Let’s talk about the idea of overtraining and eating as it pertains to engaging or reengaging with fitness and nutrition in order to lose weight. Typical scenarios are individuals who were very fit and exercising regularly in the past, but maybe suffered an injury, had a child or simply fell out of the habit. Other examples are those who are couch potatoes and have never consistently practiced eating healthy or doing exercise.
The typical approach of these two types of people, the past fit and healthy person and the newly converted couch potato, is to look out into the world and see those who are fit and engaged and emulate their routines.
In other words, a laggard sees someone like Rich Froning, a CrossFit superstar, and decides that he/she is going to duplicate this type of training. By the same token, the person who was previously physically engaged will often jump right in and attempt activities at their previous level. It sounds something like this, “Well, I know what it took previously. I worked out five days per week. I ate a certain way. All I need to do is start doing that again.”
On the surface, this makes sense, right? Often times in life, there’s a principle of “fake it until you make it” or emulate others to achieve similar success. In many areas of life, this may work, but when it comes to our metabolisms, it is a risky proposition because the metabolism is adaptive and reactive, both flexible and inflexible.
The Metabolism As A Stress Reactor
Metabolism certainly can be changed and partly, that’s what it is designed to do. When we behave certain ways, like eating less and exercising more, the metabolism adapts and may release some of its fat stores. Conversely, when you start eating more and exercising less, the metabolism adapts and may begin storing fat. What we forget is that fat loss and weight loss concerns are only a fraction of the metabolism’s functions. Its main concern is balance. There’s a term in science called homeostasis, the degree of returning back to or seeking balance; this is where metabolism wants to reside.
Think of the metabolism as a rubber band. If you put a rubber band in ice water and freeze it, it becomes rigid; very much the way a couch potato makes their metabolism more rigid. They aren’t doing much, so their metabolism can’t take much. When they get off the couch and try to run for miles and eat like a bird, they are very likely to suffer and injury. Even if they remain injury free, they won’t last long on a diet and binges on cheesecake and pizza are likely to increase. This is probable because the metabolism has become somewhat inflexible through their habitual behaviors.
The same holds true for those who were fit and lean in the past and are trying to return to this state. Their metabolism is not as flexible as it once was; again, the analogy of the frozen rubber band applies. What happens to a rubber band that is frozen when you stretch it? It pops, doesn’t it? This is similar to what happens with the metabolism. There’s a consequence in pushing an inflexible metabolism too hard all at once.
Someone who’s already training has primed their metabolism and kept it flexible. Being consistent with diet and exercise habits will make the metabolism more flexible, and malleable. The less active and adherent to dietary principles a person is, it becomes an entirely different discussion because metabolisms are individual and do not react the same in all people. As a general rule, the “healthier” the habits, the more flexible the metabolism; while, the less “healthy” habits tend toward an inflexible metabolism.
With this concept in mind, the folly in what most people do, as they move into either stressful scenario, can be realized. Sitting on the couch, eating Doritos as a habit causes the metabolism to adapt, react and look for homeostasis. Mechanisms like storing fat or developing inflammation are metabolic reactions that can be detrimental. These types of “negative” reactions by the metabolism are actually protective.
This idea creates confusion and people ask, “What? How are they protective?” If, for example, the body does not store all that fat away, and does not increase systemic inflammation to a degree, the consequence is, rather than dying in 40 years from a heart attack, death comes in one year in the form of an aneurysm, or such an immediate buildup of plaque on the arteries that the body can’t sustain it.
Keep in mind that the metabolism is intelligent to a degree; it is constantly seeking homeostasis. Getting back to the couch potato scenario, sitting around, not moving and eating whatever you want is stressful and not healthy. What most people do is, take their metabolism from one stressful scenario, the couch potato, to another stressful scenario, dieting. Essentially, going from eating more and not exercising to barely eating and exercising like a madman. These extremes do not work for the metabolism, and research shows that more than 95% of people who try this approach either fail outright, or regain all the weight plus more.
The question becomes, “How do we deal with this?” Consequently, this isn’t just for overweight people. This is for people who’ve: had injuries, had children, or taken some time off. When re-engaging with health and fitness, the understanding must be that we cannot go from point A to point Z in one leap, but rather from point A to point F then point M to U and then to point Z.
Typically, for the metabolism, this process looks very much like a slow re-engagement into movement. Instead of going from no exercise to forcing exercise 5 to 6 times a week, it should look more like, going from no exercise to exercising two to three days per week. Another scenario is to go from zero movement to taking relaxing walks rather than doing an intense exercise. In other words, sitting on the couch is point A, relaxing walking point F; this is better for the metabolism than jumping to intense exercise, point Z.
What I am advocating is that people, who are trying to reengage or engage for the first time, do not take themselves from zero exercise and a plethora of food to a multitude of exercise and barren food. This is unnecessary stress for your body; instead, ease into it.
Nutrition & Overtraining
Nutrition, on the other hand, is a bit more counterintuitive. Most couch potatoes are eating all of time, as we live in a very snack-based world. Common routines are either eating very big meals infrequently or eating lots of small frequent meals.
Either scenario, of following the breakfast, lunch, dinner paradigm of three big meals a day or the “snack all day” model, creates havoc for the metabolism when it changes to three tiny meals or excessive calorie reduction. Such rapid changes are actually very stressful for the metabolism. The metabolism is forced from a place of insulin resistance and higher blood sugars and it can feel like: “Whoa! What happened to my fuel reserves?”
This is why we can get headaches and develop binging behaviors. When breakfast is scarce, because we’re on a diet, and we willpower our way through and have a little lunch, we inevitably end up binging at night, or what I call “the continuous dinner.” We get home from work, and eat from 5 to 11:00pm, or maybe it looks like this: We make it a week, and then because of a week or two of white-knuckling it, we end up spending a month in binge eating mode. These are the natural compensatory mechanisms of the metabolism at play.
People who are prone to this or similar behaviors are likely going to benefit from the nutritional approach of frequently eating small fiber and protein-rich snacks. This model regulates blood sugar levels in such a way that the compensatory symptoms previously described are less likely to occur.
This aspect of compensatory symptoms is confusing because certainly, a healthy metabolism should be able to sustain us without food for longer periods of time. A healthy metabolism should not only be able to maintain us between breakfast and lunch, but lunch and dinner without excessive hunger and cravings. A truly healthy metabolism should even be able to go all day without having huge amounts of binge eating behavior.
The three-meal structure of today is, in fact, just that: a modern-day construct and concept. It’s not something with which we, humans, evolved. In fact, what we know from anthropological data and studying modern-day hunter-gatherer tribes, is that most of these people ate or eat very sparsely, if nothing at all, during the day and have bigger meals toward the end of the day, after the hunt or the gathering process has occurred.
Theoretically, a healthy metabolism would behave similarly. Again, the mistake is jumping right into the “ideal” routine or lifestyle. The metabolism needs to be trained slowly, over time. What I have found effective clinically is small, frequent eating in the beginning; a point A to F. From there, going to maybe three square meals a day or point F to S, let’s say. Then progressively adapting things like intermittent fasting or a one meal a day as an end result. Thus, helping your metabolism adjust and ease into a new regime or lifestyle.
What I’m trying to illustrate is, we have the wrong idea in how we think about these things. Is it true that, some people who have been sitting on the couch doing nothing but eating Doritos and not exercising, can all of a sudden go to exercising more and eating less and get results without a downside? Absolutely, there are people like that. But it is a mistake to assume this means everyone will have the same results. Just because some metabolisms can tolerate and do well with extremes does not mean everyone’s will. Most of my clinical experience suggests that people don’t do well with this approach. The vast majority of people will need to ease into lifestyle changes.
The concept we need to remember is that the metabolism is both flexible and inflexible. A body in motion tends to create a metabolism that is more flexible. A body that is accustomed to dealing with an inconsistent food supply, or fuel source, will be more adapted to handle change. Again, remember that flexible rubber band. Correspondingly, an inflexible, static body at rest tends to create a similar metabolism, one of inflexibility. A metabolism that is eating three huge meals a day or snacking constantly has also created an inflexible metabolism; i.e. the frozen rubber band.
If the goal is transforming an inflexible metabolism to one that is more flexible and athletic-like, a strategy that walks along a process rather than jumping immediately into a protocol is the best option. This method greatly amplifies the probability of success. Immediate immersion of someone else’s program is why dieting failure rates are so high. Changing the metabolism in gradual steps greatly increases success.
My final rumination is about Metabolic Effect, my company, ME is the acronym. Interpretation: it’s all about me, ME meaning you, which imparts that the process is one of individualism. Sure, there are converted couch potatoes who skip right into “Rich Froning mode,” and have little consequence, but this is not the norm. There are a multitude of variations and we need to honor our own process.