The subject I am most frequently emailed about is metabolic damage, as I have written several posts on the topic (which you can find here). More and more people are starting to realise that the “magical” plan of 1200 calories a day combined with hours of cardio is damaging their bodies and metabolism. While this is positive in that it’s building awareness about the proper (i.e. healthy) way to exercise and eat, it is also causing many people who are in fact quite healthy to start convincing themselves that they too have metabolic damage.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should not compare yourself to anyone. Sure, some of the points I will discuss below are not normal by any means, but on the other side of the coin you shouldn’t necessarily feel that you should be able to eat a huge amount of food every day just because I (or others) do.
Every single factor in our lives – our genetic make-up, upbringing, activity levels throughout life, diet history and hormonal levels, just to name a few – has an impact on our metabolism. Even though I went through a prolonged period (5-6 years) of restrictive eating, I think the fact that I’ve always been a very active person helped in my favour when returning to full health. Even though I wasn’t eating much, my body learnt to survive on small amounts of food. When I finally started eating “normally”, it took my body about a year to work out what was happening.
Some people won’t be so lucky. From what I’ve seen, the people who struggle to repair their metabolisms the most are those that come from largely sedentary backgrounds who suddenly thrust themselves into restrictive diet and exercise practices for prolonged periods of time. Their bodies enter a stage of complete shock, as they are not only having to deal with a new hardcore exercise routine but also the impact of a low calorie diet. If they then try to reverse it, their bodies become even more confused.
If you are eating 1500-1800 calories a day and doing four strength training and one cardio session per week yet struggling to lose fat, you are not necessarily suffering from metabolic damage – your basal metabolic rate just might not be as high as you think it is. That said, here are some questions I typically ask someone if I’m unsure whether they have true metabolic damage or not.
Have you ever maintained an extreme caloric deficit for a prolonged period of time?
I would call an extreme caloric intake anything below 1200 calories. It is sadly very common for women to eat no more than 800-900 calories a day for years. Eating 1000 calories a day even for just a few months will be enough to damage your metabolism in the long-term.
Have you ever maintained an extreme exercise regime for a prolonged period of time?
I would classify this as training six or seven days per week, for two hours or more. Note that just because you exercise a lot does not mean you have metabolic damage – it is very possible for athletes to train intensively in a healthy manner, provided they are eating enough. What is important to note is that exercise releases cortisol, the stress hormone. If you exercise a lot and add further stress to your body by not eating enough, it begins to shut down. Unless you are an athlete, you do not need to be doing an hour of cardio every day (or, heaven forbid, twice a day!). Three times a week is more than enough. Again, less is more when it comes to lifting – three to five sessions per week is plenty. And remember that absolutely everyone needs at least one full rest day per week!
Have you ever competed in a bodybuilding competition?
Again, I’m not saying that this automatically means you have a damaged metabolism but competing often does more damage than good. Smart coaches are few and far between. If your trainer has you eating 900 calories a day and zero carbs while lifting and performing two-a-day cardio sessions, run in the other direction! A few minutes on stage will not be worth it for the hormonal hell and weight gain you will suffer post-show. It is very common for these competitors to rebound severely after a show, gaining upwards of 20lbs in one week!
If you are a woman, do you have a regular cycle?
Damaging your metabolism not only makes it difficult to lose weight, but it also creates a host of problems for your hormones. When your body is under stress, it stops producing hormones. I put my body through years of 3-4 hours of cardio a day combined with very little food, and it resulted in polycystic ovarian syndrome.
It’s funny how many women will ignore an irregular cycle, either thinking that their cycle is somehow different or they prefer to sacrifice their hormonal health in pursuit of leanness. Not having a regular cycle is NOT normal, and it is one of the most obvious signs that something is wrong in your training and diet. Almost anyone can regain their cycle if they enter a caloric surplus and stop exercising – it’s just that most choose not to, as it means making physical sacrifices.
I insist that anyone who believes they have metabolic damage to undergo a full hormonal panel, as your metabolism cannot be repaired until all hormonal factors are under control.
Do you struggle to lose weight, despite lowering calories further and further?
If you are eating 1000 calories a day and yet can’t lose weight, the reason may not be obvious to you but it is to me. Many mistakenly assume that less calories must equate to less body fat. When your caloric intake is too low, your body recognises that it is starving, and it will do everything it can to hold on to precious body fat. You may initially lose weight when you slash your calories, but you will soon start to gain it back – even without making any dietary increases.
Do you experience any digestive problems such as bloating, constipation or irregularity?
Outside of hormonal health, one of the most common places that metabolic damage manifests itself is in your digestive system. I used to suffer terribly bad bloating despite eating very little food. Today I suffer bloating when I eat too much dairy or wheat, but back then absolutely anything made me swell up like a balloon. Healing your gut is something that takes a long time and often requires food elimination experiments, but it is crucial to repairing your metabolism.
Could you eat at least 200 grams of carbohydrates per day without gaining weight?
People with metabolic damage tolerate a high protein and moderate fat intake quite well but tend to struggle with carbohydrates. Anyone who has followed a low-carb (less than 100g per day) diet for an extended period of time will go into shock when presented with a higher carb intake. Ideally, carbohydrates should make up the bulk of your diet as you need them for energy, muscle growth and overall health.
When you eat a large meal high in carbohydrates and fat (i.e. a “cheat” meal) do you find it takes days for your body to return to normal?
Feeling bloated and lethargic the day or two after a big meal is not normal. Nor is gaining weight from one meal. When my metabolism was messed up, I would undo my entire week’s worth of fat loss in a single meal, and I would feel physically ill for at least two days afterwards. You should be able to eat a big meal, and then wake up the next day feeling energised and ready to eat again.
If you have answered yes to most of these questions, you have likely damaged your metabolism. I believe that all women should be able to lose weight while eating 1500 calories a day, while men should lose weight on a minimum of 2000 calories a day. If your goal is simply to maintain your weight, I believe the sky is the limit – anyone can teach their bodies to burn more calories over time.
Since beginning my journey, I have tripled and in some cases quadrupled my average daily caloric intake. I accepted a period of feeling uncomfortable where I had to put aside my aesthetic goals for almost two years in order to focus purely on my health. It wasn’t easy at the time, but I’m glad I did it as I am now healthy, happy with my body and able to eat what I want.
Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions?
My e-book, Metabolic Damage and Repair: Unlock Your Body’s True Potential, contains everything you 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.