Troubleshooting Weight Loss, Pt. 5

Posted January 4, 2014 by

Welcome to the 5th installment of our 6 part series on troubleshooting stalling fat loss efforts. Just a warning, this one is pretty long… but hopefully it will educate you a lot about one of the most popular “diagnoses” in the fitness industry these days.

In parts 1 through 4, we took a look at some of the most common reasons that a fat-loss program would not be providing you the results you were expecting—namely, that either:

  1. You’re not really in a deficit (for a variety of possible reasons)
  2. You’re unintentionally sneaking in calories (thus, causing point 1)
  3. You’re “gettin’ DEM GAINZ” (in non-idiot speak, gaining some muscle mass and/or water retention which is masking your simultaneous fat loss)
  4. Your workout and/or nutrition program is an embarrassment to mankind and is worthy of a slow, painful death for whoever came up with it

All joking aside, sometimes we find ourselves doing everything correctly for a long enough time that lean mass/water weight gains continuing to mask fat loss is unlikely—particularly when the stall in weight loss is combined with a lack of change in inches or what we look like in the mirror.

The final two parts of this series will delve into these potential snagging points and how to address them.

Weight Loss Hiccup #5: Your metabolism has slowed to a crawl.

“Metabolic damage” is probably the hottest phrase in the fitness industry right now… if you haven’t heard of it you might be living under a rock, just sayin’.

The argument goes that people—particularly women—who have a long history of severely restricting calories (like, 800 calories per day or less for months on end) and simultaneously spending extreme amounts of time exercising (like, 2-3 workouts per DAY, every day—sometimes even more!) and have not balanced this extreme over-dieting and over-exercising with extended periods spent in calorie surplus and greatly lowered exercise programs (i.e. “bulking” phases as they’re known in the bodybuilding world), are at risk for developing what amounts to a semi-permanently-depressed metabolism that results in a complete inability to lose fat or even maintain fat loss, and instead experience rapid fat gain unproportional to their calorie intake.

As this phrase began spreading around the fitness industry, many female fitness competitors identified with the symptoms and “metabolic damage” spread around the internet like wildfire. Pretty soon, every woman with computer access who experienced even the slightest issue with their fat loss was automatically assuming they had “metabolic damage.”

The reason I am putting the phrase in quotes is because the term “metabolic damage” is not a medical term—the proper phrase is either “starvation mode” or “adaptive thermogenesis”, which you can use at your next casual get-together if you want to sound like a total ass.

However, there are a lot of myths surrounding this entire phenomenon and it’s important to understand not only what this starvation response does within the body, but also how difficult it is to come out of and WHY. Just an FYI: because this is a fairly technical subject, I will be linking to a number of resources during this discussion if you’re interested in more reading on this matter—because there is a LOT to it.

First, what causes our bodies to respond to extended periods of very low calorie intake by depressing the metabolism? Well, your body has a preferential order in which it uses energy… initially, it will use a mixture of the food you’ve eaten recently, as well as stored glycogen, fatty acids (from your fat cells) and amino acids from your amino acid pool. With regular feedings and normal day-to-day activity, including moderately intense workouts not lasting much more than an hour, this is all your body needs to get by.

However, during periods of very low calorie intake, (especially when combined with extreme levels of exercise) your stored glycogen gets depleted and never really gets replenished, since your meals are so small. Since you’re under-eating protein (and calories/carbs, both of which have a protein-sparing effect), which is used for all sorts of bodily processes, your body turns to the only place it can get more amino acids from—your lean body mass.

In other words, as you continue to starve yourself, you begin to break down your muscle tissue to turn it into nutrients you need to use to continue to function. This is one of the dangers of diets that are too severe—yes, you lose weight, but at what cost? If you lose 10 lbs and 8 of those lbs are muscle, I would argue that that is a failure—and not just because it will make you look skinny fat—but because muscle is metabolically-demanding tissue.

That being said, the truth is muscle has been over-hyped in its effect on the metabolism. Phrases like “a pound of muscle burns 50 calories” are completely untrue… I mean think about it, that would mean that a 200 lb male at 10% body fat is burning 9,000 calories per day… that’s just idiotic.

The truth is, body mass in GENERAL contributes to your metabolism substantially. Someone who weighs 250 lbs, regardless of their body composition, will likely have a significantly higher calorie maintenance level than a 100 lb person. Obviously, activity levels need to be taken into account here too, but regardless, bigger people need higher amounts of calories to exist, all else being equal.

Losing 10-15 lbs of muscle mass can drop your metabolic rate by up to a couple hundred calories, which makes it that much easier to wipe out your calorie deficit and thus, achieving no weight loss.

Additionally—and perhaps, more importantly—your performance levels will drop significantly when you’re underfeeding—the more severe the underfeeding, the more severe the drop in performance. I will get more into this in a future article, but suffice it to say that if your exercise intensity goes down the shitter, you’re going to burn a lot fewer calories during your workout and well, I think you can put the rest of that story together.

Finally—and this is a subject you can read more about in an excellent blog post by Leigh Peele—your body is GREAT at adapting. If you feed it less, it will expend less in all areas of life. This is one reason that chronic underfeeders complain about shitty immune systems (always getting ill), low sex drives, and lack of energy throughout the day—their bodies simply have “turned off” energy expenditure to those outlets in order to save it for things like keeping your brain and heart running.

As Leigh explains, this lowered energy expenditure happens REGARDLESS of the severity of the diet—which is why it is very important to balance dieting or “cutting” phases with periods of calorie surplus (“bulks”)—otherwise these processes remain down-regulated and your quality of life suffers.

In a study published in 2000, participants of a 2 year experiment were confined in a biosphere (for their sake, hopefully Pauly Shore wasn’t one of the inhabitants) and had to endure a severely-restricted calorie intake during this time. One thing they noticed in the group was that their levels of non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT)—things like fidgeting/pacing/shivering—were significantly reduced compared to the control group that ate at a normal level of calorie intake. In other words, because they weren’t getting a lot of food, the biosphere inhabitants’ bodies adapted by reducing energy expenditure from anywhere they could, including habitual movement behavior.

So, what I am getting at here, is that you can’t trick your body by simply starving it and then trying to ramp up your exercise. Your body will adapt by becoming extremely energy-efficient, and your workouts and life will suffer greatly. You will stop losing weight because you simply AREN’T going into calorie deficit at this point.

OK, we’ve explained what changes in the body result from being in starvation mode and why… so what do we do about it?

Let’s start with what NOT to do. DON’T stay obsessed with fat loss at this point… and continue trying to diet down lower and exercise more and more—it’s time to put that on the back burner and get your body back to a healthy state. Depending on the length of your underfeeding and overtraining, as well as the severity of it, it can take days to weeks, maybe even a month or two of having returned to slightly over maintenance level calories to recover.

What you SHOULD do is first and foremost, decrease your exercise volume to something reasonable—5-6 hours per week at most, made up primarily of weight training rather than cardio (in fact, completely axing cardio for the time being is probably a great idea here).

You should also begin adding back in calories. I like to add in calories incrementally rather than jump up to what I assume to be maintenance level, since everyone is different. This gives me time to observe the changes in the body and make a more educated decision on when to increase further.

This is not necessarily the only way to do it—I’ve seen other coaches take their clients immediately to a calculated maintenance level without issue, but I choose to do it my way partially out of my OCD nature, and also because I have simply found that having an appetite for maintenance level calories can be hard for someone who has gotten used to starving themselves for an extended period of time.

Once we get to maintenance level, we will slightly increase the calories so that the person is in a surplus—not enough of one to gain a bunch of fat, but enough to allow the body to “reset” in a sense.

What you might notice first—especially if you jump right into maintenance calories—are wild swings in levels of water retention and weight. It’s important NOT to confuse this with fat gain. Your hormones will probably be flying all over the place, and since water retention is closely tied to hormone fluctuations, it can be of some issue.

As time goes on, you will see your quality of life returning. Your energy levels will increase, your hair, skin and nails will get stronger and healthier looking, your sex drive will likely begin to increase and truthfully, you’ll probably be less of a crabby jerk. 😉

Finally, this is followed by a gradual stabilization of water weight fluctuations and a return to predictability in weight compared to calories. When you’re maintaining weight near 15-16 times your body weight in calories with 6 or fewer hours of exercise per week, then you are in a good place and can return to a cutting phase—this time, approaching it in a much more intelligent manner, of course.

The key is GRADUALLY decreasing calories and using cardio as a calorie ballast of sorts—a way to increase calories out, only when needed. Often, a 15-20% decrease from maintenance level calories is all that is needed to begin seeing fat loss at an optimal level—especially if you are at a normal weight range already and aiming to get exceptionally lean.

Additionally, learning how to implement periods of calorie surplus (e.g. refeeds or diet breaks) during your cuts is a very useful method for keeping metabolic decline to a minimum and avoiding this situation in the future. This is where having a good coach can come in very handy to help you determine when to implement such a strategy (however, Leigh Peele’s previously-linked-to article has a handy table in it for a rough estimate if you want to do it yourself).

As an aside, I wanted to include a very interesting article about some other factors that might contribute to what is often “diagnosed” as adrenal fatigue and/or metabolic damage (namely, that those diagnosed often exhibit high levels of chronic stress, anxiety, etc.) which could mean that some behavioral modifications might be necessary for some people suffering from these types of symptoms.

Next time we will go over what I consider to be the final reason for a lack of results during a fat loss program—legitimate disorders of the thyroid/pituitary glands, hormone levels, etc.

Click here for part 6

Comments on Troubleshooting Weight Loss, Pt. 5 »

  1. Lala

    Did you go to Arcata High?

  2. Yeah, I assume you did too… which class?


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