In today’s article I would like to address an issue most people dieting have to face: the slow-down of metabolism. This can not only decrease motivation but it has negative effects on our body’s hormonal system and might lead to development of hormonal dysfunctions.
I will explain the science of metabolic damage today and give some tips to prevent that.
In the next post, I will address a scientifically proven method to increase the metabolism and reduce the risk of regaining fat weight after a diet.
What is Metabolic Damage?
There is a misconception on this term. Many people claim they have damaged their metabolism without even knowing what that truly means.
People involved in fitness and nutrition, or who are trying to lose weight, also call this phenomenon “weight loss resistance”.
I am sure you have heard or maybe even experienced it yourself. You go on a low-calorie diet and in the first few weeks, you lose a lot of weight. The majority of this is water weight but you will also burn some body fat. However, after a while, your energy levels drop, you are more hungry and you stop losing weight. You try to lower your calories even more and still, the number on the scale does not change. Some people even end up gaining weight.
In medical terms, metabolic damage is called “neuro-endocrine-immune dysfunction”. You might have heard of the diagnosis of “hypothyroidism” or “Hashimoto’s thyroiditis” or “adrenal insufficiency” too.
Symptoms of Metabolic Damage
- You can’t lose weight
- Water retention leading to a “puffy” look.
- Digestive complaints such as gas, bloating, heart burn, constipation and/or loose stool.
- Hypothyroid symptoms (dry skin, itchy scalp, and slow thinking)
- Exhaustion and low motivation.
- Decreased libido.
- Irregular menstruation (or amenorrhea)
- Feeling light-headed.
- Development of food intolerance.
How does a diet damage the Metabolism?
A low-calorie diet puts the body under stress. The hypothalamus and pituitary are two regions in our brain responsible for regulation of all hormones in our body. They send their signals out to the thyroid gland, adrenal glands, and gonads (ovaries and testicles). When your body is under stress, they induce the release of catecholamines like Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and the stress-hormone Cortisol. As a result, fat oxidation processes are activated and help you burn fat and perhaps gain muscle too.
However, the body is not used to high levels of the stress-hormones. When this stress is prolonged past a few days or weeks the metabolism begins to compensate. You are not fueling your body with enough nutrients to supply your organs with energy. To stay alive, the hypothalamus and pituitary depress the release of hormones in the thyroid and adrenal glands, which slows down your metabolism. This compensation also creates hunger, your energy levels drop and you develop cravings.
How much your metabolism will slow down is very individual. Generally, it can result in a depression of 500 to 800 calories per day. Also, this is the point when most people dieting will lose motivation as the number on the scale does not move anymore, they are hungry all the time and feel miserable.
Other disturbances include chronic fatigue, immune suppression, and hormonal effects, such as suppressed thyroid function, adrenal dysfunction and loss of libido and/or menses.
In fact, this was confirmed by a study in 1975 that looked at the issue of weight loss resistance. 29 women who claimed they could not lose weight were studied. Each woman was put on a strict 1500 calorie a day diet. At the end of the 3 week period most of the women ended up losing weight. However, 10 women did not lose any weight, and 1 of the women actually gained weight.
Firstly, this shows that metabolism varies from person to person. Second, the compensatory reactions of the body can suppress the metabolism, so that even very low-calorie diets are no longer effective.
If you have read my article “The Science of cravings”, you will notice that the same principle applies here too. The body has a set point of specific levels of hormones. If this balance is disturbed for a prolonged period of time, it tries to compensate to reach homeostasis again. It is crucial to understand this mechanism, as many diseases develop when homeostasis is disturbed.
2 Major Causes of metabolic slow-down
Loss of muscle mass
You might have heard before that more muscle mass means burning more calories.
Research shows basal metabolic rate (BMR) accounts for over 2/3 of the calories burned at rest. The BMR is the amount of calories your body needs to supply your organs with enough nutrients.
Over 1/2 of BMR can be accounted for by the amount of muscle mass a person has. Thus, even if you are trying to lose weight, your primary goal should be to build more and maintain muscle.
This was confirmed by a study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition in April 1999. This study looked at a group of obese individuals who were put on a very low-calorie diet and assigned to one of two exercise regimes. One group did aerobic exercise (walking, biking, or jogging four times per week) while the second group did resistance training three times per week and no aerobic exercise.
Both groups had lost weight at the end of the twelve-week study, but their body compositions were very different.
The aerobic group lost 37 pounds over the course of the study. Ten of those pounds came from muscle.
In contrast, the resistance-training group lost 32 pounds. None of the weight they lost came from muscle.
The BMR of both groups was calculated and the aerobic group was shown to be burning 210 fewer calories per day. The resistance-training group avoided this metabolic decline and instead was burning 63 more calories per day.
Change of Leptin and Thyroid Levels
When first reducing your caloric intake and or carbohydrate intake, your Insulin sensitivity will increase, which is very beneficial. The lack of Insulin in the blood leads to a reduce of fat cells.
However, we need to remember that the hunger depressing hormone, Leptin, is produced in our fat cells. Thus, after a while, your Leptin levels will decrease, which will result in increased hunger and cravings.
In contrast, Cortisol and Ghrelin levels increase, which will add to the effect of low leptin levels. Your energy levels drop, you will have trouble sleeping and feel hungry all the time.
According to this study, Leptin is by far the most important metabolic hormone. Thus, to keep your metabolism from slowing down or even increase it, you need to balance your Leptin levels in the blood.
Two methods to utilize here are re-feed days and the timing of carbohydrates. I had already addressed this topic before. Eating carbohydrates at night will raise Leptin levels and decrease your hunger and cravings.
In addition to that, 1 or 2 days per week where you eat according to your total energy expenditure, will also reverse the effect of your diet. Thus, you might be in a caloric deficit 5 days of the week and then eat more on 2 other days. This will not only increase your leptin levels, endorphins and dopamine levels in your brain will increase as well and make you feel satiated.
Other factors contributing to Metabolic Damage
While muscle loss and change in hormone levels in the blood (especially Leptin, Ghrelin, Cortisol and Insulin) are the main contributors to Metabolic slow-down, these following diet mistakes further enhance Metabolic Damage:
Pesticides in Food
Pollutants from pesticides are stored in fat cells. Researchers found that people consuming foods containing these pollutants have a slower metabolism when they lose weight. In fact, the toxins might interfere with the energy-burning process. Also, pesticides can trigger weight gain. Try to choose organic, especially when you are buying fruits, vegetables and meat.
I’m sure you have heard this before but dehydration is one of the major causes of metabolic slow-down (muscle loss and hormonal changes put aside). As a matter of fact, german researchers found that drinking 6 cups of cold water can increase your metabolic rate by 50 calories a day. A year has 365 days, thus this would mean 18250 calories burned more just by drinking water! To lose 1 kg of fat, you need to burn 7000 calories. Thus, just by drinking more water, you can lose 2-2.5kg per year!
This one is self-evident. If you are consuming fewer calories than your body needs, it will decrease metabolic rate if you don’t eat enough food for a prolonged time of period.
Increase your fiber intake by consuming more complex carbohydrates and watch your portions for fruits. Try to cut out white carbohydrates and only consume them on rare occasions. The fiber slows down digestion, which in contrast increases metabolism, as the body has to “put in more work” to break down complex carbohydrates.
Good quality coffee or green tea has a lot of health benefits, which I will cover in a future post. Caffeine is a great stimulant for the nervous system and increase your metabolic rate. It contains antioxidants, which have been found to contribute to the faster metabolism. In fact, you can burn 8% more calories per day—about 98 to 174 calories. A cup of brewed tea can raise your metabolism by 12%, according to one Japanese study. don’t make the mistake to put sugar in your coffee or tea… .
Low iron levels don’t only increase food cravings, they slow down your metabolism too. Iron is important to supply our organs with enough oxygen. When there is not enough oxygen in our body, metabolic pathways slow down, thus we end up burning fewer calories. Unless you have iron deficiency, you can easily achieve higher iron levels with proper nutrition. Consume more of Shellfish, lean meats, beans, fortified cereals, and spinach.
Vitamin D is essential for preserving metabolism-revving muscle tissue. In fact, our body already synthesizes preliminary stages of Vitamin D but it needs sunlight to change the chemical structure. Unfortunately, researchers estimate that a measly 4% of Americans over age 50 take in enough through their diet. Get 90% of your recommended daily value (400 IU) in a 3.5-ounce serving of salmon.
If you have been reading my other articles, you now that I am all about balance in life. You can have a drink or two once in a while but make sure not to lose sight of your portions. Alcohol put your whole body under stress, as the body recognizes it as toxic. All other metabolic pathways are supressed until all alcohol is flushed out. If you have experience severe Metabolic Damage, cut out Alcohol until your metabolism has recovered.
Cutting out Dairy
Calcium deficiency decreases metabolic rate significantly. Many people make the mistake to cut out dairy when trying to eat healthy. In addition to that, many people (including myself) develop lactose-intolerance. However, there are pills containing the enzyme to digest lactose and in some countries you can even find lactose-free milk products.
In general, I recommend consuming more goat-derived milk products. The structure of amino acids and fats is very similar to breast milk, which is why goat milk is considered hypoallergenic.
How to Prevent Metabolic Damage
Higher Protein Intake
Studies have shown that a higher protein intake while dieting (above 0.8g/kg Bodyweight) will decrease metabolic slow-down while dieting. Protein helps to maintain muscle mass and the digestion of it burns more calories than it consists of. The perfect protein intake is very individual. I recommend eating 1g/lbs of Bodyweight, or 2g/kg of Bodyweight. Make sure you drink enough water (not less than 2 liters per day), to protect your kidneys.
Reduce Cardio/ aerobic exercise
Aerobic exercise is important for heart health, fat burning and sweating out toxins. However, many people think that they need to drastically increase their Cardio when dieting. 3 moderate intense Cardio sessions of 30 min per week is sufficient. Anything more than that will depress your metabolism, as is it will induce the release of stress-hormones and lead to muscle loss.
Strength Training and HIIT
Your primary concern when dieting should be to maintain as much muscle mass as possible. Thus, proper strength training with bouts of High Intensity Intervals (HIIT) is crucial. Both strength and HIIT have shown to induce muscle-building and decrease the rate of muscles loss.
In addition to that, HIIT increases your metabolism and you will burn calories up to 48 hours after finishing your workout. Strength training does not necessarily mean weight training. If you are new and need to practice proper form, start with bodyweight training and slowly add in weights once your body gets used to the exercises.
The right timing of carbohydrates
Eat your carbohydrates at times your body is most sensitive for them. These are in the morning and after your workout. If you are working out in the morning, have a serving of carbs before and after your workout.
Also, have a serving of carbs before going to bed. The portion size does not need to be big here. I typically like to have a banana or a serving of oats.
Low glycemic loads
Studies have shown that food with a lower glycemic index reduce muscle loss and increase fat burning while on a diet. Thus, you should watch your portion sizes for fruit and starchy carbohydrates and eat more non-starchy carbs and grains.
Cycling your diet
I already mentioned this point above. Do not let your body get used to the same amount of calories. You might eat in a 500 caloric deficit for 3 days and then on the fourth day, you will eat your total energy expenditure calories (TEE). This will surprise your body and it will not think that you are fasting. Thus, it will be much easier to burn off fat and build more muscle mass increasing your metabolism.
Fish oil and Curcumin
Healthy fats increase Leptin levels and decrease inflammation in your body. In addition to that, they have a positive effect on hypothalamic hormones and thus help balance your thyroid and stress hormones. Curcumin is similar to that.
Detox your liver
Dandelion root, milk thistle, antioxidants like berries, black rice and vitamin C assist the liver in removing toxic end-products of metabolic pathways.
A low-calorie diet will lead to hormonal changes in your body, which slows down your metabolism. Remember that our body is not a calculator and adapts to circumstances quickly. If you stay in a caloric deficit for an extended period of time, you will have trouble losing weight and probably gain weight back once you start eating normal again. By cycling your diet and making changes in your nutrition and training, it is possible to reduce the depression of metabolism rate.
Do not see the process of dieting as a fight against your body. You want to lose the fat but it is certainly not worth it to destroy all hormonal balances in your body in the process. Instead, accept that a slower weight loss might benefit you in the long run and help you maintain your results and your health.
In the next article, I will give tips on how to increase your metabolism after dieting and reducing the risk of fat gain.
I hope you enjoyed reading. This article turned out longer than I had planned to! If you stayed with me the whole time, thank you!
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Wish you all a wonderful day,