Metabolic Damage: What Is It and How do you Avoid It?

November 18, 2022

If you have been following a hypo-caloric diet for some time, have considerably increased your physical exercise, but you’re still having a hard time losing weight or body fat, you may find a logical explanation for all this in the concept of metabolic damage.

Metabolic damage is massively ignored by athletes, trainers, and nutritionists who subject their athletes to high training loads and excessively restrictive diets.

A concept often related to the world of fitness but which also affects cyclists, runners, and triathletes.

What is metabolic damage?

Metabolic damage is a process you want to avoid at all costs because, as we will see below, it presents complicated symptomatology and a slow and cumbersome recovery process.

It is an organic affectation that slows down the metabolism. A process in which the body activates the "saving mode" and significantly reduces its energy levels. 

In addition, the ability to recover is impaired, and the burning of calories from non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) suffers a significant decrease.

The metabolic damage is responsible for the inability of many athletes to lose weight and reduce body fat.

Symptoms of the metabolic damage

The symptomatology of the metabolic damage is much more complex than it is believed. Although we have scientific tools that can be of great help in the detection, it is often difficult to diagnose this condition that slows down the metabolism.

If you want to lose weight and reduce your body fat percentage, it is obvious that you will have to generate a caloric deficit. In other words, having a calorie intake lower than the overall expenditure. 

Taking this caloric deficit to the extreme is what leads many people into the catastrophic metabolic grave. Extremes are not good, and every process takes time. 

Caloric deficit processes should always be moderate and controlled. Eating only 1000 calories a day will not get you anywhere. 

In short, metabolic damage is, in many cases, the logical and scientific explanation for what many insist on cataloging as a genetic issue.

The metabolic damage can present itself in different ways, but the most common symptoms are the following:

  • Fatigue: metabolic damage generates almost permanent physical and mental fatigue. Recovering from an intense effort will take much longer than usual.

  • Mood: it is very likely that if you have been suffering from metabolic damage for some time, you have noticed significant changes in your mood. Lack of ambition, unconcern, or sadness can easily appear.

  • Lack of appetite or excess appetite: eating disorders also appear among the symptoms. Some people lose their appetite, while others feel a significant increase in the sensation of hunger. Uncontrolled binge eating can also be common.

  • Libido: your sexual desire is likely to decrease. Testosterone levels decrease dramatically in men, and impotence problems may occur.

  • Slowing of metabolism: your body is smarter than you think, and when it detects nutrient deficiency, it goes into "saving mode". The body prioritizes vital functions and slows down metabolism. Your daily NEAT will be significantly reduced involuntarily. 

  • Concentration problems: metabolic damage also affects the cognitive system. Reflexes decrease, in some cases, tremors or muscle spasms appear, and concentration is lower. 

  • High cortisol levels: when the level of physical and mental stress is high, cortisol increases and water retention in the cell results in weight gain.

  • Insomnia / Hypersomnia: metabolic damage generally has a direct effect on the quality of sleep. Some people have insomnia and find it difficult to rest properly, while others enter a vicious circle of tiredness and laziness that affects them when facing day-to-day tasks. Doing the dishes or taking down the garbage becomes an odyssey.

  • Anemia: if the situation becomes too long and you continue to maintain a very strict diet, you will likely end up suffering from anemia. It is crucial to stop in time and detect other dysfunctions before reaching this extreme.

How to stop the metabolic damage

If all of the above comes in the blink of an eye and you are already deep in metabolic damage, let us give you some advice.

First, we recommend that you take it easy. Understand that this will require a rebuilding process, and your patience will be of crucial value when recovering from metabolic damage.

Each organism is different, and the damage can be of different degrees. Fortunately, most people become aware of the situation when they begin to see that their sporting performance is stagnating and daily recovery is almost impossible. 

However, other athletes, usually cyclists and runners, are the most vulnerable groups.

Some cyclists have been in permanent metabolic damage for months, and the worst is that they remain unaware of the situation.

Cyclists who, to comply with the coach's training or because they mistakenly prioritize quantity over quality, continue to push themselves every day without knowing that they are signing their career death sentence.

First and foremost, you need to significantly reduce your training load. This implies that you decrease both volume and intensity.

If you do not slow down, you can't recover, and your body will enter a negative spiral that can affect your appetite, mood, or cognitive capacity.

In addition, if you have been "dragging" for some time, it may be the right time to take a good break. Rest is essential for physical condition improvement, so a vacation of 10 or 15 days will surely do you good. 

Your diet is the next thing you need to take care of if you want to recover from metabolic damage. This should be done throughout the year, but in this vulnerable situation, you must pay special attention to your meals.

As we have mentioned, metabolic damage usually occurs in people suffering from a caloric deficit for a long time. Increase your caloric intake and fuel your body to start the rebuilding process.

We're not telling you to binge on industrial pastries. Just increase your caloric intake while trying to maintain the correct ratio of macronutrients. Why not try a refeed or a diet break?

Finally, we can only recommend a couple of things. Try to get good rest and sleep about 8 hours a day, and if things do not improve, ask for a blood test. Maybe you have some condition beyond the metabolic damage. 

Given the great difficulty of detecting the onset of metabolic damage and the physical, hormonal and nutritional problems it brings, it is essential to have a good level of self-knowledge. This implies knowing yourself not only physically but also organically.

Years of experience will be your best guarantee, and no matter how much scientific theory there is, there is nothing like one's own ability to learn to listen to the body. This is not an overnight achievement, and each body and metabolism act differently to the stimuli. 

Regulating the intensity and volume of training is extremely complicated (much more than most people think), and if we add nutritional management, finding the perfect combination can become an unattainable task. 

Final Word

Avoid nutritionists and trainers who recommend you copy-paste diets. Everybody is different, and some restrictive diets might not work for you as they work for your training buddy. 

Prioritize and highly value those professionals who offer a weekly review. This feedback will be what will prevent you from falling into metabolic damage and overtraining. 

Take care of your diet, combine the right exercise for your weight, age, and abilities and make sure your caloric intake is sufficient for your needs to avoid severe metabolic damage.