‘You should be eating the maximum amount of calories possible and doing the least amount of cardio necessary while still losing fat.’
You start working out and cutting your calories to ensure that you have a calorie deficit. The weight is coming off at a steady pace, then all of a sudden you hit a plateau. No matter what you do the weight won’t budge, so you lower your calories and up your cardio yet again until you are doing 1-2 hours of cardio a day and eating 1200 calories. Then after a while, your weight loss stops. You still haven’t reached your goal, you are frustrated and tired and your metabolism is damaged. Now what?
Many people think that they have to drastically reduce calories and perform lots of cardio in order to lose weight, but could this actually be detrimental to our fat loss efforts? If you someone who has stopped losing weight no matter how much you exercise or cut calories then you could be suffering from metabolic damage.
What is metabolic damage?
Metabolic damage is a drastic slowing of the metabolism that is caused by excessive calorie restriction, excessive cardio, and stress on the body.
How does it happen?
Let’s say we have a female that wants to lose weight for her vacation in 10 weeks time. She has put on a bit too much fat over winter and wants to drop fat as quickly as she can so she can be ready for her vacation, so she begins making cuts in her diet.
She was happily maintaining her body weight with about 2200 calories per day, so she begins by cutting to 1300 calories and starts by doing an hour of cardio a day. This works great and she loses several pounds in the first few weeks but eventually her weight loss begins to slow down.
After a few more weeks her fat loss has stalled, so she (who is already eating very little) decides to cut back on carbs and fats. This gets things moving again but not nearly as fast as when she first started. After another few weeks fat loss stops again. Since she really can’t eat much less than she is currently eating, she has no choice but to add more cardio to her workout schedule.
Over the next few weeks she struggles to lose body fat, before she stalls all together. She is exhausted, has no energy to work out, is eating very little and doing 1-2+ hours of cardio per day, but the scale does not budge. She still has more fat to lose but it is just not going to happen. Her metabolism has stalled and it is not going to give up any more fat.
This is exactly what leads to metabolic damage and makes it almost impossible to lose body fat.
Why does metabolic damage happen?
It is normal for the metabolism to slow down on a low calorie diet or calorie restriction. This is all due to metabolic adaptation. Your body will continually adapt to the pressure it is put under. If you remember the lady in the previous example, she was eating 2200 calories a day to maintain her weight but she then cut to 1300 to lose fat. As soon as she cuts calories her metabolism will begin to slow.
Once the body senses that fat loss is occurring it will begin to lower thyroid levels and diminish nervous system output in an effort to stop the weight loss. Once calories are lowered further and cardio is increased she will start to lose fat again, but only until her thyroid level and nervous system output begin to lower yet again. Along with that her testosterone levels will lower and her cortisol levels will rise which will eventually result in muscle loss. Since she is now losing muscle, her metabolism will drop even further.
Why does this happen? Simply put – your body goes into survival mode. It thinks it is starving and adapts to protect itself by storing body fat and preventing weight loss. If your body did not have these adaptive abilities, you would continue to lose weight without stopping until you eventually die. These adaptations are crucial for survival.
The yo-yo cycle
A lot of people that suffer with metabolic damage are those who yo-yo diet or binge eat. People lower calories to lose weight which results in a slowed metabolism. Someone with a slowed metabolism cannot handle many calories. They often get frustrated or decide they cannot survive on 1200 calories per day and either binge eat or eventually increase their calorie intake. Since their calorie intake has been so low their metabolism is not equipped to handle the increased rise in calories, leading to quick fat gain. When they gain the weight back, their metabolism will still remain damaged. Eventually they will start on another diet with an already lowered metabolic rate and the cycle begins all over again.
How do you prevent metabolic damage?
Thankfully, there are ways to prevent metabolic damage from occurring. Lets go through them.
1. Don’t rush fat loss
Slow and steady wins the race. You should always allow plenty of time to reach your desired goal. You should aim to lose no more than 2lbs (1kg) per week and preferably keep weight loss at a rate of 1lb (500g) per week. Doing so will prevent muscle loss. The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest and the higher your metabolism will be.
2. Cut back on low intensity cardio
As long as you protect your metabolism, high amounts of cardio are not necessary to achieve fat loss. Prolonged periods of low intensity steady state cardio reduces metabolic rate over time by burning muscle for fuel. So how much cardio should you be doing? It is different for everyone. You should do the least amount of effective cardio that you can in order to maintain a healthy body composition. HIIT is harder and more intense but it is a lot more effective. Not only do you burn up to 50% more fat than steady state cardio, but you continue to burn calories 24-48 hours after you finish your workout. With low intensity steady state cardio you are only burning calories while you exercise, as soon as you stop so does the calorie burn. No one should ever get to the point where they have to rely on hours of cardio just to maintain or lose weight.
Please note that I am not saying that you shouldn’t perform steady state cardio at all (as I believe both of these combined seem to give the best results) but try to focus more on quality over quantity. If you are going to perform steady state cardio, try to aim for under 45 minutes 1-3 days per week. I personally try to aim for 2-3 HIIT sessions per week and 1-2 days of low intensity fasted cardio for 30-40 minutes (usually walking). I find that this formula works best for me.
3. Stop dieting
If you think you may be suffering from metabolic damage, the best thing to do is to stop dieting, put away the scale and start focusing on repairing your metabolism. It’s not going to happen overnight, it will take at least 12 weeks and sometimes up to a year (depending on the severity of it). Start by adding calories slowly (even if it is 20 extra calories per week), eating smaller frequent meals and making sure to incorporate all macronutrients into your diet (protein, carbs & fats). Keep in mind that it is extremely important that you do not cut carbs (or proteins and fats for that matter), they are an essential part of keeping your metabolism raised; so make sure to eat enough of them! Yes, you will maintain your current weight, hell you may even gain a few pounds, but let me tell you, it will be well worth it in the long run.
How do I know how many calories I should be eating?
The best way to figure this out is by working out your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) which you can do here. Keep in mind that this will be more accurate if you know your current body fat level. (This is just a rough calculation and it may not be 100% accurate for everyone). For example, according to the calculations my TDEE to maintain my weight is 2070 calories but I can easily maintain my weight on 2200 calories.
Once you are able to eat at your TDEE while still maintaining your weight, then you can start to cut. The best way to calculate this is to click on ‘Fat Loss – Suggested 15%’. That way you are still in a calorie deficit, but it isn’t so big that you are going to ruin your metabolism.
If you want to take it a step further, you can calculate the amount of protein, carbs and fats that your body needs each day. I tend to keep the plan under ‘IIFYM (recommended)’. You can then change and track your macros on a website such as myfitnesspal.
4. Have a high carb day
High carb days are essential to keeping an elevated metabolism. The reason for this is because of the hormone Leptin. Leptin is a fat-burning hormone that is directly related to carbohydrate and body fat levels. When you start to lower your calories and more specifically your carbohydrates then the lower your leptin levels and metabolic rate become. What this means is your metabolism slows, and it will be extremely hard to lose that last bit of fat. High carb days will boost leptin leading to higher levels of the thyroid hormone and elevated testosterone, both of which will help your fat loss efforts.
5. Lift weights
Most people know this already, but I thought I better throw it in here! In order to keep your metabolism high, the majority of your workouts should be focused around resistance training. Resistance training increases your metabolic rate which will allow you to eat more calories without gaining body fat. It is by far one of the best things you can do for your metabolism.
*Want to know more? Check out my follow up post here where I help you to work out exactly how many calories your body needs depending on your goals, explain how to put reverse dieting into practice and the new way of ‘clean eating’ known as IIFYM.
See my post on Reverse Dieting here.
If you have any questions about metabolic damage, please feel free to email me. I would be happy to help!