A hot topic as of late in the fitness industry is a theory known as “Metabolic Damage.” This theory, right or wrong, is very controversial mainly because of its implications on the health of aesthetic athletes, but also because the effect it has had on the jobs of many coaches and trainers in the industry. I certainly have my views on the topic but will save them for another video. However, I believe this issue has come about because most individuals claiming they have said “damage” have not properly returned to eating, training, and living a healthy lifestyle following a fat-loss and/or competition diet.
The term “Reverse Dieting” has been given to the intuitive, intelligent process of gradually returning to a healthy, sustainable eating and exercise pattern following a diet and training program aimed at losing body fat. While many opt to let the proverbial flood gates open, binging on sultry foods and even taking time off of exercise, it is essential for long,- and even short-term health, to subtly increase calories and decrease exercise. While the propensity is to let go, it is important to show restraint for several physiological reasons.
When you diet for a relatively chronic amount of time (i.e. you create a energy/caloric defect for 12-20 weeks) you, for all intents and purposes, tell the body you are failing to thrive. You are losing body tissue, hopefully more fat than muscle as planned, and the body recognizes this. As a survival and adaptive mechanism it will try to manage this energy defect and subsequent tissue lose the only way it can; decrease basal metabolic rate through decreased thyroid output. While this is only brushing the surface of what happens hormonally, it serves as the main purpose of the present discussion. This decrease in thyroid function lags behind the defect in energy, but also lags to return after you start to re-feed following your diet. During this time period your body is burning significantly lower calories on it’s own compared to the time period before you began your diet. This decrease in thyroid function will be dependent on the severity of deficit it encounters (i.e.the extent to which you go in regards to decreasing caloric intake and increase calories burned through exercise) primarily, and secondarily to many other individual factors. This hormonal shift, however, is not the only thing you have to be concerned about post contest/diet.
When you decrease calories, namely from carbohydrates as seen in most fat loss diets, and your body loses tissue it wants to regain it until it reaches homeostasis ( your body’s “normal” if you will). One mechanism that ensues is an increase in insulin sensitivity in muscle and in fat. Insulin is the body’s most anabolic hormone, which means when elevated has the capacity to help you accrue tissue fast. This phenomena is why most will see significant muscular gains from weight training and a caloric surplus following a relatively chronic diet. However, because the same sensitivity exists in fat tissue a surplus in calories that exceeds an already low set expenditure (remember decreased thyroid output) as well as exceeding the necessity to build and repair muscle tissue ( which is why it is important not to cease lifting weights) will be readily turned into adipose tissue. As you can see, this hormonal mechanism, when leveraged correctly, can be your best friend from an aesthetic standpoint, but can also be your worst enemy if you fall off the wagon.
All in all the concept of “reverse dieting” is nothing novel. It is an intuitive process of returning to eating normally at a gradual, well coordinated pace. I believe that many individuals fail to follow this concept following a diet which as given a rise to the theory of “metabolic damage” in most scenarios, but not all. Personally, I believe it is a product of current day American societal norms; finding the path of least resistance and deflecting blame. Sadly the resolution for this issues thus far has been aimed at “head hunting” suspect coaches. Frankly, and as much as I hate to say it, many athletes are too unintelligent, or at least uniformed, that this problem will continue for quite some time. The only resolution in my mind resides with spreading as much education as we can as fitness professionals to create some level of educational autonomy amongst athletes.