A few weeks ago I received a message asking to write a blog post about metabolic damage (AKA starvation mode). The term “metabolic damage” is a bit misleading and it would be more correct to use the term “metabolic adaptation”. Nature gave us the ability to adapt to difficult situations. In this case, the body can alter its energy metabolism to function more efficiently during a period where nutrition is scarce. Altering energy metabolism is a life-saving skill where food is not all the time available, but in most first-world counties the problem is the opposite: there is too much food around us. Unfortunately, nature hasn’t prepared us enough for such a case.
The human body has a very good sense of what it needs. Babies will stop eating the moment they are satiated. As we get older this ability to correctly adapt our nutrition intake to what we need weakens due to the amount of external factors and the constant availability of food. Still, the body aims to keep energy intake and energy expenditure balanced. It tells us when we eat too much, but the signals over-eating are not as strong as signals of hunger, which is part of the reason why so many people are obese.
I see many athletes try to lose weight and fail. They reduce their intake but instead of burning fat tissues, they signal the body that it needs to adapt. The body listens and the result is that their bodies hold strong to everything they eat. Athletes react by eating less because their weight doesn’t go down. It’s a vicious circle.
How do I know I’m not eating enough?
- Food craves are the most common symptom of a too severe energy restriction. Food craves usually happen in the evening. Your body is screaming for food and at some point, you give in.
- Hungry all the time. After a meal, you don’t feel satiated and you’re already looking forwards to the next meal.
- Injuries. You’re getting injured more often than your teammates. Of course in sports, there is always a risk of getting injured. With low energy levels muscles are fatigued earlier which increases the risk of injuries significantly.
- Catching a cold. You’re getting sick more often than other athletes. When you’re energy intake is severally restricted you’re at risk for a vitamin deficiency and you’ll be more vulnerable for infections.
- Women can get irregular or even total absence of menses.
- Other indicators are mood swings, depression, reduced libido, problems sleeping, fatigue, loss of muscle mass and higher liquid retention.
What to do to get out of the vicious circle?
- Increase energy intake or rest a bit more. This can be a very scary concept but it works. It is possible that your weight will first go up a little before it goes down again. Increase energy intake by eating nutritious food with lots of vitamins, minerals, and fibers.
- Eat small meals at regular time intervals. This way there is a steady flow of nutrients and energy.
- Add protein to every meal, as it will promote the development and preservation of muscle mass. Muscle mass uses more energy and will help in losing weight while eating slightly more.
- Make sure you don’t have any nutrient deficiencies. When the body lacks certain vitamins and/or minerals it doesn’t function optimally.
- Get help. Once stuck in this vicious circle it’s not easy to get out, search professional help or in the very least talk to someone you trust.