Metabolic damage is a term often thrown about when people start to encounter a weight loss plateau. But it’s much more complex than most people realise. Understanding the facts can be tricky because there’s so much conflicting information available.
The internet is awash with sites that want to capitalise on metabolic damage and the starvation mode myth by selling ebooks, online programs, and metabolism pills. They all present their own version of the information, usually in a way that plays to selling their product, which can make it difficult to separate fact from fiction.
In this article, we get to the bottom of the starvation mode mystery as we discuss exactly what metabolic damage is, its causes, symptoms and finally your treatment options.
What is metabolic damage?
Metabolic damage is a term that refers to how the body adapts to a limited food supply. Although ‘damage’ sounds negative, it’s actually a natural physiological response that’s designed to protect our bodies from starving.
When it gets less food than it’s used to, the body tries to conserve energy by reducing the number of calories you burn. It slows down the metabolism so that you burn fewer calories and releases hunger hormones in an attempt to make you eat more.
Some doctors call this ‘starvation mode’ and obviously, it’s extremely frustrating for any dieter as your body does the exact opposite of what you want it to do. Not only does it increase your cravings for food, those cravings will be of the high fat, high carb variety. It really is the recipe for dieting hell.
What causes metabolic damage?
The main cause of metabolic damage is a calorie deficit that’s too large for your system to perceive as natural. If the energy you’re consuming is dramatically less than the energy you’re expending, the extreme calorie shortage will shock your system into self-preservation mode.
To begin with, your body will start using calories from stored energy reserves such as fat cells, but it knows this supply is limited and won’t last forever. So, it starts to adapt to the shortage by reducing the number of calories you need to function.
Yo-yo dieting is thought to be a contributing factor to metabolic damage because it involves prolonged periods of unnatural calorie restriction. However, your metabolism can also be influenced by many other factors, such as age, medication, genetics, hormone levels and the type of exercise you do.
How do you know if you have metabolic damage?
Many of the symptoms of metabolic damage are quite general so it can be difficult to pinpoint. But typically, they include tiredness, bloating, disturbed sleep and low immune function, as well as increased hunger and weight gain.
See if you can spot any of these common warning signs;
- Carefully following a diet plan but not seeing any weight loss results.
- Experiencing a weight loss plateau after losing weight initially.
- Finding that a diet that worked in the past is no longer getting the same results.
If any of these situations sound familiar, there’s a chance you could be experiencing metabolic damage – and it could be seriously hampering your weight loss efforts.
Can anything be done to repair metabolic damage?
Firstly, let’s clarify that ‘damage’ is a bit of a strong word. Going into starvation mode is a natural response when food is limited but it’s usually a temporary adaptation. And because it’s temporary, it can also be reversed by changing the environmental factors that caused it.
There isn’t any definitive scientific evidence to prove that metabolic damage is permanent, so more research is needed to establish whether there are negative long-term effects. This is why it’s sometimes referred to as the ‘starvation mode myth’ because we simply don’t know enough about how it works for sure.
3 Steps to recovery
If you think you may be experiencing metabolic damage, follow these 2 steps to reverse the body’s temporary adaptations;
1 – Focus on nourishment instead of restriction
Fuel your body with the nutrients it needs rather than restricting calorie intake. Eating plenty of vegetables and lean protein, along with whole-grain carbohydrates will give you a balance of vitamins, minerals, fibre, and macronutrients for your body to function at its best.
This may seem counterintuitive when your original goal was to lose weight, but so long as you’re eating healthy, wholesome foods and keeping your portion sizes in check, you won’t gain any more weight by doing this.
Eat like this for at least 2 weeks before you even consider counting the calories again. Your body is lacking nourishment and it needs to know it’s safe to increase your metabolism once again. It’s only going to do that if you feed it well.
After 2 weeks, you can begin to track your calories using an app such as MyFitnessPal. To ensure you’re not restricting your calories too much, take notice of the calorie recommendations the app gives and don’t dip too low again.
2 – Eat little and often
Part of the reason your body enters starvation mode is that it doesn’t know if or when it’ll next get food. Your brain may realise there’s a stack of cookies in the cupboard and a Walmart 10 minutes down the road, but your metabolic system doesn’t.
You need to reassure it that high-quality food is in plentiful supply. The best way to do that is to eat micro-meals or healthy snacks every 3-4 hours. Doing this should allow your body to relax and stop hanging onto excess fat stores or craving every piece of junk food you come across.
3 – Reduce your exercise intensity
Over-training can increase your calorie expenditure and contribute to a larger calorie deficit. Usually, this would be perceived as a good thing. But if you’re suffering from metabolic damage, it can also stress your body which leads to a release of hormones that specifically impact metabolism. Reducing the intensity of the exercise you do can minimise stress on your body while still enabling you to gain the health benefits of physical activity.
Remember, none of your body’s systems work in a vacuum. Although we talk about diet and exercise independently, they work in combination to result in weight loss. It’s also important to ensure that your other systems aren’t putting you at a disadvantage, so try to get good quality sleep and minimise stress too.
How to prevent metabolic damage
The best way to prevent metabolic damage is to take a healthy approach to weight loss. Avoid fad diets at all costs and focus on fuelling your body with nutritious foods and hydrating drinks. This will help you achieve a slight calorie deficit and consistent weight loss, without pushing your body into starvation mode.
If you’re following a healthy and balanced diet but still feel hungry, an appetite control supplement like PhenQ can help. It’ll reduce your cravings while your body gets used to its new fuel sources and adapts to consuming less processed foods and sugar. Drinking more water can also help you feel fuller and maintain energy levels.
Dieting & metabolic damage – Summary
Metabolic damage is really just a temporary adaptation to eating fewer calories. It can make weight loss more difficult by slowing your metabolism and increasing food cravings. Not following fad diets and severe calorie restriction is the best way to avoid it. If you think you may be experiencing metabolic damage, focus on nourishment, regular meals and avoiding overtraining. This will help reverse the adaptations and enable you to lose weight in a healthy, sustainable way.
Have you dealt with metabolic damage or reversed starvation mode? Let us know about your experiences in the comments below.