For over a year or so this topic has grown to become a major concern for many people trying to get fit, and specially for those trying to get in contest shape. Some say its nonsense; while others say it’s the reason why they can’t achieve the results they’re looking for...
The term “metabolic damage” I think was first introduced by Dr. Layne Norton in one of his YouTube videos (here). Check it out if you want to completely understand what I’m going to talk about in this post.
Metabolism refers to all the physical and chemical processes in the body that convert or use energy, such as: breathing, circulating blood, controlling body temperature, contracting muscles, digesting food and nutrients, eliminating waste through urine and feces and functioning of the brain and nerves. It’s the reason why we are alive.
Somehow the term “metabolic damage” has misled some people to assume that the reason why they cannot lose weight is due to a non-respondent metabolism. Meaning it doesn’t work at all and despite their low calorie intakes they just cant seem to lose those last few pounds to get that lean physique they are looking for.
But this is not true at all; if your metabolism doesn’t work you would simply die!
Now don’t get me wrong, there are several metabolic issues that make the dieting process much more difficult and its because of this that many people fail to accomplish their goals. But to say that their metabolism doesn’t work at all? That’s just not so.
A more coherent term for this problem would be ‘metabolic adaptations’. You see, when we diet, whether it’s eating in excess (surplus of calories) or when we underfeed our body (deficit of calories) our metabolism tries to adapt. This adaptation occurs when our body tries to find homeostasis. In simple terms, homeostasis is that perfect balance where your body is comfortable at, where it’s not gaining nor losing weight. And where it is receiving sufficient food to maintain optimal physiological functions.
When we want to lose weight (burn fat), we need a deficit of calories. This deficit breaks that homeostatic balance. Which is why the process of losing weight is so difficult; because your body is literally fighting against your goals. Its important to understand that our body will always seek survival, and being shredded goes against pretty much all our survival mechanisms. Our fat stores are one of those mechanisms, which keep us from dying in a famine state. Those fat stores are just energy we have in the tank for when we are not receiving enough through food. But a deficit is necessary if we want to burn fat, without it, your body will not have a reason to cannibalize itself and eat away those fat stores.
If you’ve dieted before you know just how bad it gets the further into the diet you go. Hunger, binging, cravings, mood swings, etc. All become a frequent issue. This is your body “telling” you to eat. Because its not receiving enough energy (calories) to function optimally.
Our body increases the production of hormones like ghrelin, the hormone in charge of telling you you’re hungry. It increases the production of cortisol (stress hormone), it decreases the production of testosterone, because underfeeding is not an optimal state for reproduction. It decreases the production of leptin, the hormone that tells your body you’re full. And many more adaptations occur under caloric restriction. Same as when you overfeed, except things work the opposite way.
These adaptations occur because your body will always look for homeostasis, and in doing so your metabolic rate decreases. Meaning you will burn fewer calories to function. This makes your metabolism efficient at burning through calories. Because your body adapts to less energy intake in order to seek survival. An efficient metabolism is actually a bad thing when we want to lose weight. Because it means your body does a good job at using those few calories effectively. And the longer you diet for, the worse these metabolic adaptions will be. Which means you will have to eat fewer and fewer calories in order to burn away those last few pounds of fat.
It’s because of these adaptations that I don’t generally recommend dieting for more than 20 weeks at a time. Because at some point you have to stop restricting calories and feed your body the amount of food it needs to function optimally.
Now these adaptations will make the fat loss process more difficult, but never impossible. Because your metabolic rate will never come to a complete stop. Even if you follow protocols like in the Minnesota starvation experiment (here), where individuals were put on a semi-starvation diet that showed significant decreases in metabolic rate but not the point where it would stop completely. Same as in the self induced starvation done by a man during 382 days (here). Now don’t take these as examples to follow, I’m just proving my point about how your metabolism never stops working.
Adaptations do occur, and they are a problem for all dieters. But it does not mean that getting lean is impossible. It just gets more difficult the more time you spend restricting calories. It’s for this reason that I always recommend a revers diet after 16 or 20 week of restricting calories to come out of that deficit and follow a metabolic recovery process.
Now many people have also had this misconception about what their caloric requirements really are. Not everyone can have the luxury of eating 4,000 calories a day just to maintain, and sadly there are many people with “slow” metabolisms that have to eat very few calories to actually lose weight.
There’s also the problem that our food nowadays is so calorically dense that people have lost the notion of how much they can really eat. So its important that you be smart about your food choices when trying to lose weight. And focus on getting in more nutrient dense foods (more nutrients per calorie) and foods that will give you more bang for your gram. Because the difference in food volume comparing chicken breast and broccoli is going to be a lot different than comparing those same calories in a McDonalds menu.
A 1,500-calorie meal from a fast food restaurant is easy to ingest. But 1,500 calories worth of whole foods is a whole different story. So be wise about your food choices. And if you’ve been dieting for a while now, and cant seem to lose those last few pounds, then it might be wise for you to consider coming our of that deficit for a few weeks before you restrict calories again. This will make the fat loss process easier and healthier. And there should never be a reason for you to have to starve yourself to death or do exaggerated amounts of cardio to get lean. There are smarter ways of doing things and smarter ways of taking care of your metabolism.
Work smarter, not harder!
The more calories you can eat while still losing weight, the better off you will be in the long run.
Thank you for reading! If you have any questions, leave a comment below!