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Metabolic Compensation & Body Set Points

Your Internal Weight Thermometer  

I’ve always said, “your body starts as a simple machine, you then teach it how to function”.  80% of individuals that lose 10% or more of their bodyweight, end up gaining 125% of it back.  We always hear about the lack of willpower, not being able to keep up with the diet or nutritional changes, or just that one little cheat day that got away from them…setting you back to your old ways.  But what you don’t know is that you have a couple other forces working against you as well! These forces that are meant to protect you (from an evolutionary stand points), keep you from losing your weight. Your body is a simple machine, once you teach it something or create an environment for it, it thinks that’s normal.  It doesn’t know that 180lbs is healthier than 260lbs, it just knows that it has been at 260lbs for a while and has created and entire system, with processes, to make 260lbs work.  If all of a sudden, there is a change from 260lbs, it’s gonna think something is wrong and fight like heck to bring it back..see the logic?

How The Body Compensates & Sets  

Q: I don’t get it, your body doesn’t want you to be healthy?

A: If that was the case, we’d all be healthy.  The body has no idea what healthy is, all it knows is what you’ve taught it.  Your body focuses on one thing, to LIVE.  It will rework its entire system, based on the conditions you give it, to run as efficiently as possible (using the least amount of calories and producing less stress on a daily basis) so it can survive.  The body focuses on energy expenditure.  This is why it’s called the most adaptive machine on the face of the earth, once you teach it something, and you keep teaching it (performing the activity or creating the environment over and over), it will adapt all it’s mind, body, muscle, hormonal, enzymatic, etc.. processes to do “whatever” more efficiently.  Saving you calories and stress each time and/or getting accustomed to that environment. 

Q: Is this was Metabolic Compensation is?

A: Yes, that’s the metabolic, or energy/calorie burning part. Basically it means that if you give your body less calories, it will figure out a way to “live” (keep performing) at this lower calorie level.  Your muscles will adapt by burning less calories, you fat metabolizing or breaking down processes will become less efficient (so you can keep more calories in the body), you will begin to reduce certain hormones that signal growth and development.  Essentially your body begins to conserve and adapt to the reduced caloric consumption.  This is why they tell you, long term, you should NOT reduce your calories to lose or maintain weight.  

Q: But when people reduce calories, they lose weight?

A: Yes, at first. There are (3) phases to Metabolic Compensation.  Immediate – you lose weight because your body wants to keep its muscle tissue, so you begin to break down fat. Residual – the body begins to adapt, this is survival mode, so it slows down your ability to use calories (metabolism) and increasing the processes to keep and to store new calories.  Remember, the body doesn’t know it’s getting healthy by losing weight, it just knows that something is different, it’s “off normal”, so it thinks something is wrong.  To deal with the “chaos” it’s going to want to save its most precious resource, calories! Then lastly, Cumulative – in this phase your body has broken down much of it’s muscle, you’re in metabolic hell.  Muscle was the single biggest engine to consume calories, and now it’s gone.  You have less burning and more storing.  

Q: So significantly reducing calories is not good for weight loss?

A: Exactly, you need to be careful with how low you go.  You need to feed your body the right number of calories so it can maintain its systems, continue to build/maintain muscle mass, and be at optimal metabolic capacity. 

Q: How does Body Set Point fit into all this?

A: Just like a thermometer, you can set your body weight. If you get pulled too high (gain weight) or too low (lose weight), your body will have a tendency to pull you back to the original set point. Researchers have theorized it takes about 18-24 months to set your Body Set Point.  In the Minnesota Starvation Study participants reduced their calories by 50%, they lost 66% of their fat mass, but once given the ability to freely eat, they gained 125% of it back, and after a year, it settled to 5% of the start value. Back to the set point.  

Q: Does this explain weight fluctuations?

A: Yes, researchers have seen that the set point range is around 10-20lbs, this is why you’ll hear of individuals yo-yoing around that range.  Individuals will lose or gain weight with relative ease within this range, outside of that range, you really have to put in some effort.

Q: So how do you change your Body Set Point?

A: Consistency. The key is working hard for long enough to keep the weight off, 18-24months.  If you can do that, your body will now realize its new “normal”.  It’s important to note that Set Point has genetic factors as well, some individuals just have greater tendencies to be leaner than others.  In this case, you must work harder, however, environmental factors are 80-90% of the determinant in your weight and health.