Chances are, unless your metabolism is either super slow or the envy of all your friends, you don’t think much about it. For most of us, metabolism takes up about as much room in our thoughts as our own heartbeats. It’s just there, doing its job behind the scenes, and all we really want is to speed it up in order to lose weight. But just as your muscles and joints can sustain damage while you’re getting in shape, so can your metabolism.
This is not just a couch-potato type of concern either! The people, who are already in decent shape or have done multiple “yoyo” diets, run the greatest risk of hurting their metabolisms. Metabolic sabotage is usually associated with long term, stubborn weight gain or resistance from weight loss despite your efforts to melt it.
Metabolic damage usually comes with fad dieters (yoyo) and/or those that have followed a long-term restrictive diet, whether it is calorie restriction, carbohydrate restriction, fat restriction, or even meat restriction. What we see with lifelong dieters who fluctuate in weight, or fluctuate in body composition repeatedly (bodybuilders, athletes, etc), is that it affects thyroid function, insulin function, and all sorts of biochemical and physiological processes that help the body maintain homeostasis and a natural set point.
Fat loss is just an external manifestation of what’s going on inside the body. If that mechanism is off kilter, we don’t get results. Though many factors can contribute to metabolic damage, a few things are clear.
Women are more susceptible to it than men. It’s a little known but growing phenomenon that when we totally void a certain food group or follow a long caloric restricted diet, we down-regulate our thyroid, effectively forcing our body to learn to run on fewer fuels. This is not a good thing long term. It is like turning your big 8-cylinder engine into a 4-cylinder engine. It burns less fuel and has less power and energy. In effect we want to turn our bodies into fuel burning machines. This prevents metabolic syndromes as well as boosts overall health and balance.
Almost all long-term restriction diets end up with a plateau or lack of progress. When we reach this point our body lets us know. We start feeling achier, loose energy, get irritable, and have more problems sleeping. Worse off, the diet is not giving us the body composition we want anymore. We are basically showing signs of hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. Something just doesn’t feel right.
The best way to prevent metabolic sabotage is by following the ABC rule. Always Be Changing, your diet that is. It is always a good idea to cheat when you are on any type of restrictive diet. If you are following a low calorie diet, for example, you should have one day where you add more calories, within reason. I follow the basic premise of one cheat day per week. Some people like to have two cheat meals a week. There is no right answer; only what works best for you, where you can enjoy what you have been restricting and then get right back on track with your diet.
In essence, planning this type of cheat day stimulates hormone response and your metabolism to speed up and work harder. It is like being on a long car ride and instead of setting cruise control; you slam on the gas to 70 MPH and then let go of the gas and keep repeating. The car that sets cruise control is not going to burn as much gas as the car that is inconsistent with its speed, making the engine work harder. We want our metabolism working hard to burn fuel, which in turn will burn fat and calories.
With the Always Be Changing philosophy, it is also important to rotate between your restricted diet and a regular healthy balanced diet. If you have been following a low carbohydrate diet for 3 months, your body is not going to remember how to break down carbohydrates as effectively and hence cause weight gain and health issues, when you eventually do cheat. Whether it is planned or not we all end up cheating eventually. By getting off of a restricted diet for at least a month and following a well balanced diet of fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, you ensure that your body can break down and use any type of food for fuel and physiological processes. It will also help your body learn its new set point weight, preventing long-term plateaus, mental fatigue, and eventually metabolic sabotage.
If you suspect that metabolic sabotage has already happened, you should start off by getting the thyroid tested. This is a good start but make sure to have the right tests done to check for the metabolism and not just communication of the thyroid. Most doctors only test for thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) and thyroxine (T4) but this mostly tests the pituitary gland, not the thyroid itself. The best test to get done is free T4 and free T3 because these are the hormones circulating in the blood and functioning on the thyroid.
Once you get results, make sure to compare to old results so that you can see trends. If this is your first time testing free T4 and T3 then look at the reference ranges. If you are on the low end of the reference range, it is a sign your metabolism is slowing down and need to make changes. I recommend getting this test done yearly as to compare to the last year to see if you are maintaining, improving, or getting worse. This will ensure that with your dieting, you are not sabotaging your endocrine system and can keep tabs on how your body is doing internally.
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