What is “Metabolic Damage”?
Metabolic damage is the hypothetical condition where various physiological systems in your body have been disturbed and, as a result, your metabolism is impaired. As a result, your body enters a state wherein you burn far fewer calories than you should be, based on your body weight and activity levels. Additionally, once you’ve “damaged” your metabolism, it apparently remains damaged so that even when you’ve finished dieting it becomes difficult to maintain current body weight.
What is “Starvation Mode”?
The premise behind “starvation mode” is similar to metabolic damage. It says if you’re too aggressive with your calorie restriction, your metabolism will slow to a crawl, making it more or less impossible to continue losing weight without eating less than the average runway model.
Experts describe the interaction between starvation mode and metabolic damage like this:
- You eat too few calories and lose weight too fast.
- You plunge your body into starvation mode, and weight loss slows or stops.
- You eat even less and move even more, which exacerbates the problem and causes metabolic damage.
- The longer you remain in this state, the less weight you’ll lose regardless of what you do, and the more damage you’ll accrue.
- If you stay in starvation mode too long, some of the metabolic damage may become permanent.
While there’s some truth to this story, it’s more wrong than right…
What the science says. The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, also known as the Minnesota Semi-Starvation Experiment, is one of the best examples of the effects of prolonged and significant caloric deficits. The primary objective of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment was to look into the physical and psychological effects of prolonged, famine-like semi-starvation on healthy men, as well as their subsequent effectiveness of dietary rehabilitation from this condition.
During the 6-month semi-starvation period, each of the subject’s dietary intake was immediately reduced in half to about 1,560 kilocalories per day. Their meals were composed of foods that were expected to typify the diets of people in Europe during the latter stages of the war: potatoes, turnips, bread and macaroni.
At the end of the 6 months the researchers found that 0 participants entered starvation mode. Subsequently none of the participants stopped losing weight or bodyfat for the entire study. By the end of the study, all participants were under 5% bodyfat. Although the participants didn’t cause “metabolic damage” there was a reduction in metabolic rate to a certain extent.
During dieting your metabolism and metabolic rate will slow down, but that reduction is caused by a few things which we will cover now. This is why the term “metabolic damage” is a little misleading. Dieting alone doesn’t “damage” your metabolism. In fact, your body is responding exactly how it should—by trying to eliminate the calorie deficit that would eventually kill you if you never stopped dieting. Unfortunately, your brain doesn’t know that you just want abs, not the afterlife.
Ironically, research also shows that the primary reason your body burns fewer calories while dieting isn’t mysterious and uncontrollable reductions in RMR, but the decline in physical activity levels.
There are three reasons this occurs:
- As you reduce your body weight, you also reduce the amount of energy burned during exercise, this makes sense if you think about it, it costs less energy to move a lighter body. Inversely, if you were made to walk with a 10-kilo weight vest for the next week you would burn many more calories.
- Restricting your calorie intake appears to increase your body’s “energy efficiency” it burns fewer calories during the same activities. For instance, research shows that even when body weight is artificially increased during weight loss, energy expenditure during exercise remains lower than normal.
- Your motivation to move flags, which can decrease your spontaneous activity levels and workout intensity in subtle but significant ways.
This third point is worth elaborating on, as it’s one of the most overlooked reasons for why weight loss slows as you get leaner.
Every day that you engage in varying amounts of natural movement such as walking around while on the phone, hopping to the bathroom, drumming your fingers when you read, or bobbing your legs when you think.
The energy burned by these activities is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), and although it sounds insignificant, it can play a major role in total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). Research shows that NEAT can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day among individuals, and the same research indicates that people could burn an additional 350 calories per day by engaging in simple activities to increase general activity levels, like taking the stairs when possible, walking short distances instead of driving, doing chores instead of watching TV, and so on.
There are studies that shows how spontaneous activity levels often naturally decline when dieting, and if this isn’t compensated for with additional movement, daily energy expenditure will fall as well.
As you can see, your total daily energy expenditure is like a moving target and one of the challenges of dieting is changing your exercise routine and meal planning as needed to make sure you remain in a large enough energy deficit to continue losing weight.
The 2 Main reasons that weight loss stall.
The first is that people are typically fairly poor at estimating and recording caloric intake and energy expenditure. In 2006, there was a study of 65 post-menopausal women that asked participants to record exactly what they ate in their food diary for 7 days. They were given scales and all equipment to measure and weigh their food. The average was an underreporting of what they ate by 37%. Underreporting tends not to be intentional; people are human, and they simply forget the little things they are consuming that leads them to not be in a deficit.
The Second reason is water retention masking actual fat loss. This is important as it is linked to motivation. If scale weight is the measure being used to track progress fluctuations in water retention can hide fat loss. Stress, hormonal factors (especially in females around their menstrual cycle) & sleep have a massive impact on water retention. If scales are being used and compliance is being adhered to, be mindful that water retention may be masking actual fat loss and be patient.
3 Ways to Break Through Weight Loss Plateaus
1. Focus on strength training.
While many people know that strength training is effective for building muscle, what they often don’t know is that it’s also highly effective for burning fat.
There are two reasons for this:
- Strength training preserves muscle mass, which is one of the best ways to maintain a high metabolic rate.
- Strength training burns a lot more calories than many people realize.
For instance, a study conducted by scientists found that untrained, overweight people who are lifting weights and eating 800 calories per day (with only 80 grams of protein) lost 32 pounds of fat in 12 weeks and retained virtually all of their muscle.
Here’s the kicker: Thanks to their strength training, their resting metabolic rates actually increased during the study.
2. Increase your activity levels.
The simplest way to deal with metabolic adaptation is to just move more. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be formal exercise, either, every little bit helps. As you learned a moment ago, ordinary daily activities alone can burn a lot of calories. Thus, we recommend you first boost your activity levels in subtle but consistent ways before jacking up your cardio. For example:
- If you sit most of the day and aren’t prone to fidgeting, then try alternating between a standing and sitting desk. Don’t think you have to stand for most of the day if you don’t enjoy it, either.
- Add 20 or 30 minutes of walking to your day.
- Whenever you can move instead of sitting or standing motionless, do it.
- Whenever you can walk instead of driving or taking the elevator or
3. Use an appropriate but not reckless calorie deficit.
A common mistake among many dieters, especially those who think they’re suffering from metabolic damage or starvation mode, is to reduce their calorie intake as much as possible.
While this does cause rapid weight loss, it can also cause extreme hunger, lethargy, and usually, intermittent binging. It’s hard to get good data to prove the “starve and binge” pattern but it is probably the main reason many people claim to not be losing weight or even gaining weight while eating 1,000 calories per day.
They eat 1,000 calories per day . . . for a few days . . . and then they eat 4,000 calories per day for a few days . . . and repeat ad infinitum.
We want to avoid this and any type of starvation dieting, but we also want to lose fat as aggressively as we can.
And that’s why we recommend that you set your calorie deficit at about 20%. Research shows that this will allow you to lose fat rapidly without losing muscle or suffering any of the serious side effects of calorie restriction that we’ve discussed in this article. And if you follow the rest of the steps in this article, you also shouldn’t run into much in the way hunger or cravings either.