Why am I continuously dropping calories and NOT losing weight?
How come all the weight I lost came right back on (and much easier than it came off) as soon as I stopped dieting?
What is metabolic adaptation?
Have you ever asked yourself these questions? If so, there’s a strong possibility you may have found yourself in a metabolically-adapted state, which, by the looks of that final question, you may not have much of an idea on what that even means. That is, until now!
I want to discuss first, what metabolic adaptation is and what it looks like; second, how it manifests itself and how you drive yourself into a metabolically-adapted state; and, third, how to get yourself out of the metabolically-adapted state you may have found yourself in.
WHAT IS METABOLIC ADAPTATION?
Your body is very adaptable, which can be seen as a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it.
For people who in certain parts of the world where food is not as readily available or the socioeconomic status is well below what would be considered ‘poverty’, it is a very good thing. Think about it – we’ve all seen those commercials on TV with the pictures and videos of starving children in third world countries. How are they able to survive eating nearly nothing every single day? Their body senses a caloric deficit and adapts to it, figuring out how to continue to sustain life.
However, for people who aren’t in areas of starvation or poverty, this can be a bad thing. Fact of the matter is, if you’re reading this, you probably have a surplus of food available to you at any given time, which means, the calorie deficit you are putting yourself in isn’t due to famine, but rather, because you are after weight loss and improving your health/physique. But, guess what? The body doesn’t know what is happening around you and why there is a caloric deficit; it just knows that there is one. So, it responds by going through the same adaptation.
You see, your body doesn’t care about how you look. It doesn’t care if you have a six-pack. In fact, its only concern is that it keeps you alive. So, if your body runs most optimally on 2,500 calories per day, call it ‘homeostasis’, but then you start a diet and purposefully lower your calories, here’s what happens. Your body says, “Oh shit, I’m not getting enough calories to do my normal job! I better figure out some way to continue to keep my human alive and well, even on these lower calories,” and here’s the changes/adaptations it goes through:
- Sympathetic Nervous System (the “fight or flight” response) activity declines. It’s been found that the activity of the sympathetic nervous system is a determinant of energy expenditure, and individuals with low sympathetic output may be at risk for body weight gain, resulting from a lower metabolic rate.
- Hormones are down-regulated, including metabolism = sleep, appetite, mood, sex drive, and energy all suffer, while weight loss becomes very difficult, if not impossible
- Thyroid function is severely reduced. The thyroid is the body’s master regulator (controls metabolism, regulates body temperature, impacts sleep, determines our ability to lose weight, impacts sex hormones, mood, & energy levels), so when it’s out of whack, everything is out of whack
- Our bodies become more efficient calorie savers versus calorie burners – “storage mode”
In essence, when we eat in a caloric deficit, our metabolism slows down over time in an attempt to conserve energy. Your body doesn’t care how you look, it cares that you stay alive, so rather than burning calories for fuel, it does all it can to save the calories you consume. What’s the easiest way for your body to do this? Slow down many of the processes and functions of the body (i.e. your metabolism).
HOW DOES IT MANIFEST ITSELF?
First, whether you’re new here or a frequent reader of my blog and social media posts, it’s worth reiterating that energy balance is the #1 determinant of bodyweight – Calories In vs. Calories Out. When fat loss is the goal, as it is for nearly all of my clients and most others that choose to undertake a new diet, we need to make sure we are in a state of negative energy balance, better known as a calorie deficit.
There are three ways to create a calorie deficit:
- Consume fewer calories (eat less)
- Expend more calories (through increased activity)
- Consume fewer calories AND expend more calories
There is no right or wrong way to create a calorie deficit, based on the options above, and it is largely going to come down to personal preference. For example, I’m not a fan of doing cardio, so I will always opt for eating less and not having to add in cardio sessions, rather than adding in cardio sessions to keep my food intake a bit higher. However, regardless of how you create it, if fat loss is your goal, you HAVE to create it.
Let’s look at Suzy who is looking to lose 20lbs (and also is not a fan of cardio).
- Suzy is smart and knows she needs to be in a calorie deficit, so she cuts calories from what she is currently taking in and drops 5lbs over the span of two months.
- After two months of steady weight loss, progress plateaus and she realizes she needs to make another decrease to her calories. She does this and over the next two months, loses an additional 4lbs.
- The same thing happens, the scale stops moving, and it’s time for another drop in calories. This time, the decrease results in 3lbs lost, bringing her total weight loss to 12lbs.
- Still having more weight she wants to lose, she makes another decrease and yet again, it does the trick and 4.5lbs come off.
- Inevitably, weight loss plateaus and Suzy is ready to make that final cut to her calories and push to her end goal. She loses the final 3.5lbs!
- Over the course of 12 months and numerous decreases to her daily caloric intake, Suzy is able to reach her goal of losing 20lbs! She’s ecstatic, but now realizes, “I love the way I look, but my calorie are so low I am starving, my energy levels suck, my sleep quality is terrible, I have zero sex drive, and ultimately, this isn’t sustainable. What now…?”
If this scenario sounds familiar to you, trust me – you’re not alone. Where most people go wrong is they don’t have an exit strategy post-diet, once they achieve their results. They find themselves in a state of very low caloric intake, we’ll call them ‘poverty macros’, because that’s what it took to achieve the weight loss they were after. Like Suzy, and possibly you, most people don’t know where to go next and end up living on these poverty macros and in a chronic deficit, the major cause of metabolic adaptation.
Your metabolism has gotten used to and adapted to this deficit you’ve been living in for an extended period of time, causing it to lower its set point. What this means is while the calories you are taking in on a daily basis at one point would have been considered a ‘calorie deficit’, your body has turned down the dimmer switch on your metabolism and established your current caloric intake (poverty macros) as your new maintenance-level or set point. In addition to your metabolism, many hormones in your body (especially your thyroid output) are also down-regulated, causing your body to push back and fight you.
Typically, there are two things people do, at this point. They either suck it up, say ‘beauty is pain’, and continue to exist at this caloric intake – assuming their weight will stay the same. The other, and more common, decision people make is adding calories back into their diet. They are all for a little suffering, but they can’t continue to live on the calories they are taking in. Here’s what we usually see happen in each case:
- We cut calories, get to our goal weight, realize it’s unsustainable, but then our body starts to push back against us. It stops working with us and starts working against us. Our weight doesn’t just plateau and stop going down, we actually start to gain weight, in spite of not making any increase to our caloric intake.
- We cut calories, get to our goal weight, realize it’s unsustainable, but then our body starts to push back against us. We decide we can’t continue to eat so few calories, so we increase them, but as we bring our calories up and, our weight follows with it.
Regardless of the post-diet category you fall into, above, they both involve driving calories down to an unsustainable level, the metabolism adapting to this lower intake and setting it as its new set point, and eventual weight re-gain. And, ultimately, they are both a scenario no one wants to find themselves in.
Suzy goes through the same exact process of dropping calories over time, as I laid out in the previous scenario, however, this time she takes a slower approach and when she gets to the 12-month mark, she still hasn’t reached her 20lbs goal. She does the logical thing and makes another cut to her calories, which was always successful in pushing through her weight loss plateaus, prior, but this time, something different happens….
Her weight stays the exact same.
She’s confused, so naturally, she makes another cut to her calories…
Her weight stays the exact same.
She is not only confused, but also frustrated, so she makes one final cut to her calories to see what happens…
Her weight stays the exact same.
This is another form of metabolic adaptation. Suzy’s metabolism has adapted to a lower set point and she cannot lose any more weight, due to how hard the body is fighting against her. No matter how low she continues to drop her calories, her metabolism is not in a healthy place, nor is her endocrine (hormone) system.
HOW DO WE FIX METABOLIC ADAPTATION?
So, you’ve identified that you may be in a metabolically adapted state. You’ve been habitually dieting for as long as you can remember without getting the results you’re after, and you’re now looking to stop spinning your wheels and get out of the hole you’re in. What’s the remedy?
The Reverse Diet:
A reverse diet is a process in which you slowly and systematically increase your caloric intake to restore metabolic function.
Typically, you want to start with a 10-20% calorie increase right off the bat, then continue to gradually increase calories from there. This process will cause your metabolic rate to increase, while keeping your weight stable and preventing body fat gain. After that initial increase, you’ll gradually increase your total daily caloric intake by 3-5%, every 7-14 days (primarily from carbohydrates), depending on how you are progressing. Typical benefits from this process:
- Energy/performance increase
- Improved sleep quality
- Improved recovery
- Increased metabolism and hunger/appetite
- Weight loss & improved body composition in many cases (eating more and losing weight?! Magic!)
Experience shows that there are three types of “Responders” to a reverse diet:
- “Slow Responders” – This is the case when logic does hold true. The metabolism has decreased so much that the initial caloric increase contributes to glycogen re-saturation and even body fat gain. However, as the reverse diet is continued, body fat is lost as the metabolism will increase to keep to return the body to set point. (This is the least common response in my experience)
- “Moderate Responders” – Some individuals will see no real movement on the scale, but this usually does come with positive body re-composition (less body fat, more lean tissue). With muscle being a denser tissue, this also comes with inches lost.
- “Hyper Responders” – Typically, this is the crowd that has not been metabolically adapted for a long term. The caloric increase is enough to signal the body that it can resume its normal metabolic processes and begin burning fat, resulting in weight loss. Body composition improves, energy increases, and performance in the gym improves.
Frankly, there is no way to predict which category someone will fall into over the course of their reverse diet. It largely depends on that person’s dietary history and how metabolically adapted they have become. However, one thing is clear – it is NECESSARY to increase calories REGARDLESS of the outcome on the scale. If you don’t take the time to repair the damage and revitalize your thyroid health & metabolism, you won’t ever be set up for a successful fat loss phase in the future – not to mention the health consequences that will surely follow prolonged metabolic adaptation. And, with how few of calories you are likely currently eating, you really have nowhere to go down from there. As I laid out, above, if you continue cutting calories, you will be exacerbating the negative state your body is already in, in terms of your physiology and hormones, but your body also won’t respond with weight/fat loss. It will go deeper into ‘storage mode’ and do all it can to hold on to the few calories you would be consuming.
Let’s look at Suzy again, this time with her undertaking a reverse diet.
She goes through the same process of continuously cutting calories over the course of 12 months, however, this time, prior to letting her calories get as low as she did before, and yes, prior to her reaching her goal weight, she decides, “I’ve been dieting for 12 months…I know I’m not at my goal weight, but I think I better bring the body back to homeostasis before I cause too much damage and it pushes back against me.”
Over the course of the next six months, she increases her calories every 10-14 days and ends up with her body weight being exactly what it was when she ended her cutting phase, yet eating 800 more calories than before. On top of this, hormonally and metabolically, she is in a very healthy state! Her body is happy – ready to work WITH her, rather than AGAINST her.
She starts another cutting phase, goes through the same process, and ends up reaching her goal weight in no time! Cherry on top? Because she took the time to increase calories, instead of reaching her goal weight, but eating an unsustainable/unhealthy amount of calories, she is eating 300-400 calories more and CAN sustain the results she worked for.
Reverse dieting can be a very frightening idea for most people, as it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Making the decision to eat more when your goal is to lose weight is one thing, but having the mental fortitude and patience to continue on that path for the better part of 3-6+ months is even more difficult.
With that being said, I have taken countless people through a successful reverse diet, as well as going through more than a few of my own. If you would like some direction leading you through your own, let’s chat! I’d love to show you the impact it can have on your weight loss efforts.