help fill you up. Add into that some fresh produce, healthy fats, and quality protein? You can actually fill yourself up.
I’d also increase my caloric intake by maybe 5 percent every two weeks, and start strength training—not high intensity interval training—to help redevelop the muscle mass lost. This will help get your metabolism back up in a healthy way, a safe way, and a sustainable way. Lots of squats, lots of deadlifts, lots of full body work. Choose your exercises in a way that reflects the proportions you might want, sure, but whatever you do…choose them. Aim to burn the same amount of calories you did with your other exercises. You might need a heart rate monitor to help you do this.
Keep tabs on your body fat percentage—and, by extension, your lean body mass percentage(LBM)—and, as your metabolism starts to rise, so should your caloric intake… and this should continue until your meals are at a sustainable size for you. From there, set out to lose your body fat in a sustainable way: through cutting small amounts of calories and being active in a healthy and sustainable way.
This process is likely to take the better part of a year. However, if you take it slow and engage in it mindfully—not obsessively, though, because that’s actually counterproductive and will likely result in your regressing back into the old habits—you can successfully repair your metabolism and build the figure you’re after in a healthy way that doesn’t result in starving. And, as I always say, your body—and, apparently, your tummy—will thank you for it!