Metabolic Damage, Demystified Part 1

by on February 1, 2014

Metabolic Damage, Demystified Part 1

Metabolic Damage has become the hottest topic in the bodybuilding and physique industry the last 5 years. Especially since the introduction the men and women’s physique divisions, there has a been a steady rise of competitors who have experienced extremely unwanted health effects from dieting for competition.

This concept of metabolic damage has been dismissed, ignored, hyped, and blasted across the fitness world, all at the same time. The opinions on whether or not it exists have ranged from derivative laughter to intense and serious study and subsequent warning.

Within this series, will be examining metabolic damage holistically from every conceivable perspective. All evidence will be looked at and analyzed, from scientific literature and studies on metabolism, to the experiences of physique competitors with the dieting and training that caused metabolic damage. I aim to leave no stone unturned, and this series will be ongoing as new evidence is discovered.

With that said, let us begin.

Identifying Metabolic Damage: What are we referring to exactly?

Metabolic Damage-A convergence of negative adaptations in overall metabolism (maladaptations) that are caused by prolonged hypocaloric dieting in combination with chronic and/or excessive stress, often in the form of exercise.

Layman’s terms, what does the above mean? Let’s alter the definition a bit

Metabolic Damage – A combination of negative changes that happen to our bodies when we” hardcore” diet for very long periods of time while training constantly.

To familiarize ourselves with some more technical terminology, Maladaptations refers to changes that are perceived to be more harmful than helpful.

So for an easy example, if we diet for a show, and afterwards we notice that we gain body fat much much faster, we can refer to this change in our metabolism as a maladaptation.

So metabolic damage then is a combination of multiple maladaptations that have occurred.

Now that we understand what a maladptation is, let’s look at all of the symptoms that fall under the umbrella of metabolic damage

Metabolic Damage: The Symptoms

  • Reductions in Basal Energy Expenditure (body physically expends less calories on a daily basis)
  • Reduction in Thermic effect of Food (eating actually burns less calories than before)
  • Reduction in Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (less calories are expended doing the exact same activities as before damage took place)
  • Reduction in Non Exercise Physical Activity (you are simply moving around less than before metabolic damage occurred/feeling slow and sluggish)
  • Reduction in Thermic Effect of Activity (body expends less calories doing the exact same forms of exercie
  • Increased incidence of digestive problems; food allergies, indigestion, diarrhea, etc etc
  • Down regulation of thyroid hormones, often manifests as low energy or brain fog (this should be temporal but can become long term)
  • Loss on menstruation (for women. THIS IS NOT HEALTHY. Birth Control must be accounted for though)
  • Reduction of fat burning hormones (norepinephrine)
  • Increase in Fat Mass
  • Decrease in Fat Free Mass/Lean body mass
  • Downregulation of leptin and increase in Ghrelin, leading to constant hunger and/or cravings, and inability to feel satiated from meals.
  • Inclination towards greater water retention related to food intake.
  • Increase towards “stubborn” fat that is seemingly harder to lose
  • Inclination towards rapid weight gain from even a slight caloric surplus
  • Inclination towards continuous weight gain even calories are Isocaloric (calories are at maintenance level but weight gain still happens)
  • Inclination towards greater subcutaneous fat gain than previously experienced
  • Dampened hypertrophy response (seemingly harder to build muscle than before)
  • Reduction in strength levels (you feel physically weaker than you did before)
  • Increase in joint/muscle aches, especially from training
  • slower recovery time from training
  • Chronically elevated Cortisol levels

That is A LOT of symptoms. And I will be deconstructing and analyzing ALL of them in detail over the course of this series. Before doing that though, it is crucial to understand that the majority of these symptoms are not readily quantifiable without comprehensive blood panel testing and very very diligent tracking of caloric intake, expenditure, and training. Additionally, it is also important to know any dieting that extends past 2 weeks or so will lead to a metabolic “slowdown” effect. So even the most comprehensive competition diets will cause slowdown. Assuming that the competition diet was properly designed though, the slowdown effects will be temporal, not permanent.

Hence, the dividing line between slowdown and damage is the severity and the longevity of the symptoms.

Now, before we going any further into this, I need to highlight some foundational adaptation principles that need to be taken into account.

  1. Adaptation takes place because in response to threat/stress-So when you do bicep curls for the first time, and your arms are tired, your body will strengthen your biceps muscles and tendons in response to this
  2. Adaptation is to keep your ALIVE-The reason your body adapts to stress is so that that same stress is less “stressful” the next time it is encountered. The body does not like to be stressed. Hence having a stronger biceps will make bicep curls less stressful next time
  3. Adaptation seeks efficiency, and is incremental – Your body will adapt only as far as it NEEDS to. This is why your biceps muscle does not magically grow to 20 inches after only a month of training.
  4. The extent of adaptation will depend on the extent of exposure to stress – The more you subject your body to a particular stress, the greater the extent of the adaptive response

Why are these principles relevant to metabolic damage? Because Metabolic Damage is an adaptive response to the stress of dieting and training. It is your body trying to keep you ALIVE in response to the prolonged stress you have placed upon it. The extent then of metabolic damage will depend on how badly you have dieted and trained.

To put this all into perspective, let’s take a look at a typical contest scenario in which “metabolic damage” has occurred.


Metabolic Damage, the Rundown

Within this scenario, I am going to highlight the maladaptive changes that happen AS the diet is occurring.

A female physique competitor is 26 years old. She is 5’8, 135 pounds, and has a very aesthetic frame with a combination of curves and muscle. She is told that she could do very well in a bikini competition. Her current body composition metrics are as follows


Lean Mass-82% (110 lbs)

Fat Mass-18% (25 lbs)

She hires a popular diet coach to oversee her prep. This coach has an entire team of girls, some of who have won very big contests, and a few have placed at the national level and won pro cards. They make a plan together of doing a competition in November, and will start the prep in August. It will be 16 weeks long in total.

The coach immediately cuts her calories down to 1,600 a day. The diet is low in fat, low in carbs, and high in protein. She finds this a little alarming, but he assures her this is what it will take to get into contest shape. She notices that the same foods are eaten over and over again, with little variety. Chicken breast and green vegetables are pretty much it, along with a little oatmeal and the requisite protein powders. For micronutrients, he recommends a multivitamin and some other supplements, and suggests fat burners for when her energy is feeling low. Sodium is to be kept a minimum, if any.

Immediate issues are already present. Without calculating her current metabolic rate, this coach could very likely be starting her calories far lower than necessary. This will make fat loss much more difficult as she gets closer to contest. In regards to the diet, starting low carb which generally lead to loss of muscle mass rather quickly, and can have a negative effect on thyroid hormones. Recommending fat burners can effectively mask this issue for periods of time, but it also will have the long term effect of down regulating the adrenal system from releasing fat burning hormones such as norepinephrine and epinephrine due to the constant overstimulus while in a calorie deprived state. Going low fat is also a cause for concern, as the basic sexual hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are all synthesized from cholesterol and as such healthy fat MUST be a part of a complete diet.

Along with training 5 days a week and doing an hour of cardio each day, the prep definitely works initially. For the first 2 weeks she feels a bit euphoric as her body begins to change almost daily. She is hungry all the time, but seeing the fat drop her off makes her feel elated. It is working after all, and she likes what she sees in the mirror.

Anytime your metabolism is placed into a deficit, weight loss will occur. This does not mean though that ONLY fat is being lost, as muscle will be lost as well UNLESS nutrition is very very well designed. The initial euphoria is a normal psychosomatic response to the perceived physical changes, and this creates a mental bias going forwards that the diet is “working” despite it leading to negative health effects.

Going into the 3rd week though, her weight doesn’t change. He cuts her calories down to 1500 now, and encourages her not to break from her diet at all. Whereas in the first 2 week she could have 2000 calories on Saturday and Sunday, now he limits it to just Sunday.

The scale starts to move again, going into the 4th week, and while she is hungry she is definitely encouraged that she is losing weight again. However, she begins to notice her skin is a bit more dry, and her libido has dropped off.

At this point her basal metabolism is downregulated itself to match the lowered food intake already, and this is why she stopped losing weight. Placing her body into more of a deficit works of course, but now she is beginning to see some undesirable effects from the diet, such as the drier skin and loss of libido, which would correspond to the lowered fat intake. Cortisol is now high all the time, and catabolism is going to begin to increase in turn.

Going into the second month, her weight is now hovering around 127-128. Her coach increases her cardio while cutting calories down further, to 1300 a day. At this point she is just flat out tired, and is becoming reliant on fat burners and energy drinks to really make it through her day and workouts. Her cardio has also been increased to 30 minutes in the morning and an hour after training. Her weight drops for another two weeks then stalls again. Her coach accuses her of skipping cardio and takes out the 2000 calorie day on Sunday. She is beginning to feel hungry all the time now, and can’t remember the last time she felt full. She also notices she gets cold very very easily.

At this point her metabolism has downregulated further. Her reliance on stimulants also indicates that she Non Activity thermogenesis has also declined as well. Her T3 and T4 levels would likely be too low were she to have blood work done, and her pituitary hormone is likely not functioning properly in regards to regulating her body temperature. While her body is not physically starving, it is in a malnourished state. Cortisol is becoming chronically elevated, and anabolism is slowing down to the bare essentials. Hair skin and nail health are not what they were at the start of the diet. Miconutrient deficiency is likely occurring as well. Things like vitamin k and e, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin d are all likely to be low.

Going into the 7th week, she is now at 124 pounds, but she is super hungry and finally breaks by eating an entire jar of peanut butter. She beats herself up over this and feels incredibly guilty that she wasn’t “strong enough” to not cheat, and is in tears when she emails her coach. He is very angry and tells her to increase her cardio to burn 2000 calories a day, and cuts her calories further to 1100 to make up ground for the peaunut butter she ate. She notices that she gets incredibly bloated and soft from eating the peanut butter, something she did not expect. This makes very afraid of fat and sodium now, and reinforces that her coaches diet must be “right”, despite how bad she is feeling on a day to day basis.

Cravings for saturated fat and sodium are normal when in a deprived state. Her sex hormones are likely low across all measureable panels, and craving saturated fat and cholesterol is not an unusual response to this. The increased water retention from the sodium indicates she is likely sodium deprived, so blood pressure may be low and water balance in the body is off, and that the body is not recovering adequately from training in regards to protein synthesis.

She starts the 3rd month phase of the prep at 1100 calories, she is down 11 pounds to 124, and while she is as lean as she has ever been, this is also the worst she has ever felt. Because she still has fat on her hips and glutes, the coach cuts her calories even further to 1000. Carbs are now less than 50 grams a day, and fat is only 20-30 grams. He introduces zero carb days to speed up fat loss, and increases her protein on those days because its thermogenic. At this point her diet each day is roughly 120-150 grams of protein, which she begins to have trouble digesting as it sits her in stomach. To add to all the other symptoms, she also misses her menustrual cycle this month as well

At this point, a lot of bad things are happening. Her basal metabolic rate has declined multiple times, her exercise thermogenesis is reduced, her sex hormones have taken a hit, ghrelin and letpin levels are skewed, anabolic hormones such as IGF-1 and GH are down, and her bodies anabolic processes as a whole have all significantly declined in an effort to conserve the energy it is not getting enough of. The damage she has done may not be permanent yet, but it has definitely happened. We’ve still go another month to go though unfortunately. Cortisol is now chronically elevated 24/7. This interferes with sleep as well. And the lack of quality sleep also effects the fat loss and increased muscle loss.

Coming into the 4th month, she is now is now close to 120-121. At this point though she still is told she has some fast to lose, so her coach takes out all fat and puts on 200 grams of protein a day, with 50 grams of carbs. Her cardio now is been increased to 2 hours every day, and he tells her to do a fasted a fast 30 minute walk in the morning. As she gets toward the 3rd week out from the contest, the scale still says 120 though, and she needs to lost another 5 pounds or so. Going into the final week of the contest, she is in a state of constant lethargy, she has trouble sleeping and feels tired no matter how much sleep she gets. All the stimulants she’s been taking no longer work either, and the amount she has to take has gotten ridiculous. Her daily routine is nothing more than cardio, barely survive work at her desk, gym, home, collapse. She starts the week of the contest at 119 pounds. The last week before the contest is the worst she has ever felt. She’s told to not have any salt or sodium, and he has her take diuretics to lose the last few pounds, along with sitting in the sauna. Her cravings at this point have come to dominate all her thoughts, and she cannot wait for the competition to be over so she can eat food again. This fills her with anxiety though as well, as despite all the health issues she is having, she’s never been this skinny, and everyone around her is astounded at how lean she has gotten.

When she finally steps on stage, she is 113 pounds, (22 lbs in only 16 weeks, and a 16% reduction in weight from when she started) and while she wins her class, she is happy for the contest to be over.

She finishes the contest as follows

Bodyweight-113 lbs –I really want to highlight a few things here. One, she has reduced her weight by more than 10% from her already healthy starting weight, and that is what precipitated many of the maladptations shes experienced.

Lean Body Mass-88% (99.5 lbs) She has lost over 10 lbs of lean muscle since she started the contest prep. Her metabolism will already be slower because of this. She will expend less calories both at rest and while exercising.

Fat Mass-12% (13.5 lbs) –This is not a healthy bodyfat percentage for a female to be at. While it may be necessary for contest, when taken into account with how much muscle mass she has lost, it creates a triage of negative health effects. Even further, because she has lost so much bodyweight and bodyfat, her body will attempt to balance itself out by gaining the tissue that it needs most, which is adipose tissue in her case. Fat gain is going to dominate then over muscle gain come post contest. Gaining fat is less metabolically expensive then building muscle

This is where things go really bad. The body is now trying to adapt itself to surviving in a severely calorie and nutrient deprived state, so it is shutting down systems to conserve energy, hence why she no longer is menustrating. Any aspect of metabolism that could be called anabolic in nature has now either slowed down or stopped, and catabolism is predominating. She is losing more muscle than fat at this point. She is likely somewhat leptin resistant, as she’s been malnourished going on 4 months and her body is screaming for calories and nutrients, and ghrelin is being pumped out continuously. The entire Hypothalamus-pituitary-thyroid axis is completely deranged in its current function, as trying to keep the body going in this state has led to every conceivable hormone being either over or under baseline. Without getting too specific into the HPT axis, it’s going to take a long time now before this normalizes.

Additionally, because her fat mass has gotten so low and she is calorie deprived, her body is extremely insulin sensitive. This is going to set her up for very rapid weight gain post contest.

Post Contest, she goes absolutely crazy eating for 2 days straight. She gets incredibly sick from this though, and the bloating she experiences is extreme. She feels depressed and is very tired, and making it into the gym is simply not happening. Despite feeling awful though, she has still won her class and gotten much acclaim from her team. She tries to eat clean, but her body seems to constantly crave high fat and sugary foods, and she can’t stop eating stuff with salt. Her weight very quickly balloons up in 3 weeks to 125 to 135 to 140. She notices with her weight gain that she has gotten extremely puffy, and despite eating much more often her strength is not the same at the gym, although her energy is much much better. She is very ashamed about her eating though and isolates herself from people, as she does not want anyone to see how much she is eating. She also is becoming more and more distressed over how fast she is gaining weight, as no one told her this was going to happen. A month after the contest, she is now 145 and is now in panic mode over the weight she has gained. Her coach wants her to compete again in March so she starts another diet, this time at 1800 calories and 20 weeks out. She is worried though because she has more weight to lose this time, so she starts her prep with 2 hours of cardio a day from the outset. Her health is about to go from bad to worse to Code Red.

Metabolic Damage: The Aftermath

At this point you will hopefully have a better understanding of why doing another diet is a bad idea. Repeating this process is simply going to exacerbate her preexisting issues. She is currently experiencing a reduction in metabolic rate across all categories. She has increased fat mass and decreased lean mass. She’s been chronically dehydrated, malnourished, is experiencing symptoms of hypothyroidism, her entire HPT axis is still dysfunctional and her energy levels fluctuate wildly. Cortisol is chronically elevated, catabolism is up and anabolism is down. She’s become hypersensitive to food and her indigestion is constant. Her body is still trying to replace its lost bodyfat to restore menstruation, so fat gain is happening more than muscle gain. She’s feeling depressed, isolated, has developed a hate-love relationship with food, and her thinking is now predominated by the idea of needing to weigh less again. And on top of this, she is now going to be repeat the entire process a second time. This will mean that within a 10 month period, she will be spending 9 of those months in a calorie deficit. Her body has now maladapted to the point that it assumes calorie deprivation is its “normal” state, and it will respond accordingly when the diet is normalized.

Assuming she gets through another diet, she is likely looking at a full year of having to slowly recover from all the maladaptations that have taken place within the past 5 months.

Alexander Cortes