Metabolic Damage: Can It Happen To You?


Whether you turn on the television, flip open a magazine or find yourself listening to the people on exercise bikes at the gym who do more talking than peddling, you can’t escape the chatter on Metabolic Damage.

From finding ways to boosting your metabolism, training your metabolism, finding the right foods that “supercharge” your metabolism, the topic is something you really can’t escape.

One term though many people don’t like to talk about, but has started to pop up in workout circles and articles designed to terrify the inner health nut in you, is metabolic damage.

Is that even a thing?

Can you really hinder how your body breaks down food and uses it for energy at the cellular level?

Or is it just something perpetrated by Oprah and Dr. Oz to tell sell commercial advertising?

So many questions. But don’t worry, we’ve got all the answers and then some right here.

Wait, What is Metabolic Rate Again?

Chances are, you already have a good idea as to what your metabolic rate is.

Or at least, what a metabolic rate is. If so, feel free to skip on over this section. If you’re still scratching the back of your head, wondering what exactly it is, have no fear, we’ll clear it up for you.

When you eat food, the food is made up of calories.

While the word calorie may sound like a dirty word, it really isn’t.

A calorie is simply a way of measuring a unit of energy.

So, if something you eat has 500 calories, it has 500 units of energy. If you wanted to really get technical, you can look into the number of energy units per gram you consume. Fat, for example, has more calories per gram than carbs, which has more calories per gram than protein.

After consuming food, the calories are broken down in your system and transported throughout your body in the blood stream. The blood takes the energy units to different cells that need the energy immediately. So, when you’re working out, your muscles require more energy in order to perform, so the energy units are delivered to the muscle cells. Your metabolic rate is how fast these cells use the energy unit. Someone with a higher metabolic rate will burn through the energy faster than someone with a slower metabolic rate.

It is desirable to have a faster metabolic rate because, when you burn through all of the consumed energy cells, your body will turn to the energy storage surplus found on your body.

Energy is stored on your body in the form of fat. Now, you do not actually burn fat cells. You are born with the same number of fat cells as you have today.

However, the fat cells absorb the additional energy not used and expand. So, if you use up all the readily available energy, your body takes energy units away from the fat cells for consumption. This shrinks the fat cells down.

The more energy you draw out of the fat cells, the thinner you become.

Therefore, a faster metabolic rate helps you shrink down the fat cells faster, allowing you to drop weight (Body Recomposition, 2010).

Let’s Talk About Metabolic Training

For every action, there is a reaction. Or at least that’s what they taught you in high school science class.

Or maybe it was math.

Hard to remember now.

Whatever class they went over that idea in, if there is a way to “damage” your metabolic rate, there must be a way to improve it, right? 

If you can’t improve it, then chances are you can’t really damage it. Well, it is possible to boost your metabolic rate, so perhaps that means you can damage it too (we’ll get more into that in the coming sections).

The idea of metabolic training is basically to boost your metabolic rate, similar to metabolic conditioning. There are ways you can do this. For starters, it begins with the kind of food you eat.

Remember how we went over how a gram of fat has more energy calorie cells than a gram of protein?

Well, fat and protein are broken down differently in the body as well. Protein is easier to break down, which means it can be delivered to the cells in need faster. By eating a diet higher in protein and lower in fat, you’ll increase your metabolic rate (it’s like comparing a Lamborghini and a Geo. Sure the two cars can get to the final destination faster. One just happens to be better, faster and sexier).

You can also improve your metabolic rate by working out more frequently. As your body becomes accustomed to workout out, your metabolic rate changes. Additionally, weight training and high-intensity workouts can help with boosting your metabolism as it requires more energy in quick bursts. So yes, it is possible to improve your metabolic rate.

As there is that reaction to every action (or a yang to every ying, if you’re into that kind of thing), then there must be such a thing as metabolic damage, right?

So What Exactly is they Metabolic Damage They Speak Of?

When someone refers to the idea of “metabolic damage”, what exactly do they mean by it?

Well, the thing about this term is there’s a good chance the person who talked to you about it had no idea what they were actually talking about.

Maybe they referenced energy cells not being used or you actually damaged the cells. Whatever they said to you, we can clear it up for you. 

In reality, there is such a thing as metabolic damage.

While it is a kitsch term right now and people love to throw it around, the term itself isn’t as bad as you might think, and even if you are causing damage to your current metabolic rate, you can correct it. After all, when you boost your metabolic rate it doesn’t stay there forever. It will come back down if your diet or exercise habits change. The same is true with metabolic damage. If you do in fact damage your metabolism, you can correct it.

The term metabolic damage is also known as starvation mode.

This means your body is not receiving a steady injunction of calories. When your body doesn’t receive calories, it goes into starvation mode. In starvation mode, your body stops using the energy storage found in your fat cells but instead turns to your muscles. If your body turns to your muscles (protein) for its source of energy, it will actually begin to break down your muscle tissue instead of the fat.

So while you will lose weight, it isn’t good weight.

You’ll keep much of the fat while your muscles begin to shrink in size. 

How Does This Metabolic Damage Take Place?

Your body is pretty smart. In fact, you’ll have a heck of a time attempting to trick it into doing something it doesn’t want to do. 

If you have a fitness goal and you want to drop weight, you probably have the idea of cutting calories and increasing your workouts. A good plan, but one you have to be careful Your body wants to maintain an energy level, so it wants to keep the amount of energy you burn and a number of energy units you bring in somewhat even.

It can detect when this level is thrown off. 

As an example, let’s say you currently consume 2,000 calories and put in an hour or so of working out a day. You may see results, but slower than you’d like. So, to supercharge your weight loss potential, you drop your calorie intake to 1,300 a day and start workout out two hours a day. Now you’re cutting/burning an extra 1,500 or so calories a day.

This means you’re going to shed a few extra pounds every single week until you have nothing left to shed, right?

In the beginning, yes. At first, your body will allow this. It hasn’t detected a pattern yet. However, once your body realizes it is not receiving the necessary energy on a regular basis, it will begin to preserve its current energy storage. When this happens, you enter “starvation mode” and your body will begin to break down the muscle tissue.

The same is true though if you suddenly start to work out like crazy without adjusting your calorie intake.

Again, let’s start with 2,000 calories and workout out an hour a day. Now, let’s say you want to, out of thin air, become the next Michael Phelps (good luck), so you start working out in the pool 12 hours a day. You’re going to be burning several thousand, if not tens of thousands of calories a day with this kind of workout.

Your body just can’t keep up and continue to burn fat stored energy, so your body will begin to turn on its muscles. 

There is a reason why prolonged limited calorie diets just don’t work. Yes, you’ll burn calories and shrink your fat storage in the first several days if not a week, but eventually, your body will catch on and stop this process.

Of course, you’ll also begin to feel weak and want to eat anything that comes by you, but that’s besides the point (Science Strength, 2017).

On No! Am I Causing My Body Metabolic Damage?

Now that you know metabolic damage is real, you may be wondering if you’re doing it to yourself.

There are a handful of ways to tell. These are symptoms, and while one symptom doesn’t mean you’re experiencing metabolic damage (you might have just consumed an extra-bean burrito last evening), you should be cautious if you check off several of the possible symptoms on the list.

These symptoms include gas and bloating, heart burn, low energy levels, change in mood, trouble sleeping, loss of muscle mass, stubborn weight loss, fluid retention (especially in the lower legs) and increased food cravings.

Oh Man, I Checked Off Most of the Symptoms Of Metabolic Damage. What Should I Do?

Okay, so you checked off more of the symptoms than you were hoping.

What should you do now? 

Don’t worry, you don’t need to completely change what you’re doing. You just need to make a few slight adjustments (it’s why the word “damage” in the name is a bit over the top).

First of all, stop over training your body.

Are you working out multiple times a day?

Cut one of the workouts out. If you are doing cardio for hours on end, reduce the time. It’s alright to keep the strength training, but make sure you begin to lower a number of workouts you’re performing.

Stress can be a major connecting factor with metabolic damage as well.

So do what you can to de-stress (if you’re using working out as a destress method already, you’ll need to find another). Clearing your mind and body is an excellent way to reduce your chance of over training and developing metabolic damage. Consider carrying out a yoga routine during the day, or take up meditation (there are great guided meditation videos and audio on YouTube if you search for it). Perhaps take a bubble-bath at the end of the day.

Find a way to help yourself reduce your stress. 

Lastly, get a good night’s sleep.

Not only is this good for your mind but important for your body. Your muscles need to recover after a hard workout. If you’re not sleeping enough your body will not be able to repair the damaged muscle tissue, which leads to problems and over training (Huffington Post, 2016).

In Conclusion

Metabolic damage is a real thing.

However, it isn’t as frightening as it might sound. By understanding what it is and how it affects your body, you now are able to avoid the problem and, should you experience it, know how to correct it. By avoiding the long term, low-calorie diets and monitoring your own health and how you respond to workouts, you’ll have the ability to miss metabolic damage and how it affects your body.

-Terry Asher

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Terry Asher

Owner & Founder at Gym Junkies LLC
After changing his best friend’s life by helping him lose over 70lbs, dropping him down to an amazing 7% body fat, Terry was inspired to be a full-time internet trainer knowing he could do the same for many more. In 2010, Terry published his own diet and fitness e-book that can be purchased on this website. Let Terry help you change your body for the better!
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