Overcoming metabolic damage

Overcoming metabolic damage

Last week, I showed you what an average day of meals looks like for me. As I said in that post, it’s a far cry from the days where I used to restrict on 1200 calories while doing hours of cardio. Obviously, I didn’t triple my caloric intake overnight and get away with it. Today I want to address how I personally set about repairing my metabolism, and some of the methods I use with my clients.

(For detailed posts on the science of metabolic damage, read this post and this post.)

First steps
In May 2011, I started working with a bodybuilding coach as I planned to compete in figure. Overnight, my coach took me from 1100-1200 calories a day to 1500. It was a sudden and not gradual increase, yet I still saw an immediate weight loss. Once my body realised it was being fed properly, it stopped holding on to fat and actually did what I wanted it to.

In the interests of full disclosure, I also changed the composition of my diet significantly when I began working with my coach. I increased my intake of protein and healthy fats, and switched my carbohydrate sources to only oatmeal, sweet potato and brown rice (before, even though my calories were low, I was eating carbs my body still struggles with such as pasta, bread, sugary yoghurt and ice cream). I think this played a large part in my initial weight loss, as my body was and remains very sensitive to simple carbohydrates.

I also switched from having three meals per day to seven. Mentally, it was easier to eat more food when my portions were smaller. I don’t believe that mini meals speed up your metabolism or anything like that, but I generally think it is easier for people with damaged metabolisms to consume smaller, more frequent meals. I have a huge appetite now and can easily eat 1500 calories in a single meal, but most people would freak out at the thought of doing that.

I never thought I'd be eating creamy pasta on a rest day!

I never thought I’d be eating creamy pasta on a rest day!

Reaching a plateau
Although I initially experienced a weight loss, my body turned resistant. We tried to increase my calories further but it made me gain weight instead of losing it. In hindsight, the weight gain was irrelevant (I have proudly gained 8kg since I started lifting, despite my initial goal being to lose 5kg) and any extra puffiness I was feeling was just my body adjusting to the extra carbs.

I freaked out and ran back to the safety of my new self-imposed caloric limit of 1500, except on weekends when I ate all kinds of crap I shouldn’t have. Because of my weekend mini-binges, I was slowly gaining fat.

Again, in hindsight, the binges were my body’s way of telling me I still wasn’t eating enough. Instead of restricting all week long and then bingeing on weekends, I should have just increased my calories overall and the urge to binge would have disappeared. In this post, Phil Learney even states that those with an impaired insulin response should avoid cheat meals altogether.

I started to become obsessed with food again, whether I was bulking or cutting. I was consciously trying to add size, yet I felt I needed to get leaner first. By this stage, I had read up a lot on metabolic damage and I knew that my carbohydrate intake was still too low.

Who would have thought that one day I would consider this a 'light' breakfast?

Who would have thought that one day I would consider this a ‘light’ breakfast?

At this point I stopped working with a coach and instead tried to listen to my own body. I added 100 calories every two weeks, until I was hitting around 1800 calories a day. I didn’t count calories or macros, but I kept a rough idea of what I was hitting in the back of my mind.

My body was far from perfect, but I chose to prioritise health instead of aesthetics. I have always carried the bulk of my fat in my stomach (thank you, PCOS!) and I knew that the only way to get rid of that fat was to return to unhealthy habits of slashing calories and ramping up the cardio. Given how far I’d come, I (sensibly!) wasn’t prepared to do that.

I started to feel really angry when I saw how much food other people with high metabolisms ate (probably how I made a few of you feel after Friday’s post!). It depressed me, especially when I had people commenting here that I still didn’t eat enough – when, in my mind, I was doing SO much better.

Shifting focus
About a year ago, I started focusing more on strength goals. At this stage, I still planned to compete in figure but I didn’t know when, so I felt I could relax a little about sculpting the ‘perfect’ physique.

Up until this point, I had been following a loose meal plan, with approximate amounts of protein and fats throughout the day as well as carbohydrates pre- and post-workout only.

This was the beginning of my foray into intuitive eating. I ate when I was hungry, and I ate carbohydrates when I felt like it. Some days I had carbohydrates with all my meals, while other days I only had one carb-heavy meal. I fell in love with carb backloading and soon after experimented with Paleo. I did not track my calories at all, until about three months in when I thought I would add up a random day’s meals just for fun. I was surprised to find that I was eating 2200-2500 calories per day!

A typical Paleo breakfast

A typical Paleo breakfast

I was lifting much heavier, fuelling my body properly AND naturally leaning out. You might remember me blogging throughout this time and being surprised by how much weight I was losing – I was eating more than ever before, yet the weight seemed to be falling off.

The biggest change in my mindset was that I no longer had “good” and “bad” foods. I ate Paleo 90 per cent of the time, but didn’t beat myself up when I wanted some grains or dairy. I could have a cheat meal outside of my designated day, and I stopped labelling these meals as cheat meals altogether. I saw food for what it was: food. I stopped thinking of certain foods as good or bad, but rather if they were the best choice for optimal performance.

After my accident, I added dairy back in to my diet and started consciously trying to lose fat again. I did it in a much saner way than ever before, and barely made any changes to my regular diet.

Then in June, I began strongman training and my metabolism really changed! I continued to listen to my body, and fed it what it needed (which was a lot!). I now eat about 2500-3000 calories on rest days and 3500-4000 calories on training days. I would never have dreamed of eating this much food. Simultaneously, I am getting leaner without even thinking about it. I can see increased muscle definition and my stomach is leaner than it has ever been.

Never in my life have I had the confidence to wear a crop top in public, until now!

Never in my life have I had the confidence to wear a crop top in public, until now!

I never stop to think whether I should or should not be eating something. I have no foods that are off-limits. I feel like an athlete for the first time in my life, so luckily most of the time I know that a homemade bowl of pasta is going to help my performance more than a greasy take-away pizza.

Now that I’ve shared my story, here are some of my top tips for repairing metabolism:

  • Be patient. I restricted calories for at least five years, and it took me about 18 months of hard work before my metabolism functioned ‘normally’ again. I don’t know if it will ever be perfectly repaired (I’m still considered carbohydrate-sensitive relative to others). Too many people expect to see results overnight. If you’ve been abusing your body for years or even decades, six weeks of reverse dieting is not going to fix your issues. The longer you’ve been restricting, the longer it will take your body to recover. I can’t give you an exact timeframe, but know that waiting even a day longer to start repairing your metabolism is only making things harder. If you experience severe resistance, please, please get your hormones/thyroid tested as restrictive dieting will damage your body more than you realise.
  • ChooseΒ whether to go balls-to-the-wall or slowly increase calories, but give it your all. If yourΒ calories are way too low (think 1200 while doing weights AND cardio), you should increase your intake significantly immediately. Trying to gradually increase your calories when your body has basically shut down will cause more frustration than it’s worth. Cut the cardio out and make sure you’re consuming at least 1500 calories per day. Most people have a basal metabolic rate of 1500 calories at a minimum, so your body will switch into starvation mode if you consistently consume less than that – especially while exercising. Your body is smarter than you give it credit for, and it will quickly realise it has extra energy to put to use.
  • Don’t force the healing. I mentioned above that I added 100 calories to my daily intake every two weeks. This is a good guideline, but some people will respond faster while others will need more time before adding any extra calories. Listen to your body – if you constantly feel full, give it some more time to adjust; if your hunger is out of control or you feel like your portions aren’t big enough, eat more. Don’t feel as though you have to follow some arbitrarily-imposed timeline to increase calories.
  • Increase protein/fat first. Using the 100 calorie increase every two weeks as a guideline, I usually recommend someone adding these calories through a serve of healthy fat such as olive or coconut oil, nuts or nut butter, avocado or coconut milk. These foods pack a high number of calories into a small serving size, so it is easier to seamlessly add more calories into your diet. Once your body has adjusted to the increase, then switch the fat for more carbohydrates. Most people who have damaged their metabolisms are sensitive to carbohydrates, so will often feel uncomfortable if they try to increase their carbs too quickly.
  • Prepare to feel uncomfortable. There is a good chance you will gain weight or feel more bloated/puffy than usual. I’ve taken a lot of clients through this process, and about half of them experience an initial negative reaction, but from that 95 per cent of them feel better after less than two weeks. Sometimes your body just needs some time to adjust to the increased amount of carbohydrates (and associated water retention) in its system, but I promise this feeling will pass.
  • Lift heavy and limit the cardio. There is a reason I preach what I do! If you are serious about repairing your metabolism, I’d recommend cutting all cardio except for one short sprint session per week. The heavier you lift, the more you will tax your body, and the more you will be able to eat.
  • Ignore the mainstream media. A lot of my initial resistance to increasing my caloric intake came from what I had read in magazines. The majority of diet plans featured in fitness magazines contain 1000-1500 calories. On the rare occasion you do see someone eating more than that, it’s a high level competitor doing hours of weight training and cardio a day and still getting by on 1800 calories or so. You never see women eating 2500 calories a day, let alone 4000.Β Women almost seem proud to know that they are eating less than they should. Before I started lifting, my calorie counting tool told me I should be consuming 2500 calories per day to make up for my energy expenditure, yet I saw it as some kind of victory if I only hit 1100 that day. That is NOT right. You should never go more than about 500 calories below your energy output if you’re hoping to lose weight, or your body will shut down.
  • Strength>aesthetics: I can’t stress this point enough. You need to find something to take your mind off fat loss. When you think about losing fat day in and day out, your body will feel stressed and will NOT lose fat. Every single time I have stopped thinking about fat loss and have instead focused on strength goals, I have naturally lost weight. Choose a goal such as completing a 1.5x bodyweight deadlift, an unassisted chin up or 10 push ups with perfect form, and structure your eating around maximising that goal.
  • Prioritise health. If I wanted to, I could diet down to a six pack, but it would not be the best decision for my hormones or overall health. Remind yourself what is truly important in the long run, and put all your energy towards maximising that.

Congratulations for making it through the world’s longest post! Make sure you check out part two, where I discuss how to know whether you have damaged your metabolism and how to overcome related hormonal complications.

Please let me know if you have any questions you would like me to address in the next post!

book cover

My e-book, Metabolic Damage and Repair: Unlock Your Body’s True Potential, contains everything youΒ need to know about why metabolic damage occurs, the tools you need to repair your own metabolism, and the results you can expect throughout the journey, as well as how to know when your metabolism has been restored to full function. It contains 14 meal plans, with clear instructions to take you from any starting point to at least 2300 calories per day. It also contains two resistance training programs with a full breakdown of all exercises, sets and repetitions.

For more information, please click here.

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