[EN] Energy Saving Mechanisms - less ≠ more

Updated: Dec 28, 2021

So, you’ve been on a strict diet for a long time but still haven’t lost a kilo. Does this sound familiar? Perhaps your body has been put on “energy saving mode”. It is an evolutionary mechanism that I can best describe like this: your body experiences a persistent shortage of food, which, from an evolutionary perspective, could be perceived as a potential threat - famine. To protect itself, your body will use less energy for tasks so that it can fulfil the same processes but with less energy, simply by making more efficient use of the available energy. Because your body cannot predict how long this energy shortage will last, it prefers to be safe than sorry. So it “puts aside” a little buffer that it conserves from the energy received from foods. It will store that in the most efficient way: as fat.

Particularly in the past when the availability of food was not guaranteed, this was a very useful mechanism, since the lower availability of food over a certain amount of time might herald an even longer period of no food to come: famine. So it is crucial for our existence that we have a mechanism to help us survive for days or even weeks with little or no food, waiting for better times.

To protect itself, your body will use less energy for tasks so that it can fulfil the same processes but with less energy, simply by making more efficient use of the available energy.

It is this same mechanism that - to a certain extent - explains why some overweight people who say they eat very little do not lose weight. These people (usually) don’t lie; they are probably relatively undernourished. Due to their bad dietary habits and continuous focus on weight loss and eating less, their bodies are put in a mode that saves much of the tiny bit of energy eaten (lettuce and crackers typically) for even worse times. The result is a tired body and an exhausted mind. A mode where even more sleep no longer helps. This highlights why simply counting calories is not a Nobel prize-worthy invention. Less (food or calories) isn’t always more (weight loss)! Skipping breakfast has become a common weight loss tactic. However, in my experience, many people approach it in the wrong way, as it is often the result of an unconscious and rushed lifestyle. In fact, for many, lack of time is the main reason for moving the first meal of the day to a later moment. But what happens then? After a rushed start to the day, and skipping breakfast, you find yourself with a rumbling stomach around 10:00 or 11:00 am. Typically, you’re at work, or on the road, but in any case you’re unlikely to be in the best eating environment one could hope for. A hungry belly is quite easily seduced by that candy machine at work or school, or at the gas station off the highway, or just another sandwich shop. What I am saying here is that the unconscious and often unstructured lifestyle that typically underlies breakfast-skipping has consequences that far outweigh skipping breakfast in itself.

Now let’s break this down just a little bit. We know from science that an irregular and stressful lifestyle is a well-known phenomenon among people who skip breakfast. The result: less healthy food choices. Because people who skip breakfast often compensate for that later in the day. They chose foods that fuel the “fight or flight system” (a system involved in stress management) and the so-called “taste-system” - foods that are flavorful and rich in sugar and fats. In other words: processed foods that mainly contain a lot of energy, but which are anything but nutritious.

“Remember: Less isn’t more!”

In my practice I frequently come across clients who suffer from stress. Due to a fast-paced lifestyle, they skip their breakfast and take “something small or a snack from the vending machine at 10:00 am, that puts off the first hunger pangs.” Around lunchtime “a sandwich (typically ham & cheese) from the canteen or sandwich shop, or a soup or salad and sometimes an apple at 3 pm”. The day is then concluded with “a small portion of dinner, preferably without carbohydrates”. After a few questions, there is often “a (half) bag of chips or some cheese cubes or other goodies” on the table, usually a few times a week between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., because “oftentimes, I feel hungry in the evening”.

It is characteristic that these people often eat little and that they eat foods that have little in the way of nutritional value (empty calories or no energy at all - lettuce, crackers, etc.). And they also do this based on the belief that it is beneficial for their bodies: “if I want to lose weight I have to reduce my intake”. However, these examples simply describe an unhealthy and incomplete eating pattern, period.

Energy saving mode is a metabolic state that actually no longer has function in 2022. It is therefore important to always eat enough (take note: this is very different than too much!), with the main focus on unprocessed foods with lots of variety. And of course, it should always be: delicious & nutritious!

Enjoy Health,


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