You may have heard of the term, "Metabolic Damage" used in the fitness industry and in society in general. Metabolic Damage refers to a person's metabolism as being "broken" due to crash diets, low calorie intake, excessive cardio or even because of genetics. In this article, I am going to clear up any confusion about metabolic damage and break all the myths associated with it.
WHAT IS A METABOLISM?
Your metabolism is simply your body's ability to take in energy (calories) and convert them into usable energy for your body. The faster one's metabolism, the faster he/she expends calories to use them.
Metabolic Damage or damage to your metabolisms really isn't damage at all. A better word to use is metabolic "adaptation". I will explain why I swapped these words later in the article. For now let's break down metabolic adaptation into its 4 parts:
- BMR - Your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate) is the amount of calories you need to eat in order to just survive. These calories do nothing more than to keep your body alive and functioning. As a result, you won't need many calories. For a 6 foot 185 pound male who is fairly active, he will need about 1800 calories (using me as an example).
- TEA - (Thermic Affect of Activity) is where your body burns calories when exercising in the gym. The amount will vary for each individual.
- TEF - (Thermic Affect of Food) is your body's ability to burn calories when digesting/assimilating the food we eat. The more food you eat, the more calories your body burns as there is more digestion taking place.
- N.E.A.T - (Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) is responsible for the involuntary movements we make, i.e., scratching our heads, changing our posture, fidgeting etc. All of these movements are unconscious and we are only aware of them when we perform them.
These 4 factors make up the basis of your metabolism. The rest is comprised of metabolic hormones such as your thyroid, insulin, testosterone and cortisol levels. Surprisingly enough, the 4 factors listed above make up more of your metabolism than your hormones. Yet this is where the big misconception comes into play.
WHAT IS METABOLIC ADAPTATION?
When we diet or lower our calories, we lose body weight by being in a caloric deficit, i.e., eating less calories then our bodies require. When we decrease in weight, those 4 components of our metabolism also decrease with it.
If I lose 15 pounds and go from 185 to 170, my BMR (basal metabolic rate) will decrease. It decreases simply because I am now smaller in size (15 pounds). My body does not REQUIRE as many calories to function. So, for example, instead of 1800 calories to run my entire body at rest, it now requires 1700. The opposite would occur if I gained weight. The heavier you are the MORE calories your body requires to function. A 300 pound man may easily need 3000+ calories to run his body at rest.
My TEA (thermic affect of activity) will also decrease when dieting & losing weight. This is because if I feed my body less energy (calories) I am likely not going to push as hard in the gym because I lack the EXTRA energy (calories) to do so. I may cut out a few sets, go down a few reps, not push the same heavy weight or even skip out on a few of the "hard" exercises like the squat/deadlift at times.
The opposite will occur if I increase my calories. If I have an abundance of food in my system, I am likely to push extra hard, lift the heavy weight and increase the amount of total volume I do in my workout (number of sets/reps) from the increased energy!
My TEF (thermic affect of food) will decrease as well when dieting/losing bodyweight because when dieting, you are restricted to a certain amount of food. With this limited food intake, you will not have to digest as much. The less food we eat, the less we have to digest. The opposite happens when we eat alot of food. Alot of digesting is going to happen that will take energy (calories) to do so.
Finally my N.E.A.T will decrease when dieting/losing weight because the less energy you provide to your body, the more deprived your body will be. For example, the more deprived I am, the more I am going to CONSERVE the little energy I have. Think of this as a survival mechanism in that you would have to conserve energy if you have very little to eat. You will unconsciously move less/fidget less because of the lower energy. Vice versa, the more energy you have, the more active you will become.
IS METABOLIC ADAPTATION A BAD THING?
Metabolic adaptation isn't a bad thing at all. In fact it can either keep you from dying (caloric deficit) or allow your body to cope with the large amount of calorie intake (caloric surplus).
The problem arises when people assume they are gaining FAT or are unable to LOSE weight because of their "broken" metabolisms specifically their "hormonal aspect of their metabolisms." This is not the case because the 4 factors listed above (BMR etc.) make up most of your metabolism (rather than hormones) and have a greater affect on your body. Secondly, the 4 factors listed above are FULLY controlled by the amounst of food we eat opposed to our hormones.
So, if someone actually has a "broken metabolism" they, unfortunately, brought it upon themselves by eating way too many calories required for their bodies. Many of our foods are "calorically" dense so even though the food may be small in volume, they contain alot of calories. This is usually why people think they're barely eating anything but still gaining fat.
Another problem is that people simply don't move enough.They blame their slow metabolisms for their weight gain when they don't exercise and in fact live a sedentary lifestyle, i.e., sit at their desks/on the couch for hours on end.
WELL....CAN I INCREASE MY METABOLISM?
ABSOLUTELY! This is done by over eating or by under eating. Remember how I said I wanted to change the phrase "metabolic damage" to "metabolic adaptation"? This is because we can change our metabolisms to adapt to higher speeds.
To do this, we simply eat more food. By eating more food, our TEA will increase because of the increased calories = more energy in the gym. Our TEF will also increase because of the increased food. The more energy our body needs to digest/assimilate the food, our N.E.A.T will also increase because we now have more energy. Finally, our BMR will increase because as our weight goes up due to muscle gain (hoping you work out when you raise your calories) your overall BMR will increase too. It's a WIN-WIN situation.
Now David...If I increase my calories, won't I just gain fat? Not necessarily and I say this because YES you will gain weight but the majority of it will come from water and glycogen stores, both of which are NOT fat gain. The water weight will eventually drop off when your body becomes accustomed to the increased calories you are providing it.
Water weight gain is usually the reason why people won't increase their calories but need to in order to raise their metabolism. They believe the weight gain is from fat (rather than water weight) and return back to eating fewer calories. This, of course, further lowers their metabolism and sets them up for future binges (which of course, will result in fat gain). It really is a vicious cycle.
IN THE END....
Metabolic adaptation is NOT a bad thing. It is there to keep your body alive. You can change your metabolism at any time by simply increasing or decreasing your calories. This will result in your BMR, TEA, TEF, and N.E.A.T. increasing/decreasing as well as your adaptive metabolic hormones. But again this isn't the big factor here.
If you are looking to raise your metabolism as you feel it is too slow due to fewer calories, I would suggest you periodically increase your calories by 100-200 each week until you feel like you are eating at a comfortable level for your body. Continually weigh yourself while increasing your calories until your weight finally stabilizes.
With all of this said, if you increase your metabolism back up to a peak level for your body BUT still are overeating (eating more calories than your specific body requires) you will gain fat...period. You can thank physics for that. We can't continuously increase our calories as our metabolisms can only get so high. It will eventually level off after reaching it's pinnacle for our weight/activity level.
Check out the video I made below for more details on this whole subject matter.