When a new client enquires about beginning my metabolic repair program, I first verify that they indeed have metabolic damage. I ask them to track at least three days’ worth of food and drink, and also provide details of their diet and exercise history. In addition, I consider factors such as their energy levels, current exercise regime, and digestive and hormonal health.
Many times, what someone considers metabolic damage is just a normal mild resistance to weight loss, an underestimation of caloric intake or an overestimation of energy expenditure.
People with anorexia who consume 1,000 calories a day or even less continue to lose weight until they reach an often dangerous bodyweight. But those with “metabolic damage” do not. How is this possible?
Average weekly intake and binges
Client A reports that she only eats 1,100 calories a day. They have been restricting in this manner for months and yet the scale hasn’t budged. What client A failed to mention is that she regularly binges every Saturday and Sunday, taking in at least an extra 2,000 calories on both of these days.
While this is an oversimplified model, you must create a deficit of 3,500 calories, or 500 per day, to lose one pound of fat per week. If your basal metabolic rate is 1,500 calories a day, and you’re burning an additional 500 calories through exercise, that means your total output for the day is 2,000 calories. So, to hit the deficit that will enable you to lose one pound a week, you need to consume 1,500 calories per day.
Even if you take that down to 1,100 calories per day (which I don’t recommend), that deficit can easily be undone with one or two large binges each week. As I’ve said before, bingeing is a sign that you’re not eating enough. Many of my clients report instant weight loss and the urge to binge completely disappearing after beginning one of my programs, despite appearing to eat more on a daily basis.
I’m not suggesting that people are knowingly lying about their intake, as most of the time they are completely unaware of the damage of their binges. Nobody is perfect and it is better to acknowledge that the binge happened, so you can factor it into your weekly intake.
Try tracking your calories for a while over the course of a week, rather than solely focusing on daily intakes.
I’ve seen clients make grossly inaccurate assumptions about the number of calories in particular foods, even if they are using a calorie tracker (when they may, for example, have to estimate how many calories a restaurant meal contains). Some might think a couple of slices of pizza might only contain a couple of hundred calories when, in reality, it can be much, much more.
A standard large pizza can contain 2,000 to 2,500 calories. If you’re washing that down with garlic bread, Coca Cola and chocolate pudding, you could be easily approaching 5,000 calories – and that’s just for a single meal!
One pint of my favourite flavour of Ben and Jerry’s, Peanut Butter Cup, contains 1,480 calories. One pint never lasts me more than two servings. I eat without guilt, but I don’t do it very often. Once upon a time, I used to eat ice cream every weekend and I wondered why my body was so “resistant” to weight loss.
Sure, you might go to a restaurant and order a salad, but that doesn’t mean that your bacon, cheese, crouton and dressing-laden salad is any healthier than a cheeseburger!
This also goes for entire macro groups. Clients sometimes tell me they don’t eat many carbs, but then their food diaries reveal that their diet is more than 50 per cent carbs! This is far from ideal from a fat loss perspective.
One of my friends swore for years that she only ate 1,000 calories a day, and couldn’t lose weight so therefore must have a messed up metabolism. After spending a few weeks in her company, I saw how she really ate: very healthy and minimally at breakfast and lunch, but then she eats lots of calorically dense food for dinner and dessert. She orders take-out at least four nights a week and eats out practically all weekend, with each meal easily totalling 1,000+ calories. As she spends the majority of her day eating rather restrictively, she has mistakenly assumed that her diet is overall super restrictive, when in reality she eats more than me (and that’s saying something!).
Try using a calorie counter for a few weeks to learn a basic understanding of the nutritional profiles of common foods.
Disparity between restaurant food and eating at home
Just because you can make a dish composed of chicken, rice and vegetables at home for less than 400 calories, don’t assume that you will be getting anywhere near the same number of calories in a restaurant. Restaurant food tastes better because they add oil, butter and sauces. This means that these meals can easily contain double, or even triple, the number of calories compared to what you might eat at home.
Even restaurants that provide nutritional information are often inaccurate. If you’re struggling to see results and eating out a lot, try cooking your food at home exclusively for a while and see if it makes a difference.
Overestimating energy burn
Fitness trackers notoriously overestimate calorie burns. Do not track your exercise within your calorie counters, if you are tracking calories. You will be tempted to “eat back” the calories you’ve burned, but you will likely end up in a caloric surplus.
I can’t tell you how many times someone has sworn that they are following their nutrition plan to the letter, but then later drops in the small fact that they’ve been eating back the 600 calories My Fitness Pal claims that they burn walking to and from work. A 1,600 calorie plan can suddenly become a 2,200 calorie plan, which explains why you’re not losing much weight.
Follow your plan and stop trying to compensate for the calories you burn.
Knowledge of extreme restriction
If you have ever eaten less than 1,000 calories a day for a long time, you know how it can affect you. You will feel lethargic, your concentration will be low, and you will have no energy to work out. Good luck trying to work, maintain a family, or do anything other than collapse into your bed at the end of the day. If you are eating “less than 1,000 calories a day” for more than a week and don’t feel like this, chances are that you’re not actually consuming as few calories as you think.
Misreporting of intake
Again, this isn’t something that is necessarily done on purpose, but it does occur frequently. I always ask my clients to track their meals from that moment forward, rather than trying to recollect what they’ve eaten over the past three days. Sure, you might be able to remember your three main meals, but are you going to remember every latte, bite of leftovers, or food sample in the grocery store? These things all add up.
Please, please, please: if you’re working with a coach, don’t lie about what you eat. If you go off plan, don’t be afraid to tell us. We are not going to shame you. However, lying about your intake makes our jobs that much harder to tweak things that supposedly aren’t working. By the same token, don’t suddenly start eating “perfectly” while you are keeping a food diary. I want an average three-day sample of your meals, not a “perfect” meal plan. Being honest will make it easier for us to help you.
Hopefully, this post has given you some food for thought. I’m not saying that metabolic damage doesn’t exist. I’m just saying that it’s not as common as some might think, and there are a number of factors which may be considered before you receive that label.
Measure your food properly, stop “forgetting” about tastes and bites, remember how many calories lattes and wine contain, and stop estimating restaurant serving sizes.
Have you ever underestimated your caloric intake or overestimated your energy expenditure while trying to lose weight?