Broken Metabolism?

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Conventional wisdom tells us that losing extreme body weight can damage metabolism to the point that a weight regain will be insurmountably out of control.

I’ve never believed this to be true and I think it’s more likely a behavioral factor; those who lost and regained significant body weight probably used unsustainable weight-loss methods and then revert eventually to their old dietary habits, many with even greater dietary indiscrimination.

I know people who lost significant weight but kept it off permanently. Their metabolism has not failed them. Perhaps they gave their metabolism time to adjust and adapt to the new body weight and dietary intake.

And if losing weight dramatically is thought to be a metabolic hazard, then certainly this has not been shown to be true in the observation of many war survivors who came home skin-and-bone yet years later never fell victims to obesity or overweight. (This is not exclusive to concentration camp survivors of WWII, but inclusive to those of wars throughout history.)

The observation of severe weight loss and its after-effect goes beyond war and famine.

Take a modern-day example: Christian Bale’s amazing body transformation for his role in the 2004 movie The Machinist.

If it’s true what’s told to us about extreme weight loss and its corruption on metabolism, then what’s with Bale’s transformation from a walking ribcage in The Machinist to a muscular physique for his role in Batman and then again to an athletical body displayed in Terminator Salvation?

And what about his recent drastic weight loss again for his latest movie, The Fighter, in which he acts as a crack-addict ex-fighter?

And have you seen Bale’s latest interview post-movie? Back to his normal weight, healthy, once again, with a headful of hair and vibrant skin, and not a pound of excess fat.

Sure, Bale is a method actor with talent on the screen and in his resolve to assume the role of character, and he’s also a single example. But there are many examples of severe weight loss without the rebound or the evidence of a broken metabolism.

The point of this post is: the body is smart. It is flexible. It is adaptable. It is behavior that dictates how the body adapts. You just have to give the body a chance.

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3 Responses to Broken Metabolism?

  1. Lillea says:

    Thank you for posting this.

    There have been LOTS of articles about broken metabolism lately even in the “Paleo” world. It rarely makes much sense to me either, given how poorly most people track their daily intake. I’ve been recording my intake for years, so it’s easy for me to find out when I’m overdoing things, and I have put people to the test when they claim they are not eating much. They always are! People often greatly underestimate the kcal they need to maintain their weight, and how much they are actually eating, and overestimate how many they ‘burn’ via exercise.

    Your examples are excellent, particularly concentration camp survivors. I have met several people who survived (and had lost a lot of weight while there) and they did not become obese later on. In fact, my own grandmother survived the camps and gained some weight, but remained slim for the rest of her life (she died when she was in her mid 90s). She was careful about what she ate – small portions, and nourishing animal foods like eggs that can be good for satiety. No surprise that she was slim.

    Some people do have thyroid issues, which of course can change metabolism, but my understanding, so far, is that even with full blown thyroid disease, metabolism doesn’t get hit so much that weight loss is impossible. Daily caloric needs may go down by as much as 250-300 kcal a day, a few researchers have noted. I am still researching this to find out what the upper limit might be (worst case scenerio, in other words). 300 kcal a day difference would make weight loss more difficult (slow), yes, but again, not impossible. Also, thyroid problems can lead to edema, so some of any weight gain can be water, not fat, but of course it could seem like fat because it’s chronic and the water won’t be released until thyroid levels improve.

  2. Mark R. says:

    Hey Johnny,
    I feel that this topic is very important as a lot of people need to give themselves “the permission” to lose weight and maybe a lot of it. I’m in the middle of a fat loss effort and I’m shooting for a weight that I haven’t been at in over 10 years, but I’m ok with that because that’s where I’ll need to be to be lean. So much of this stuff is mental. Thanks for helping to keep me on the right path.

  3. David says:

    I have always wondered about this specific piece of “conventional wisdom”. I have recently dropped a drastic amount of weight (over 60 lbs since adopting IF last August) and I have dreaded the thought that at some point it might be difficult for me to maintain my weight loss due to a broken metabolism. Thanks for living the life and documenting to help challenge the conventional wisdom of the day.

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