Monday, November 05, 2007

Tom Venuto vs. grrlAthlete and Eat Stop Eat

If you are a regular reader of fitness and nutrition blogs, then there is a great chance that you have heard the name Tom Venuto. Tom is a well respected authority in the online weight loss community.

So why am I blogging about Tom?

Well in one of Tom's recent blog posts the issue of starvation mode was discussed (You can read it HERE). Specifically, Tom discusses an unnamed email that he disagrees with.

While I respect the fact that Tom blanked out the website name, but he didn't need to. The email was from the grrlAthlete newsletter. And since I'm involved in this site I stand behind the newsletter and its contents.

Here is a little background for you, Tom makes a living selling a weight loss program that "is based on keeping you OUT of starvation mode or minimizing its effects", while my program Eat Stop Eat, is based on the idea that when it comes to short periods of fasting combined with weight training, starvation mode does not exist.

pretty confusing. Two guys saying two completely different things about what sounds like the exact same thing. Well let's take a deeper look.

Firstly, the point of the grrlathlete email was that "starvation mode" as defined by most diet people as "a reaction to a caloric decrease that causes your body to slow down its metabolism and actually store more fat WHILE you are dieting", does not exist.

Our argument is based on the fact that your metabolism is largely based on your lean mass. In studies where people are dieting but their lean mass is maintained through resistance training, there is no reduction in metabolic rate.

Secondly, in periods of complete caloric restriction, LPL and HSL activity (the enzymes that regulate the movement of fat in your body) change to encourage the movement of fat out of your fat stores into your blood and to your muscles where they can be burnt for fuel. If you body was actually storing fat, this enzyme activity would need to be reversed, and this just doesn't seem to happen.

So far I think Tom would agree with our points, they definitely make logical sense and are backed by a considerable number of scientific studies.

In fact, I think his post points out one of the major problems that we have with "starvation mode" - that it lacks a solid definition.

For instance, Tom states out that there is a large amount of research that points out that in studies where lean body mass is reduced considerably, not only is metabolic rate lowered, but it is lower than would be expected by the loss in lean body mass alone.

I have no problems with this statement. When someone loses considerable amounts of lean mass there are many metabolic ramifications of this loss, including many hormonal changes. Again, this is a result of the loss of lean mass, and not the caloric restriction per say. So again, his point is the same as our point - caloric restriction doesn't slow down metabolism, but loss in lean body mass does and a loss in lean mass can have a snowball effect on lowering your metabolism.

The most troubling part of Tom's post was the reference to the Minnesota Experiment, a very old study conducted in the 1940's that studied the effect of 6 months of starvation on healthy male subjects. Now there are a lot of issues with this experiment that I'm positive Tom nor any other fitness expert would agree with.

For instance, The men in the trial started off already very skinny - 5'10" and about 150 pounds was the average. This would correspond to a BMI of under 21. I'm sure if someone with these same measurements came to Tom for advice he would tell them to start weight training and put on some muscle.

But instead of starting a solid weight training program, they reduce their calories down to as low as 1500 Calories for 6 months.

Not only this but they also had to walk 22 miles a week! that's over 3 miles a day of long slow boring cardio...the equivalent of walking on a treadmill for an hour every day...something that goes directly against the muscle preserving advice of Fitness Experts Like Craig Ballantyne, John Barban and Tom Venuto.

Now, getting back to starvation mode. The point of the original email was that caloric restriction does not cause a decrease in metabolic rate, but rather that a loss of muscle mass is what causes metabolic rate to slow down.

So did the people in the Minnesota experiment lose muscle...well, based on these pictures, I'd say yes!

Before and after pics of a subject from the Minnesota Experiment. Two things to notice 1) This subject was VERY skinny to begin with 2) This subject obviously lost muscle mass over the course of the study.

The bottom line is that the Minnesota Experiment did not control for changes in lean mass, nor did many of the other early studies on caloric restriction. This is why many early nutrition studies say that caloric restriction causes a reduction in metabolic rate, and why these studies are confounded.

Lastly, Tom points out that contrary to what was stated in the grrlAthlete email, Starvation mode is actually a scientific term that describes starvation induced increases in "food seeking behavior". Again, you can see the problem with starvation mode and its very vague definition.

If this is the official definition of starvation mode, than it may very well exist in this regard, but this is VERY different from the "starvation mode" as defined in the typical diet literature of "caloric restriction causing a decreased metabolic rate and increased fat storage".

The take home point here is that I stand by the statement that caloric restriction does not cause a decreased metabolic rate and increased fat storage. It is a decrease in lean mass that causes these effects, and this decrease in lean mass can be prevented by a proper weight training program.

Hope this helps,


PS- With regards to the question, "who is right?" I am hoping this post helps clarify that in a way, we are both right, and under that same pretense its important for me to say that I do not believe that my Eat Stop Eat is the only road to weight loss.

I believe that short term periods of fasting for weight loss are an incredibly effective and easy method, but it is by no means the only method. I'm sure that Tom Venuto's program "Burn the fat" and other program like John Berardi's "Precision Nutrition" are also very effective. Different but effective.

At the end of the day the key is finding a program you can stay on long term, because finding the right diet that works for YOU and combining it with a solid resistance training program is the key to succesful, long term weight loss.

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Anonymous said...

Another interesting point about the Minnesota Experiment is that the two subjects who started with the most muscle mass had the least amount of metabolic complications.

In fact, they were accused of breaking the diet and were kicked out of the trial, but there is some speculation that there strong metabolisms may have been a result of their muscle mass.

Carrie said...

I've posted my comments and portions of both blog articles, plus the original email article, on my blog at

I've formed my opinion, what's yours?

Israel said...

that was a very insightful post. I agree with what both of you state.

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Anon,

Thanks for the post.

I agree that there are some important flaws with the Minnesota experiment, however the point isn't to bash the Minessota experiment, but rather to illustrate that both Tom and John (the original author of the grrlAthlete email) were argueing the same point, just from different angles.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Carrie,

Thanks for posting the original email.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Isreal,

Thanks for the post.


Theo said...

I personally think both of you are right, and that the debate at hand is somewhat futile since it seems you’re both talking about completely different things:
Brad, you're promoting "punctual fasting" as I like to call it. It works great too from my experience, I got your book a while back great stuff really interesting. Basically it’s a day of fasting once a week, once every five days... but in the end it involves you fasting for a day then resume eating normally.
Tom, on the other hand is saying that when you have caloric insufficiencies you go into starvation mode... tons of terrible things happen to you... true also, when over a decent period of time, since you’ll all agree that second you stop eating your metabolism doesn’t crash and all the lights don’t switch off.
Both of you are correct: punctual fasting works great for weight loss and for other health reasons; and long term caloric deficiencies are bad for you.
No where the contradiction begins is from the fact that you can't compare the effects of punctual fasting and those of long term caloric deficiencies. Notice the opposition of terms “punctual” and “long term” as well as “fasting” and “deficiencies”, to me this shows you’re both talking about completely different things.
In the end, here we are with two sets of factual statement that are incomparable in-between each other.
1rst set, Brad’s facts:
-24 hour fasting is good for you
-Not eating for 24 hours will not crash your metabolism
2nd set, Tom’s facts:
-Starvation is bad for you as has a negative impact on your metabolism.
In conclusion you’re both correct, only here talking about two completely different incomparable things. As for “Starvation mode”, granted the exact definition is vague, nevertheless, your body does respond to starvation, so I figure its response could be considered “going into starvation mode.

P.s: If this comment is completely flawed due to me making a gross misunderstanding of what’s happening/being debated, then I apologise and in that case could someone please explain more clearly what I missed.

Happiness Within said...

I read Tom's post and thought that it was in regards to your message of "Eat Stop Eat". I am glad that you took the time to clarify your message specifically in response to Tom's post. Very helpful.

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Theo,

To be fair, Tom never mentioned Eat Stop Eat in his post. And I know of Tom well enough to say he probably has no problems with the program.

Our points really revolve around the same point.

I dont beleive that caloric restriction causes starvation mode if you maintain your lean body mass.

Tom points out that when you do lose lean body mass, your metabolism slows down even more than it should, so something else must be going on.

Tom also lists various other versions of starvation mode that from his research does exist, including an increase in food searching activities after prolonged caloric restriction.

In the end you are right though, this isnt really an arguement as much as two people attacking the same problem from different angles.


Brad Pilon said...

Hi Happiness within,

Thanks for the post, I'm glad I help clear things up.


burnthefatguy said...

well written and professional post. Only thing is, a rebuttal wasnt needed in regard to "tom venuto versus eat stop eat," because my post on starvation mode was never in reference to eat, stop eat or Brad.

It also had nothing (directly) to do with fasting, intermittent fasting or even meal frequency. It was purely written in reference to an article (or two) about starvation response, written by a fellow who has some affiliation with Brad's ebook.

My article was only in defense to comments made about the existence of starvation mode and the acknowledgement of "starvation response," "starvation mode" or "survival mode" as terms used in the scientific literature.

The only reason my article was "defensive" or sounded confrontational was because of a few comments made to the effect of, "starvation mode is a myth..." "it's not scientific, it's invented by diet gurus..." "there's no scientific evidence supporting it..." "so do not buy any diet books that mention starvation mode."

Anyway, as some of the comments here indicate, in some regards, our programs seek to achieve the same thing, only through different means, each of which may appeal to the lifestyles and dispositions of different people. I think progress ends when we start to believe that there is only one best way to do it!

Tom Venuto

Anonymous said...

In your sales letter you say:
"If you buy any other diet book I guarantee you will be wasting your money"

From Your Sales Letter

"There is literally billions of dollars being spent on weight loss and diet books every year in people’s quest to lose weight, and you won’t believe how off track all of these books have become.

I’ll admit, many of these programs will work, at least for the first month or two, but none of them can promise long-lasting weight loss."

and from your post:

"... I do not believe that my Eat Stop Eat is the only road to weight loss."

So the sales letter lies?

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Anonymous,

I don't think the sales letter lies at all.

I'll start from the bottom up...

The current body of evidence on weight loss and diet plans suggest that after the first couple months, the results of most popular diets begin to diminish as people's compliance to the diet begins to fail. It has been suggested that the more overly restrictive the diet, the harder it is for people to stay on long-term.

Many of today's diet books are still very "off track". In my opinion they focus too much time on restricting certain foods or food groups, making their diet plans difficult to follow for most people.

And lastly, I still believe that many of today's diet plans and books are a waste of money.

I believe Eat Stop Eat is an effective diet that people can stay on long term, however I will never discount the fact that any form of manageable long-term caloric restriction results in weight loss.

I hope this helps clear things up.


Brent said... conclusion, "starvation mode" and the complex processes that downregulate metabolism DO exist. However, caloric restriction, so long as the body is receiving enough nutrients to sustain life - that is, not starving - will not downregulate metabolism if fat free mass is preserved.

Logically, since energy cannot be created nor destroyed, and since caloric restriction literally restricts energy by definition, one must make sure his/her body preferentially burns fat for fuel rather than breaks down muscle for glucose. Analyzing the literature indicates that gluconeogenesis (from proteins) is only MINIMIZED with a relatively higher protein intake, but CAN be accomplished with strength training that is intense enough to signal/stimulate muscle tissue turnover. Fate would have it, though, that long-term energy restriction, regardless of one's macronutrient ratios, ultimately leads to muscle wasting. Leptin, which informs the brain on body fat levels, decreases with increasing fat loss. Eventually, when fat stores get too low, the body will preferentially breakdown muscle for glucose. If there is always a net negative calorie consumption, then this "negative energy" will be retrieved from the body's stores, leading to an inevitable muscle loss.

Brad Pilon said...

Hi Brent,

I think you've done a great job summing it up.

However, I still would prefer to call the metabolic concequences of muscle loss as "muscle wasting" as opposed to "starvation mode".

And the metabolic concequences of a caloric intake that is simply to low to sustain a healthy organism as starvation.

My only concern with your summary is the idea of Leptin. I feel we simply still do not know enough about this hormone.

For instance, Leptin can drop after a one day fast, when fat loss has not nearly been enough to warrant this change as a measure of adiposity. Instead, Letpin may also respond to serum insulin, glucose, or possibly growth hormone or the catecholamines.

I think once we have a better understanding of this complex hormone and its interaction with other metabolic regulators, we will have an even clearer picture of the effect nutrition has on metabolism and health.

Regardless of the role of leptin, I think you have laid out the whole process nicely.