5 Simple Reasons Your Metabolism Seems Broken, But Isn't
Nutrition and Metabolism
The science of metabolism is tricky and frustrating.
How many times have you started a diet, followed that particular diet and experienced zero changes in weight loss?
Many of my days are spent discussing metabolic concerns having to do with weight loss, body composition and thyroid dysfunction.
Although extremely complex, metabolism has become a buzzword with a lot of mystique and misunderstanding.
From juice cleanses that promise to kickstart your metabolic weight loss goals, to highly processed, genetically-adapted, 14-day reboot smoothies that supposedly balance hormones thereby “fixing metabolism” — people usually end up frustrated and downright disgusted when they don't get the results they expect.
In Functional Medicine, we view our body’s metabolism as a whole unit that is always evolving and is constantly being influenced by a wide variety of factors.
When we begin to appreciate that metabolism is not one size fits all, and no meal plan or special diet, no juice cleanse, or exercise has “control” over your metabolism.
In this article, I share 5 simple reasons why someone may feel their metabolism is broken.
To remind you not to skip the basics… and play closer attention to what you're really doing to yourself before assuming “it's not working”.
Factors Influencing Weight/Fat Loss
Before diving into the 5 simple reasons your metabolism might seem broken, let me assure you that nothing is simple about metabolism.
There are a shit ton of chemical reactions and pathways in human metabolism.
And while I'd never expect you to draw it all out, just know that it's much more complicated than we're going to discuss in this article.
Also know that you don't have to understand the intricacies of metabolic function to be able to change your body and lose weight.
But if you're a die hard for biology and want to spend a few hours of fun studying, visit http://biochemical-pathways.com/#/map/1
Obviously there's a lot going on in the above diagram of human metabolism.
In an attempt to simplify all the above with respect to weight loss, below is a diagram outlining the interrelated and dynamic factors influencing weight loss.
As you can see, it's still complicated.
Whether you're someone rocking chiseled abs or experiencing weight gain by the day… the same principles apply to everyone.
Your body operates on the same laws of thermodynamics as the day you were born.
Your metabolism is not broken and there are very common, simple explanations as to why you may feel that it is.
Let's dive in.
Miscalculating Energy Intake
Miscalculating energy intake is the most common problem I find.
- People struggle to lose weight/fat because they think they eat less than they actually do.
- People also struggle to gain weight/muscle because they think they eat more than they actually do.
Whether you're struggling with “the pudge” or you're a “hard gainer”, it usually has to do with your behaviors than some underlying mysterious metabolic dysfunction.
As much as you think you're following a particular plan, I can almost guarantee something is missing.
Look, I don't like counting calories myself, and how we count calories (or macros) is not very accurate.
But using a food record (and measuring macro's) over a period of time has proven to be the most accurate way to dial in on your food requirements and weight loss goals.
So Start Keeping a Food Record Over Time. Although a longer-term food record (such as a two to four weeks) shows patterns best, often you only need a week or two of tracking to truly understand your food intake. (Generally it’s the moment we measure what a tablespoon of peanut butter actually is. Cue crying.)
When we write down every single thing we eat, it often shows us all the forgotten snacks, extra calories from drinks and condiments and handfuls of this or that.
Don't Just Write It Down, But Notice What You Discover About Your Own Patterns. Focus less on the specifics, and more about the bigger picture that careful observation gives you.
Notice in particular where the recorded data differs from your own perceptions of how you've been eating.
Did you eat more or less than you thought? Are there different foods sneaking into your mouth than you predicted?
See if you can catch your own assumptions being out of sync with reality.
Miscalculating Energy Output
In the same way that we miscalculate energy intake (how many calories we consume), we don't correctly assess our energy output (how many calories we actually burn).
Most people assume they move more (and more intensely), than they actually do.
Going to the gym three times a week, even if you’re “hitting it hard”, isn’t the same as:
- being a professional athlete training 30-40 hours a week
- having a highly physically active job, such as heavy manual labor competing in a sport at absolutely maximal intensity, such as (almost) literally fighting for one’s life in a mixed martial arts match
That 20-minute jog uphill may have felt like a lot of work, but in terms of energy consumed, it may only have been 200 kcal, not even a donut. (Dang.)
In addition, many fitness gadgets / apps and exercise machines can be wildly off in their energy output calculations — up to 20-30% off from what we’ve really expended.
Assessing output accurately is harder in practice, since most of us don’t have access to a lab or other measurement tools.
So instead of relying on our gadgets or calorie trackers, simply keep track of your own movement patterns and make a decision to increase or decrease depending on your goals.
- how many minutes / hours a day do you truly spend moving
- how many hours a week do you move in relation to how much you sit (or lie down)
- how intensely are you moving, and for how long
Notice What You Discover About Your Own Movement Patterns. Focus less on the specifics, and more about the bigger picture that careful observation gives you.
Notice in particular where the recorded data differs from your own perceptions.
Did you move more or less than you thought? More or less intensely? Was all your movement concentrated in a “workout” or spread throughout a day of activity?
See if you can catch your own assumptions being out of sync with reality.
So many people struggling with weight loss have a serious case of “weekenditis”.
In other words, many people can follow a nutrition plan during the week, but on the weekends (or in the evening, or when there’s a birthday at the office, or whatever), anything goes!
This may be habitual – for instance, feeling like we “deserve treats” or should eat differently because “it’s a special occasion”.
Or, it may be physiological – for instance, if we stringently restrict energy intake for a period of time (Monday to Friday), then feel uncontrollable hunger as our body tries to get back to homeostasis and over eat during the weekend.
Or, it could be a mix – if we’re coping with stress by eating to regulate our level of emotional arousal, and we slept badly the night before (so our appetite hormones are up and self-control down).
A great example is when someone is trying to lose weight with intermittent fasting.
Here's 3 scenarios of someone using a 5/2 fasting protocol: 5 days of “normal” eating with 2 days of fasting.
Let's also assume a target of 2,000 calories a day (14,000 kcals/week).
Looking at food records, we find the following:
- Person #1 – Consumes 14,000 kcals over the course of 5 days (2,000 kcals/day) and loses weight as expected or at a minimum, maintains their weight.
- Person #2 – Consumes 9,800 kcals (creating a huge energy deficit by undereating) and may feel like shit because they have no energy. This person usually exercises less and with less intensity (also making weight loss difficult).
- Person #3 – Consumes 16,100 kcals because they eat way more on non-fasting days despite 2 days of eating nothing. Even though this person is “fasting” they end up gaining weight.
Working Hard at the Wrong Things
When it comes to health and working towards improving our health, we need to understand the difference between things that are difficult.
In other words, there are things that are difficult-easy and then difficult-difficult.
Difficult-easy things are usually pointless or part of a familiar grind.
Difficult-easy tasks feel like we're “doing something”, but they don't actually accomplish much.
Anything that’s an “automated task” is probably a difficult-easy thing to do… like working late or “being stressed” as part of our daily routine.
Difficult-difficult things are the actions that strike fear into our hearts.
But they’re the things that we really need to do in order to grow, change, and/or improve.
For instance, I have many patients who would rather pour salt into their eyeballs than face the uncomfortable emotions they use food to cope with.
Instead, many of these patients drown themselves in difficult-easy actions ( because it makes them feel like they're working), but avoid, ignore, or don’t consider the difficult-difficult ones.
For example, they might:
- Restrict calories but not eat nutritious foods.
- They will do high intensity everything: “beast mode” every workout, “crush it” at a high-stress job… then come home exhausted and crash on the couch with a bottle of wine.
- Try to “willpower” their way through habit formation, over and over, without an actual system to develop and support a genuine behavior change. (Luckily, we do offer such a system… how convenient!)
- Cut out gluten but eat processed “gluten-free” treats.
- Work out 5 days a week, but not pay attention to recovery or sleep.
And this is where the rubber meets the road and our actions need to move us towards our goals.
Identify Things That Are Difficult-Easy Rather Than Difficult-Difficult. Ask yourself if you're doing the same things over and over and getting the same results or if you're truly doing the difficult-difficult things that may make a difference.
Magical thinking involves finding patterns, or causes for things, where they don't exist.
It also involves hoping things are true despite evidence that they aren’t, to the point where the hope gets mixed up with the truth.
Most of us do some type of magical thinking from time to time.
- We believe that we should be able to drive from home to Destination X in Y minutes, even though every single time we get on the highway there’s heinous traffic and it takes half an hour longer.
- We believe, at least a little bit, in horoscopes. We spit words like “C’mon you piece of sh!t printer, spit out that paper!” over machines that aren’t working.
How does all that work out for us?
When it comes to metabolism, we engage in magical thinking such as:
- On diet X, calories don’t matter.
- I’m fasting; all I had was bulletproof coffee (despite it being several hundred calories worth)
- I walked around the block, so that “earned me” X amount of food.
- It's organic, therefore it must be good (proceeds to eat a box of organic cheese crackers).
Regardless of the specific thought, the principle is the same: We aren’t correctly connecting cause and effect.
We aren’t following the data that our own experience is giving us.
When it comes to weight loss – it's a science, not a belief system.
This means we can measure.
The problem is that nobody ever “perfectly” fits into metabolic measurements.
That's what leads to frustration.
The good news is that you have an elegant, useful, and simple tool at your disposal: outcome-based decision making.
- You start with a working hypothesis (determine your caloric needs). If you want to lose weight, then calculate how many calories you need to maintain weight and consume slightly less than that. Stay consistent and make sure you're recording what you're eating and not just “winging it”.
- Then, at a suitable interval (in a week or two), you measure your weight. Are you closer or further away from your goal?
- If you're moving in the right direction, feel good about it, stay consistent and keep course.
- If you're not moving in the right direction, change something. So if you've tracked your weight for three weeks and it isn’t budging, trim energy intake (decrease calories) a little bit and add little more activity (or maybe intensity).
- Repeat as needed.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter if your body (and reality) don’t match the theoretical metabolic math.
What does matter is that your metabolism is perfect and will abide by known principles of physiology, including energy balance.
Often, you’ll just start with an informed guess, try stuff out (with consistency over time), and revise the process based on ongoing feedback (measurements), until you hit a protocol that works.