Can you truly damage your metabolism?
written by Philip Stefanov | NOVEMBER 2, 2021
I was roughly 70 pounds overweight just as I turned seventeen. Despite my previously unsuccessful weight loss attempts, I was determined to make it work this time. I began eating better, started going to the gym, and ran at my local track three times per week.
Life was good. I was making steady progress from week to week, and my clothes were getting baggier every month. But at some point, I hit the inevitable weight loss plateau. Despite my consistency, I stopped losing weight. So, like most people in my situation, I kept my cool…
..I’m kidding. I was frustrated and anxious. I researched why I wasn’t losing weight, and it wasn’t long until I came across a term that sent chills down my spine: metabolic damage. I had gone about losing weight too hard, which apparently damaged my metabolism, preventing me from making any further progress.
The good news is, that wasn’t the case, I didn’t stay in the plateau for long, and I made significant progress after that sticking point. But what about the so-called metabolic damage?
What Is Metabolic Damage?
The idea behind metabolic damage is simple:
By restricting our calories too much or for too long, we eventually ‘break’ our metabolism, causing the body to need far fewer calories to sustain itself. As a result, we lose the ability to burn fat even if we barely eat anything.
Our Metabolism Doesn’t Get ‘Damaged’
Luckily for all of us, our metabolism doesn’t get damaged, especially from something as natural as weight loss. It does, however, adapt, which is why we eventually reach a plateau and stop losing weight.
While it’s not something I recommend, you could put yourself in a massive calorie deficit and lose a lot of weight for a long time. Your metabolism will never get damaged from this, but it will adapt to your lower calorie intake.
The above is what happened to the subjects in the famous Minnesota starvation experiment from 1944 and 1945. The subjects, who were young men, first went through a 12-week control phase. During that period, they consumed roughly 3,200 calories per day. The men then went through a 24-week starvation period where they ate less than half that: 1,560 calories daily for six months.
The goal was for the subjects to lose a fourth of their total weight in 24 weeks, which means their calorie intakes were tweaked during the experiment. Aside from the severe emotional distress and depression most subjects experienced, not a single person ‘broke’ their metabolism and stopped losing weight as a result.
So, What’s The Deal?
Our metabolism is great at adapting to lower calorie intakes. As we start dieting, we lose weight. But thanks to hormones like leptin and having to carry less weight, we begin to burn fewer calories, which erases the calorie deficit we create initially. What is a deficit initially turns into our new maintenance. Our hunger also goes up, making it increasingly difficult to keep dieting.
The good news is that metabolic adaptation reverses as we re-gain weight and body fat. The subjects in the Minnesota starvation experiment saw a drop of roughly 40 percent in their total daily energy expenditure. But their metabolic rate returned to normal once they went through various re-feed protocols and gained fat.
So, don’t worry that you might damage your metabolism from dieting. Take things slowly, track your progress, and you will do great. Similarly, don’t believe that metabolic damage can lead to fat gain even in a deficit. If you’re not losing any fat, you’re not in a calorie deficit.
Also, keep in mind that dieting will eventually lead to a plateau because your metabolism strives to adapt. Drop your calorie intake slightly or increase your physical activity, and you will overcome the plateau. Do that enough times, and you will eventually reach your weight and body fat percentage goals.
Until next week,
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