The long Road (15 minutes)
Disclaimer - Information in this article has been put together by research data from different studies which can be found on National Health boards, MASS study groups and Uni Science Papers. What we know about our bodies is continued evolution, and therefore new studies always come out to improve our understanding of our body
Myths busted in this article
“Metabolic damage” and “Starvation mode” will stop you from losing weight.
Scitec Nutrition Athlete Emi Roberti - In this article, I outline studies which highlight the common misconceptions of metabolic damage and starvation mode experienced by dieters. In fact, metabolic damage does not stop someone from losing weight and doesn’t need to be “fixed” with complex and meticulous diet voodoo. Starvation mode exists, however, isn’t nearly as dramatic as many people think. There are three key reasons why you can stop losing weight “for no good reason”: You’re retaining water, you’re gaining muscle, or you’re overeating (and, most often, more than you think)
If you’re dieting to lose weight and you’re doing everything right, you will find yourself:
- Maintaining a calorie deficit
- Eating enough protein
- Sticking to your meal plan
- Lifting weights regularly
- Limiting your cardio
At first, everything more or less went as planned. Your weight and waist went down, and muscle definition went up like clockwork. But after a while it all stops, for no apparent reason, the scale stopped moving and your reflection in the mirror stopped changing. So, determined to get the ball rolling again, you further cut your calories and increase your cardio. It worked to a point, but then you got stuck again, and this time you felt even more haggard than before.
What can you do? Is this as far as your body will go? Have you reached your bodies “set point”? Is a lower body fat percentage just not on the cards for you?
Let’s talk about “starvation mode” and “metabolic damage.” You find stories about people, typically women, who say they aren’t losing weight with extremely low-calorie dieting and hours of exercise every week, and the culprit is (supposedly) metabolic abnormalities caused by calorie restriction. Essentially, the story goes like this:
Dieting dramatically and incrementally decreases your basal metabolic rate, which eventually halts fat loss, and which requires a lengthy and involved recovery protocol to fix the damage should you ever want a healthy metabolism again. Hence, the term - metabolic damage. When your body is experiencing the complex set of physiological adaptations that cause metabolic damage, it’s said to be in starvation mode, which kicks in the first day of your diet and gets progressively worse and worse as time goes on.
So, what exactly is “Metabolic Damage”?
Your body’s metabolism is the collection of physical and chemical processes that it uses to produce, maintain, and destroy material substances, and to make energy available. It’s called “metabolic damage” because the theory is your metabolism is quite literally “broken” to one degree or another and requires “fixing.”
According to most theories, “metabolic damage” refers to a condition where various physiological systems have been disrupted and, as a result, your metabolism burns less energy than it should. In other words, it’s a hypothetical state wherein you burn far fewer calories than you should be based on your body weight and activity levels. Once you’ve “damaged” your metabolism, it apparently remains hamstrung even when you’ve finished dieting and want to just maintain steady body weight.
The causes of metabolic damage are allegedly remaining in a calorie deficit for too long and/or starvation dieting alongside too much cardio. Therefore, when you stop losing weight for no good reason or struggle to prevent weight gain after a period of dieting, some people will claim that you probably have metabolic damage that needs repairing.
The evidence almost always comes from an individual’s experiences. Peoples stories of how they’re failing to lose weight on a measly few hundred calories per day, and even worse, stories of people gaining weight on very-low-calorie diets and intense exercise routines. And so people everywhere have become convinced that dieting has screwed up their bodies–maybe even irreversibly–and that their only hope for returning to normality is special dietary measures.
Fixing Metabolic Damage
The most typical protocol for fixing metabolic damage is simple: you’re supposed to increase your daily calorie intake by small amounts every week, usually, 50 to 100 calories, until you’ve reached your predicted daily energy expenditure. In some cases, very precise instructions are given regarding macronutrient breakdowns as well. The rationale for this approach is that by slowly eating more calories (instead of drastically increasing intake, which is what many people do after dieting), you allow your “injured” metabolism to “keep up” and process the food efficiently, resulting in a gradual increase in metabolic rate without unwanted fat gain. This is generally referred to as “reverse dieting,” and while it is a good idea to gradually increase food intake after a prolonged period of calorie restriction, you don’t need to do it for the reasons commonly claimed (more on this soon).
What Is “Starvation Mode”?
The idea behind “starvation mode” is similar to metabolic damage. It goes like this: if you’re too aggressive with your caloric restriction, your metabolism will slow to a crawl, making it more or less impossible to continue losing weight without eating less than your average runway model. According to many fitness gurus, if you remain in starvation mode for too long, then the next phase of punishment will begin muscle loss and fat gain.
The only way to avoid all of this, we’re told, is losing weight slowly through a small (10 to 15%) calorie deficit. If we get greedy we’ll pay for it later. The way most people describe it is that metabolic damage and starvation mode work together to stymie your progress in a process that looks like this:
- You eat too little and lose weight too fast.
- You plunge your body into starvation mode, and weight loss stops.
- You eat even less and move even more, which supercharges the response and causes metabolic damage.
- The longer you remain in this state, the less and less weight you’ll lose regardless of what you do, and the more and more damage you’ll accrue that will require fixing.
Well, as you’ll soon see, there’s a shade of truth here, but like many of the things that “everybody knows” in the fitness space, it’s more wrong than right.
Does weight loss actually “damage” your metabolism?
To understand the real science of fat loss, you must start with the principles of energy balance and how your energy intake and expenditure alone dictate weight gain and weight loss. Once you understand that, you realize that meaningful weight loss requires you to eat fewer calories (less energy) than you burn for an extended period of time. For most people, the learning stops here. They wanted the magic trick to melt away belly fat and love handles, and they got it: eat less and move more.
What they don’t know, however, can come back and haunt them. By restricting your calories, you can do more than just reduce your total fat mass–it also affects your metabolism in various ways that make getting leaner increasingly difficult as time goes on. In short, when you restrict your calories to lose fat, your body sets out to decrease energy expenditure and increase intake. It wants to erase the energy deficit to balance intake with output and thereby halt fat loss. The reality is losing fat requires that you force your body to do something it doesn’t want to do (mild and prolonged starvation), and in the spirit of self-preservation, it has defence mechanisms it employs to fight back.
Let’s look at the major effects.
Your basal metabolic rate slows down
Basal means “forming a base; fundamental,” and your basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy your body burns while at rest. The biggest energy hogs in your body are your organs and muscles (these are the prime determinants of your basal metabolic rate). Now, when you place your body in a calorie deficit, hormonal adaptations occur that cause your body to burn less energy while at rest. The major hormones involved in these adaptations include leptin, ghrelin, thyroid hormones, and testosterone, which are all unfavourably affected by calorie restriction and weight loss.
The “thermic effect of food” decreases.
The thermic effect of food, or TEF, is the amount of energy required to eat, digest, absorb, and store food. Research shows that TEF accounts for about 10% of total daily energy expenditure, with amounts varying based on the macronutrient composition of the diet. While restricting calories doesn’t appear to directly reduce TEF, the reduction in overall food intake naturally results in a reduction of total energy expenditure. You burn less energy through “spontaneous” physical activity.
Every day you engage in varying amounts of spontaneous activity like walking around while on the phone, going to the bathroom, drumming your fingers when you read, or bobbing your legs when you think. The energy burned by these activities is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, and it plays a much larger role in total daily energy expenditure than most people realize. Research shows that NEAT can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day among individuals, and the same research indicates that people could burn an additional 350 calories per day by taking simple actions to increase general activity levels, like taking the stairs when possible, walking relatively short distances instead of driving, doing chores instead of watching TV, etc.
Now, when you’re in a calorie deficit, your body naturally decreases its spontaneous activity levels, thereby (often significantly) reducing its average daily energy expenditure. Furthermore, studies show that this adaptation can remain for quite some time after regular eating has resumed (which is one of the reasons why weight gain after dieting is so common).
You burn less energy during exercise.
As you reduce your body weight, you also reduce the amount of energy expended during exercise (it costs more energy to move a heavier body). There’s more to this than meets the eye. Studies have shown that even when body weight is artificially increased during weight loss, energy expenditure during exercise remains lower than normal. When you put it all together, you can see your total daily energy expenditure is a moving target and one of the challenges of dieting is adapting your exercise routine and meal plan to ensure you remain in a large enough energy deficit to continue losing weight. These changes in your basal metabolic rate, NEAT, TEF, and so forth are collectively known as “adaptive thermogenesis,” and they constitute your body’s primary weight loss countermeasures.
They can be very effective, too. If you don’t know how to deal with them properly, they can significantly slow your rate of weight loss or even stop it altogether. What they can’t do, however, is “break” your metabolism, even when you heavily restrict your calories, eat too little protein, and do little or no strength training. You can expect a larger reduction in your basal metabolic rate if you do these things, but the effects are far smaller than many people would have you believe.
Several studies have shown that the metabolic decline associated with dieting, including long periods of very-low-calorie dieting, ranges from less than 5 to about 15%. Furthermore, it took about a 10% reduction in body weight to produce the larger, double-digit drops, and most of the research on the matter was conducted with people who made every mistake in the book–they ate too few calories and too little protein and did no resistance training. We also know that while these effects can persist long after weight loss has stopped, they can also be easily reversed by raising your calories, lifting weights, and eating a high protein diet.
Now, what happens when you do things correctly, you’re wondering? When you use a moderately aggressive but not reckless calorie deficit, eat around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, and do a few hours of heavy resistance training every week? Well, studies show that this approach to fat loss can actually increase your metabolic rate and muscle mass. Thus, metabolic “damage” is a misnomer. The more accurate term is a metabolic adaptation, which can work for or against you, depending on your goals, actions, and circumstances.
Is “Starvation Mode” Real?
No, not in the strict sense of how most people understand the term. As you now know, your body responds to calorie restriction with crosscurrents meant to stall weight loss (adaptive thermogenesis), but there is no “mode” it enters or physiological switch that flips that makes any further weight loss impossible. The best example of this is one of the most extreme studies on human metabolism ever conducted: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
This experiment started in 1944 as the end of World War 2 was approaching, and its purpose was to discover the healthiest way to help the millions of starving people in Europe return to normal body weight.
As you can guess, this study involved starving people. And by “starving,” I truly mean starving. Scientists took 36 volunteers and had them do several hours of manual labour every day and march 22 miles per week on a diet that provided about 50% of their average daily energy expenditure for six months. As you can imagine, things got pretty grim. By the end of the study, the men looked like stick men and some had almost starved to death. One man even cut off several of his fingers to finish early.
What about their metabolisms, though? Were they as devastated as proponents of metabolic damage and starvation mode would predict? After losing about 25% of their body weight on average, their basal metabolic rates were, on average, about 20% lower than scientists predicted based on their body weights. In other words, their metabolisms were “under-performing” by about 20% on average after enduring six months of the most extreme weight loss regimen you could ever devise.
Then, in the next phase of the study, subjects were put on a “recovery diet” to allow them to regain most of the weight they lost, and after 12 weeks of this, their metabolic rates were assessed again. This time, average metabolic rates were only about 10% lower than where they should have been, and in some cases, everything was back to normal. Not great news, but not too bad considering what they had put their bodies through. For example, if you started your weight loss journey with a basal metabolic rate of about 1,800 calories per day, played concentration camp for six months, and then regained the weight lost, you could expect a basal metabolic rate of about 1,600 calories per day. Again, not ideal, but not enough to make you incapable of losing weight again.
It’s also worth noting that, according to a new study (largely compiled by a member of my scientific advisory board, Menno Henselmans), when you look at the data over the long-term (instead of just the first 12 weeks of recovery), there’s no evidence any of the people in the experiment suffered from lingering “metabolic damage.” That is, everything went back to normal, but in some people, it just took longer than 12 weeks.
This groundbreaking experiment provided another nail to drive into the coffin of starvation mode, as well: Every participant continued to lose weight up until the very end. The rate of weight loss slowed down, of course (for the reasons given earlier), but never came to a complete standstill. It’s safe to assume that if people can eat about 1,500 calories per day and do many hours of moderately intense exercise every week and still lose weight steadily…for six months…then we have nothing to worry about.
So, if metabolic damage and starvation mode can’t cause you to stop losing weight, what can?
The Real Reasons You Stop Losing Weight
There are three reasons why you can stop losing weight “for no good reason”:
- You’re retaining water
- You’re gaining muscle
- You’re eating too much (and, most often, more than you think)
- You are not progressing with your training
- You have lost too much muscle in the early part of a diet
- Your hormone profile might need to be addressed
- Bad sleep
There might be other conditions that are missing, but I’ve found these are the typical ones. Your metabolism isn’t a unique snowflake. Your body runs on the same type of machinery as mine and everyone else’s. You just have to learn how yours is tuned and make sure you’re not making some weight loss common mistakes.
Metabolic damage and starvation mode are mostly bogeymen. Your metabolism might decline as you lose weight (but might not), but if you know what you’re doing, the effects will be negligible and quickly reversed with a short period of “reverse dieting” once you’ve reached your target body fat percentage.
Even if you’ve already done everything wrong to drop pounds–starved yourself, ate very little protein, did way too much cardio–you still don’t have anything to worry about. Even the most extreme dietary measures can only produce a small decline in metabolic rate, and it disappears naturally with normal eating.
Lastly, if you’re currently stuck in a weight-loss rut and don’t understand why, the reasons usually come down to water retention, muscle gain and/or overeating.