If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re either experiencing or have experienced the following scenario:
You’re dieting to lose weight and are doing everything right. You’re…
And at first, everything more or less went as planned. Your weight and waist went down and muscle definition went up like clockwork.
And then, the gears inexplicably ground to a halt.
For no apparent reason, the scale stopped moving and your reflection in the mirror stopped changing. You understand energy balance and so, determined to get the ball rolling again, you further cut your calories and increased your cardio.
It worked, of course…to a point. And then you got stuck again, and this time you felt even more haggard than before.
And then you hear about “starvation mode” and “metabolic damage.”
You find stories about people, typically women, who say they aren’t losing weight with extremely low-calorie dieting and hours of exercise every week, and the culprit is (supposedly) metabolic abnormalities caused by calorie restriction.
Essentially, the story goes like this:
Dieting dramatically and incrementally decreases your basal metabolic rate, which eventually halts fat loss, and which requires a lengthy and involved “recovery” protocol to fix the “damage” should you ever want a healthy metabolism again.
Hence, the term “metabolic damage.”
When your body is experiencing the complex set of physiological adaptations that apparently cause metabolic damage, it’s said to be in “starvation mode.” This apparently kicks in the first day of your diet and gets progressively worse and worse as time goes on.
How true are these claims, though? Well, the short story is this:
And in this article, you’ll learn why.
Furthermore, you’ll also learn the real reasons why weight loss stalls and what you can do to easily break through weight loss plateaus.
Let’s dig in.
According to most theories, “metabolic damage” refers to a condition where various physiological systems have been disrupted and, as a result, your metabolism burns less energy than it should.
In other words, it’s a hypothetical state wherein you burn far fewer calories than you should based on your body weight and activity levels. Furthermore, once you’ve “damaged” your metabolism, it apparently remains hamstrung even when you’ve finished dieting and want to just maintain a steady body weight.
It’s called “metabolic damage” because the theory is your metabolism is quite literally “broken” to one degree or another and requires “fixing.”
(And in case you’re not familiar with the term, your body’s metabolism is the collection of physical and chemical processes that it uses to produce, maintain, and destroy material substances, and to make energy available.)
The causes of metabolic damage are allegedly remaining in a calorie deficit for too long and/or starvation dieting, and doing too much cardio is often fingered as well.
Therefore, when you stop losing weight for no good reason or struggle to prevent weight gain after a period of dieting, some people will claim that you probably have metabolic damage that needs repairing.
The evidence to support all of this is almost always stories. Stories of people failing to lose weight on a measly few hundred calories per day, and even worse, stories of people gaining weight on very low-calorie diets and intense exercise routines.
And so people everywhere have become convinced that dieting has screwed up their bodies–maybe even irreversibly–and that their only hope for returning to normalcy is special dietary measures.
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The most typical protocol for fixing metabolic damage is simple: you’re supposed to increase your daily calorie intake by small amounts every week, usually 50 to 100 calories, until you’ve reached your predicted daily energy expenditure.
In some cases, very precise instructions are given regarding macronutrient breakdowns as well.
The rationale for this approach is that by slowly eating more calories (instead of drastically increasing intake, which is what many people do after dieting), you allow your “injured” metabolism to “keep up” and process the food efficiently, resulting in a gradual increase in metabolic rate without unwanted fat gain.
This is generally referred to as “reverse dieting,” and while it actually is a good idea to gradually increase food intake after a prolonged period of calorie restriction, you don’t need to do it for the reasons commonly claimed (more on this soon).
The idea behind “starvation mode” is similar to metabolic damage.
It goes like this: If you’re too aggressive with your caloric restriction, your metabolism will slow to a crawl, making it more or less impossible to continue losing weight without eating less than your average runway model.
According to many fitness gurus, if you remain in starvation mode for too long, then the next phase of punishment will begin: muscle loss and fat gain.
The only way to avoid all of this, we’re told, is losing weight slowly through a small (10 to 15%) calorie deficit. If we get greedy, they say, we’ll pay for it later.
The way most people describe it, metabolic damage and starvation mode work together to stymie your progress in a process that looks like this:
Well, as you’ll soon see, there’s a shade of truth here, but like many of the things that “everybody knows” in the fitness space, it’s more wrong than right.
*shuffles around awkwardly, picks mic back up*
Okay, I’ll explain.
To understand the real science of fat loss, you must start with the principles of energy balance and how your energy intake and expenditure alone dictates weight gain and loss.
Once you understand that, you realize that meaningful weight loss requires that you eat fewer calories (less energy) than you burn for an extended period of time.
For most people, the learning stops here. They wanted the “one weird trick” that would melt away belly fat and love handles, and they got it: eat less and move more.
What they don’t know, however, can come back and haunt them because restricting your calories does more than just reduce your total fat mass–it also affects your metabolism in various ways that make getting leaner increasingly difficult as time goes on.
In short, when you restrict your calories to lose fat, your body sets out to decrease energy expenditure and increase intake. That is, it wants to erase the energy deficit to balance intake with output and thereby halt fat loss.
The reality is losing fat requires that you force your body to do something it doesn’t want to do (mild and prolonged starvation), and in the spirit of self-preservation, it has “defense mechanisms” it employs to fight back.
Let’s look at the major ones.
Basal means “forming a base; fundamental,” and your basal metabolic rate is the amount of energy your body burns while at rest. The biggest energy hogs in your body are your organs and muscles (these are the prime determinants of your basal metabolic rate).
Now, when you place your body in a calorie deficit, hormonal adaptations occur that cause your body to burn less energy while at rest.
The thermic effect of food, or TEF, is the amount of energy required to eat, digest, absorb, and store food.
While restricting calories doesn’t appear to directly reduce TEF, the reduction in overall food intake naturally results in a reduction of total energy expenditure.
Every day you engage in varying amounts of spontaneous activity like walking around while on the phone, hopping to the bathroom, drumming your fingers when you read, or bobbing your legs when you think.
The energy burned by these activities is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis, or NEAT, and it plays a much larger role in total daily energy expenditure than most people realize.
Research shows that NEAT can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day among individuals, and the same research indicates that people could burn an additional 350 calories per day by taking simple actions to increase general activity levels, like taking the stairs when possible, walking relatively short distances instead of driving, doing chores instead of watching TV, etc.
Now, when you’re in a calorie deficit, your body naturally decreases its spontaneous activity levels, thereby (often significantly) reducing its average daily energy expenditure.
As you reduce your body weight, you also reduce the amount of energy expended during exercise (it costs more energy to move a heavier body).
There’s more to this than meets the eye, however, because studies have shown that even when body weight is artificially increased during weight loss, energy expenditure during exercise remains lower than normal.
As you can see, your total daily energy expenditure is a moving target and one of the challenges of dieting is adapting your exercise routine and meal plan as needed to ensure you remain in a large enough energy deficit to continue losing weight.
These changes in your basal metabolic rate, NEAT, TEF, and so forth are collectively known as “adaptive thermogenesis,” and they constitute your body’s primary weight loss “countermeasures.”
They can be very effective, too. If you don’t know how to deal with them properly, they can significantly slow your rate of weight loss or even stop it altogether.
You can expect a larger reduction in your basal metabolic rate if you do these things, but the effects are far smaller than many people would have you believe.
Furthermore, it took about a 10% reduction in body weight to produce the larger, double-digit drops, and most of the research on the matter was conducted with people who made every mistake in the book–they ate too few calories and too little protein and did no resistance training.
Now, what happens when you do things correctly, you’re wondering? When you use a moderately aggressive but not reckless calorie deficit, eat around 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, and do a few hours of heavy resistance training every week?
Thus, metabolic “damage” is a misnomer. The more accurate term is metabolic adaptation, which can work for or against you, depending on your goals and actions.
No, not in the strict sense of how most people understand the term.
As you now know, your body responds to calorie restriction with crosscurrents meant to stall weight loss (adaptive thermogenesis), but there is no “mode” it enters or physiological switch that flips that makes any further weight loss impossible.
The best example of all of this that I know of is one of the most extreme studies on human metabolism ever conducted: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment.
This experiment started in 1944 as the end of World War 2 was approaching, and its purpose was to discover the healthiest way to help the millions of starving people in Europe return to a normal body weight.
As you can guess, this study involved starving people. And by “starving,” I truly mean starving.
Scientists took 36 volunteers (they had the choice of shipping off to the front lines or doing this, and they chose this) and, to replicate the conditions of your average POW camp, had them do several hours of manual labor every day and march 22 miles per week on a diet that provided about 50% of their average daily energy expenditure. For six freaking months.
As you can imagine, things got pretty grim. By the end of the study, the men looked like this…
…and some had almost starved to death, and one even cut off several of his fingers to finish early.
What about their metabolisms, though? Were they as devastated as proponents of metabolic damage and starvation mode would predict?
After losing about 25% of their body weight on average, their basal metabolic rates were, on average, about 20% lower than scientists predicted based on their body weights.
In other words, their metabolisms were “under-performing” by about 20% on average after enduring six months of the most extreme weight loss regimen you could ever devise.
Then, in the next phase of the study, subjects were put on a “recovery diet” to allow them to regain most of the weight they lost, and after 12 weeks of this, their metabolic rates were assessed again.
This time, average metabolic rates were only about 10% lower than where they should have been, and in some cases, everything was back to normal, as if nothing had ever happened.
Not great news, of course, but not too bad considering what they had put their bodies through.
For example, if you started your weight loss journey with a BMR of about 1,800 calories per day, played Auschwitz for six months, and then regained the weight lost, you could expect a BMR of about 1,600 calories per day. Again, not ideal, but not enough to make you incapable of losing weight again.
It’s also worth noting that, according to a new study (largely compiled by a member of my scientific advisory board, Menno Henselmans), when you look at the data over the long-term (instead of just the first 12 weeks of recovery), there’s no evidence any of the people in the experiment suffered from lingering “metabolic damage.”
That is, everything went back to normal, but in some people, it just took longer than 12 weeks.
This groundbreaking experiment provided another nail to drive into the coffin of starvation mode, as well:
Every participant continued to lose weight up until the very end. The rate of weight loss slowed down, of course (for the reasons given earlier), but never came to a complete standstill.
It’s safe to assume, then, that if people can eat about 1,500 calories per day and do many hours of moderately intense exercise every week and still lose weight steadily…for six months…then we have nothing to worry about.
So, if metabolic damage and starvation mode can’t cause you to stop losing weight, what can?
There are three reasons why you can stop losing weight “for no good reason”:
Your metabolism isn’t a unique snowflake. Your body runs on the same type of machinery as mine and everyone else’s. You just have to learn how yours is tuned and make sure you’re not making some weight loss common mistakes.
Check out this article to learn more:
Metabolic damage and starvation mode are mostly bogeymen.
Your metabolism might decline as you lose weight (but might not), but if you know what you’re doing, the effects will be negligible and quickly reversed with a short period of “reverse dieting” once you’ve reached your target body fat percentage.
Even if you’ve already done everything wrong to drop pounds–starved yourself, ate very little protein, did way too much cardio–you still don’t have anything to worry about. Even the most extreme circumstances can only produce a small decline in metabolic rate, and it disappears naturally with normal eating.
Lastly, if you’re currently stuck in a weight loss rut or have been in the past and want to know why, it almost always comes down to one or more of three things:
And to learn why (and what to do about it), read this article.