We all know someone (sometimes ourselves) who battles with their bodyweight no matter how strict the diet. They are forever resorting to restrictive fad diets, falling off the bandwagon after a good run, then picking up where they left off with the next new fad. But in general, they are dieting hard with little result. Sound familiar? Well, often at the heart of the matter is metabolic damage. We’re right into the heart of February, so I wanted to cover this important topic in an effort to help you stop being so hard on yourself and, of course, to #LoveYourselfEnough.
What is metabolic damage?
Metabolic damage or crashing is the process of repressing your metabolism to the point where it becomes increasingly difficult to lose fat without starvation. An example would be a person who has been on an extremely low-calorie diet – 800-1000 a day – doing up to 2 or 3 hours of cardio a day and yet cannot seem to lose any more fat. Even though there is a very low caloric intake and a high caloric output – the things that will typically warrant fat loss – the person’s metabolism has adapted to the point that they get almost no caloric burn from the repeat behaviour. There will be very little thermic effect with food and a very low basal metabolic rate. In essence, the person’s metabolic capacity has been destroyed through low-calorie dieting.
Yo-yo dieters are familiar with the pattern of long-term restrictive dieting followed by binge eating when the low calories become too much, and then a return to the restrictive dieting in an attempt to lose the binge weight they have gained. The same is true of many fitness professionals: they follow a low calorie, high cardio diet, only to binge after shows and then soon return to the diet in preparation for the next show. The problem? In the case of the yo-yo dieter and the fitness professional, the next stint of long-term, low-calorie dieting doesn’t yield the same results as the first effort.
Why does it occur?
It is now quite common knowledge that starving the body earns us the opposite effect of what we want; rather than weight-loss, our body goes into ‘survival mode’. It believes it is now being starved to some degree, and drops the metabolism to adapt to the lower calorie intake. In a nutshell, your body will now maintain your weight at a lower calorie intake – which is exactly the opposite of what you want. Studies out there exploring long-term caloric restriction have one main interest: How long does it take for your metabolism to recover once the calorie restrictions have stopped?
Their findings show that it takes almost as long as the dieting period to get your metabolic rate back up and back to normal. So, if you stick to a restrictive calorie diet for 3 months, it will take almost that long for your metabolism to return to normal after quitting. The damage occurs when binge eaters abandon their diet, load up on unhealthy foods, gain fat quickly, and then soon return back to the low-calorie dieting. Their metabolisms have not recovered from the first low-calorie stint, it is then hit with large quantities of food while still in a low metabolic state, they gain weight quickly, and then returned to the restrictive diet, only to lower their metabolic rate further. Disaster!
So what can be done?
SKIP STEADY-STATE CARDIO
First of all, if you are dieting, you need to skip ridiculously low-calorie intakes, as well as hours of steady-state cardio. Studies show that an hour of steady-state, low-intensity cardio doesn’t burn as much as 6 30-second sprints, obviously with resting intervals in between. In nutshell, an hour of cardio is trumped by just 2 minutes of sprints! Marathon runners perform hours of steady-state, low-intensity cardio daily and they don’t take in incredibly high volumes of calories to match the many hours of exercise. But they don’t waste away by the supposed calorie deficit. Why? Because their metabolic rate has adjusted to the excessive low-intensity cardio.
INCREASE CALORIES SLOWLY
Then – if you have been or are on a restrictive calorie diet, you need to adjust your intake so that your body learns to burn more calories. I.e. raising your metabolic rate and maintaining your weight on a higher calorie intake. The way to do this SLOWLY. Bingeing hits your body with a big intake of calories at once, when your body is still used to extremely low-calorie intake. The result is weight gain. But creeping up your calorie intake – very slowly – will be so insignificant that your body will just tend back to its preferred state of homeostasis. Doing this slowly, deliberately and healthily –as little as 20 grams a week – will slowly increase the level of calories you can take in and still maintain your weight.
If for any reason you need to have seasons of stricter dieting followed by off-seasons (like fitness professionals), you need to skip the daily hours of low-intensity steady-state cardio, avoid bingeing when the calorie restrictions are lifted and allow your metabolism a recovery time of roughly the same length as the diet. Then, when it’s time to get back on the bandwagon, you will not need to restrict your calorie intake nearly as drastically to get great results.