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Understanding Metabolic Adaptations: Tips for Managing and Maximizing Your Body's Response

Updated: Mar 19

By Intern, Philip Smith

Have you been frustrated by not being able to progress in losing weight once the initial pounds come off? Feel like your body was self sabotaging your attempts to help you feel better and ditch the excess weight. Well you are not alone. 90% of people who lose weight rapidly end up gaining it back.

The struggle with regaining weight and continuing to have success in your weight loss journey is a completely normal and common experience. While there are many reasons for this struggle, one is rooted in our biology.

Weight is not something that is strictly determined by our choices. It is not the lack of willpower to follow a diet or ability to follow a healthy lifestyle that determines our weight. There are many factors that play into this, including evolutionary adaptations of our body itself.

The natural responses that our body has in response to weight loss are called metabolic adaptations. These adaptations include metabolic rate, hormones, genetics, and history of weight loss. This may seem a bit complicated and complex to understand, but don’t worry. We will go over all of this and the ways that you can prepare yourself with the tools to prevent and reduce the effects of metabolic adaptation from impacting your journey.

Before we delve into specifically what makes metabolic adaptation occur, it is important to understand why these reactions occur in our body and why they make physiological sense. Our bodies evolved in a time of feast and famine, with food sources scarce and times of meals inconsistent. Due to these variable food sources, our bodies were built to withstand periods of starvation and weight loss. These periods of time are interpreted by our body systems as a time of stress, in which we must retain as much fat and muscle stores by responding in ways that prevent the loss of more weight. Each person has their own set point, or natural weight range that the body prefers to exist around.

Now you may be wondering, why does this matter now? Food is plentiful, there is never a shortage of meal options, and eating three meals per day is easier than ever. Unfortunately, while our food environment has changed, our bodies cannot adapt as rapidly as food systems and our bodies are still programmed to retain weight and prevent loss of our stores.

The first way our body reacts to changes in food intake and weight loss is to reduce our metabolic rate. What is that? Our resting metabolic rate boils down to the amount of calories we burn at rest without the addition of exercise or daily life movement. These activities are adjustable and under our control, but our resting rate is determined by our body and how efficiently it is using our food to get energy. The higher the metabolic rate the more calories you burn on a regular basis, the lower the less. In order to combat a loss in weight stores, our body will react by lowering our metabolic rate. This means that our body needs less calories to function, changing what would be your calorie deficit amount. If you were eating 1500 calories a day to lose weight, within the first six months of weight loss our body will lower our calorie needs meaning that the 1500 calories may not be enough.

The burning of calories is not the only way to prevent weight loss, as hormonal changes also play a large role. As we lose weight, the hormones that signal us to feel hungry increase. There is also a decrease in fullness cues, meaning that we feel more hungry and get less full throughout the day. It is extremely easy to overeat when we never seem to feel satisfied and are overwhelmed by cravings for more.

While our body adapts in many ways, these reactions vary and are dependent on each person. This is a result of the genetic component. There are over 400 genes that are connected with weight gain and obesity. Some people are more predisposed to gaining weight or have an increased reaction in metabolic change due to their genes. Ultimately this factor is unchangeable, we can’t trade in the genes we are born with. Don’t panic though, as they are influenced and triggered by our environment. Our lifestyle choices and exposure to toxins can both determine whether these traits get turned on. We may be predisposed to obesity or diabetes but that doesn’t mean we can’t give ourselves the best chance at delaying these conditions. Prevention of obesity and being proactive before obesity occurs is crucial, but so is altering behavior at any stage of your journey to halt any further damage.

The body remembers past attempts at weight loss, so not only does the body halt our attempts at losing weight but it also does so in quicker ways the more times we try to lose weight. If you lost thirty pounds in the past and want to lose that same amount again, it is likely that the body is better prepared for how to react and will thwart your attempts for the same weight loss.

This all can feel overwhelming, like you're fighting a losing battle. This is somewhat true, but you are not alone and there are some methods to combat these metabolic adaptations. One of the most tried and true methods is low and slow weight loss. Losing one or two pounds per week compared with a rapid weight loss, has been shown to help in keeping the weight off. Any more than a two pound week loss can signal to our bodies that food sources are limited and that we must lower our metabolic rate to preserve our stores. This means that the best way to achieve successful weight loss is through a sustainable low and slow process of lifestyle changes. Even a minimal 5% weight loss has been shown to show improvements in chronic conditions.

One important aspect of weight loss maintenance we must not overlook is physical activity. Exercising on a regular basis creates a negative energy balance, meaning we take in less calories than we eat. This may seem like cardio to most people, but don’t forget about the strength training. This builds muscle mass, which has a higher energy requirement than fat cells. A large amount of lean muscle mass and increase our metabolic rate to combat the natural lowering our body will try to enforce.

Finally after all is said and done, it is important to remember that you are unique. No one’s body looks or reacts the same. Some people may struggle with losing weight while others have trouble meeting their needs. Pay attention to what makes you and your body unique. No one’s metabolic changes are the exact same, even our own metabolism changes throughout our lifetimes. Set specific realistic goals for yourself that you are actually motivated and able to make happen in your life, and make sure that you find a support system that will help you on this journey. You are not alone, but you are the only one who has to live with your body so do your part to take care of it.


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