“Metabolic damage” and “starvation mode” are probably terms you’ve heard before. They are often used when referring to the physiological changes that take place when someone is eating too little calories for too long. This lack of calories can be from limiting calories or upping exercise without accommodating with more food intake. Our bodies are fantastic at adapting; when we add an extra day of training into our schedule, we might be sore for a week or two but we adapt. Soon it feels like we were always Crossfitting 4 days a week instead of 3. When we take calories out of our diets, we might lose weight for a few weeks but then our bodies adapt and we plateau. Soon our bodies stop changing and it’s like we never ate more.
What exactly is happening here and why? More importantly, what can we do about it?
“Dieting” (for most of us) means “a lot less food and a lot more cardio”. We may acknowledge that strength training is important, and we might get that our hormones’ roles and functions are affected by our food. But most of us ignore that and decide if cutting calories by a little is good, then cutting by a lot must be better and faster! Right? Wrong. It’s damaging to your metabolism. Your metabolism is the orchestration of hormones and processes, including the process of releasing stored fat and burning that fat or re-storing it. It is a process we all want control over.
When it comes to this process we want regulation over, calories matter and so do hormones like insulin. How you reduce calories and at what rate matters to your hormones. I think of a rubber band analogy. To get a result (weight loss) you must put just enough stress (stress = calorie reduction) on it to get movement without it snapping back. Just enough. Not enough stress on your metabolism and you end up staying stuck. Too much stress, and like the rubber band things spring back. We do the same process in strength training! To get stronger we get under just enough weight/tension with just enough speed to challenge our bodies. Not so much that we fail, but enough that we are uncomfortable.
Initially, when there is the wrong kind of stress (or just too much stress overall) on the metabolism, the body simply adapts by turning down the metabolic rate. You see this time and time again when you start a new diet and get results for a like a week…then zip. Nothing. You’ve checked and MyFitnessPal says you’re coming in under recommended calorie intake. But with this turn down of your metabolism (that can happen very quickly) you simply aren’t burning as much as you think you are.
When you cut calories or try to burn more off at the gym, that triggers lower leptin levels and ups those cortisol levels. That brings on cravings for the carbs and sometimes fatty/starchy foods. This makes it super hard to stick to your plan. What this looks like for a lot of us is “clean eating” Monday to Friday and then losing it on the weekend.
What can we do? We need to find the right amount of stress to put on our metabolism to get results but not push it so far it snaps back at us. Start by training smarter, not harder. Follow the programming and don’t go rouge in pursuit of weight loss. Making changes takes time, and the more aggressive the shifts, the more aggressive the possible damage.
Try some strategies, like RP Strength, that slowly and intentionally put stress on your metabolic system for a limited period. Many of us don’t intuitively know how to program for strength gains or how to strike that tension and not snap our rubber band. That’s why we loved CrossFit…someone does it for us. The same is sometimes true with our food intake habits. We don’t intuitively know without a lot of patience and practice how to pull on our metabolic rubber band and not have it smack us in the face. Commit to a long-term program (90 days or more) and be patient and intentional. Learn about your body and its needs, ask questions, rehab your metabolism, and exit starvation mode.