Did you break your metabolism?

While you can’t “break” your metabolism, excessive and repetitive periods in a prolonged hypocaloric state can leave your metabolism “depressed”. If you’ve eaten or exercised yourself into a corner, read on.

Our bodies are constantly striving to maintain equilibrium, and our metabolism quickly adjusts to balance (counter, resist) changes in energy intake or expenditure. This is why the common advice of EAT LESS MOVE MORE runs out of steam pretty quickly. Especially for those that have already been taking that approach for a while, or has already seen significant body re-composition.

What does this look like in real life?

Most commonly, it means that you might find yourself eating substantially fewer calories than you could be while maintaining the same weight and body composition.

For example:

Jennifer is 25, 5’7″ and 140lbs. She can eat around 2200 kcals a day, is holding her current body composition, and feels normal hunger cues around regular meal times.

Sally is also 5’7″, 140lbs and the same age as Jennifer. However, Sally eats a mere 1100 kcals a day and often doesn’t feel hungry to eat around meal times.

Assuming both ladies want to start a round of fat-loss, who is in a better position to start?

Jennifer can comfortably establish a modest calorie deficit and likely see some good progress before having to further reduce calorie intake or increase activity levels.

Sally, however, can not safely establish an energy deficit through further calorie reduction. And if exercise levels are already moderate to high, further increases will likely have a negligible (and even negative) effect on her overall metabolic health.

Excerpt: Why are long-term hypo-caloric diets unsafe? First, it can be incredibly hard to maintain adequate nutrition while consuming less than 10 kcal/pound of body weight, with vitamin and minerals being the first to suffer. At 9 kcal/gram, fats are another early casualty on a hypo-caloric diet, and this can leave our bodies short on essential fatty acids (Omega 3s and 6s). Hypo-caloric diets have also been shown to increase cortisol levels, both in response to the restriction and amplified by the added stress of monitoring (counting calories) [1].

So how did Sally get to that point? Is her body really so “different” to Jennifer’s?

Does her metabolism just “not work” the same?

Is my metabolism broken?

While there is always the possibility of some underlying hormonal problem, the most likely answer is that Sally has just spent too long eating too few calories, and pushed the EAT LESS MOVE MORE adage far beyond useful application.

But the good news for Sally is that she is NOT broken.

If exercise levels are high, she can start by reducing the frequency and duration of her workouts over time.

In addition, Sally can start to add more calories to her diet and gently coax her metabolism back to a healthy, “normal” state.

Now, there are a great many details I am glossing over, and every individual’s circumstances will need some degree of special consideration.

There are also a number of best practices you should follow to maximize the results. These include:

  • Reducing cardio
  • Shifting to higher intensity resistance training
  • Prioritizing protein in your diet
  • Gradually increasing calories over time

Will I gain weight?

Will Sally gain weight during this reset?

Most likely, yes.

It’s almost impossible to increase calories and not see increases in body weight. So the key to success with reversing out of your prolonged diet is to not out-pace your body’s rate of adaptation to the increased caloric surplus, and to prioritize resistance training to help direct the surplus to increases in lean body mass.

So for Sally, if the changes to exercise and diet are well balanced, and increased carefully and progressively over a number of months, any gains in body fat will be minimal and easily addressed once Sally is back to a healthy caloric intake for her age, height, weight and activity level.

Simple, just not easy!

Gaining muscle and losing fat are incredibly simple concepts, each rooted in well-understood, physiological mechanisms. But in practice, it can be very hard to achieve your body composition goals, especially if you’ve trained or eaten your way into a proverbial corner.

If you need help with your diet, training and body composition goals, reach out below or join the Uncommon Sense Physique Facebook Group for help and advice.


[1]: Low Calorie Dieting Increases Cortisol
Janet Tomiyama, Traci Mann, Danielle Vinas, Jeffrey M. Hunger, Jill DeJager, Shelley E. Taylor
Psychosom Med. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2011 May 1.
Published in final edited form as: Psychosom Med. 2010 May; 72(4): 357–364. Published online 2010 Apr 5. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c
PMCID: PMC2895000


Photo credit to Mauricio Alejo.

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