It is commonly accepted if you eat too much you will gain weight. But what many people don’t realize, is that if you eat too little it can also have negative consequences on your health.
Of course we know diseases like Anorexia and Bulimia pose major health risks, but even strict dieting can wreak havoc on your body.
In the bodybuilding world, it is commonly called “metabolic damage.”
When I did two fitness competitions in less than six weeks, I experienced this firsthand.
To get my body fat as low as possible, I cut my daily intake to between 1100-1200 calories (most of that was veggies and protein) and trained twice a day, cardio in the morning and lifting in the afternoon.
I can remember during that time I was always cold. And not my normal “genetic tendency cold.” This was extreme, and almost physically intolerable. It affected my ability to think and focus. After a day at work my lower legs felt as if they’d been sitting in buckets of cold water for hours.
I also slept terribly. I felt like I was waking up throughout the night, and was plagued with terrible night sweats so bad I would wake up to soaked sheets every morning.
My workouts were affected too. Little by little my energy became depleted. I couldn’t lift heavy and had to really push myself to keep up the intensity of my training.
At this time, I was the leanest I’ve ever been. My weight dropped to the lowest it had been since I was in college. I remember thinking I looked great, but I felt terrible. I can’t know for sure it was true metabolic damage, but I know without a doubt something was not right with my body.
After those two shows I went back to a more healthy way of eating, with more calories and stopped doing two-a-day workouts. The night sweats, extreme cold and fatigue slowly faded.
Fast forward to present time. In mid-March I started a new training program to lean out and drop some body fat for a June photo shoot. The plan involved cutting my calories and increasing my workouts to two-a-days 6 days a week. I also have a physical job and teach up to 5 fitness classes a week.
I started my calories in a low range, 1300-1400 daily and cut carbs to about 120 grams a day. I wanted to see how my body would respond.
It took about a month to start seeing results, but what seemed like all of a sudden, I felt leaner and tighter and I knew I was losing body fat. My weight dropped four pounds in two weeks. I thought “this is great!”
And then it happened.
Night sweats. Poor sleep. Feeling cold to the point I could not focus. Cravings like I didn’t have before. My workouts were more of a struggle. I lacked energy.
About four days of this and I knew exactly what was happening. I immediately took a look at my eating plan and adjusted it to allow for more calories (between 1500-1600) and upped my carb intake.
I know my body, and when I start to lose body fat too quickly, my system fights back to try to stop it. The danger of this is that in order to protect itself, my body will slow my metabolism. This is so it can reserve as much energy as possible for critical functions, because it does not feel like it is going to get enough energy in the form of food.
It might sound a little funny, but your body is like a little machine. It seeks to find a balance, known as homeostasis. When you start to lose weight whether by increasing exercise, decreasing food, or both, this disrupts the balance. The body struggles to regain it, and that’s how you achieve weight loss.
The tough thing is, if it happens too quickly or in an unhealthy way, it can throw your system into a type of panic mode. The body responds to this rapid, sudden fat loss as if it is under attack.
That’s why slow, progressive fat loss is so important. Losing weight quickly is not worth throwing your hormones and glands all out of whack. The short-term effects are unpleasant, and the long-term effects can be devastating. If your metabolism is forced to slow and can’t function properly, it can be extremely hard to return it to a high-functioning state, which means you may have a very difficult time losing or even maintaining weight even with very low calorie intake.
What’s the right balance of activity and intake? The answer to that question is going to be different for everyone. Your body will tell you, but you have to listen and become intuitive to its signals.
These are some possible indications your metabolism may be slowing and you should probably increase your food intake or decrease your exercise level:
- You are suddenly having trouble sleeping and don’t know why.
- Your cravings become increasingly strong and can’t seem to be satisfied.
- Your energy levels drop and your workouts suffer.
- Your strength decreases.
- You feel cold much of the time and find it affects your ability to focus or function.
- You find yourself feeling “cranky” or edgy, you’re short-tempered and emotional.
- Your heart races or you start having palpitations when you didn’t before.
These are just some of the symptoms I have experienced firsthand or know to be associated with metabolic damage. It will be different for everyone.
If you’re trying to lose weight by dieting and working out and you start to feel “off,” it may be time to take a look at what you’re taking in and whether it is enough.
Rapid weight loss is not worth suffering extreme metabolic effects, trust me. Take it slow, listen to your body and always put your long-term health over quick results on the scale.