"My metabolism is so slow! I hardly eat anything but whatever I do eat goes straight to my belly, or turns into cellulite."
"I've dieted my whole life, but am at my highest weight EVER."
Sound familiar? Then read on...
Now if you know my work, you KNOW that I am a staunchly weight neutral, HAES-aligned practitioner. You can be healthy at a wide range of different body shapes and sizes. And needless to say, you are worthy of respect and love regardless of what you look like.
This article is for those who are undernourished, underfed and under-fuelled in some form or another, but may not even realise it. It's for those who don't eat enough or are dieting and want to know why it hasn't worked, why it may have even lead to more weight gain... and what to do about it.
Adrenaline & Cortisol - Your Stress Hormones
- You're a parent
- Your work schedule is hectic
- Commuting takes hours each day
- Study / family / other commitments take up all of your spare time
- You're dieting or have disordered eating patterns (diagnosed or not)
- You're not "weight loss dieting" but you are clean/paleo/keto/vegan - and you're going too hard
- You're over exercising, or not eating enough to meet your activity requirements
Whatever your reason is for under eating, there is a price to pay for under nourishing your body in both the short and long term.
If you're continually eating at irregular intervals, or not eating enough overall, your body interprets this as a FAMINE.
Whether you're unintentionally skipping meals because of a busy work schedule, or you're actively weight loss dieting - these are chronic and powerful stressors on the body.
Over time these stressors gradually impact your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and lead to increased levels of both adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is your short-term stress hormone. The increased adrenaline triggered by not nourishing your body regularly and adequately can contribute to that initial super focussed feeling, and eventually that "tired but wired" feeling. Adrenaline is an appetite suppressant - it can blunt hunger cues while you're at work or otherwise busy, until you're so hungry you feel like you could eat an entire fridge of food the minute you get home from work and relax a little. This explains many a late night binge.
Then there's cortisol, your long-term stress hormone.
Cortisol tells every cell of your body that food is scarce, and so to keep you alive it slows down your metabolic rate. A slower metabolism leads you to burn body fat for energy far more slowly than you have in the past, as cortisol is designed to make sure that you survive this perceived period of famine.
An underfed body raises both the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline to break down protein - usually from muscle - and sends it to your liver to turn it into usable sugar, a process called gluconeogenesis.
In this way, cortisol is catabolic, meaning it will break down muscle tissue to create more glucose for energy.
"But this is great, the body doesn't need carbs!" Not so fast, keto people. Gluconeogenesis is a stressful, inflammatory process. Your body doesn't like doing it. But your cells need a constant supply of glucose, and so if it has to break down muscle and organs to get that, it will.
The problem is, if you're not actually sweeping the savannah looking for food during this perceived famine and instead are sitting in front of a computer or driving a car all day, this newly created blood sugar doesn't get used. So what happens to mop up and deal with all that extra blood sugar?
Insulin Steps In
But over time, the catabolic signalling of cortisol may have broken some of your muscles down, so now there is less space for glucose storage. As a result, some of the blood glucose returns to the muscles that are left while the leftovers are converted into body fat, usually deposited around the mid-section.
Because your amazing body doesn't care about societally approved aesthetics or beauty ideals, it only cares about ensuring your survival.
This is how long term cortisol dominance leads to abdominal fat deposition. It goes to the belly because this is an easy place to access the stored energy, should food completely run out and your body needs to make its own energy to keep you alive.
Unfortunately, gaining abdominal fat will be interpreted by many folks - especially women - as a failure to adequately restrict their calories and further "proof" that they need to diet harder. And so the whole calorie-restriction, stress hormone secreting cascade is exacerbated, metabolism slows down even more, the body needs fewer and fewer calories to live off and excess energy is converted to fat... and the cycle continues.
The increased insulin secretion that occurs when too much cortisol floods the system for too long, can eventually lead to insulin resistance and dysregulated blood sugar metabolism. This is one of the ways that cellulite can appear, since where muscles once were, fat can now be deposited.
This is the process through which long-term stress can catabolise muscle, dysregulate blood sugar levels, and lead to Type 2 diabetes.
And remember, loss of muscle mass changes body composition as well as takes away one of the important the storage spaces your body uses for glucose. Increased muscle mass also increases insulin sensitivity (what you want!). This is one reason I'm such a fan of strength training to build and maintain muscle mass.
Slowed metabolism & thyroid abnormalities
With the kind of long-term restrictive eating that occurs in restrictive eating disorders or chronic dieting, thyroid functioning slows to a grinding halt. Energy is diverted away from non-essential functions such as digestion and reproductive hormone health, which is why many people who don't eat regularly enough or enough overall experience a variety of gastrointestinal issues (hello, constipation and food sensitivities), irregular menstrual cycles (females), or lowered sex drive (everyone).
I am a big fan of the "Rule of Threes". This is the only "rule" I will offer to my clients who are repairing their metabolism and relationship with food. Every day aim to:
- Eat three main meals, with all three macronutrients at each meal (carbohydrates, protein and fat),
- plus up to three snacks in between meals as you require,
- with no more than three hours (give or take) between eating episodes.
Providing your body with steady, regular nourishment every day, over time, will signal to your body that it is no longer in a famine, and there is no need to store extra body fat to survive. It is a powerful way of saying, "I've got you, body! Don't worry, I will take care of you."
There is one caveat: You may need to switch your focus from weight, to health. This journey is mentally harder than quick weight loss diets or continuing to automatically skip meals and neglect your body's needs for fuel, in that there are no guarantees as to where your weight will end up.
For some people, properly nourishing their bodies results in a fairly rapid relaxing of the nervous system and their body returns to a lower set point weight within a few months.
Other people need to spend a few years in a body that holds onto a bit more weight until their body decides it's finally safe enough to settle at a lower set point weight. This certainly happened after I underfed my body for many years - I spent a little while at a higher body weight before settling at my current body weight. Then there were pregnancies and breastfeeding years that required my set point to go up a bit, only to return to my set point once I weaned my second child.
The only way I was truly able to nourish my body properly through all these life changes was to stop making weight control my top priority, and instead to JUST EAT and feed my body the way it needed and deserved.
Finally, still other people will heal their metabolism, their hormones, and their mood swings with no change in body weight, or even an increase in weight especially if the years of dieting had forced their body weight under its natural set point.
There may be changes in body composition, or there may not be. But for many people who take this road of healing their metabolism and relationship with food, lowered inflammatory biomarkers, reduced stress levels, improved fertility and sex drive, controlled blood sugar levels, and a more optimistic outlook on life overall negate the need for any weight or body changes. Having their health back becomes so much more important than looking a certain way.