January 26, 2014

Is Your Metabolism slowing Your Weight Loss Progress?

As you know, I love questions submitted from friends about nutrition!  I received this one on Facebook and appreciate the honesty and detail provided.  See the question about this person’s weight loss journey and my answer below.  Thanks for the query, my friend. 

Last year, after the 4th of July I was tagged in some pics and realized how big I had gotten. I just got back from a 3 week vacation in Asia where I had done way too much drinking and dining, and had ballooned to 260 lbs. I am 6’ tall and have always had a muscular build, but I noticed in the pics that I was no longer "carrying it well."

I started a diet that same week and have stuck with it pretty well (I will sometimes cheat a little on the weekend) as follows:

I drink a lot of water throughout the day.

In the morning (7:30AM) I have a 130 calorie breakfast shake mixed with water (I had never eaten breakfast before as part of my daily routine) and a multivitamin (10 calories).

For lunch (11:30AM) I have a 30g protein bar (280 calories) and a 20 calorie diet energy drink.

In the late afternoon (3PM) I usually have another 20 calorie diet energy drink.

Yes, yes, I know I shouldn't drink energy drinks... I am using them as a crutch, since the old me would be drinking pop instead (20 calories per can vs. 170 calorie can of pop).

For dinner (between 5:30PM and 7:30PM) I have been having a garden salad, the luxury I afford myself is that I have not been skimping on the toppings here; cheese, bacon bits, and ranch dressing. I estimate this to be about 340 calories.

800 calories a day, that's it. No beer, no treats.

This diet worked extremely well for me at first, I got down to 220 in about 5 months and my goal was 210. So close. When I stopped rapidly dropping the weight through diet alone I started doing an hour of crossfit on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

Unfortunately I started to gain weight immediately, which I attributed to muscle gain, which seemed to make sense, since clothes I hadn't worn in years were fitting again.

After putting on about 10lbs of muscle in the first couple months of crossfit, I began to drop the weight again, eventually getting back down to 220.

Unfortunately I got stuck there again, weighing in at 220 for a couple months when I started to gain weight again. This morning I weighed in at 228.

I have not changed my diet or crossfit,  routine for five months, if anything I am exercising more, since the longer you do crossfit, the better you get at the exercises and the more repetitions you complete in a circuit.

Last week I started riding my BMX bike again, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I am getting a full five days of moderate to intense exercise.

I was complaining about being stuck in the 220s to a co-worker and she thought I wasn't getting enough calories, so that my body was going into "starvation mode".
1. I have read that "starvation mode" is a myth. What are your thoughts on this?
2. What the heck am I doing wrong?


First of all – nice work focusing on your health by changing your eating habits and becoming very physically active!  You have been working hard.  I’m glad you shared your story with me.  I have a few thoughts on your great questions, see below:
1. I have read that "starvation mode" is a myth. What are your thoughts on this?
Your co-worker may be correct.  Someone your size, as active as you are likely needs way more than 800 calories per day.  It makes sense if you think about it, from a survival point of view:  humans traditionally (like cave men) were food insecure at times and had to spend a lot of time hunting and gathering to get access to edible plants and animals.  There could be months, seasons or even years where weather or other factors made food very scarce.  Those ancient ancestors of ours would never have survived if they couldn’t live for at least awhile on a low level of calories (800 perhaps?).  Our bodies are amazing at adapting to stressors like this and when we need to, our metabolism can slow so that we can maintain a weight status on a lower amount of calories.  Some people call this “starvation mode” but what they’re really referring to is your RestingMetabolic Rate (RMR) which basically means the amount of calories you’ll burn when resting just to keep basic body functions going.  If your metabolism slows to adjust to the low level of calories you are giving it, you will eventually see your weight loss slow then plateau.  
These days, most of us have access to unlimited quantities of food – we can eat every day, all the time and eating is cheap and easy.  Our bodies are also not adapted to handle this sort of influx and so we now have an obesity epidemic on our hands.  I’m wondering if you started to change some of the types of food you’re eating if you would be happier consuming more volume and also start see some additional weight loss or at least be able to maintain the weight you’ve already lost.  Do you have a goal in mind of what would be acceptable to you, where you feel good and energetic? 

2. What the heck am I doing wrong?

You are probably eating too little and need to introduce more types of whole foods.  I might suggest a different approach where you add in whole, natural foods at a higher calorie range while maintaining your wonderful physical activity level.  Try a snack between breakfast and lunch: a hard-boiled egg and piece of fruit perhaps?  At lunch you are getting 30 grams of protein from your bar, but you could be getting 20-30 grams of protein plus fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants if you chose a veggie or grain salad with 3-4 ounces of lean meat (chicken, fish) or ½ cup tofu or 1 cup of beans.  The fat you’re consuming at dinner (cheese, bacon bits, and ranch dressing) are the more inflammatory types of fats.  You could still have a salad if you like, but switch the current toppings to something like avocado slices, almonds or walnuts, and some olive-oil based dressing to still get the fat but make some healthier choices. 

Keep in mind we’re just scratching the surface here.  There may be some part of your medical history that I don’t know, or psychological/behavioral aspects that should be explored.  To answer these types of questions and many more, you may benefit from meeting with a dietitian in your area.  Dietitians are medically trained to look at labs and medications you’re on as well as create meal plans and provide Medical Nutrition Therapy individualized to you.  You can find one with special certifications in sports nutrition given how active you are.  Let me know if you need a suggestion for someone in your area.  Thanks for reaching out!  I wish you luck and good health -

 Martin CK et al. Effect of Calorie Restriction on Resting Metabolic Rate and Spontaneous Physical Activity.  Obesity 2007, 15(12): 2964-73. 


  1. I've fallen into the trap of eating too few calories too. The trick is not to be disheartened if you experience some weight gain and readjust your routine accordingly. I'd say aim for 1,800 calories a day if you're a man, 1,500 for women, and the weight should begin to come down sensibly. Good post – very informative.

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