Metabolic damage — or the latest excuse?

Metabolic damage - Australian Iron Man Magazine

So you’ve just finished dieting down for a bikini competition. You’ve worked with a coach with little-to-no knowledge about nutrition and he’s driven you into the ground with 500 cals a day and three hours of cardio to get you ‘in shape’. You starve your arse off then gorge yourself after your show, put on 10–15 kg of fluid and fat and now you’ve heard the term ‘metabolic damage’, so that’s your new buzz word as to why you’re a tubby.

Does the above sound familiar to anyone? With the FitX and Filex expos just passing and shows being done and kilos stripped off and piled back on, if I see one more woman (or man) Facebook something along the lines of “Woe is me, I have metabolic damage”, I am going to flip.

Where did this come from?

Any coach, PT or dietitian worth their salt knows that metabolism slows down as people get leaner and calories are restricted1. This is no new phenomenon. ATP production becomes more efficient and resting metabolism starts to drop. Hence we need to drop calories lower and lower as we get leaner and come into a show. 

Dr. Layne Norton coined the term ‘metabolic damage’. In some recent videos, he describes the issue. Basically, he says what I wrote above, though not as bluntly. What he also talks about is the fact that weight loss (or gain) can be disproportionate to calorie intake, i.e. do two hours of cardio per day with an intake of 800 cals and weight loss stalls. 

First of all, I applaud Dr. Norton for bringing the issue to the forefront. With the emergence of the internet guru bodybuilding coach, we have seen it become common for prescriptions of hours of cardio with little-to-no calories being bandied about. A girl does a bikini show, copies and pastes her diet to give to ‘clients’ and when they don’t lose weight she cuts their food further and ups their cardio. Ultimately they come to a point where all fat loss stalls and there is nowhere to move.

Problem 1:   Calories are too low to begin with

It’s now common also for people to hit many shows in a row. We know that calories need to be reduced to get into shape. We know that metabolism slows down to meet expenditure. So we know that at the end of the diet a person’s metabolism has adapted and is slower. It takes time for this to be reversed and for the metabolism to be built up again. 

Common example: A female started comp prep on a healthy 2200 calories; she gradually reduced it and got into shape with decent cardio and food management, finishing up on 1200 calories. Then she gorged herself for two weeks (I’ve seen competitors put away over 5000 calories in sugary crap straight after walking off stage), packed on 15 kg in a couple of weeks and her metabolism is still in the gutter as she cuts back again to 1200 calories and does cardio etc. to try and maintain a decent body weight. Then a few months later it’s comp prep time again. She is maintaining on 1200 calories plus cardio. Where do we go from there? She hands this diet to me and I say, “No, we need to rebuild metabolism again or you are going to starve and suffer.” Alternatively, she hands her current diet to some muppet who takes her one hour of cardio, ups it to two hours and reduces her 1200 calories to 1000 calories in week one. See where this is going?

Problem 2:  Gorging after show

I mentioned this earlier. I’m no hypocrite. I will put my hand up and say year after year I tell myself I’m going to be good after a show. But, year after year, I eat my arse off and gain 20 kg in weeks (sometimes days). However, I then pull it back in and start to increase calories again in a precise manner. This is what I recommend:

After the show, take the diet you were on and increase total calories from everything (protein, carbs and fats) by 10 per cent. Every week add another 10 per cent until calorie intake and expenditure become congruent with what you started on (assuming that was correct). In this way you will gradually increase metabolism and minimise fat gain, as you are not creating massive calorie excesses due to slow metabolism. Cardio should be reduced in the same manner instead of stopped completely the day after a show. Ultimately, we want maximum food being taken in with zero fat gain with no cardio being performed. This puts us in a great position to kickstart a diet again.

I will add to this that Charles Poliquin states that it take six months for a complete cell turnover cycle and three cycles to create a change on the genetic level. That is, if you can stay lean for lean cycles (18 months) then you adapt genes to want to maintain a genetically lean body! Guys in Australia like Jim Kotantonis and David Nazaroff have achieved this and it clearly shows in their conditioning. I’ve seen Jim come in at 2.7 per cent on a DEXA scan with no cardio and just under 4000 cals of food with supplementary fat burners.

Final words

I disagree with every woman (and some men) running around telling the world they have metabolic damage, that’s why they are fat and now they can’t get in shape. All that has happened is that their metabolisms have slowed down to meet expenditure and they have tried to maintain off of that. It’s their own fault and it’s an easy fix. Take the time and care to work on building your metabolism up; you will make your next diet easier by not having to bury yourself in the ground to get in shape next time. 

And for God’s sake stop using it as an excuse. It’s nothing new. It happens to all of us. 


1 Maclean, P.S. et al. (2011) Biology’s response to dieting: the impetus for weight regain. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2011 Sep;301(3):R581-600. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.00755.2010. Epub 2011, Jun 15. 

Luke McNally is an accomplished bodybuilder. He holds qualifications in nutrition, training, supplementation, Biosignature and lab analysis. He currently works with some of Australia’s best professional bodybuilders, figure and fitness athletes and models. Luke is also the founder and director of one of Australia’s leading supplement chains, MASS Nutrition.

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