I’ve told you all about my history with extreme dieting, an unhealthy relationship with food and obsession with the scale. It affected my entire body in a way that took me years to heal.
One of the hardest things to heal was my metabolism. I was tired, I was cranky (ask Sam), and once I let go of the strict cycle of dieting I had been on, there was no rhyme or reason to my weight. Sometimes, I would eat a salad and gain weight, but then eat pizza and lose weight? It was crazy!
But then I looked back and realized the damage I had been doing to my body. I’d cut calories and exercise more, lose a little weight, and then hit a plateau. So then I’d repeat the cycle. Cut MORE calories, exercise more, etc.
I was malnourished and my body was tired.
It took me YEARS to fix the damage I had done. After it had already taken me years to see what dieting was doing to me. So it got me wondering, how exactly does dieting affect your metabolism? Does it actually cause damage? What’s going on in our bodies when we repeat the diet, lose weight, plateau cycle?
A little metabolism 101
Okay, so your metabolism is basically the system that produces and uses energy to keep your body alive. Things like:
- Blood circulation
- Temperature regulation
- Brain function
Your body burns calories even while you’re resting to keep these processes going. Those calories are pretty important, and they come from what you eat and drink.
So how many calories do you need to make sure your body has the energy it needs to function? This is referred to as your basal metabolic rate (BMR), and it depends on factors like your age, height, weight, and how much lean body mass you have. You can get an estimate with a calculator like this one.
As you know, calorie imbalance (burning more than you eat, or eating more than you burn) is what causes weight loss or weight gain. You eat calories, your body burns some to function, and burns more depending on your activity level. If you’re left with excess calories, you may gain weight. If you’re in a calorie deficit, you may lose weight.
This is where I took it too far. I was cutting too much too fast. Every time I’d hit a plateau, I’d cut more. I was definitely eating less than what my body needed at minimum, let alone enough to sustain with HOURS of exercise every day.
Does dieting damage your metabolism?
More like dieting DISRUPTS the metabolism.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy fix.
Basically, dieting throws a wrench in the hormones that regulate your metabolism: leptin and ghrelin are the big ones, but cortisol can come into play too. These hormones affect your hunger, fullness, and energy levels. Let’s break it down a little more (don’t worry, we’ll keep it simple!)
Leptin: Normally, your fat cells release leptin when they’re stored. This signals to your body that you have some extra energy to use, which makes you feel less hungry. When you lose weight (especially too quickly), your body doesn’t release as much leptin. Less leptin = higher appetite.
Ghrelin: This hormone does the opposite of leptin. It makes you feel hungry.
Cortisol: This is a stress hormone! But dieting can raise cortisol too. This is important because cortisol actually causes weight gain.
There are more players to this game, but we’re keeping it simple okay?! What’s important here is that these hormones work to keep you alive. Your body doesn’t know that you want to lose weight just to feel more confident in a bikini. If you suddenly make extreme changes to the energy you’re taking in by cutting calories and/or exercising a lot, your body is going to shift gears to survive. Maybe you’ll feel less satisfied or more hungry. Maybe your body will hold onto fat or use muscle for energy.
Our bodies are so amazing to adapt like that. But think about what happens if we keep going deeper into dieting. Every time your body adapts, we push it harder. So it pushes back. After cycling through that for so long, you can’t really just go back to eating “normal.” Which is exactly what I tried to do once I realized how unhealthy my lifestyle had become.
I added carbs back into my diet and even though I was still eating healthy foods and exercising, I kept gradually gaining weight. For like 3 years. On top of that I was:
- Having trouble sleeping
- Hungry ALL THE TIME
- Experiencing digestive issues
I knew I needed to stop focusing on how I looked, no matter how frustrated I was. I needed to focus on my health.
Healing your metabolism
The most important thing is to give your body time and plenty of rest. The stress that dieting puts on your body is A LOT.
Next, give up the “dieting” mentality, and feed your body balanced, nutritious meals. Eat when you’re hungry and don’t stress about it. Getting enough carbs, protein, and fat will help your hormones reset and start working as they should again.
Finally, keep exercising, but stop doing hours of cardio. Find something you love to do and add in some light weight training to build lean muscle.
Most importantly, make changes that will help you avoid falling into the cycle of dieting again.
You can lose weight and change your body without your body fighting back. You can do it in a healthy, sustainable way. Diets don’t work because they put too much on your body too quickly. If your body thinks it might be starving, you’ll end up doing more harm than good and any weight you lose will probably come right back.
If you want to lose weight, do it slowly. Make small changes to your diet and pay attention to how you feel. Don’t feel pressured to overdo it on exercise, and give your body plenty of rest.