Why cutting calories ruins your metabolism

As you may know, I’ve been struggling with my weight and my relationship with food for years. In the last two, however, I really challenged myself to make a change and get healthy. I went very hard and took it very seriously for about six months, during which I lost about 25-30 pounds. I was in the best shape of my life, able to run 5k in about half an hour (a momentous achievement for this girl who hates running) and was finally feeling like I was comfortable in my own skin. But, I fell off the wagon and ended up regressing. Here we are a year after I started to revert back to my old ways, and up until recently I was struggling. My metabolism was seemingly even yuckier than it used to be, and my efforts were leading to nothing. I was frustrated, I was sad, and I was watching my relationship with food and my self-image veer off the rails.

My metabolism is still pretty screwed, and if I’m being honest with you guys, I think I did it to myself. I read an article lately that really blew my mind and made me re-think everything I thought I knew about how to lose weight and I’d like to share what I learned from it in the hopes that maybe it helps someone else and prevents them from messing up their body like I did.

The traditional understanding of weight loss, at its most fundamental, is that to lose weight you need to burn more calories than you consume. A lot of diets will have women sitting at around 1400 – 1600 calories a day (from food), and exercising as well. The reality of this theory is that it works — I can vouch for it. I was eating about 1400 – 1500 calories a day (sometimes less) during my fitness kick, as well as exercising for at least 35 minutes a day, usually more. I was losing weight all over the place and loving it! The problem was when I stopped my super strict regime, the weight piled itself back on, and fast. I got super depressed — I mean, who wants to resign themselves to a strict diet and exercise routine for all eternity? I’m sorry, but I love pizza, and sometimes momma needs some pizza. The thought of eating spinach and chicken breast for the rest of my life filled me with despair. What I didn’t know then was that even if I did keep eating like that, I’d likely put weight back on anyway. Why, you ask? WELL. It turns out that there’s this neat little thing called a Base Metabolic Rate (BMR). Essentially what this number represents is the number of calories that your body burns just to exist. Some people describe it as the amount of calories your body would burn keeping you alive if say, you were in a coma. These are the calories that the body uses just to perform basic functions like breathing, circulation, etc. SO… If you’re eating less that your BMR you’re actually putting your body into starvation mode. The not-so-cute thing about that is that your body actually freaks out and think that times are lean, so it will automatically decrease your metabolism and start storing every extra bit of fat that it can — because again, it thinks you’re starving to death. This has been supported by many a study, and also supports the theory put forth by scientists who studied contestants on “The Biggest Loser” — your body actively tries to regain any weight lost, and it’s often due to a messed up metabolism.

I recently calculated my BMR and I should, based on my height, weight, age, and gender, be burning about 1700 calories a day just to stay alive. During my ‘fitness kick’, I was eating about 1300. While that’s a pretty sick calorie deficit (not to mention adding in the calories I burned working out!!!!) my body was probably like “wtf is going on, we’re starving, time to store every possible molecule of fat available so we don’t die”. In short, I single-handedly ruined my own metabolism. (Not completely single-handedly… the diet industry and a lot of misinformation played a pretty large role in this too.)

Now that I’m trying to look after my health and happiness again, I have done my research. My BMR was calculated at about 1700, and knowing that my actual metabolic rate is probably quite a bit slower than that due to my bullshit diet, I took about 150 calories off that total, leaving me with about 1550-1600 to eat every day. I always end up with a calorie deficit, because I work out at least half an hour every day, but it’s not a massive one that will send my body careening into shock. I’m trying to build up my muscle mass in order to help kick my metabolism back into action. This plan isn’t a quick-fix diet, and I’m definitely not going to lose weight as fast as I did last time — but this time around I know that I’m nourishing my body properly and taking care of my long-term health and happiness, not just sprinting towards a goal bikini.

I would recommend that everyone thinking of starting a weight loss or exercise/diet regime go calculate their BMR and base their caloric intake on that. DO NOT trust apps like My Fitness Pall (which is wonderful for inputting your calories and staying accountable) to calculate the amount that you should be eating per day. Apps and diets like that are using the simplistic input-output model that I discussed above, and following something like that long-term will mess you up, son! Spending some time getting informed and figuring out what will suit the needs of your body best is essential. If you can, I’d say go see a dietician and your doctor, just to get a really informed opinion.

Diet and fitness culture tells us that losing weight and staying in shape is really easy if you just stay strong, avoid temptation, and stick to it. But the reality is that our bodies are way more complex and nuanced than that, and everyone is different. Health looks different on every individual and that should be our end goal, not looking a certain way. So, friends, guard your health first and everything else will fall into place for you. I promise.

xo

J

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