The Contrast

The Contrast
Lift Big, Sing Big, Look Great Doing It.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Metabolism Talk: Part 1 - Metabolic Damage

So, I began this post as just one big talk about metabolism. What I created was an immense vomit of information that was just too much for one post. No one would have read, processed and understood all of the b.s. I compiled into that post. It's like trying to eat 3 pizzas in one sitting. It would be awesome, impressive, and probably fun...but then you might die...or something like that.

So, I have decided to make this into a four part series. That way I can give each section much more special attention, which they all deserve, and what you guys deserve. I hope you guys find the following information informative, entertaining, and fun. If not, FUCK it!

Part 1: Metabolic Damage

There is a great deal of debate about metabolism and how much control a person has over it. There are many that preach that it's an elastic band that has near limitless capabilities and are those that believe that it's more finite. I'll try to explore this topic with you and sort through the b.s. in attempts to learn a little more about it myself.


"Metabolism - the chemical processes that occur within a living organism in order to maintain life."

Firstly, let's talk about Metabolism:

Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) - The rate of energy expenditure by humans and other animals at rest.

Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) - This is used interchangeably with BMR, but is usually less accurate because of how it is measured.

TDEE - Total Daily Energy Expenditure.

What Dictates Your Metabolism?


There are few things that accurately help an individual discover what their basal metabolic rate is. The basal metabolic rate varies between individuals. There is this equation that is formulated to calculate for resting energy expenditure in healthy individuals, but there are a lot of variables that are specific to the individual.

Body Mass


Research indicates that the majority of your metabolic variation (62.3%) is explained by your fat free mass, meaning your bodies muscle composition if it had absolutely no fat on it. Your fat mass indicates 6.7%, your age 1.7%, and experimental error (2%). The rest of it, 26.7% is unexplained.

People, including myself, talk about the benefits of carrying around extra muscles mass, one of them being to boost your metabolism. As you can see, fat mass will also help, but not as much as overall muscle mass. An individual with more muscle will more often than not burn more calories than an individual with less.

Activity level

Having more muscle mass will raise your BMR minutely, however, it will increase your TDEE immensely because you're activating more muscle fibers doing the same activities. If you've built up enough muscle on your body, you've increased the amount of calories you burn just from walking from your couch to your front door because you now have more muscle fibers being utilized in even a minimal capacity.


Frankly some of us are born with not very good metabolisms, or we metabolize some foods differently than others. That's why some of us are allergic to things that are awesome like peanut butter. Some of us are handed an awkward stick in life. Some of us have higher functioning organs, muscle, skeletal, brain tissue that operate at a higher efficiency that may calculate for some these big differences. Simply put, some peoples bodies just operate "better" than others.

Now, can people actually not lose or gain weight no matter what they do or eat? Yes. There is a large population with metabolic disorders.

Metabolic Disorders

Here is a short list of metabolic disorders...

"Metabolism is the process your body uses to get or make energy from the food you eat. Food is made up of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Chemicals in your digestive system break the food parts down into sugars and acids, your body's fuel. Your body can use this fuel right away, or it can store the energy in your body tissues, such as your liver, muscles, and body fat.

A metabolic disorder occurs when abnormal chemical reactions in your body disrupt this process. When this happens, you might have too much of some substances or too little of other ones that you need to stay healthy.

You can develop a metabolic disorder when some organs, such as your liver or pancreas, become diseased or do not function normally. Diabetes is an example."

The majority of these disorders are genetically acquired. However, we have a great deal of power over our own metabolism, but unfortunately, it's most in the ability to reduce it's effect on our body.

Starvation Based Metabolic Adaptation

The Minnesota starvation study.

*I appologize, but I totally ripped the following from the Wikipedia article. It was all I could find in an understandable, comprehensible manner. Judge me not.*

"The primary objective of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment was to study in detail the physical and psychological effects of prolonged, famine-like semi-starvation on healthy men, as well as their subsequent rehabilitation from this condition. To achieve these goals, the 12-month study was divided into four distinct phases:
  1. Control Period (12 weeks): This was a standardization period when the subjects received a controlled diet of approximately 3,200 calories of food each day. The diet of the subjects who were close to their “ideal” weight was adjusted so as to maintain caloric balance, while the diets of the underweight and overweight individuals was adjusted so as to bring them close to their ideal weight. On average, the group ended up slightly below their “ideal” weight. In addition, the clinical staff of the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene routinely conducted a series of anthropometric, physiological and psychological tests designed to characterize the physical and mental health of each participant under normal conditions.
  2. Semi-Starvation Period (24 weeks): During the 6-month semi-starvation period, each subject’s dietary intake was cut to approximately 1,560 calories per day. Their meals were composed of foods that were expected to typify the diets of people in Europe during the latter stages of the war: potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, bread and macaroni.
  3. Restricted Rehabilitation Period (12 weeks): The participants were divided into four groups of eight men; each group received a strictly-controlled rehabilitation diet, consisting of one of four different caloric energy levels. In each energy-level group, the men were further subdivided into subgroups receiving differing protein and vitamin supplements regimes. In this manner, the clinical staff examined various energy, protein and vitamin strategies for re-nourishing the subjects from the conditions of famine induced during the semi-starvation period.
  4. Unrestricted Rehabilitation Period (8 weeks): For the final rehabilitation period, caloric intake and food content was unrestricted but carefully recorded and monitored."


"Among the conclusions from the study was the confirmation that prolonged semi-starvation produces significant increases in depression, hysteria and hypochondriasis as measured using the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Indeed, most of the subjects experienced periods of severe emotional distress and depression. There were extreme reactions to the psychological effects during the experiment including self-mutilation (one subject amputated three fingers of his hand with an axe, though the subject was unsure if he had done so intentionally or accidentally).[5] Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation. The participants reported a decline in concentration, comprehension and judgment capabilities, although the standardized tests administered showed no actual signs of diminished capacity. There were marked declines in physiological processes indicative of decreases in each subject’s basal metabolic rate (the energy required by the body in a state of rest), reflected in reduced body temperature, respiration and heart rate. Some of the subjects exhibited edema in their extremities, presumably due to decreased levels of plasma proteins given that the body's ability to construct key proteins like albumin is based on available energy sources."

"That's some scary shit, Ol' Yeargain!!!"

You're tellin me.

HOWEVER, even at the end of this study at these incredible starvation levels, these men were STILL losing weight. Even though their metabolic rates had plummeted, they were still physically capable of losing weight. Also, it's important to note that their diets were not rich in protein and they did not do a progress based weight resistance training program, so a good portion of their metabolic capacities were eaten away with their muscle mass.

Are there people who are dieting for extended periods of time and their weight loss stalls or completely stops regardless of their activity? Well, there is a great deal of debate surrounding this subject. Who exactly is debating this subject? Well, the people who make a living getting people into the lowest levels of body fat humanely possible: body building and figure competitor coaches.


Metabolic Damage, does it exist?

It Exists!!!

There is a litany of anecdotal evidence that supports the idea of metabolic damage. That after weeks of aggressive dieting, calorie restriction combined with cardio that your metabolism will in fact completely halt and you will stop being able to lose weight no matter how much more cardio you add or how much more you cut calories. This especially seems to happen amongst female physique competitors (I will talk more about this in a bit.)

They cite that tanking your calories to the bottom of the barrel and then binging back up a puffier version of yourself over and over is going to put you into a metabolic hole that you will be unable to get out of eventually. It is true that this will make your hormones fluctuate aggressively which could cause some health complications, as well as potentially lead to eating disorders. However, there is no scientific evidence that a person can completely halt their metabolism if they are strictly complying to a consistent calorie deficit. However, whether or not that constant calorie deficit is physically or mentally possible is a primary argument in its favor (IMO.)

It doesn't exist:

There IS something called Metabolic Adaptation that occurs when people lose body mass, whether it be fat or muscle. Your body adjusts to a new body mass level, and your metabolic rate does decrease and you will have to either increase cardio or decrease calories.

One of the arguments against metabolic damage is that the subjects who report it are no longer outputting as much energy and that they are consistently over estimating their calories. They aren't keeping accurate enough records. That's why one of the "fixes" for this scenario can often be the increase of calories or the reorganization of macro nutrients to give an individual more energy so they can perform better in the gym and in their cardio. And why people often times tell people to stick to strict bro foods weighed and packaged away to be the most exact and accurate is so that people (more specifically coaches) can have a semblance of control over their exactness, rather than just give a group of macro nutrients and cross their fingers that they'll stick to it. 

However, the ace in the hole is the argument that people who preach the metabolic damage doctrine often have financial incentive for doing so. Some are bodybuilding coaches that help people get to contest shape and after said contest want you to remain a client under weekly observation while you do an extremely slow reverse diet (part 2 forshadowing...) 


You're having a lot of difficulty losing weight, and after hearing all of this talk about metabolic damage you think you have it, and a great deal of coaches preach a philosophy of "curing your metabolic damage" OR maximizing your metabolic potential. Both sound like wizardry.

In my opinion, the fact that the "it doesn't exist" camp has no financial incentive gives it a great deal of clout. But incentives can be more than financial, one of the biggest being defacing your rivals, especially in the realms of philosophy and unproven science. Intellectual respect in a scientific community is huge and could make or break a person's pursuits in their field.

What do the experts have to say?

Lyle McDonald:

"Between glycogen storage and simple cortisol mediated water retention, I can’t see any other reason to explain the observation.  Even one day of overeating carbs can cause massive water retention (for example, shifts in water weight of 7-10 pounds over a day or two are not uncommon on cyclical diets) and I suspect that’s what is being observed.

Which is all a long way of saying the following: certainly there is evidence of metabolic derangement when you diet people down to low levels of body fat, this can probably be made worse if you undergo the normal severe overtraining cycle that most dieters go through at that point.  But I don’t see any physiological way that true rapid FAT gain can occur at such low calorie levels.  I’d suspect that water retention (and a bit of neurosis equating water weight gain with true fat gain) is the primary culprit here."

Considering that Martin Berkhan tweeted the above article, I have a feeling he agrees.

McDonald continues in this article:

"I think what’s really going on is you have a bunch of neurotic crazed female dieters, who are misreporting their food intake (especially the crazy food binges we KNOW happen in this population) and who are holding onto massive amounts of water due to the combination of low calories, high-cardio and being batshit stressed mentally about the whole process. And who magically start losing fat again when their poorly controlled 1200 calories becomes a well-controlled 1250 calories, well….you’ll have to call me incredulous about the whole thing.

Because the science doesn’t support it in any way shape or form. No study in humans in 50 years has ever shown the claimed phenomenon.  I mean not ever.  Not a single study showing truly stopped fat loss in the face of a controlled deficit much less fat regain. And with plenty of other mechanisms (like water retention) to explain the “apparent” lack of fat loss that make more logical sense (Occam’s razor for the win)."

Alan Aragon:

Alan did this interview where he talked about a multitude of subjects, including Metabolic Damage. I'll try to summarize what was said...bear with me, I'm listening and typing. Not a secretary, I'm an opera bro.

Again, this is a summary, not word for word.

"It's a loaded term. It implies a permanent condition that implies starvation level dietary intake causes weight gain. Metabolic damage is referred to Adaptive thermogenisis (shivering when you are cold) in research, when actually it should be called Adaptive thermoreduction.

Adaptive thermogenisis can be described as this margin of unexplained or mysterious reduction in metabolic rate.

The big questions: How major is this reduction? Is it reversible? Is it preventable?

How major? A study was done on Biggest Loser contestants. They lost 130lbs on average, and their RMR (resting metabolic rate) dropped 30% over the course of the 6 month contest. 18.8% of that reduction falls into the unexplained thermogenisis category that wasn't projected through losses of lean mass.

However, even this big of a dip will not cause a reversal in the dynamics of your bodies weight loss or weight gain.

Research diets really suck (suboptimal conditions), they are usually too low in protein and they usually don't utilize an exercise protocol, let alone a structured progressive resistance training protocol. In the little research that has you don't see a consistent drop in metabolic rate, there's even research showing an increase in metabolic rate in severe dieting conditions as long as there was a resistance training program in place.

Good macro targets and progressive resistance training could actually negate this margin, if not surpass it"

Layne Norton:

The most out spoken individual that really brought this concept to the forefront is coach, pro natural body builder and power lifter, Layne Norton. Since his release of this information, he's been criticized about it and there is a great deal of heated debate surrounding some of his claims.

Layne himself even claims at the beginning of this video that there is no current research around these statements, but it is something that he has noticed with his clients and the clients of other people who he has helped. And when accused of putting out this information to acquire new clients, he stated that he is turning away 92% of people asking to work with him as a coach.

Layne brings up that this metabolic damage occurs mostly in female physique competitors who are eating starvation diets and doing extended bouts of cardio. These extremes come into numbers like 800 calories consumed with something like 2 hours of cardio a day. This is something that actually happens with women attempting to reach incredibly lean physiques and are coached to do so by coaches with just the very basic understanding of calories in vs. calories out and energy expenditure creates more of a deficit. After the show, assuming they reached the correct conditioning, they are usually then left to their own devices, and since they've been restricting calories for so long, they binge a bit to finally feel normal and healthy. During this binging period, some female competitors have reported to not only gain back ALL of the weight they lost for the show, but actually gained more over very short periods of time. AND, when they attempt to lose weight later on for another show, they are finding it impossible to do so. This kind of rapid weight gain seems (at least to Layne) to be one of the symptoms of this metabolic damage that occurs with these drastic competition preps.

Layne is really the only person I included on this side of the argument because 1.) He's the only one with higher education (PHD) and research in his field on this side of the argument, 2.) He's the one that really started this great debate and was willing to put his name and reputation on the line to bring about this observation, 3.) the man has balls, and I respect that.

*Side Note* If you're going to judge a person on his work and words, make sure you get ALL of the information including the two follow up videos about metabolism (2.0 and 3.0.)

Here are also a few other people talking about this subject, who's opinion I trust.

  My Thoughts

It's hard to determine if there is a right or wrong side in this argument. By his own admission the scientific research is not in Layne's corner, and his competing minds have demonstrated that rather efficiently as well. However, I have to agree that sometimes there are things that are discovered and seen in a community that science has not delved into fully where variables such as sex, training style, body composition, food history, genetics all could play a large part. To say that most people in that field and sex are neurotic and liars I think is too much of a blanket statement, no matter how much it is based in some form of truth, and to discredit some observations by a scientific mind entirely seems a bit too harsh and rash. Frankly, I don't know if it exists, but science says it doesn't, but I think it's something to keep in mind for future research and understanding. Hopefully more research will be done with several peer reviews to follow.

Should YOU be Afraid of Metabolic Damage?

Unless you are like I have described in the metabolic disorders or you are one of those people doing 2 hours of cardio a day while only consuming 800 calories, then you probably don't have anything to worry about. If you can't lose weight, you're either not expending enough energy or you're eating too much consistently to prevent weight loss. Most of you fall under these last two categories, calories and denial is your primary enemy. (Sorry about it.)

However, if you ARE one of these people, firstly you should see a doctor to make sure your hormones and your thyroid are in order, or if you do have a disorder, you can take measures for it. But, if you know that you have just played a little too much YOLO and danced too close to the sun, my little Icarus, then you should implement a reverse diet...which, just so happens to be the next part of this series.

So, until then, don't go on a pizza bender, and...

Lift Big, Sing Big, and Look Great Doing It.

The Opera Bro

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