Metabolic damage is quite a buzz topic in fitness and weight loss circles these days, as more and more people are beginning to understand it, its effects, and how to overcome it.
The term, “metabolic damage” is perhaps not all that appropriate though since nothing is actually damaged per se, and it’s quite reversible as well. A far more accurate description would be metabolic adaptation.
Whatever you wish to call it however, it’s basically a condition whereby your body intentionally slows down your metabolism for one or a number of reasons, causing your weight loss to plateau.
Here are 7 mistakes you could be making right now that would cause you to experience metabolic damage:
1. Starving Yourself
Starving yourself, under-eating, following an over-restrictive diet – whatever you want to call it, is without a doubt the quickest and easiest way to cause metabolic damage in your body. While a calorie deficit is always necessary to make fat loss possible, so many people make the mistake of trying to lose fat too quickly by being overly-aggressive with their calorie restriction. This in turn causes their body to respond aggressively in opposition.
Your body has an inbuilt protection mechanism whereby it acts to conserve energy when it senses a drop in energy intake. In more serious cases, this is referred to as a starvation response. The more pronounced and enduring the calorie restriction is, the greater your body’s response will be.
This response to a calorie restriction is very complex and influences many systems and organs in your body, form your thyroid, to your digestive system, to your muscle tissue, to the energy conversion process in your cells, to hormones in your brain, and so on. The net effect however is that your body simply starts burning fewer calories, which is precisely what you want to avoid if your goal is to lose fat.
The very best way to avoid a starvation response is simply to lose fat as slowly as you can. A good, sensible target for fat loss would be about one to two pounds per week, depending on your situation. This equates in theory to a calorie deficit of about 500 to 1,000 calories a day.
Less than this is safer, and any more than this will very often (but not always – again, it depends on your circumstances) lead to muscle loss (discussed later) and excessive metabolic damage.
Also bear in mind however, that this calorie deficit doesn’t need to (and in fact shouldn’t) all come from a calorie restriction in your diet. A good amount of contribution should come from exercise. Always remember that it’s better to burn the calories off than to starve them off.
2. Overdoing Cardio
People are very often surprised to hear that cardio exercise is in fact linked to metabolic damage. It is counterintuitive, after all. Logic tells us that cardio exercise burns calories, it gets your heart pumping, your temperature, up, so it stands to reason that it’s revving up your metabolism, right?
Well, in the short term, absolutely. But in the long term . . . . not necessarily.
While it’s true that one of the major characteristics of cardio exercise is that it burns lots of calories, it does pose one major problem. And that is that your body is actually highly adaptive to low-intensity, steady-state cardio. We’re talking about jogging, cycling, elliptical cycle, rowing, and so on – anything that’s done at a low to moderate, steady pace.
When you do lots of this type of cardio, your body readily adapts by becoming more efficient in handing the internal processes involved, meaning that as time goes by, it burns fewer and fewer calories doing the same amount of exercise. On top of that, because of the high energy expenditure you experience, you guessed it . . . metabolic damage.
So often I’ve heard women, including competitors, declare that they do one, or sometimes even two, hours of cardio a day, “because they need to”, believing that for them it’s necessary. Well they’re right, it is necessary for them. But only because their body has adapted and their metabolism is damaged as a result of the excessive steady state cardio they’ve done. So they need to maintain that amount of cardio just to preserve their current weight.
This doesn’t mean that low intensity cardio is bad and that you should avoid it at all costs however. It just shouldn’t be overdone. High intensity interval training (HIIT) and circuit training are two alternatives that you can use as far superior alternatives for cardio. HIIT in particular has actually been shown to improve your body’s ability to burn fat.
The rule here therefore is to keep your cardio short and intense.
3. Serial Dieting
Serial dieting is a very damaging practice (metabolically speaking) since in a way, it leads to a more problematic form of metabolic damage than does simply dieting too aggressively.
Anyone who’s ever experienced yo-yo dieting will understand how frustrating the cycle of losing and re-gaining weight can be. By dieting down they lose weight, but at the same time experience metabolic slowdown until their weight loss plateaus. In frustration they then give up on their diet and revert to their former eating habits. With their slower metabolism however, they quickly re-gain the weight and often times more.
Sometime later, it may be weeks or months, they get fed up and decide to diet again. Only this time it’s harder to lose the weight so they diet more aggressively. The exact same cycle of weight loss and re-gain repeats itself. The third time, it’s harder still to lose weight. And so on, and so on.
Your metabolism not only adapts to what you’ve done just recently, it also tends to have a medium- to long-term memory as well. Under the influence of serial dieting it adapts and causes future fat loss to be more and more difficult.
Repeatedly losing weight in the wrong way is damaging and should therefore be avoided. Again, the solution is to diet slowly and to then stick to the process. Don’t fall into the yo-yo trap!
4. Not Eating Enough Protein
We all know that protein is very important to muscle-building, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s just as important when you’re in the process of losing fat.
When you’re on a calorie-restricted diet for fat loss, particularly where the calorie restriction is fairly aggressive, your body can potentially begin turning to your muscle tissue as a source of energy. Having enough protein in your diet will help to prevent this from happening.
The reason that muscle loss is a bad thing is that muscle tissue is metabolically very active, meaning it burns calories at a relatively rapid rate. Simply speaking therefore, when you lose muscle tissue your metabolism slows, and when you gain muscle it speeds up.
The other important point is that protein is very thermogenic – it requires more energy for your body to process than the other macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats). From this standpoint it’s very metabolically stimulating, so for the sake of your metabolism you should be sure not to skimp on protein
5. Ignoring Resistance Training
Even more important to the preservation of muscle tissue, especially while you’re in the process of losing fat, is resistance training.
As I mentioned earlier, whenever you create a calorie deficit in your diet for the purpose of losing fat, your body tends to want to adapt by conserving energy through metabolic slowdown. And because muscle tissue is metabolically active, as part of your body’s strategy it will target that tissue for disposal.
Unless, that is, you instruct it otherwise. How do you do that?
Through resistance training. Resistance training signals to your body that you need to preserve your muscle tissue (by actually using it), therefore preventing it from being atrophied (wasting away). An adequate protein intake, mentioned in the previous point, is also an important part of this process.
Even if you’re not in the process of losing fat however and you’re currently maintaining a constant body weight, your muscles will naturally atrophy without use. Resistance training allows you to maintain a healthy amount of muscle mass which helps to support a healthy metabolism.
Even though resistance training isn’t specifically a calorie-burning type of training therefore, it plays a very important role in maintaining a good metabolism and preventing metabolic damage.
6. Not Eating Enough Carbs
It’s commonly known that a low-carb diet is one of the fastest ways to lose weight. And there has certainly been no shortage of low-carb diets that have risen to popularity, most notably the Atkins diet.
On the other side of the coin, it’s also well known that low-carb diets are notorious for promoting rebound (weight re-gain). This is because they cause your body to become very sensitive to carbs when you start to consume them again after dieting (low-carb diets are extremely difficult to stick to), making you prone to fat gain.
But there’s another major problem with low-carb diets for fat loss and that is that carbs are muscle-sparing while you’re cutting weight, which as you know by now is of key importance to preventing metabolic damage.
There are three major ways in which they do this. Firstly, since your blood glucose levels will be low on a low-carb diet, your body will ultimately start converting proteins (including muscle tissue) to blood sugar for energy during high-intensity anaerobic exercise such as resistance training. This of course would lead to a loss of muscle mass.
Secondly, carbs also spare muscle because they lead to insulin being released in your bloodstream. Insulin produces a number of reactions in your body that are beneficial for maintaining and gaining muscle. It also helps to prevent the breakdown of proteins in your body (including muscle tissue), as well as inhibiting the effects of several catabolic (muscle wasting) hormones.
And thirdly, carbs are your body’s preferred fuel of choice for high-intensity activity such as weight training, so maintaining an appropriate level will see that your level of performance in the gym doesn’t drop off, which can potentially lead to muscle loss.
When restricting calories in your diet for the purpose of weight loss, your level of carbohydrate intake will most likely decrease, and that’s fine. The important thing however is not to specifically target carbs as something to cut below acceptable levels because you believe it will improve your rate of weight loss. It may do so in the short-term, but it will also lead to metabolic slowdown through muscle loss.
7. Not Sleeping Enough
Sleep is a very important component in fat loss and maintaining a healthy metabolism.
It’s vital for proper recovery, so that you can not only overcome fatigue and therefore perform better in the gym, but also get the most out of the muscle-building process triggered by your resistance training.
Sleep also helps your body to maintain good insulin sensitivity. Low insulin sensitivity can lead to chronically high levels of insulin in your blood, which encourages your body to store fat while slowing down fat-burning. Good insulin sensitivity, on the other hand, ensures that your body is fueled efficiently with carbohydrate energy for high-intensity work.
Metabolic damage, although reversible, can be one of the most frustrating conditions to suffer from as it can be extremely effective at inhibiting fat loss. That’s why it’s always prudent to understand your body and work with it rather than trying to bully it into losing fat. That’s a battle you’ll never win.
How many of these 7 mistakes have you made or are you making at the present time? Let me know some of your experiences with metabolic slowdown in the comments below, and how you managed to overcome it (if you did).