One of the big buzz terms in health and fitness subculture as of late is “metabolic damage”. It seems like quite a few “nutritional coaches” have come out and taken a firm stance on one side of the fence or the other, insisting that it’s either a valid phenomenon or a myth. While the literature on the topic of metabolic damage is still relatively scarce, the next few years should prove interesting since more and more research is being focused towards this concern.
In a nutshell, metabolic damage is terminology used to denote a state where the body doesn’t respond proportionally and appropriately as one would expect with respect to energy input and output. For example, someone may put their body through hours upon hours of cardio and restrict their calorie intake yet notice little to no weight/fat loss, which seems theoretically impossible, but as many people know, this can indeed happen. When a person has reached such a critical point, they are generally believed to have “metabolic damage”, to some arbitrary degree.
Measuring metabolic damage
However, therein lays the main conundrum with classifying metabolic damage, since it’s rather ambiguous to just say, “I have metabolic damage.” Ideally, we would want to put a tangible/measurable amount on the severity of the “damage” and seek to reverse it, but the trouble is that there is no real accurate/precise way to track such a quantity at this point.
The next best medically plausible way to verify that metabolic damage has occurred is probably various hormonal assays such as thyroid hormone levels/function, leptin, and others. The reasoning for this is that one of the key regulators of metabolic rate is the thyroid gland. Generally, individuals who exhibit hypothyroidism are noticeably heavier (and/or tend to put weight on easily) and have a tough time losing fat.
This isn’t to say that metabolic damage is entirely relegated to thyroid issues, nor other endocrine maladies, but from a physiological standpoint it is safe to assert that such issues do indeed influence one’s metabolic health.
What convolutes the issue of metabolic damage is that there is no foolproof way (yet) to pinpoint what exactly has gone awry and started the vicious cycle of having a lowered metabolic rate. Some people may have metabolic damage despite their blood work showing nominal values, in which case there has to be some other factor(s) influencing the individual’s metabolic rate.
An example of this would be someone with normal thyroid levels and functioning, but yet can’t lose weight to save their soul and has already gone to extreme measures as far as calorie restricting and cardiovascular exercise goes. It’s at this point that we know metabolic damage is occurring due to other physiological factors. Uncovering those factors is what much of the research will likely be focused on in the coming years.
What metabolic damage is not
I think one of the more important things to discuss pertaining to metabolic damage is the issue of it being “over diagnosed” by people who compete in any sort of physique competition. Just because you have competed in a bodybuilding or figure (or whatever event) show doesn’t necessarily mean you’re automatically in a state of “metabolic damage”. Yes, your metabolic rate is likely reduced since it’s pretty much common knowledge that during times of decreased energy input your body naturally lowers its energy output; that being said, metabolic damage is not the same as having a reduced metabolic rate.
Given this, don’t be so hasty to jump on the metabolic damage bandwagon just because you are eating less, exercising more, but still not losing weight like you hope. Metabolic damage is an extreme condition induced by extreme behavior.
We’re talking extreme in the sense that some people can be eating <600-700 calories per day, doing 2-3 hours of cardio, and still not losing weight…It’s safe to say that at that point metabolic damage has occurred. Contrarily, just because you cut calories to, say, 1600 calories per day and are doing 45 minutes of cardio without any weight loss doesn’t exemplify a “damaged” metabolism. I think people just need to tread cautiously when putting a label on their metabolic health; reduced metabolic rate is not synonymous with metabolic damage.
Correcting metabolic damage
As much as people want to believe there is some magic formula or treatment they can find for metabolic damage, the reality of it is that in order to reverse the “damage” you pretty much just need to do the opposite of what you’ve been doing. Essentially, this means doing less cardio, eating more, resting more, and focusing on weight training.
Don’t forget that muscle is more metabolically demanding then adipose tissue, so by building more muscle, you are increasing your metabolic capacity. This is the reason that many bodybuilders can stay in such good shape with little to no cardio in their regimen, since they’ve developed such a high metabolic capacity that it becomes rather hard to “out eat” their metabolism (pretty good “problem” to have if you ask me).
I’d be leery of people who claim that some certain supplements or food will suddenly resolve your metabolic damage. This isn’t to say supplements can’t help you, but the focus should ideally be on the big factors like your diet and training regimen. Get those back on the right path and then worry about micromanaging the other less important factors.