You are finally ready to throw in the towel and stop dieting. For years you have tried various very low calorie diets and restriction to achieve weight loss, and to no avail. It seems despite the decrease in intake, your weight still was not dropping as you would have anticipated. Add to that the many hours you spent over exercising. With these severe habits, it's likely that it never really resulted in great weight loss and when it did, you may have found that you gained it back in no time at all. So now you are finally ready to learn to diet and exercise correctly, and that means starting by taking a closer look at your metabolism. Perhaps it is your damaged metabolism that is the real problem keeping you from meeting your goals, but the question is, what can be done about it?
Related - a personal story on the subject of over exercising and restrictive dieting: My Before & After Story: How I lost 40 lbs and Beat My Eating Disorder
How does your metabolism get damaged in the first place? Quite often after long periods of excessive caloric restriction and over exercising, your metabolism can be negatively affected. You start out thinking that dieting is all about calories in and calories out. Slowly but surely you start to take in less and less calories, and increase the time spent working out. As you jump on the scale, it is baffling why your body doesn't seem to want to lose the weight you calculated should have happened. Week after week you start to decrease your intake hoping to see bigger numbers but that never happens.
What actually is happening is related to your metabolism regulating hormones. As you take in less and less, your body's hormones, such as thyroid and leptin, begin to drop in an effort to create homeostasis in the body. At the same time the muscle tissue begins to break down and be used for energy (which will lead to an even slower, more depressed metabolism).
At the same time, as your body gets used to eating less calories, it also adapts to the increase in exercise. And over time it will expend fewer calories to do the same amount of physical activity. More time exercising will eventually be needed to get the same results.
As you can imagine, this slowing of your metabolism can turn into a vicious cycle. What happens is you wind up eating fewer and fewer calories, while increasing the hours spent exercising as a way to lose weight and maintain that lower number. This cycle is one that eventually peters out as you get tired, run down or give up as it becomes to obsessive or difficult. Read: Can starvation diets lead to weight gain?
So now that you understand what caused your metabolism to plummet, what can you do to repair it and speed it back up? Luckily with the right plan of action you can help to restore your metabolism, so that you can lose weight more healthfully and be able to maintain it. This process relies on the same two things: caloric intake and exercise.
Fixing a damaged metabolism: Exercise
Lets start with exercise and how much time you should be designating to your work out regimen. Take a look at the time you are spending working out and taper it to about 3-5 days a week, maximum, with an hour at a time - as a maximum. Really, 30-45 minute workouts are more than enough. Keep in mind that resistance and weight training is the best way to enhance metabolism, as muscle burns more than fat - building muscle this way may be a good way to help repair your metabolism, as muscle content requires more calories than fat. Cardio workouts should be considered secondary and can be added in as part of the 3-4 day regimen, but a combination is best.
Fixing a damaged metabolism: Eating habits
The next step is to look at your caloric intake, and be prepared to increase this slowly. It is important to take this slow as to not gain weight back too rapidly, which will discourage you and may lead to another cycle of restricting your intake. Try to calculate how many calories you are taking in and add about 50-100 calories a week. The goal will be to have added about 500 calories after the course of a few weeks. As your body starts to be fed correctly, your body will be able to slowly lose weight once again. Keep it mind this takes some time and patience, but resist the temptation to over exercise and decrease your calories. The goal is to feed your body enough to allow your hormones to start to work efficiently once again. The thyroid hormones will increase, leptin levels will no longer think you are in starvation mode and muscle tissue will increase.
It is also important to keep mixing things up. For your body to continue to work efficiently it is important to “keep it guessing”. This can be achieved by changing up your exercise routine every so often and varying the foods you are opting to eat. These both will ensure that your body's metabolism is fed, working hard and restored. Lastly, it is important to recognize that losing weight should not be a race, take your time and understand that weight that is lost more slowly is more likely to stay off for good.
Written: by M Mittler, MS Registered Dietitian