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Metabolic Damage: How to Recover and Not Gain Weight Back

by | Dec 7, 2021 | Functional Medicine, Healthy Living, Weight Loss and Maintenance

Starvation mode, metabolic damage, weight loss resistance, adrenal fatigue… These are not myths – people grapple with these issues daily. Reversing metabolic damage is a complex topic and helping our clients overcome these obstacles required us to dig into the research and search for new strategies.

If you are struggling with starvation mode weight gain and want to know how to fix your metabolism after crash dieting, we can help. Below we explain why you would experience weight gain after starvation type diets and offer solutions for metabolic repair.

Dysfunction Versus Disease

Here is a medical concept that may take a little while to wrap your mind around: You can have an underlying health dysfunction but not have a diagnosed disease. In this case, you can experience metabolic dysfunction long before you’re diagnosed with a metabolic disease. Where traditional medicine doesn’t offer much unless there’s a diagnosis, the field of functional medicine can provide guidance.

For example: Say you’re not feeling so well, you’re hungry all the time, urinating more than normal, and gaining weight. You see your traditional doctor and they run your blood sugar to rule out diabetes. If your fasting blood sugar levels are 125 mg/dL, you don’t have diabetes. But if your fasting blood sugar hits 126 mg/dL you do.

The diagnosis number has to start somewhere but these measurements do little if your health is already at risk. Long before you hit 126 mg/dl, you have serious dysfunction developing. Too often it is not being addressed until that magic number shows up.

The terms metabolic damage and starvation mode are a similar problem. They describe a functional disturbance that may or may not be associated with a particular disease. But they are on the spectrum of causing damage like a disease can.

What Is “Starvation Mode” Exactly?

Starvation mode and metabolic damage are real. We’ll refer to them as metabolic compensation and metabolic damage.

Whether you’re a lean bodybuilder, an elite athlete, or you’re an average Jane or Joe trying to lose some weight, you will be impacted by metabolic compensation. Your body wants to stay at an equilibrium, so it becomes more efficient. Your metabolism starts to compensate for the decrease in calories.

How Long Does Starvation mode last: EXAMPLE

Say you do a combination of eating less overall and exercising more. In the beginning you seem to be doing great. You lose a few pounds right off the bat. So far so good.

A week or so in you start feeling hunger. Your energy falls, and you find yourself craving salty, fatty and sweet foods. This is a sign that your body is starting to move into metabolic compensation. Think of this as Starvation Mode Level 1.

Because of this compensation you notice that your fat loss slows down. Perhaps it halts all together. And if you’re one of those people that has a very pronounced metabolic decline it’s possible you may even start gaining weight. And the hunger, energy, and craving issue keeps getting worse.

But you’re not playing games. You pride yourself on your iron will and rock-solid work ethic. You double your efforts by cutting calories further while ramping up your gym time. Nice. Now you’re getting some movement again. Another pound or two down. But it doesn’t last. A few weeks later and you’re stuck again. This time the hunger and cravings are worse, and your energy is way down.

Your metabolism isn’t exactly humming along. Your metabolic rate slows even more. Maybe you try even harder but now your body just won’t budge. You seem to be doing everything “right” but the metabolism digs its heels in. You just moved into metabolic resistance. This is Starvation Mode Level 2.

You don’t get what is going on, but you think you know how to deal with it. So, you keep your calories low and work out harder and longer.

You see very little for your efforts after weeks and you’re feeling beat. New complaints emerge – you start feeling gassy and bloated, your stomach is upset, and your digestive system is changing. Your muscles are always fatigued.

Sleep isn’t restful and it becomes unpredictable. You’re starting to feel unwell – maybe anxious, depressed, or both. You’re slowly gaining weight. You look “waterlogged” despite a lower carb diet and you can’t keep up with your workouts anymore. You’ve reached metabolic damage Stage 3 and the final stage of starvation mode.

What Not To Do For Metabolic Damage

So, now you go and get some help. Maybe your personal trainer tells you, “You’re in starvation mode. You need to eat more and ease up on the exercise.” You bump your calories back up and do the elliptical while reading a magazine instead.

Guess what happens? You blow up like a balloon. That was not the best thing to do with your metabolism still moving at a snail’s pace.

Maybe you go see a doctor, get some blood work, or you give up completely. Recovery will take more.

How to Fix Your Metabolism

Here’s what you need to know about your metabolism: it doesn’t work like a calculator. Metabolism works like a thermostat and the thermostat in the example is now “broken”.

Let go: When you take the “eat less, exercise more” approach to the extreme, it’s like a tug-o-war game you can’t win. You pull and the metabolism pulls back harder. You increase your effort, and your metabolism laughs and almost yanks you right off your feet.

The only way to win tug-o-war against a team stronger than you is to let go and watch them fall to the ground. That’s the way out of metabolic starvation mode.

How to Restart Metabolism After Dieting

No matter what phase you’re in, the first step is to stop eating less and exercising more. But don’t stop both at the same time. This is the equivalent of letting go of the rope.

At this point you have two choices:

  • Step 1: Eat less and exercise less.
  • Step 2: Eat more and exercise more.

These are the only ways to decrease the stress on your metabolism while not gaining weight. Each stage requires a shift in what you eat and how much you eat along with how you exercise and how long you exercise for.

If you’ve gotten all the way to stage 3 however, your only option is the eat less, exercise less approach. Otherwise, you will have a carb rebound or weight regain.

How Long Does it Take to Reset Your Metabolism?

Recovery at each stage requires a shift in thinking. You’ll need to strike a balance between cutting calories and getting the right number of calories, the right macronutrient sources (carbs, protein and fat) and the right exercise.

Stage 1: Metabolic Compensation? This phase is easiest to deal with. If you get off the “eat less, exercise more” train, you’ll usually be back on track soon. Either move to an eat less, adjusted macronutrients, exercise less approach OR an eat more, adjusted macronutrients, exercise more approach. Both will work.

Stage 2: Metabolic Resistance? Cycle your eating pattern. Spend 2-3 weeks in an “eat less, exercise less” phase, then change directions towards an “eat more, exercise more” approach. You’ll probably need to take additional steps including:

  • Drastic macronutrient change.
  • Prioritized rest and recovery
  • Changing your type of workouts
  • Walking
  • Massage
  • Naps
  • Purposeful de-stressing
  • Laughter
  • Time with pets

Basically, anything that lowers stress hormones and restores balance to your neuroendocrine system will aid your recovery. Expect to be back on track within 1-3 months.

Stage 3: Metabolic Damage? Once you’re here, you have one choice: “Eat less, exercise less” along with changing your workout routine and macronutrients. You’ll need to focus all your time on rest and recovery. Walking and a few traditional weight training workouts are likely all you’ll be able to do. The goal is to halt weight gain while giving your metabolism time to recover until you’re ready to change up the routine again.

If you’re experiencing stage 3 metabolic damage, we can address the medical side of the problem: blood work, training fatigue, exhaustion and the functional side of your metabolism. Dr. Odom can help you identify the best types of exercises, heart rates/exertion levels and frequency of training. Our team can help you determine the best calorie ranges, macronutrient percentages and whether supplements can help. With the right guidance, you can be back on track within 3 to 15 months.

If you need help navigating metabolic damage, we offer virtual and in-person coaching to help get your body back on track. Schedule an appointment today with one of our specialists.