Time and time again I see people struggling to lose weight eating very few calories and doing tons of cardio. What gives? Shouldn’t the pounds be dropping? Well, not if your metabolism has been damaged through a faulty fitness lifestyle. Here’s what you need to know about your metabolism and how to fix it.
What Causes a Broken Metabolism?
To put it simply, a damaged metabolism (also known as metabolic adaptation) is typically caused by prolonged excessive calorie restriction combined with excessive physical activity.
You might be wondering why your weight isn’t budging if you’re eating 1200 calories and doing hours of cardio every day. After all, you know that you need a calorie deficit to lose weight, and you think it’s obvious that your deficit is more than enough.
And therein lies the problem – your calorie deficit is more than enough. However, understand that this calorie deficit is only on paper, as your true energy deficit is little to nothing due to metabolic adaptations.
There are two parts to the energy balance equation:
- Energy In – the amount of calories you eat
- Energy Out – the amount of energy you expend. This includes many things: exercise, NEAT (the non-exercise movement of your body), BMR (the calories required for the body to function at rest), and TEF (the energy used to process and store the food you eat).
If energy in is less than energy out, you lose weight. If energy in is higher than energy out you gain weight.
Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But then why do so many people struggle losing weight eating so few calories?
Your Metabolism Adapts
I continue to explain why it’s so important to eat enough calories to lose weight. Your goal should be to eat as much food as possible that still allows you to drop body fat.
When you don’t eat enough, important metabolic hormones begin to down-regulate. Hormones such as thyroid and leptin start to drop to create homeostasis in the body.
Not only that, but muscle tissue begins to break down and be used for energy. This reduction in lean body mass also slows your metabolism since muscle is very metabolically active – “eating” fat and burning calories at all hours of the day.
What about all that cardio you’re doing? Surely it’s burning calories. Well, yes, but just as your body adapts to lower calories, it also adapts to exercise.
It will quickly expend fewer and fewer calories doing the same amount of physical work. Eventually, you’ll need more and more exercise to get the same effects.
You end up stuck at a low calorie intake, a lot of exercise, no weight loss, and you have plenty of fat you still want to lose.
The two main causes of a “broken” metabolism – severe calorie restriction and excessive exercise (especially cardio), cause a negative feedback loop that “requires” you to eat less and less and exercise more and more to maintain your pace of weight loss. Obviously, you can only do so much before you end up sick, tired, or injured, and end up giving up.
How to Speed Up Your Metabolism and Get It Back to Normal
Alright, now that you know what causes a broken metabolism, let me tell you what you can do to get it back to normal. First and foremost, you must not overly cut your calories. I realize this point is after-the-fact, but it’s important to understand so that it doesn’t happen again.
Second, if you are doing hours of cardio every day, it’s time to cut it back. An hour a few days a week is more than enough, and presents a much lower risk to adherence. I’d much rather see people doing intense strength training 3-5 days a week and leaving the additional cardio as a back-pocket weapon for when weight loss truly stalls.
Next, it’s time to slowly start adding calories back into your diet through a process called reverse dieting. Over the course of weeks and months, you need to start adding 30-50 calories into your diet here and there.
The key to getting your metabolism back to normal without fat gain is to do this slowly, just as you should have done in the opposite direction when you were trying to lose weight – hence the term reverse dieting.
Adding just 50 calories to your diet a week for 10 weeks will result in an extra 500 calories each day, and I think you might be surprised that somewhere along the line your weight loss actually starts to pick up again. In order to do this right you will have to put the worry of weight gain out of your mind.
Reverse Dieting Case Study
The following is an actual client I worked with who came to me eating 1100 calories per day and doing a combination of weight training and cardio 6 days per week.
She had lost about 20lbs already but was stuck at 160lbs for over a month. I started her off at 1200 calories – still very low in relation to her stats and activity levels, but a 9% increase in calories from where she currently was.
Over the course of 20 weeks we increased her calories a total of 400 per day, reduced her intense workouts from 6 per week to 4, and she still lost 4 pounds and several inches. She’s now in a much better position for sustainable weight loss, as she actually has room to cut calories when or if her weight loss slows.
Reverse Dieting Meal Plan
I realize numbers can be abstract, so to give you a better idea of what reverse dieting would look like in real life with real meals, I’ve put together a free bonus for you. Download your free 4 week reverse dieting sample meal plan by clicking here.
It’ll show you how to structure your meals and snacks and systematically bump up your calories over time so that you can minimize any fat gain while also working towards optimizing your metabolism.
Will You Gain Weight?
It’s possible. I’m not going to lie. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to gain fat. My client in the case study above gained 1.5lbs, but she also lost inches in the process.
If you’ve been undereating for a long time then your muscles are likely in a semi glycogen depleted state. If you don’t know what glycogen is it’s the fuel inside your muscles. It’s made up of glucose and water.
Water weighs something, but it is not fat. This water isn’t bloat. It is fuel within the muscle that’s used for exercise.
As calories increase these glycogen stores will likely increase too. Great! This is a good thing.
Remember that the next time you step on the scale and see a higher number. You didn’t gain a pound of fat by increasing your calories by 50/day. It takes about 500 extra calories/day above maintenance for an entire week to gain a pound of fat.
Your Maintenance Calories are Not as Low as You Think
Trust me when I tell you that your maintenance calories should not be 1,000 calories, even though your weight is neither increasing or decreasing at that amount.
As you increase your calories, those important metabolism regulating hormones will begin to up-regulate. Thyroid hormone will increase, leptin levels will be at levels that won’t signal starvation, and muscle tissue will start to be spared or even increase.
For this to work, you must be patient. Metabolic damage usually occurs from years of binge/restrict cycles, also known as severe dieting followed by an even bigger period of overeating.
The longer you take to lose your fat, the more successful you will be in the long term, as good behaviors get more time and repetitions to form into habits.
Calorie deficits only need to be 10-20 percent lower than your maintenance calories to be effective. Anything more and you start to veer into dangerous metabolism destroying territory, and you put yourself into a higher risk of having adherence issues.
Take care of your metabolism, and your fitness lifestyle will be much more enjoyable and easy to maintain.
Questions about fixing your metabolism or implementing reverse dieting? Ask them in the comments below…