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How to Repair a Broken Metabolism

guy and girl doing pushups on stone wallTime 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 is typically caused by prolonged excessive calorie restriction combined with excessive physical activity. You might be wondering why in the world your weight isn’t budging if you’re eating 1000 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 that there is the problem – your calorie deficit is more than enough. However, it would be prudent to understand that this calorie deficit is only on paper, as your true energy deficit is little to nothing due to metabolic adaptations.

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 metabolism regulating hormones begin to down-regulate. Hormones such as thyroid and leptin start to lower to create a 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.

Find out why you’re not eating enough calories to lose weight.

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 quickly will 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.

The two main causes of a broken metabolism – severe calorie restriction and excessive exercise, 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 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 20-50 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.

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.

For this to work, you must be patient. Metabolic damage usually occurs from years of binge/purge cycles, also known as severe dieting followed by an even bigger period of overeating. Slow and steady wins the fat loss game.

The longer you take to lose your fat, the more successful you will be in the long term. Calorie deficits only need to be 10-20 percent lower than your maintenance cals to be effective. Anything more and you start to veer into dangerous metabolism destroying territory. Take care of your metabolism, and your fitness lifestyle will be much more enjoyable and easy to maintain.

  • SKing

    I need some advice pleaseee :) I think I am on the right track when it comes to my calories in/calories out amounts. I am using the lose it site to keep track of everything, and so far it has been working for me. It has my daily calorie budget at 1450, I started with a budget of 1600 when I weighed in at 257lbs. I am now at 220lbs after following my plan for 4months. I have been doing cardio each day burning between 350 to 500 calories, depending on my activity, So it shows my daily calorie budget as being between 1800-1900 calories on those days (which is pretty much every day) I do my workouts. My problem is the end of the day, I can NEVER eat that full calorie budget, usually end up having 200-400 calories remaining, I’m just to full. But in my charts, it will show my calories consumed ( usually about 15-1700) then the exercise calories, and the net barely reaching 1100. Do I eat ALL of my calorie budget?? Which of those numbers should I be going by- calories consumed or net calories?? I’m afraid of either over eating, or under eating, I’m also Hypothyroid so I have that to contend with as well, I just don’t want to find myself hitting a metabolism wall and screwing up what I have accomplished so far. Thanks for any advice you can share

    Sian

    38yr F 5’5″ starting weight 257lbs current weight 220lbs

  • Sara Pendergrass-Dingess

    thanks for the article- I am currently dealing with advice on this very subject that tells me since I am still heavy set I need to cut back, go on a strict diet, and just put down the McD’s. It’s insulting because I don’t eat like that even though I have room to improve but just because I am still struggling with weight everyone feels they can be judgemental- and most of this advice comes from a professionals who have never had to loose significant amount of weight before. what makes this advice even worse is I want to train for kettle bell lifting and I enjoy my current exercise plan but I can get very tired which I know has to do a lot with bad diet advice and not eating enough. I love doing anything progressive- not jumping straight in to things and just wish more trainers would wake up and see that you can’t take someone my size and make them change in 30 days- keep up with the informative articles because they help a lot when you are in a situation like mine. getting ready to make my own menus starting today to see if I can figure out the best way to eat and train….

  • romikumu

    Seriously the BEST information on the web in regards to a healthy lifestyle. Your sound advice is rooted in common sense and evidence based practicality. No hype here! Keep doing what you do!

  • Karri

    This very thing happened to me 5 years ago.. I was doing and hour and half to two hours of endurance training daily (walking not running) and wasn’t paying attention to how little I was eating. According to my trainer’s charts, I was under weight for a woman and athletic for a man (not sure what my body fat percentage was). My ferritin dropped to 15 and I’m still recovering from the health issues that ensued. I eat far more now and exercise is much easier.. solid advice.

  • mrshoops

    I’m confused by your statement, “adding just 30 calories to your diet a week for 12 weeks will result in an extra 360 calories each day.” Do you mean 30 calories per day? if not, then I just don’t understand what you mean.

  • jvini

    Hi Tony, I love your articles. I would also say that a calorie is not a calorie. Without plugging another person’s work (who is very consistent with yours), it becomes clear that eating non starchy vegetables, lean proteins, and good fats in moderation, all in that order as far as types of foods, makes a huge hormonal difference and ‘unclogs’ us hormonally. Add intense short duration (20-30 minutes)resistance exercise 1-3 times a week and you will get in great health (and shape). I’m not even sure you need a large calorie deficit, if at all, because your body learns to regulate itself. You become similar to those people who can eat and eat and not gain weight. If you want more info, I’d be glad to reference this person, but I feel very fortunate to have you and he as guides. I’m no longer looking for weight loss, I’m now looking to get more lean and cut and even stronger. The path from heavy to very in shape is pretty consistent the whole way. Best, Jeff

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    30 calories extra per day. So for example, go from 1000 to 1030. Keep it at 1030 for a week. The second week add 30 more to be 1060. At the end if 12 weeks you’ll have an extra 360 cals a day.

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    Thanks Jeff. I’d be curious who you are referring to.

  • Elye

    Thanks for this, another honest and informative article on this site, love it! I have a question regarding calorie restriction… I do Ramadan each year (fasting for one month during the day, eating lightly at night), and I figure that this must be slowing down my metabolism big time. What is the safest way to come back out of this kind of fasting so as not to damage my metabolism too greatly?

    I have been so anxious about slowing my metabolism down that this year I have only been fasting every three days, with the meal again at night. I am prepared to just fast every second day if it is a safe way. I don’t think I could psychologically do one month again, knowing the facts. This kind of fasting isn’t about weight loss, (I don’t take water either, or exercise on the days I fast) but I don’t want to turn it into something about weight gain! And I don’t fast again for the rest of the year… What are your thoughts on this?

    • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

      I am not 100% familiar with the restrictions of Ramadan, but have you looked into intermittent fasting as a means to keep your calories up during that period?

      • Elye

        Thankyou. Yes I’ve looked on this site for intermittent fasting and other sites, it seemingly works even on different schedules (some people seem to fast at the night time, some early mornings, some evenings…) I tried to view my month fasting in a similar way, but then I am confused as to how to come back to regular eating patterns.

        I’m reading here that I’ve slowed down my metabolism a lot, my hormones are low, and that reverse dieting of aprox. 20-50 calories is a good idea. I just didn’t know if this advice applied to me after having fasted only a month, and perhaps you were referring to people who had restricted for longer period of time?

        • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

          Hard to say, but a month isn’t long and you might be able to reverse diet on a more aggressive timetable (100-150 cals per week).

  • Melissa P

    Just wondering how to accurately determine what is our “maintenance calorie” amount, so then we can figure out the 10-20% deficit for weight loss?

  • Meggi

    Wow, this information described my situation perfectly. I have almost given up on working out after 21 years of 6 days a week at least for an hour. I just turned 49 and this past year my body, energy everything as changed to the point of not being able to deal with it!

  • Michelle

    Trust me when I state I was a cardio junkie. I have completed 6 full marathons, and noticed my waistline was EXPANDING over the years. I couldn’t figure it out. I was running, running, running, eating lots of carbs, stayed around 1,000 calories per day, with no weight training. DUH. I stopped the insanity, cut back drastically on my junk-mile running, started to eat clean (non processed foods!) and started to lift weights. I lost 12 pounds. My caloric intake is now HIGHER than before, and I AM LOSING WEIGHT. For the record, I am 53 years old. This is very solid advice here, and stop the insanity, follow what the author preaches…

    • Maz N Gaz Honeybill

      Yep this sounds exactly like me too. I was an avid 10 kms a day runner, now I haven’t run in 18 months and I’m fitter and stronger than ever before. I do heavy weight training three times a week and two step classes a week which involve lots of body weight training and HIIT, no need to pound the pavement for hours anymore. Can’t believe how uneducated I was

  • Mary

    I really appreciate this article and all the other ones people have taken the time to write on this subject as it is something I have struggled with for the last several years. On paper, I should weigh like 80 pounds because I have how much I cut back and exercise, however, our bodies are pretty amazing and most of the time won’t let us get there. What I am struggling with is a specific way to fix it. I think that my problem is more than just general calorie count but also my macros. Do you do any sort of personal plans for people or know of people who do?

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    There are calculators online that can help with that. You can also check out the BodyMedia FIT armband here – http://www.coachcalorie.com/bodymedia-fit-armband-review or you can use 14-16 times body weight as a starting point. I’ve found that 10-12 times body weight to lose weight is fairly accurate. Ideally you’d start with the high number and come down as necessary.

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    Glad you liked it. I don’t do any one on one coaching at the moment. Most of the referrals I have are for people who compete. Sorry.

  • EndoSurvivor

    I’m so happy to find this article. I strongly believe I have a broken metabolism from years of hormone therapy, pain medications, prescription drugs and surgeries that have caused me to not really have an appetite to speak of. I have an incurable chronic illness and one of the side effects is nausea and inappetance. Since I spent most of last year bed-ridden, I gained about 15 pounds despite not eating much. It’s been very difficult to lose even after I was given the all-clear a few months ago and was able to resume exercise. My weight loss has been so slow! Probably because my metabolism is hooped. Unfortunately my illness has returned and brought it’s friend nausea along. Exercise really does help me build an appetite back up though. Especially weight training.

    • AmberDavvn

      double edged sword.. I can relate. Thank you Endosurvivor, most of my life I have maintained a healthy bmi/weight but now I know I wasnt healthy. I recently was placed on a psychological medication that caused a 60 lb weight gain. Im not even sure how it happened – the mechanism. I am just NOW trying to reverse and lose the weight but be healthy and realistic. My mental illness (I am also on disability) is a huge hurdle. This website is amazing, Ive been doing almost everything wrong – even though the rest of the web tells me Im doing right.

  • Emmy

    what if my metabolism seems to be broken in the opposite way? between hormonal changes, a more sedentary workplace, even if I eat enough calories, hit the treadmill 4 times a week , hike, walk outside etc., i seem to GAIN weight and feel bloated all teh time. I cut out dairy, then gluten- same thing- no diff. how do i repair a metabolism like this? I am female and 46

    • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

      How many calories are you eating and how many are you burning.

  • Sinead Ferry

    Hi am flat out training after an ankle injury in April. Ive started back training and to be honest I’m doing a bootcamp 3 mornings a week and Strength and Conditioning classes two evenings a week. I wouldnt say my diet has been overly fantastic but I still manage to keep around / slightly over my calorie allowance in order to loose weight. got weighed in recently and I have 6lbs on. Its not muscle. Im lost
    Sinead Ferry

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    Search coach calorie for an article titled “working out but gaining weight”. Also, make sure you measure your body composition.

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

    Do your best to eat what it says to. If you have a hard time eating that much, try eating more calorie dense healthy fats like nuts, avocado, etc.

    If it says you need 1600 calories without exercise, then if you exercise, you’ll need to eat those extra cals too.

    • ameze

      Am about 5’7 weighing 95kg and 39yrs female.please what my actual calorie allowance.finding it difficult to loose weight even when I do a minuim of 150-200mins weekly workput…advice pls

  • Diana

    Thanks for the article, I have always known (later on in age) that my body was changing, difficult to move pounds, then now with Crohns and Colitis and the meds, I find that if I try the multitude of exercises out there, I will find one that works for me. Luckily I love challenges so working weight training, then will be adding as of this Monday the 5 Tibetan Rites routine to my daily life. Shall see how it goes. Deep breathing won’t hurt either.. Thanks

  • Rebecca Blundell Anderson

    Thanks for this timely article. As a result, I raised my calories this past week to 1,100…about 50 more than normal…to “fix” my metavolism. I am working out avout an hour most days and quite frankly, am tired of working so hard to lose 5 stinkin’ vanity pounds in order to put me at the weight I feel best at. Although I am no stranger to weight loss having lost over 120 to get to my current weight and maintain that now for over 7 years, I really wanted to drop that 5 and increasing my cardio and dropping the calories has resulted in only frustration at the scale. I chalkd it up to menopause but even with that, I shouldn’t be hacing such a hard time dropping 5 with all the activity I am doing. Tracking on Lose It…raising my calories…hoping I finally “get” this and stop the mad dash for lower calories and restriction. Looking forward to results that show I am heading in the right direction again. I am considering the purchase of a Body Media monitor to help with the light bulb moment here.

  • Francine Verdon Plante

    thats funny i eat like u say but i’m gaining. i exercise and seems like no matter what i do i’m gaining weight.

    • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

      How many calories are you eating and what are your body stats (height, weight, body fat percentage)? And just as important, WHAT are you eating?

  • auddinsky

    Hello, nice article you have there :-)
    I’ve been restricting to 1200 calories for almost three years, I used to be a tennis player. I lost 15 lbs, but it seems like my metabolism got used to it and now I have to eat 1200 just to maintain! Good news is, my diet consists of clean food, including homemade multi-grain bread. I also have no binging/purging history. Do you think that the plan of slowly adjusting calories into my diet will work without that much of a weight gain? (I’m expecting gain weight, that’s normal, but I’m at a healthy weight I’d like to maintain and I’d prefer not to gain a lot)
    Thanks!

    • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Coach Calorie

      I do think so. Just do it slowly and you’ll be ok.

  • nadia

    I’ve read over 100 articles in Greek blogs and nobody managed to be so informative and give such useful tips! very good article and very helpful! congratulations!

  • Alice

    Hello, Tony! I started dieting 2 months ago, as well as I started doing exercises (3x week strenght training + cardio, and some spinning / bodypump classes 1 or 2x week).

    I started eating around 1400 cal/day but recently (past 2 weeks) I lowered it to 1250cal/day (I cook all my meals, they are very healthy, but I have cheat meals once a week). I lost 5kg / 11lbs during this month.

    However, I would like to increase my daily calorie intake – My TDEE is 2422 cal and according to the calculator you suggested, I should eat 1900 cal/day. Should I go as slowly as you described in the article??

    Thank you!

    • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Tony Schober

      Yes, I think 100 calories at a time is a good pace to increase at. Patience is a virtue if you want to keep fat gain in check.

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Tony Schober

    Hi JR, are you gaining fat or are you gaining weight? There’s a difference. You will gain weight eating more calories, but that doesn’t mean you’re gaining fat. I’d recommend you pick up some body fat calipers so you can measure your body fat as you increase your calories. The piece of mind is worth it.

  • http://www.coachcalorie.com/ Tony Schober

    I’d recommend you get professional help for your eating disorder. I don’t want to steer you in the wrong direction without knowing all the facts. But focusing on health, and not weight loss would be my number one priority.