Updated: May 28, 2020
"Did I break my metabolism?"
I've had variations of this question asked countless times, typically by someone who has tried EVERY fad diet, a lot of workout plans, and usually spent a small fortune on supplements.
My answer is usually some variation of: possibly, but not irreparably.
Metabolic damage is all the rage in the fitness and nutrition circles right now, and for good reason. With the pressure to be lean, fit, and attractive seemingly at an all time high, people seem to be going to more and more extreme measures to try to achieve the body (and life) they want.
Only to end up frustrated and wondering if they just can lose weight anymore because they screwed up their metabolism.
The human body is incredibly adaptable, and while you can damage your metabolism, once you get back on track it will bounce back. To do that, the answer most people need is something that has been out there for a long time:
It's all about balance baby!
Energy balance that is. What is energy balance? Put simply, it's the famous Calories in/Calories out that you have probably heard 1,000 times before.
I know, I know, but bear with me...
Frustration with the "energy balance" equation and your personal results is probably very valid, and likely has a straightforward answer: the numbers don't always add up because the equation isn't as simple as you have been told.
We've all heard "experts" and "gurus" talk about how this is what it all boils down to. Just burn more than you take in and you will lose weight! You could eat fast food every meal and lose weight. Right?
Kinda...BUT it's not that simple. Metabolism is the sum of millions of chemical reactions happening simultaneously in your body every SECOND.
AND there is the emerging research on the importance of gut health and the role of the microbiome in determining how much of the calories and nutrients that pass our lips we actually ABSORB and the role that plays in health, immunity, and weight management.
PLUS the fact that individual variations in our genetics influence how people from identical backgrounds may have different health.
NOT TO MENTION that there are environmental factors also contribute to different expressions of that genetic code.
FINALLY there are the daily variations in stress (WHAT STRESS?!?!), sleep, hydration, and on and on that also play a role in how your metabolism may perform on a given day or over an extended period of time....
To distill something this complex to a simple “calories in vs. calories out” is like taking Picasso’s paintings and replacing them with stick figure drawings. Sure they’re both pictures, but one has a lot more depth and nuance.
So why all the hype and why start with this as the foundation of our nutritional priorities?
All the nuance and complicating factors aside, we have to start somewhere. Even a Picasso starts with some sketches and lines that become the basis of the image.
Determining the number of calories you need to maintain the energy balance appropriate for your goals is the sketch work of the masterpiece that will become the healthiest, most beautiful version of you.
And as you probably deduced by now, there's a LOT that goes into it. The simplest version of the energy balance equation looks like this:
Changes in body stores* = Energy in - energy out
Let's look at the Energy Out component of the equation.
Some people equate energy balance to a car, put gas in and it goes until it runs out. Certainly easy to grasp, but overly simple.
A better analogy for your metabolism is that of a smart thermostat for your house that adjusts itself based on the habits of the user, the size of the house, what's going on inside, and the outside environment. These factors combine to determine your total energy expenditure.
We'll get more into the "energy in" portion in subsequent posts, but here are the primary factors that determine you "energy out" on a given day.
1. Basal Instinct
The first, most significant factor in the "energy out" part of the equation is your Basal Metabolic Rate or BMR. This is the number of calories your body needs just to operate and stay alive even if you were comatose.
If your goal is to lose weight in a healthy, sustainable fashion you should NEVER eat under your BMR caloric need!!!
Eating below your BMR level for sustained periods of time is unhealthy and causes your body to waste critical tissues like muscle and bone, which in turn slows your metabolism down making it harder to lose weight going forward and makes re-gain of weight when you return to normal calorie levels guaranteed.
Sound familiar serial dieters?
Since most of us are NOT in a coma (thankfully), we'll switch to discussing Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR), which is very similar to BMR but typically about 10% higher due to normal motor movements throughout the day.
2. Size DOES matter!
Just like bigger houses cost more to heat and cool, larger people tend to have higher RMRs and smaller people have lower RMRs. Your RMR also changes based on your body composition because people with more muscle require more calories to maintain it.
3. The Undefeated Father Time
Age is a big factor into RMR. We burn less efficiently as we get older, which surprises no one over the age of 25. We tend to lose muscle mass and the associated mitochondria, which are the power plants of the cell responsible for ATP production (if you don;t recall from 8th grade biology class). That's why energy levels diminish as we age and hangovers seem to last longer every year. However, you can slow the rate of degradation by exercising consistently and eating a healthy diet. No cure for the hangover problem, sorry, I drink V-8 and take an ibuprofen.
4. The Gender Gap
Moving on to gender. Sorry ladies, you're getting the short end of the biological stick here. Because you're biologically designed to make babies, women tend to have less muscle and more body fat and thus tend to have lower metabolic rates than men of comparable size. On the plus side, you can make another human which is pretty fucking rad.
5. Well that's NEAT!
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT!) is basically everything you do that is non-exercise like house work, getting dressed, having sex (Yes that counts, and no it isn't your workout for the day), etc. This is where small choices like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking to the grocery store, etc. start to add up.
6. The PUMP is Fantastic!!!
Exercise activity is pretty simply the calorie burn you get while doing any activity you're doing intentionally for exercise purposes, There are literally millions of combinations and permutations of ways to workout, and plenty of people who spend an inordinate amount of time and money trying to figure out the BEST way to workout. I won't go down that rabbit hole in this post, Whether it's Shake Weight, CrossFit, marathon running, or juggling on a unicycle that you do to workout, it counts for your exercise activity burn.
7. Turn on the AFTERBURNERS!
Along with exercise activity is the "AFTER-BURN!" which weirdos like me LOVE to talk about with our clients, friends, hell even strangers we meet at random. The after-burn is a much cooler way to talk about EPOC, that's shorthand nerd for Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
This is the technical term for the increased rate of oxygen intake following strenuous activity. Your body needs oxygen to repair and rebuild cellular tissues damaged during strenuous exercise. Essentially, the higher rate you burn during exercise the higher rate you burn after. That's why high intensity training is so effective for changing body composition rapidly.
8. Are you gonna eat that?
Finally, is the thermic effect of food (TEF). Eating, digesting, and excreting all that food and fluid you take in throughout the day takes energy. More than you might expect, roughly 10% of daily calorie burn is used for digestion.
And if you're already thinking that it probably takes more calories to digest steak and broccoli than Twinkies and Mountain Dew you are correct! Nutrient dense, minimally processed foods have greater thermic effect than simpler foods. As a general rule of thumb, the longer it takes you to chew a food the longer it will take your body to process it as well.
SO digging in a little deeper, the expanded equation actually looks like this:
Changes in Body Stores* = Energy In - [RMR + NEAT + Exercise + EPOC + TEF]
You may be asking: OK, that's great but how do I use this information?
Here are 5 Tips You Can Implement TODAY!
1. Eat more whole foods- This works in 2 ways: your body will be burning more calories processing food, and you'll be full longer which will naturally reduce the desire for shitty processed foods. Focus on vegetables and fruits first, and then...
2. Eat more protein- Not only does protein significantly increase TEF, it is essential for maintaining lean body mass which keeps your RMR higher. Generally, I recommend 1 gram per pound of your target body weight OR 6-8 palm size servings a day for men and 4-6 palm size servings a day for women as a starting point.
3. Drink more water- Your body has to process those fluids, which increases your total calorie expenditure, and hydration is critical to your body's performance on a cellular level so it literally improves function of every system in your body. Start tracking your water on your or just keep track of how many times you fill your reusable water bottle and aim to increase 10% for 2 weeks.
4. Get MOVING to increase NEAT- Fidget, stand at your desk, take the stairs, go for a walk at lunch, park further away from the door, walk to do errands near your house...it ALL ADDS UP!!! If you're looking for more of a punch up...
5. Start Exercising- Whether you are a lifelong couch potato or a former athlete, no one is too far gone to start. Do SOMETHING to intentionally burn more calories every day. Obviously, I recommend kettlebell sport but whether it's yoga, walking, rock climbing, lifting weights, etc. is far less important than getting started and finding something you will do consistently is the most important part to make immediate progress towards your goals.
WHEW! That was a lot. Was it good for you? I feel pretty good about it!
If you're ready to make a lasting change, I'm here to help. There's a lot of variables that go into figuring out what works for your individual needs. If you'd like guidance on how to get started, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a message.
Remember that everyone is different, and what works for someone else may or may not work for you. You don't have to be perfect, start where you're at and make incremental progress over time and stay after it!
Grow or die.