Is there any way to repair a destroyed metabolism?
October 18, 2007 1:02 PM   Subscribe

I destroyed my metabolism in my teens and early twenties through extreme dieting and now I'm overweight and nothing I do will take the weight off.

I was a ballet dancer and we were encouraged to eat the notorious dancer's diet of one cup of cottage cheese and an apple each day, starting when I was around 13. I would have frequent "binges" where I might eat as much as 2000 calories in a day, and then deprive myself of my cottage cheese and apple for the next few days to punish myself for it. I quit dance in my early twenties, but continued a great deal of extreme dieting, because I had grown up under the impression that this was a normal and healthy way to eat. My body seemed to adjust to it more and more over the years and I just kept gaining weight besides eating such a low calorie diet all the time.

I realize now that 2000 calories in a day is healthy and I believe I have a healthy attitude to food now, but the problem is my metabolism is completely destroyed and nothing I do will make me lose weight. By the time I hit my mid twenties, I could no longer lose any weight at all, despite weighing 170 lbs at 5'7, even on 500 calories a day and three hours of exercise every day. I went to a doctor with the problem and she told me that I wouldn't lose any weight unless I started eating more. I went up to 2000 calories a day and piled on 15 lbs which then stabilized and now I've been stuck at this weight that won't budge for the past year.

Doctors and nutritionists are all telling me that the way I eat and exercise is healthy and I should just keep doing what I'm doing, but this isn't working! I'm now 5'7 and 185 lbs, eat a healthy diet of about 1800 calories a day, with lots of veggies and very little sugar, and I exercise every day. Is there anything at all I can do to get this blasted weight off and make my metabolism work the way it is supposed to?
posted by giggleknickers to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Are you lifting weights? Building muscle will boost your metabolism and improve your body composition. (Also, don't get stuck on *weight* as a measurement - you should be worried about fat vs. lean mass. I've been 170 at 5'6" and in the best shape of my life, because I was on the swim team, had shoulders an axe-handle across, and could outrun, outswim, and probably outfight anyone you cared to name - except maybe the varsity swimmers :P)
posted by restless_nomad at 1:06 PM on October 18, 2007

If you're eating healthy and the weight is stable, who is to say your metabolism ISN'T healthy? Maybe this is the weight you're supposed to be at? Have you had tests indicating an unhealthy metabolism?
posted by agregoli at 1:07 PM on October 18, 2007

at 185, 1800 calories is still starving yourself. Eat some fat. Eat some cheese. Only work out every other day for a while. Don't eat a bunch of shit like Twinkies, but have that pastrami sandwich, or at least, that turkey leg. In addition to the fat, get some protein.

What kind of exercise are you doing?
posted by notsnot at 1:08 PM on October 18, 2007

There is a breath test that will tell you exactly where your metabolism is at. I believe you have to have this done by a doctor or nutritionist. I think that might be the best first step, so you can know definitively where you're at.

I do think that the next step after that is to find a good nutritionist. If you've been at a plateau for that long, get someone who is well-educated and who has lots of experience to help you tweak your daily diet so that it gets you to where you want t be.
posted by tastybrains at 1:08 PM on October 18, 2007

BTW, you cannot "destroy" your metabolism. Your metabolic rate doesn't "remember" what happened yesterday, last week or several years ago. There is only where you are right now, given your current conditions and inherent genetics.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:11 PM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you for replies!

There is no doubt that I am "in shape." I do 45 minutes to an hour of interval training (sprint 40 seconds, walk 20 seconds, repeat) each morning and strength exercises for 30 minutes to an hour in the evening. I'm an ex-dancer, so if there is one thing I know, it's how to develop muscle!

But I definitely have a lot of fat. I have muscle, but that's not 60 lbs of muscle sitting on me.

I am very uncomfortable at this weight, so I really do not want to just learn to accept it. I can feel gravity pulling at me all the time, which feels awful because I used to be so light on my feet. I can't jump and dance like I used to. I can't cross my legs and I can barely fit in a chair. Being overweight is really ruining my quality of life.

I eat plenty of fat and protein. My diet is sort of low carb in that I don't eat bread, pasta and rice, but I still eat fruit and vegetables like cauliflower. Also, I would never dream of eating a Twinkie. If I need a treat, I'll eat a piece of fruit.

It was a nutritionist who recommended that I quit the extreme dieting, which I did. However, doctor and nutritionists don't seem to have any more advice to give me which is why I'm turning here.

I forgot to mention that I've been tested for hypothyroidism and came out negative.
posted by giggleknickers at 1:17 PM on October 18, 2007

Giggleknickers, are you drinking enough water? That's always been my problem, and the weight refuses to shift for me, either!

Good luck!
posted by LN at 1:19 PM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: Cool Papa Bell, not to be rude, but I don't think you're familiar with research conducted on the subject in the past ten years or so. Extreme dieting causes adiposity which lasts approximately twenty years. Hence my desperation to reverse it. I don't want to wait until I'm 50 to lose weight.

LN, I'm always thirsty so I'm drinking water pretty much all day long. Thank you for the well wishing!
posted by giggleknickers at 1:21 PM on October 18, 2007

Best answer: it sounds like you're doing everything right. maybe you should switch your workout and try for more endurance. can you do an hour and a half of cardio three days a week instead of 45 minutes every day? then do your weight training on your off days to keep your schedule intact.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:29 PM on October 18, 2007

Best answer: You need to adjust your cardio exercise. For about eight or ten weeks, ditch the interval training and keep your heart rate at or below about 75% of your max. (Walking for forty five minutes or an hour, if you have the time, would be ideal.) After that you can add back the interval stuff, but you need to continue to do the lower heart rate stuff as well.

The simplistic explanation is that you need to train your body to burn fat. Literally.

I know this works. I did it to lose 35 pounds. Before, I exercised a lot, but until I did my base training, much of the fat stayed. Afterward I managed to lose quite a bit of fat while keeping or even adding to muscle mass.
posted by konolia at 1:29 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

See nutritionist + 1.

One thing they will likely tell you is that you have to eat to lose weight healthily. Not binge eat, but eat enough to keep your body from going into hoarding mode. It seems counterintuitive but common knowledge these days that one of the keys to losing weight is to eat smaller meals more often to keep your metabolism running high.

As for your metab being hosed, unless you have testing to prove that, I highly doubt it. I suspect by eating the right amounts of the right stuff, without being too extreme about it, and regular exercise, you'll come right in due course.

See an expert though. They know stuff.
posted by BorgLove at 1:30 PM on October 18, 2007

Oh, and keep doing the strength training.
posted by konolia at 1:30 PM on October 18, 2007

I would recommend hastening down to the bookstore and buying "The Shangri-La Diet". It's crazy.
It's totally sustainable, effortless and stupidly effective. And, as far as I can tell, nobody has ever come up with any good health reason why you shouldn't do it.
That contrasts with all the fad diets out there that, while they may help you lose weight, come with their own set of negative health repercussions. This book has been discussed here on mefi before, though I couldn't find it when I tried a quick search. But there's tons of material online about it.
Everyone I know who has played around with it has found it nothing short of miraculous. And no, I ain't getting a percentage from every book sold.
posted by Ziggurat at 1:31 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm just throwing out a few ideas here, and have no idea if they have actual merit or anything -

What about trying a different type of cardio exercise? Or what if you exercised less - is it possible to exercise too much? Maybe every other day instead of every day?
posted by sutel at 1:32 PM on October 18, 2007

I'm always thirsty so I'm drinking water pretty much all day long.

Have you been tested for Type II diabetes?
posted by amyms at 1:32 PM on October 18, 2007

Or Type I, for that matter.
posted by amyms at 1:33 PM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: amyms, I have had check-ups with blood tests. Would they catch diabetes from that or is that a special test I need to specifically ask for? I've been constantly thirsty ever since I was a kid, so it's nothing new. My dad is the same.
posted by giggleknickers at 1:37 PM on October 18, 2007

A few questions:

The 1800 calories - is this your estimate or has it actually been calculated? Could you perhaps be underestimating your food intake. I had read an article a few years back saying that many people underestimate what they eat.

When you say "nutritionist" are you referring to a registered dietitian? Because a lot of people refer to themselves are "nutritionists" and will give you all kinds of advice (as you can see from the above comments).

You should strive to find a registered dietitian, who has a university degree in the subject matter. A good one will sit you down and record two things from you: a "diet history" which are the things you ate (and their quantities) in the last few days, and a "food record", which are the foods you typically eat over the course of a month or year.

From this information, she or he will work out a diet plan for you and possibly recommend additional testing.

Other than that, if I can offer any other advice is cut down on the fat (unless it is olive oil or omega-3 fats (typically found in fish)).

Fat intake should not exceed 30% of your total caloric intake (if your daily intake is indeed 1800 calories, this means that calories from fat should not be more than 540 calories or 60 grams).

And saturated fat intake (from animal products, and milk products) should not exceed 10% of your total caloric intake.

And your exercise should be lower-intensity, longer duration. You will burn more calories this way because you can last longer (and you are less likely to get injured). In other words, long walks and easy jogs, not aerobics or sprinting!
posted by bitteroldman at 1:37 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I recommend this book to like everyone right now, but you won't believe it. You've gotta check it out -- The China Study. I've always been up on nutrition, but this book blew my mind.
posted by letahl at 1:40 PM on October 18, 2007

Interval training, as far as I know and as far as I've ever used it, is for busting plateaus and gaining mileage. If you're doing that all the time (i.e. more than a week or two), you're not getting nearly enough out of your exercise time. Use that 45 miles to run at a pace (with warmup and cooldown). If you can, run outside, not on a treadmill.
posted by notsnot at 1:40 PM on October 18, 2007

Response by poster: For a couple years, up until somewhat recently, I was weighing everything I ate and recording everything, right down to each cough drop to calculate the calories. I don't do that any more, because I had done it for so long that I'm now able to eyeball it and keep a mental tally. I haven't gained any weight since I stopped counting around four or five months ago, so I would assume I'm doing it right.

I have no idea how qualified the nutritionist is. Thanks for alerting me to that matter. I'll check up on that and see if I need to find another one. She did go over what I ate with me. That was back when I was eating way less than I was supposed to. After I started eating more, she seemed to be of the attitude that her work was done, even though I hadn't lost any weight.

I was doing the long jogging at first, but switched to sprinting when I read a bunch of studies claiming that interval training is more effective at burning fat. I don't know what I'm supposed to do anymore!
posted by giggleknickers at 1:44 PM on October 18, 2007

1800 calories is a lot, actually. That's what I eat on a "normal to bad" day - i.e., a non dieting day - and I'm a 5'10" woman trying to lose 20 pounds. The basic rule of thumb I have always heard for women is that you decide what your target weight is, multiply that by 100 and then that's the calories you get. I aim for 1300 calories a day and usually fail, but I can generally keep it at the 1500 level with a little luck and no beer.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:44 PM on October 18, 2007

Cool Papa Bell, not to be rude, but I don't think you're familiar with research conducted on the subject in the past ten years or so. Extreme dieting causes adiposity which lasts approximately twenty years.

Not to be rude, either, but adiposity ? metabolism. The former can be the result of the latter, given a specific state of conditions. But the fact that you dieted a whole bunch 20 years ago doesn't mean much of anything to your current metabolic rate.

Go get your hormone levels checked. But don't get stuck on pseudo-science that says what you did 20 years ago, short of organ damage and a spare tire, has any significant affect on where you are now.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:46 PM on October 18, 2007

adiposity != metabolism

Fixed that.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:46 PM on October 18, 2007

1800 calories is not starving.

"Ruining your metabolism" is mostly a myth. You probably did not ruin your metabolism or lower it to anything that would be of signifigance. Your metabolism pretty much stays at one level and it's VERY difficult to raise or lower it. I have to go, but I will get you the literature on this tonight.

Are you sedentary? Could you be consuming more calories than you think? Keep a detailed diary.
posted by LoriFLA at 1:46 PM on October 18, 2007

About the being thirsty thing - did you see "Addicted to Water" from the NYT magazine? May or may not apply.
posted by rtha at 1:54 PM on October 18, 2007

Muscle, vitamins, sleep.

If you're not sleeping enough, you don't give your body time to build and repair muscle, and you actually set yourself up for weight gain.

A standard multivitamin is a good idea too. As one dietician I know put it, your metabolism is like a chain - if you're missing one piece, the whole thing may slow down. I've been really happy with the One-A-Day Weight Smart multivitamin you can get at the drugstore. I've actually lost a couple pounds since I started taking it a month ago, with no other changes in diet or exercise. Be warned, though, it contains caffeine.
posted by selfmedicating at 1:54 PM on October 18, 2007

(130 pounds at 5'10?? I hope you have light bones.)

I don't know about the nutrition stuff, it seems like there's some good advice on this thread. But I wanted to respond a bit to the quality of life stuff.

I wish you all the success in the world getting down to the weight you want to be, but in the mean time, it might be helpful to work on getting more comfortable with your body at this size. Think of it maybe as practice for accepting your body's inevitable age related changes. There are a lot of resources out there for fat women and women who feel fat (I don't mean dieting stuff, there's plenty of that out there too). Here's maybe a place to start.

Enjoy your body for what it *can* do (there are tons of people who would trade places with you in a heartbeat!) Maybe look for exercises for the pleasure they bring you (dancing? gymnastics?) and not just for the body effects.

Despite the fact of not being at your personal goal weight, it sounds like you have a healthy, strong, able body. That's not a little thing. That's a HUGE thing.
posted by Salamandrous at 1:58 PM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I know this is little more than a minor tweak, but have you considered making those intervals a little longer? Also, if you aren't exhausted almost to the point of nausea at the end of your interval routine, you're doing it wrong. Finally, interval training shouldn't be part of a daily routine. Intervals should be intense enough that they would be doing more harm than good if they were a daily occurence. At least, this is my understanding.

Try two weeks on two weeks off of 30 minutes of 60-90 second wind sprints and 45-60 seconds walking or jogging in between. At the absolute maximum intensity you can muster, no more than four times a week, and no more than once per week on sequential days.

On your off weeks, do some endurance cardio. I recommend getting a bike for this.

Finally, have you considered the possibility that you are overtraining? If you also find yourself with a near chronic case of the sniffles, I think you might want to cut back on the exercise. Give yourself 2 days off or something. You might not be giving your body enough time to recover.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:44 PM on October 18, 2007

would recommend hastening down to the bookstore and buying "The Shangri-La Diet". It's crazy.
It's totally sustainable, effortless and stupidly effective. And, as far as I can tell, nobody has ever come up with any good health reason why you shouldn't do it.

Here's one. You're replacing good nutritious calories from real food with empty calories from oil or sugar. The guy who designed it admits to only consuming 1200 calories per day with 150-300 of those calories coming from oil or sugar. Oil is better than sugar (depending on the oil) in terms of nutritional value but its still mostly empty calories

Its just a combination of calorie restriction and appetite suppression.
posted by missmagenta at 2:55 PM on October 18, 2007

I do want to encourage you that if you keep going-and continue to build and sustain muscle mass-you will see results. You just won't see them instantly.

I forgot to give you a book recommendation-there's one out there called Fit or Fat and it is excellent. Really explains why it is important to build base.
posted by konolia at 3:25 PM on October 18, 2007

Best answer: You mentioned you had your thyroid tested, but how long ago? The guidelines for the lab tests have changed recently, according to the American Association of Clinical Endrocrinologists. Under the new guidelines, many people who would not have been diagnosed are now hypothyroid or borderline (subclinical). Difficulty losing weight even with a restricted diet and intense exercise can be a sympton of hypothyroidism. There is some good information about thyroid problems here.
posted by socrateaser at 3:28 PM on October 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

An aside. How old are you? 30? That's not "old", but even so you can't expect to be as "light on your feet" as you were at 20, or as slim; and when you reach 40 and 50 it'll get worse.
posted by londongeezer at 5:05 PM on October 18, 2007

you are 5'7, 185 and you cannot cross your legs or fit in chairs? i understand that you used to be a dancer and so were tiny and lithe and all those things, but it just seems so hard to believe that you are THAT big.

i am the same height as you are, and i weigh just about the same (10 pounds more than you, actually), so i assume we are the same clothing size, too (14, for the record). i fit into chairs just fine and i have no problem at all crossing my legs - in fact i'm uncomfortable if i don't sit with my legs crossed at the knee. of course, i've never been thin, so i don't know what it's like at the other end of the spectrum. but unless you have teeny tiny (possibly hollow) bones, i can't imagine it's as bad as you're making it out to be.

i'm not saying that you should reach some sort of level of fat acceptance or anything, or that you shouldn't strive to lose weight. just that maybe you are distorting your body image more than normal. coming from a girl who is just about your exact height and weight... it's not nearly as fat as you are making it out to be!

but on to more tangible things...

i have a similar problem in that i have been unable to get under 195 no matter how little i eat or how much i exercise. if i go above, i can lose it easily. but never below, no matter what. finally i broke down and saw a nutritionist (several, actually. all doctors), who told me the following:

-get your body used to ~1800 again for a month or so (seems like you've done this)
-THEN cut back to ~1200 until you hit another weight loss plateau
-lather rinse repeat

basically your body shouldn't get too used to anything.
smaller tips were:

-eat less sodium
-don't go over 4 servings of grains per day
-kick up the protein

they also all told me that exercise - especially really intense exercise the way you are doing it - is basically useless for weight loss. it's very healthy, but it's best to work within the "fat burning" range of cardio exercise, which is really quite low intensity. i walk several miles a day, and they all told me this was perfection as far as exercise goes. although all exercise is beneficial in many ways, low-intensity cardio is really the only kind that is useful for weight loss.

in short, you can cut back your calories again, just not below 1200, and not permanently. switch back and forth every few months when you feel your loss stagnating.
posted by timory at 7:19 PM on October 18, 2007 [5 favorites]

I think when you have been an athlete and thin for most of your life, a little bit of weight feels like a lot! I was on the upper edge of the normal BMI for awhile after quitting sports and it felt uncomfortable.

If the typical "good" diet isn't working, I'd suggest trying alternative diets. I've had good results from raw vegan and on the other end of the spectrum, a paleo diet. I saw a registered dietitian and the diet they give me was just the standard spiel (30% calories from fat blah blah). It didn't work for me. The diet I do best on is actually higher in fat because it fills me up. But do what works for you. Don't like anyone tell you that there is one good diet.

Extreme dieting causes adiposity which lasts approximately twenty years.
Ha, then I should be as big as a horse. I was doing severe calorie restriction for awhile. There is no good evidence that this is true. If it were, the people who do the "scientific" CRON calorie restriction would be giants.
posted by melissam at 9:39 AM on October 19, 2007

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