Is My Metabolism Damaged?
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If you’re having trouble losing weight — or maybe you lost some but then it just stopped — you might want to blame your metabolism.
After all, your eating habits CAN affect your body so you don’t burn as many calories (more on that in a bit).
But is it possible you’ve somehow caused irreparable damage to your metabolism, dooming you to a life of excess weight gain, adding pound after pound every time you even breathe near a cookie?
This Was Me
Raise your hand if you’ve attempted to lose weight by ramping up the cardio and eating a whole lot less. 🙋🏽 <—(That’s me.)
Raise your hand if, after having a treat or slipping up on your diet, you’ve done extra exercise to make up for it. 🙋🏽 (Still me.)
Now raise your hand if, after putting in all that work doing what everyone says you’re “supposed” to do, you got minimal results (at best) and then it all just stopped. 🙋🏽 (Yep, I’ve been there, too.)
Insert: “My metabolism is damaged. I can’t lose weight.”
If you relate to this, the first thing you should know is that your struggles might not have anything to do with your metabolism — this is important, so pay attention:
You’re probably just eating more calories than you think.
Counting calories isn’t a great strategy for most people (that’s why we don’t have our clients do it). There are a lot of ways to mess it up, and 99 times out of 100, that’s what’s actually going on. BUT, for the sake of the rest of this blog, we’ll assume that’s not the case.
If your metabolism actually has slowed down, the good news is that doesn’t mean it’s broken. Your body has simply adapted.
Is It Starvation Mode?
Your body works hard to maintain the “norm,” so whenever anything changes (e.g. you start eating less), your body will actively resist that change — especially if it’s drastic (e.g. you eat way less and start losing weight quickly).
Even if you’re lucky enough to lose some weight at first, it can get to where results become non-existent. Some people call this “starvation mode,” saying it essentially shuts down your metabolism and makes it impossible to lose weight. There’s just one thing…
Starvation mode isn’t real.
What’s actually going on is something called “metabolic adaptation.” And the good news is that there’s a pretty simple explanation for how it works and what you can do about it.
How It Works
There are two major things that happen with metabolic adaptation:
1. Your metabolism literally slows down.
The amount of change that happens to your actual metabolism as a direct response to a weight loss diet is small.
If it were the only aspect of metabolic adaptation, it would be pretty easy to work around. It wouldn’t even “stop” weight loss as much as it would just marginally slow it down. You might not even notice it.
2. Your body slows YOU down.
In other words, you burn less calories not because of your metabolism (making the term metabolic adaptation somewhat misleading), but because you aren’t moving around as much during the day.
The tricky part is that this happens subconsciously.
You won’t be aware you’re doing anything different from normal, and yet it can cause you to burn several hundred less calories every day, definitely making weight loss more difficult.
You can’t stop this completely, but you CAN limit how much it affects your weight loss goals.
Your Next Steps
The key to getting back on track and losing weight for good is to find the sweet spot with diet and exercise.
First, chill out with the cardio.
The excessive bouts of cardio many people do (like I used to) when trying to lose weight can break down muscle and bone, exacerbating the conditions that cause your metabolism to literally slow down.
Instead, prioritize strength training, which has the opposite effect and will speed up your metabolism in the long run.
If you don’t like cardio (🙋🏽 hello again), this is good news. If you do enjoy it, you don’t have to give it up, but you might consider scaling it back temporarily while trying to lose weight.
Second, get your body moving.
Since the main part of metabolic adaptation is that your body subconsciously slows you down, you can actively fight back on this. Walking (see How to Use a Step Count to Lose Weight), active play with your kids, dancing around your living room, extra yard work or deep cleaning the house…
Anything that ISN’T a workout.
Exercise (in moderation) is important, but if it’s your main source of staying active, it’s just another thing your body will resist by slowing you down rest of the day, burning fewer total calories. Easy stuff doesn’t affect the body as drastically, making non-exercise activity a better course of action.
Third, stop "dieting."
Typical dieting focuses on what you CAN’T eat.
If you want to eat in a way that’s good for your overall health — having a positive long-term affect on your metabolism and still making plenty of room for weight loss — it’s more effective to focus on ADDING to your diet.
You need more of all the things you likely don’t get enough of already: protein, high-quality carbs, healthy fats, minimally processed foods in general, and lots of veggies.
Most popular diets also try to get you to lose weight way faster than what’s healthy.
Remember, the more drastic the change that happens to your body, the more extreme its response will be. If you want to keep your metabolism running as normally as possible, rushing through weight loss by cutting every food out of your life that could potentially be labeled as “unhealthy” isn’t the way to do it.
You’re better off making slower changes, even one step at a time.
(Our free guide, “5 Myths You Have to Stop Believing to Lose Weight” gives specific steps to follow.)
A "slower" rate of weight loss leads to a more cooperative metabolism with less adaptation and, ultimately, more success with weight loss in the long-term. (Meaning you’ll be losing weight as quickly as you possibly can for if you want to actually keep it off — which isn’t really “slower,” if you think about it.)
A Totally Different 4th Option
If you’ve been trying to lose weight for a long time, you might want to consider taking a break for a while. It could be exactly what you need to let your body recover, get your head in a better space, and not make the scale the center of attention.
If you do go this route, don’t make it a free-for-all. Eat at a maintenance level for your current body weight and continue to work on the same healthy eating habits you’re building (or should be) when losing weight.
Just eat more food while doing it.
Your metabolism will go back to normal when you do this, too. (Metabolic adaptation isn’t permanent.)
You’ll still experience the same adaptations again if/when you jump back into weight loss, but you have a better chance of dealing with it effectively when it’s not a constant battle day after day for months and months.
Now that you know your metabolism isn’t broken, and you have some ideas on how to keep it functioning optimally, I’m going to say this other part one more time:
If you have trouble losing weight, there’s a high chance it has nothing to do with your metabolism.
There are a variety of other factors that come into play (in case you’re wondering if age is one of those factors, read “Does Your Metabolism Slow as You Age”), but with all of them the bottom line is that you’re eating too many calories.
This can be frustrating to hear, especially if you feel you’ve been eating well.
We’d like to help remove that frustration.
It would be impossible to list every scenario that could be keeping you from your goals, but our private, online coaching is designed to take the guesswork out of it. That way you don’t have to wonder if there’s something you’re doing wrong, or if your metabolism is to blame.
If you’re ready to lose that frustration, check out how our coaching works and apply today.
P.S. For anyone who has a thyroid issue that they know affects their metabolism:
The good news is that the principles I’ve laid out here still apply. It may be more difficult for you to lose weight — let’s acknowledge that — but the process will be the same. Just wanted to show you some love and let you know there’s hope for you, too!
Your metabolism isn't damaged. But if your body HAS adapted to your weight loss efforts by not burning as many calories as it used to — which is possible — it’ll all go back to normal once you start eating more again.
In the meantime, you can fight those adaptations by prioritizing strength-based exercise, finding ways to be active that AREN’T exercise, and taking a healthier approach to eating by adding high-quality foods to your diet rather than simply cutting foods out.