Whatever kind of disaster or crisis you are preparing for, one of the most fundamentally important resources to have on hand is food.
Everyone, everywhere, instinctively feels the need to eat, and accordingly it is a good idea to stockpile food in order to have it on hand.
If you don’t have enough food to eat your body will switch to burning fat reserves and then eventually other tissues to keep you alive. It’s just a matter of time, at that point, until you starve to death. It’s a grim prospect that no one wants to consider.
But, is it possible to live a little longer under starvation conditions if you’re carrying some extra weight around? Just how long can an overweight person live without any food?
An overweight person will live about as long as anyone else when starving, around 8 weeks, maybe 12. Fat can supply calories and some nutrients when starving, but it is not nutritionally complete and will not guarantee survival in the total absence of other food.
Any of us who are carrying around a few extra pounds have probably joked before that, “at least we won’t starve!” when justifying our weight gain.
It’s true, we won’t starve, if we have a little bit of extra fat but it does not give us a longer survival time under true starvation conditions.
It doesn’t sound reasonable, but that’s the truth. I’ll tell you everything you need to know below…
Never Assume You’ll Always Have Food on Hand
If there’s one thing I’ve encountered repeatedly in my travels and work talking to other preppers, there’s almost a certain hubris that’s associated with a properly stocked stash of survival food supplies.
Purchasing and storing, to say nothing of maintaining, a huge supply of food is a major investment of resources and time, and many preppers are rightly proud of the fact that they and their families won’t starve in times of crisis.
That’s true, and I’m happy for them. But the issue I’ve seen is that people check this box off the list and then just assume they won’t starve, ever, when trouble strikes.
After all, they are prepared, right?
No! This overconfidence could be suicidal! Any number of things might happen during a live event that could keep you or your loved ones from eating.
You might find yourself stranded far away from your meticulously prepared food supply. The event might simply last long enough that you run out.
A natural- or man-made disaster might destroy your home or your bug-out location, and all of your food with it. It could be anything!
And because anything can happen, the possibility of starvation, no matter how remote is always on the table.
Without Enough Food, You’ll Start to Starve
Once you no longer have food to eat, or are no longer eating enough food to cover your calorie and nutrient requirements, you will start to starve.
A slight deficit means that starvation will take a lot longer. A major deficit, or total absence of food, means that starvation will take hold relatively quickly.
Something else to keep in mind is that the business of survival, so much of the time, involves a never-ending list of tasks that absolutely must be accomplished if you want to stay safe and stay alive.
That means you’re going to be using even more energy (for things like hiking, foraging, and shelter building), and you’ll need even more calories to maintain that energy level.
Food is fuel, nothing more. It is a complex fuel, but fuel for our body all the same. You don’t have to be truly starving with an empty belly to start suffering from a calorie deficit in a survival situation.
And once that deficit goes on long enough, or grows large enough, you’ll really start to suffer from it.
What are the Stages of Starvation?
Starvation progresses in distinct stages with distinct processes. Everyone will experience these stages when they are starving, though some may take hold a little bit quicker or last a little bit longer. There are many variables.
Stage one will last 7 to 10 days, and will be experienced during a period of significant calorie deficit.
The body begins covering this deficit, or covering for a complete lack of food, by using up previously stored reserve energy sources of glycogen, stored in the muscles and liver.
This process is accelerated if there is a total or near-total lack of carbohydrates in the diet.
Stage two consists of the body turning to other tissues to further cover the energy deficit after glycogen stores are depleted.
This is where fat starts to be burned off in quantity, but also muscle protein. This leads to a loss of strength, a greatly reduced overall energy level, weakness, and eventually pronounced fatigue and mental fogginess.
After a few more weeks of total or near total starvation, the body will have burned through all fat and all sacrificial muscle reserves for energy, and then it will turn to other tissues, including non-critical organ tissues, to keep itself alive; stage three.
This is a terrible bargain as you might imagine, and as soon after this stage kicks in a person will perish.
What are the Symptoms of Starvation?
As a person that struggles on under starvation conditions, the symptoms get worse and worse, and the longer starvation lasts the more severe the effects and they might not be reversible.
People suffering from starvation in the short term will invariably feel greatly reduced strength, work capacity, and an overall lack of energy.
Mental problems will manifest as well in the form of pronounced irritability, dizziness and loss of equilibrium, and difficulty concentrating on complex tasks.
As starvation starts taking a greater toll on the body more obvious and severe physical effects will manifest, including a pronounced loss of muscle tone and mass, swollen limbs, significant weight loss, hair loss, pale or jaundiced skin, and even ulceration of the skin.
Anemia will take hold in the later stages of starvation, followed by organ failure, and death.
Stored Body Far Can Provide Energy, But Only for a Time
The moral of this awful story is that fat can and will provide energy when you are starving, but only for a time.
What’s worse, fat is not as readily available for use as energy compared to the stored glycogen mentioned previously.
So, considering that fat is a source of energy that is valuable during starvation conditions, why wouldn’t an overweight person live longer?
If they have a larger store of fat, wouldn’t that be a larger “fuel tank” for the body to call upon under the circumstances?
Body Fat Does Not Provide Essential Nutrients
The problem with relying on fat alone as a countermeasure to starvation is it fat is not a complete nutritional resource.
It provides calories, but not much in the way of minerals or vitamins, both of which are critical to beating starvation. Remember, it is possible to get plenty of calories and still die of malnutrition.
Accordingly, our bodies will burn up the fat for what nutrients and calories it contains, but the other, critical nutrients must come from other tissues, and those tissues are nowhere near as sacrificial as mere fat.
No matter how much fat you have on your body, this is why you will starve in about the same amount of time all other factors being equal.
How Long Will an Overweight Person Live When Starving?
A fat person will survive anywhere from 8 to 12 weeks under conditions of intense and prolonged starvation.
For all the reasons described above, that surplus body fat is not a major contributor to increased survival time.
How Long Will a Fit Person Live When Starving?
A leaner person will survive the same amount of time, all things being equal, as a fat person under severe starvation conditions: 8 to 12 weeks.
The major variables that affect this timeline are age, overall health, pre-existing conditions and other comorbidities.
Will Extra Muscle Mass or Extra Fat Keep You Alive Longer?
No, or at least it won’t up to a point. A person who is already chronically underweight, suffering from wasting diseases, anorexic or has been battling on-again, off-again calorie deficits will not survive as long as someone who has ample amounts of muscle and fat.
So, assuming you’re not drastically underweight, you’ll be about as well equipped for starvation conditions as you can be.