Metabolic Damage PART 1

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Imagine this: you’re eating 800 calories a day, exercising 2-3 hours a day, and you can’t lose any weight. Sounds like a crazy, almost implausible situation – right? Well, although rare, this can be precisely the case with individuals who have metabolic damage.

What Is Metabolic Damage

Metabolic damage is the non-clinical term for something referred to physiologically as “adaptive thermogenesis”. Essentially the human body has two responses to a calorie deficit. The first response is good –to lose body fat. As discussed at length in our blogs before, fat loss comes by way of a calorie deficit. The second response is to down-regulate metabolism in an effort to adapt to the “stress” of a calorie deficit. Keep in mind that the human body desires stability and consistency (“homeostasis”) and will do whatever it can to maintain it, even if it’s counterproductive to our weight loss efforts.

For certain individuals, the down-regulation to metabolism becomes so severe that they have the complete inability to lose weight, even at very low calorie intakes and very high levels of exercise. We might say these individuals have a “damaged” metabolism.

How to Identify Metabolic Damage

First, I will say this is a relatively rare occurrence, so it’s far more likely that your metabolism is functioning just fine, and if you’re not losing weight, you probably need to do more and eat less. Metabolic damage is not the same as what some people call a “slow” metabolism, which is a bit of a misconception anyway. While metabolic damage is somewhat formally defined; “clinical” diagnosis is currently not possible. This is where the challenge comes in.

If you went to your doctor and gave him the 800 calorie scenario I mentioned above, they would run blood work to determine thyroid function, maybe other hormone panels (estrogen, for women), and maybe cortisol. With metabolic damage all of these tests would come back normal. Your doctor may even decide to use a sophisticated piece of clinical equipment called a “metabolic cart” to indirectly measure metabolism via oxygen consumption. This too would come back normal. At which point your doctor likely would assume you are lying to him about how much exercise you’re doing, or how many calories you’re restricting.

Herein lies the problem with metabolic damage: there is no standard clinical definition. In part this is due to not truly knowing what causes it. Metabolic damage is a relatively new area of research, and although we can acknowledge its existence, we don’t yet know what mechanisms are responsible for it; therefore we don’t know what to measure in the human body to identify it.

At present, metabolic damage is more of a diagnosis of exclusion than anything else. This means that if you’re not losing weight, your calories are low (< 1200/day), your exercise is high (>6hrs/week), and there is a complete absence of clinical measures of abnormal metabolism (namely low thyroid function), metabolic damage is likely the cause.

Who Is at Risk

Several risk factors have been identified for metabolic damage:

1) Individuals who weight-cycle (gaining and losing 20+ lbs several times during life)

2) Individuals who yo-yo diet (going on and off various diets frequently)

3) Individuals who have been on very low calorie diets (< 1000 calories/day sustained for 3-4 weeks or more)

4) Anyone who fits the profile of VERY low calorie intake and VERY high exercise

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Metabolic Damage

AFS practitioners are trained to identify metabolic damage and to begin the intervention process of restoring a healthy/normal metabolism. However, in the second part of this blog (that will be published in the beginning of April), I will provide a basic intervention tool that can be used to combat metabolic damage, which will allow you to start losing weight.

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