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What Is Metabolic Damage?
Metabolic damage is the term to describe the body’s natural response to stressing yourself too much, usually in the form of eating too little and/or exercising too much. For the majority of you, exercising too much is not going to be the issue. The reason many of you will encounter metabolic damage is because you basically starve yourself on all of those garbage fad diets.
While metabolic damage is the most accepted term to discuss this phenomenon, using the word damage seems like it causes lasting damage to your metabolic that can’t be fixed. In actuality, your metabolism adjusts/adapts and can adapt positively, or negatively. It’s ever-changing.
Your body’s main goal is to survive whatever you throw at it and stay in homeostatis – ie, not changing your body composition even when calorie intake drops drastically. Fat loss and weight loss isn’t something that your body naturally wants to do. For thousands of years, humans have had a shortage of food that your body had to adapt to to function. When humans could possibly starve for days, the body would trigger its survival mechanisms and hold on to every ounce of weight that it currently has! This calorie deficit actually makes your metabolism adapt to the point of that previously huge calorie deficit turning into your new maintenance calories.
Metabolic Damage In Today’s World
Fast forward to today, people are starving themselves all the time to try and lose weight, not knowing that you are just fighting your body! You eat less and less, the scale moves down a little but quickly stalls out, and you repeat the process. In the end, you usually gain more fat than when you started the diet and end up losing your muscle and become more unhealthy than you previously were. There are different levels of metabolic adaptation: metabolic compensation, metabolic resistance, and actual metabolic damage. The longer you stress your body with too few calories, the worse (or better, depending on the angle you look at it) your adaptation becomes.
Think of 3rd world countries with the people starving. Do they have a 6 pack and tons of muscle? Nope, they have VERY LITTLE muscle and a ton of fat, usually stored around their belly. This is what your body is going to look like if you continue to starve yourself!
The Adaptive Metabolism
Your body loves homeostatis – it doesn’t want to change from it’s current situation. It doesn’t care that you want abs or want to tone up. It just wants to survive. Humans have developed an adaptive metabolism to deal with the stresses of our lives. When you eat too little, your metabolism slows to a crawl to avoid losing so much weight and wasting away. When you eat too much, your body is in love and stores it all as body fat, and some muscle – both forms of stored energy that it can use later, if needed.
Looking At An Example
The easiest way to describe an adaptive metabolism is to look at an example. Lets say we have identical twins who exercise the same exact amount every day. They both weigh the same with their maintenance calories (amount of calories that your body needs to stay the same exact weight) are 2000 per day. They both want to lose weight. One educates themselves about proper nutrition, exactly what we do with our nutritional coaching program, and starts eating 1650 calories per day. The other wants to lose the weight as quickly as possible and starts eating 1200 calories per day. The one that eats 1650 calories per day loses about .75-1 lb of weight per week and it is easy to see that it is mostly coming from fat stores, not muscle. The one eating 1200 calories per day loses 2 lbs a week for the first 3 weeks and is very excited.
Fast forward to week 4 and the 1650 calorie intake a day is still losing at the same rate. The 1200 calories per day stalls out and get frustrated, and drops another 200 calories per day. This helps for one week and that person loses another lb. BUT, they stall out again. Starvation mode kicks in and the person feels tired and lacks motivation to continue dieting. That person jumps back to eating 2000 calories per day. Unfortunately, after all that metabolic damage that happens, that person gains more weight back then when they started the diet in the first place, the true example of the yo-yo effect. That person decides to repeat the process and falls into the same situation, never having a better looking body and usually ends up weighing more every single cycle. Meanwhile, the one who was eating 1650 calories a day eventually stalls out after 2-3 months. No problem because they were already eating a good amount of calories. So, that person drops to 1500-1550 a day and the progress continues.
Not far down the road…
Lets take this example to 6 months from when they both started. The person that started at 1650 calories per day has lost a whopping 25 lbs and they look awesome! Sure, the progress started out much slower, but the progress never stalled out to where it wasn’t easily fixed. The person that started at 1200 calories now weighs 10 more lbs than 6 months ago and has lost a lot of muscle and has put on much more fat. Over the many yo-yo cycles, the person had lost 10 lbs easily every time, but it always came back!
Now, do you want to be the person that starves themselves and never sees lasting results or do you want the slow and steady pace of proper nutrition that brings lasting results?!
Obviously this example doesn’t assume that the crash dieter knows how to reverse diet properly since they didn’t diet properly in the first place. Even when dieting perfectly, getting back to maintenance calories without fat gain requires the perfect reverse dieting program, which we’ll talk about in a later article.
The truth when it comes to metabolic damage is that it happens when people try to diet without proper support or education. They follow the latest fad and believe they need to starve themselves to see results. In fact, I have saw many cases of very overweight people that probably eat less than you and maintain their weight! That is because of the severe metabolic damage that they have caused to their bodies. Don’t be fooled, you can promote obesity in more ways that just overeating.
Proper nutritional intake is the solution, PERIOD! There is no quick tricks to lose huge amounts of weight. Eating clean, Paleo, Gluten Free, etc. aren’t the answer, although they can be choices of yours if you prefer eating a certain way. If you are losing more than about 1.5 lbs a week steadily, you are probably going to incur some metabolic damage, and very fast too! Losing 1 lb per week may seem small, but it will add up over time and actually last.
If you have experienced metabolic damage, you will probably gain some weight when coming off of the diet. It may only last a week or two, BUT DON’T FALL BACK INTO THE YO-YO EFFECT! I promise that the weight will stop growing and will eventually turn around and start dropping very predictably with regards to your daily calorie intake. Reverse dieting is the way to go when repairing your metabolism. You can read the about ways to solve metabolic adaptation after dieting at T-Nation, or wait until our article about Reverse Dieting comes out!
The goal will always be this: If you are looking to lose weight, we want you to eat the largest amount of calories possible and still see results. Not the other way around!