Have I ruined my metabolism? If so, how would I get it back?
April 2, 2014 12:06 PM   Subscribe

I have recently entered a fairly strict diet and workout regimen. I feel like it is healthy, but am worried about the damage I may have done to my body and metabolism. Help me decide on my next steps.

So toward the end of January, my father basically bribed me into losing weight*. I weighed in the neighborhood of 285 pounds (6 foot male). He paid me a not-insignificant amount of money on 3/1 for hitting 265 and 4/1 for hitting 248. I got there by the following guidelines: 1000-1600 calories a day (very little processed food), 30-80 net carbs a day, 45 minutes of moderately intense cardio five times a week.

I'm now at 243 and feel fine. Even though money (mercifully) is no longer involved, I'd like to keep going until I am at 200. However, I know eating an average of 1200 calories isn't sustainable, and on days I have ~2000 calories and/or a lot of non-fiber carbs I tend to gain several pounds.

Have I trapped myself into this? Is there a way to get myself back to eating at least 1600 calories and lose weight at a far more reasonable pace (1-2 pounds a week)? Do you think I should get a doctor or dietitian involved in case I have developed a possible unspecified eating disorder?
posted by Shadax to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: *Yes, I am 28, and yes, that is really weird. I am not comfortable with that arrangement and know it is kind of screwed up, but that isn't the focus here.
posted by Shadax at 12:06 PM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Am I reading you right -- you mark a several-pound weight gain within a DAY of when you eat more or eat a lot of carbs? Because if you do, that weight is either in your GI tract rather than your body, or else it's water. Several pounds of fat, let's say three pounds, is almost ten thousand calories' worth -- you're not getting that just by eating pizza, even if you're eating a WHOLE pizza.

When this happens, how long does it take you to lose the extra weight?
posted by KathrynT at 12:11 PM on April 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: on days I have ~2000 calories and/or a lot of non-fiber carbs I tend to gain several pounds.

This is a really strange way of thinking about this.

You need to start weighing yourself less often. I would go down to once a week and not worry so much about what your particular weight is on any given day/after eating a particular food until it translates into a noticeable permanent weight gain.
posted by Sara C. at 12:13 PM on April 2, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Okay, money is money, I feel you there.

I'd start adding in more dairy calories in 100 calorie increments. Dairy is supposed to be really good for you, and aids in weight loss.

So add 100 calories to your daily total, and keep it up for a week, and see how it goes. Then add more.

Another thing to do is the Shangri La Diet. It was featured on the Freakonomics blog. I've been doing it and it does seem to allow for weight loss by resetting your "set point."

I bought the book, but like most diet books, the helpful nuggets could be printed on a post card.

Basically, between meals, with an hour's buffer on each end, drink 100 calories of no-flavor oil, or some sugar water. Don't associate any flavors with these calories. I'm about 3 weeks into it and it helps with hunger and both Husbunny and I are eating less, but it is strange as FUCK!

You might also join Weight Watchers, either the on-line app, or actually go to meetings.

Also, don't get too wrapped up in the pounds. If you're going to the gym, muscles weigh more than fat, and if you want to bulk up muscle, you might gain in the moment, but you'll be losing more fat overall.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:14 PM on April 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "and on days I have ~2000 calories and/or a lot of non-fiber carbs I tend to gain several pounds."

So, gaining // losing a pound requires a surplus // deficit of ~3500 kCal. If you're noticing a bounce of multiple pounds on days you're eating, you're either:

A) Being obscenely dishonest about your caloric intake (not likely), or
B) Seeing normal fluctuations, that can be caused by a myriad of factors

Learn to take a long view of this. Don't worry about the day-to-day, take an average of your weight for a week and use that as your basis point.

Learn what your body requires as far as caloric intake on a day-to-day basis for zero gain // loss, and use that to shape your behaviour regarding diet. A BMR calculator may help on this.

Don't sweat it too much :D You've made progress. Keep it going!
posted by isauteikisa at 12:15 PM on April 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: KathrynT: The weight does go away after a few days, but that does coincide with increased exercise. I guess something I did not take into account is what I may have broken isn't my metabolism but rather my otherwise rational adult brain becoming obsessed with making a number smaller when I've already done so, and very well at that.
posted by Shadax at 12:16 PM on April 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'd just start eating 1600+ calories a day. The gain is water weight, that happens when you eat more carbs. Once you start eating more, you'll probably stabilize at a slightly higher weight than your current weight, then go down from there.

Also, consider eating more than 1600 calories a day. At your weight (and age, and gender), you probably burn more than 2000 calories a day without any exercise at all, and in fact without moving at all. Calculator here. I'd probably try eating 2000+ calories a day to start.
posted by insectosaurus at 12:17 PM on April 2, 2014

Best answer: You are massively under-eating. What happens when you eat at a caloric deficit is that the glycogen stores in your muscles get depleted, along with the water that is stored with it. When you subsequently eat a larger amount of calories, your muscles are basically like OMG AWESOME and the glycogen stores, along with the water, get replenished. That's why you see a jump in weight after eating more calories - you did not gain several pounds of fat overnight, you gained several pounds of water. Water is the most volatile substance in the body and you can see a gain or drop of several pounds simply from eating a salty meal or sweating a bunch at the gym.

So basically, no, you did not wreck your metabolism. However, for a male of your age and height, you are eating far too little. Eating too little can result in loss of muscle mass along with loss of fat, which is not what you want to have happen! I have found this calculator to be very helpful in determining how much to eat. (Semi-NSFW, shirtless dude image.) According to that calculator, to lose 1.5 lbs/week you should be eating 2310 calories per day. You're sometimes eating less than half that amount. That's not sustainable for the long term because your body will either compensate by making you have less energy and therefore move less and expend fewer calories, or you will crack from hunger and fall off the wagon.

My advice to you is to increase your calories (do it slowly if that is easier for you mentally) and keep up with your exercise. Make sure you are eating enough protein and don't avoid fat. You have made great progress and you can reach your goals without starving yourself.
posted by bedhead at 12:18 PM on April 2, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I think the main problem isn't metabolism, it is psychology.

Most likely it is some sort of water weight, a combination of more water everywhere because of more salt in your body, and more in your muscles and liver due to more starch reserves. The remainder is the extra food in your gut.

All of these things are likely to change when you change your intake. They will level off though, probably within a day or two. Though there will always be variation.
posted by Good Brain at 12:21 PM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing that is happening when you have more calories/carbs - you're retaining water. It is unlikely that you are gaining several pounds from a day or two of a few hundred calories over normal. For me, if I eat a bunch of wheat or salt (say, if I have pizza)...I get all puffy. Not so much noticeable visually, but enough to change my weight a bit.

I did almost exactly what you did in my late teens except with more severe (really stupid severe) calorie restrictions. This is all anecdata, but I did not break my metabolism. (I kept the weight off through obsession and misery for about seven years and then regained most of it.)

What really sank me in the long run was not addressing why I ate badly in the tweens/teens - loneliness, isolation, lack of control of anything else in my life, no other sources of pleasure. It wasn't my metabolism - it was my braaaaaaiiiiinnnn.

What I did right was building good exercise habits, something that has stayed with me ever since. Even now that I'm fatter again, I look different because I'm very active and have actual muscles now.

If I were you, I'd add some more exercise. In my own experience, any kind of exercise thins me out if I am consistently pushing myself - walking, as long as I walk enough to tire myself; biking, as long as I feel it in my calves a bit; etc. Everyone always says that only weight training really helps, but I haven't found that to be true.

Exercise until you start to feel like you want to stop and then continue a little longer; add your calories as proteins. (For me, it's "anything but wheat" - I can have, say, extra chocolate and not retain water, but anything wheat-ish isn't so great.)

I think that contemporary language about diet suffers from too much precision - you must do this or you'll break your metabolism, you must not do that or you'll break your metabolism...when really, throughout human history people have lived on a variety of non-ideal (but not actually starvation) diets and come back from them just fine.
posted by Frowner at 12:21 PM on April 2, 2014 [4 favorites]

( I add that when I eat what all the calculators say should be maintenance for someone of my activity level and weight, I gain weight. Even when I was eating 800 calories a day every day for a year while exercising a lot, back in my teens, I did not notice any dire effects except that I had to think about food every goddamn waking moment.)
posted by Frowner at 12:25 PM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: An issue I am facing is that I'm just not hungry. I've been planning out my meals the last few days, and am absolutely stuffed at 1200 calories. Appetite suppression isn't an issue for me, it's finding it in myself to add 500 calories. Since identifying food as a crutch (I weighed 215 when I entered a bad relationship, and weighed 295 when I finally exited it in November), I've all but killed my former love of fast food and soda. Maybe the lack of hunger is a mental block for fear of falling back into old habits?

Breaking my habit of weighing myself every day (and several times throughout day, if my anxiety is flaring up) seems like the best start. Also, maybe introducing some foods that aren't eggs/lentils/mixed veggies/tilapia (the staple of the last few months) or making protein shakes with actual milk. (I also take multi-vitamin and fiber supplements to even things out.)

Also, to clarify, 45 minutes of moderately intense cardio usually the elliptical or treadmill as hard and fast as I can do it without injury. It is far from moderate to me, but I am sure fit people would think nothing of it. I try to go every day, but 5 days is a far more realistic representation.
posted by Shadax at 12:39 PM on April 2, 2014

Are you sure you're seeing what you think you're seeing, or are your reading more into it that you should?

Your weight goes up and down every day, depending on if you've eaten, used the toilet, had some water or sweated some off. Variations of a pound or two over a few days are essentially random.

There are ways to minimize this fluctuation. You can measure at the same time every day. You can average your weight over the last three of five days to see if real change is happening. Plot your weight on a chart and watch for real plateaus and real losses. Don't worry about small changes from day to day.
posted by bonehead at 12:41 PM on April 2, 2014

I'd try using one of the calculators linked above to generate an estimate of your total energy expenditure (TDEE) and then start tinkering from there. The rule of thumb is that TDEE - 500 is about a pound a week. One you figure out your pound a week number I'd start working up to it gradually, adding 50 calories per day each week, and see if you keep losing. Those TDEE calculators are all estimates, anyway; everyone's different.
posted by Diablevert at 12:48 PM on April 2, 2014

Response by poster: I weigh every morning, after taking care of whatever gastro-intestinal situation I woke up to but before showering. I also mark it in a chart using caloriecounter.about.com, which does show an average downward trend as well as an average water weight that I rarely tend to exceed. The problem was (and this is why I am uncomfortable with money being involved, but am in a fair amount of debt from the bad relationship mentioned above) I would get anxious anytime there wasn't a loss or - heaven forbid! - a gain and would weigh myself over and over again.

I guess what I am learning here is that I just need to eat more (while still being healthy) and see what happens. The internet, being what it is, scared me with horror stories about people with eating disorders who would gain all the weight back and then some while still eating under 2000 calories. Since I was unable to find any reliable information, I figured I would turn here. My main concern is falling off the wagon when I start eating more, but it would be better to be aware of that risk now and go for it rather than just wait for the inevitable.
posted by Shadax at 12:51 PM on April 2, 2014

It occurs to me that if large percentages of the population really could break their metabolisms through variable but basically healthy/non-processed diets, we'd have some evidence from history - various nomad/gatherer populations whose diet varies wildly over the course of the year, for instance; people who have been in non-dangerous food-shortage situations (such as people in Western Europe during and just after WWII); people who do long distance hiking and walking...

It seems totally reasonable that some people with particular metabolic problems (or with a particular cascade of physical and mental health problems leading to hormonal issues) could get into an awful cycle of weight gain on really restricted diets. But it seems unlikely that this is a common situation for average humans, particularly when eating basically healthy but just less.
posted by Frowner at 12:59 PM on April 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

Intense exercise acts to reset the body's hunger cues. (SLNYT):
Studies have shown that exercise typically increases the production of ghrelin. Workouts make you hungry. In the Wyoming study, when the women ran, their ghrelin levels spiked, which should have meant they would attack the buffet with gusto. But they didn’t. In fact, after running they consumed several hundred fewer calories than they burned.

Their restraint, the researchers said, was due to a concomitant increase in other hormones that initiate satiety. These hormones, only recently discovered and still not well understood, tell the body that it has taken in enough fuel; it can stop eating. The augmented levels of the satiety hormones, the authors write, “muted” the message from ghrelin. Sitting and, notably, walking did not change the blood levels of the women’s satiety hormones, and the walkers overate, consuming more calories at the buffet than they had burned.
So no, I don't think you broke anything yet. Also, re: daily weight fluctuation, the average adult male passes 8-10 lb of water through their body every day. Have a little more salt, or strain your muscles a little bit more, and you'll temporarily retain more of that water.

If anything, consider adding some strength training (New Rules of Lifting or Starting Strength), but I don't see anything alarming about your situation yet.
posted by disconnect at 1:04 PM on April 2, 2014

Best answer: Breaking my habit of weighing myself every day (and several times throughout day, if my anxiety is flaring up) seems like the best start.

This is a self-perpetuating cycle: the more you weigh yourself, the more anxious you will ultimately feel.

I am going to be honest, we ANYD but I think if you had said you were female more people in this thread would be concerned about the possibility of an eating disorder, or at least more alarmed about your disordered eating (they are different but related things). I think you should involve a doctor or dietician and probably also a therapist, not because of your weight specifically but more because of the anxiety that you've described here--it is not healthy to be so obsessed with your body's changes that you are constantly monitoring it throughout the day.

The internet, being what it is, scared me with horror stories about people with eating disorders who would gain all the weight back and then some while still eating under 2000 calories.

Sure, because starvation makes your body hoard. Over time those people's appetites and weights stabilize, but you don't hear horror stories about that part for the same reason you don't hear too many happy stories on CNN.

Try not to obsess about the small details--focus on functional capacities (strength, endurance, flexibility) and the long-term trends (not days, but months).
posted by epanalepsis at 1:19 PM on April 2, 2014 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: @epanalepsis

That is exactly why I was uncomfortable with the angle of my weight loss being held ransom for money that I couldn't afford not to take. I am hoping now that that is no longer a thing I can focus on my goal of being 200 by the time I turn 30. Considering that is 17 months and 1 day away, that means a lot more of a focus on maintenance and the long term.
posted by Shadax at 1:27 PM on April 2, 2014

Mod note: Hey Shadax, moderator here. AskMe isn't really a space for ongoing discussion; it's more of an ask-then-read-the-answers deal. At this point, maybe limit your responses to factual clarifications?
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 1:33 PM on April 2, 2014

Best answer: The internet, being what it is, scared me with horror stories about people with eating disorders who would gain all the weight back and then some while still eating under 2000 calories

Well, maybe but that's not where you are right now. From your description, you're still losing weight, still feeling good, still eating exactly what you intended to eat (no unhealthy urges to binge, or to starve yourself). The shift that you're thinking about making is from eating a very restrictive diet (1200 calories) for rapid weight loss (40 pounds in 3 months is amazing, as far as I'm concerned!!) shifting over to a slightly restricted diet (1600 calories) for probable continued weight loss, and eventually you'll shift over to a weight-maintenance eating plan. It sounds like you're really good at consistency, eating about the same amount every day, exercising regularly and similarly, etc. and the thing you've been doing for 3 months has worked really well for you, so changing anything is understandably a bit nerve-wracking. Hang in there, make you decisions and follow through with confidence, and don't panic till you've seen longish-term (at least a whole week) trends developing.

When you're losing 12 pounds a month, I can see how you'd worry that going 2 days in a row without losing anything means you've got a problem. And yes, instantaneous weight fluctuates several pounds during the average week, but when you're aiming for a significant downward slope, you can reasonably expect to see that slope through the noise. Remember - your goal has changed! You don't actually want to lose more than, say 1.5 pounds a week at this point. That means that maybe you won't see the slope through the noise. That's okay.

I can see how you would be worried that you're cultivating borderline-disordered eating behavior, because of your weigh-in anxiety, but I like how aware you are of the way that you're responding emotionally to the situation, and how the scale makes you feel anxious. Keep that awareness, and see if you can talk yourself through the anxiety.

I actually kind of disagree with the recommendations to only weigh yourself once a week. You run the risk of having an "up" day right when you do your weekly measurement, and freaking out because you've only lost 0.5lbs this week. If you weigh yourself every day, record the number with no emotion, and convince yourself that you're not allowed to care about anything other than your 5-day running average, then you'll see the trend that you're looking for, in a realistic (and hopefully calming) way. Except you've got 7 times the number of weigh-ins at which to freak out. You know your own mind, and how you feel about this stuff, so make the choice that you think will work for you.
posted by aimedwander at 1:42 PM on April 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

If it helps at all as a sanity check, all the weight-related questions on the various medical studies I've been involved with always only require follow-up if the patient reports a loss or gain of more than 10 pounds in a short period of time. Not to say 10 pounds is a problem, just that anything less than that we don't even pay any attention to, and assume it's normal fluctuation.
posted by Wretch729 at 2:53 PM on April 2, 2014

Best answer: Ok, I am not reading anything weird about your body's reaction to the food. I strongly recommend heading over to the the /keto board at reddit, because that's what you're doing whether you call it that or not. Everything you've described has been talked about again and again in great detail over there. It's a very supportive community.

I'm also on a low carb diet on, and on the "cheat days" where I have a fair amount of non-fiber carbs my weight can go up 5 pounds. This is a well known phenomenon and apparently caused by the sugar you've digested getting absorbed by your muscles where it hangs out with five water molecules for each molecule of glucose. That adds a lot of weight in you, but it goes away pretty quick as your muscles break down.

Personally, it takes me about 3-4 days to lose that five pounds, but it's not "real" weight loss in that what you're losing isn't fat, it's just the water you're holding in.

I had the same experience as you where 1200 calories seemed like all I could handle for a few months. That ended as my body fat percentage went down. I don't have any studies to back it up, but my theory is that as my body had less fat to easily access for energy it started telling me to eat again.

If I were in your position I would just track your carb intake and track (but not manage) your calorie intake for a while with something like loseit. Weigh your food and see what you're eating. Without weighting food it's easy to be off hundreds of calories.

You'll need to experiment on yourself and find what works for you. I've learned artificial sweetners are fine for me, but some people just can't handle them. You'll find out if you need to calorie count, if intermittent fasting works for you, and all sorts of other things. Everyone is a little different.

I suspect what will happen is you'll lose weight pretty easily for a while yet, you're still relatively young and have your metabolism working on your side. I think your metabolism sounds completely normal.

Congrats on the weight loss so far!
posted by bswinburn at 3:20 PM on April 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

/loseit at Reddit is also a very positive community that has a lot of people losing big or small amounts of weight with all the ups and downs that involves. They're not necessarily the best place to talk about being low carb, but they're very hot on calorie counting.
posted by kadia_a at 10:59 PM on April 2, 2014

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