Recovering Your Metabolism: Do You Need to Increase Or Decrease Calories (Part II)

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We’re going to dive right back into Lucas Serwinki’s article on metabolic damage.  For those who missed Part I you can play catch up HERE.

There was some great discussion and commentary with part one, and I suspect the second half will be no different.


So, It’s the Carbs, Right?

I’ve actually been asked this exact sentence quite a few times and the answer is….sort of.  Or maybe.  Or it depends.  All terrible answers to someone who wants a yes or a no.

If you have significant weight to lose, as in obese and/or insulin resistant, then carbohydrates are not your friend at the moment.

But is it the chicken or the egg?

Did over-consuming carbohydrates get you to your current state or just over-consuming calories?  Science has actually found that obesity is more the culprit for insulin resistance rather than just carbohydrate consumption.  That means, being overweight can lead to having decreased insulin resistance, not the other way around.  Insulin resistance is ultimately an inflammation issue, and obesity causes LOTS of inflammation the way smoking, low-quality food and inactivity does.

So even if it was simply over eating total calories that got you into this predicament, you are ultimately faced with a decreased ability to tolerate carbohydrates, meaning they will most likely need to be reduced in order to restore metabolic function.

This is where it gets personal.

It is easy to say, “Drop the carbs, put your hands on your head and slowly face me”, when someone is slamming soda, cookies and chips.  In fact, I know someone who has lost nearly 100lbs just from switching from Coke to Diet Coke.  Now that’s a lot of soda and the poison is certainly in the dose.


What about the person who just eats one piece of Ezekiel bread at breakfast and a potato at dinner?  Are they going to go ketogenic?  Is that realistic and attainable for 99% of the population? This is where we need to look at someone’s food journal and see the following, as an example

Breakfast:  One slice Ezekiel bread, one whole egg, one egg white

Lunch:  Salad with no dressing, apple, 3oz chicken, black coffee

Snack:  palmful of almonds

Dinner:  3oz ground beef,(85/15) baked potato, green beans, glass of wine.

In individual components, the food choices in this diet are good, but it is often the food combinations, heavier reliance on non-protein foods and low calories that are prevalent in so many of the individuals I see.

Many people still seem to think fruit is the best weight loss food, most likely because it is so light on calories.  There are almost always not enough vegetables and WAY too little protein.

This is a sample meal plan that is nearly identical to some of the diets I see when clients have me review their food journals.  Just for the sake of accuracy and for some visual representation, here is the calorie and macronutrient breakdown of the above foods, as taken from Nutrition

Total Calories: 1177

Total Fat: 40.6 grams

Total Carbohydrates: 105 grams

Total Protein: 73 grams

Taken into context of Person B above (the leaner of the two above):

Basal Metabolic Rate 1561 calories

Daily Energy Expenditure from Exercise:  851 calories

Total Daily Calories Needed to Maintain Weight:  2420 calories

Again, simply crunching numbers, it would make logical sense that this person would be in a deficit of 1243 calories a day if they are exercising; but even a non-exercising individual would still be at 384 calorie a day deficit.

Now, don’t get me wrong, some people WILL lose weight this way and maybe they can ride it out long enough to make some progress, but we are really getting into the bottom end of calorie restriction here and it is not a fun place to be especially if you aren’t planning on doing some bodybuilding or figure competition.

Time and time again, though, this low calorie, low protein and commonly low-fat approach just doesn’t work, at least not for more than a few weeks.

Most of us aren’t super Type-A planners with ultra-adherence to life sweeping changes so I would not make all my recommendations at once.  In order though, I usually just try to get people to increase calories/protein in the following order, to make it mentally manageable and give the body time to adapt.

  1. Increase protein at breakfast
  2. Drink more water daily
  3. Increase protein to near 1g/lb bodyweight (adjust if they are very overweight)
  4. Replace starchy carbohydrates with more greens, cruciferous veggies and/or root veggies
  5. Increase fat as needed…..usually a tablespoon of oil or small palmful of nuts per meal
  6. Add in fish oil, minerals, multivitamin or specialty supplements only as needed, such as sleep aids, adaptogens etc.
  7. Introduce meal timing as needed depending on person.

This sequence isn’t a hard and fast rule, but if you give people about a week to adapt to each change, they end up systematically making all the necessary and  advantageous adaptations in what is a very simple and easy step by step process.

The reason I like increasing protein first only at breakfast is because people almost always instantly feel better (though that is a subjective term) and have better hunger management later in the day.


From there, they increase total water consumption, which can also result in a lot more energy and stress tolerance.

Once you are used to eating more protein at breakfast, it becomes a little more manageable to increase total protein because you have already experienced how great you feel on more protein at breakfast and it isn’t as scary to eat more total calories.

At this point, they have increased total daily calories and then we can start reducing them a bit just by switching starchy carbohydrates for cruciferous ones, which maintain fullness but at a lighter calorie load. 

If necessary, fat may, and often does, need to be increased for satiety and energy.  From there we may add in whatever small supplement change is needed to maximize overall health.  Meal timing may be discussed when a person is already relatively lean and following all the components above.

At the end of about a month, Person B may very well end up eating the following daily:

Total Calories: 1700

Total Fat: 92 grams

Total Carbohydrates: 75 grams

Total Protein:  135 grams

This person may even end up eating more than this on a daily basis, but it is a reasonable starting point, is actually way more food and fiber (from veggies) than before, doesn’t go too low with carbohydrates and is almost always more filling.

In fact, most people are surprised how much they are eating when following guidelines like this despite still being in a calorie deficit.  If this was a man, or just a larger person overall, you could easily expect the calories to be in the mid 2000s, which doesn’t feel like dieting at all…….which is the point.

My goal here would be to get someone to eat as many total daily calories possible while still losing or maintaining weight.  So, we may end up increasing someone’s portion sizes even a little more to find that spot where they are just below maintenance.

If we crept this person up to around 2000 calories a day and maintaining weight, then this is almost 900 calories more per day than they were eating before without gaining any bodyfat and having better energy, recovery and wiggle room to adjust diet as needed.

The reasoning for this ideal is that dropping calories too low results in significant decreases in total daily energy expenditure.  There is an adaptation that occurs when calories are dropped too low, too fast and acts as a protective mechanism to keep the body from burning too many total daily calories so as not to cut into necessary bodily functions.

One study in particular had subjects either reduce overall daily calories by

A. 25%,

B. Reduced to just below 1000 calories/day or

C. Reduced calories by only 12.5% but adding in weekly exercise.

With the very low calorie as well as the 25% reduction groups, there was a significant drop in total daily energy expenditure; 6% greater than would be expected even when factoring in fewer calories.  This means that the individual’s metabolisms had adapted to the sudden drop in calories by lowering the average amount of calories burned daily.

However, the group that only reduced calories by 12.5% but added in exercise actually saw a slight increase in total daily energy expenditure over baseline.  So, in addition to reducing calories enough to be burning bodyfat, the subjects still had an increase in total daily calories burned, furthering their fat loss.

In relation to Person B above, if we restored some metabolic function to get them eating 1700 calories a day and then decreased by 12.5% as in the study, and included exercise, they would STILL be eating more than they were at the onset.


There is quite a bit of research, number crunching and hypothesis to consider here.  However, studies back up the claims that low calories, low protein and inadequate hydration and nutrients really hinder your progress.  Furthermore, find me a person who wouldn’t want to heal their metabolism and improve their performance and fat loss by eating more and I’ll eat my size 13 shoe.

Getting healthy should always be the first goal.

If you had poor internal shoulder rotation and some impingement, you wouldn’t keep bench pressing to fix your shoulder, even if you wanted a bigger bench.

You’d need to take a step back, improve soft tissue quality, mobility and correct imbalances and then most often, performance improves after correcting these issues even without benching during the healing process.

No matter who you are, if you are at the point where your energy, performance and overall zeal for life has decreased I would encourage you to compare your dietary numbers to the recommendations above.  If you aren’t anywhere close to eating maintenance calories, protein or nutrients and feel and perform below expectations, then the answer may be taking some time away to get your metabolism back on track.

And yes, sometimes eating more is the answer.

Note from TG:  I think Lucas would agree that this is just the tip of the iceberg. For those interested if digging a little deeper into the rabbit hole on metabolic damage, I highly suggest checking out Leigh Peele’s Starve Mode.


Bray, G., Smith, S., et al. Effect of Dietary Protein Content on Weight Gain, Energy Expenditure, and Body Composition During Overeating. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2012. 307(1), 47-60.

Barr, S., Wright, J. Postprandial Energy Expenditure in Whole-Food and Processed-Food Meals: Implications for Daily Energy Expenditure. Food and Nutrition Research. July 2010. 2(54), 144-150.

Astrup, A., Pedersen, S. Is a Protein Calorie Better for Weight Control? American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012. 95, 535-536.

Danforth, Elliot., Horton, Edward S, O’connell, Maureen, Burger, Albert G, Ingbar, Syden H., Braverman, Lewis and  Vagenakis, Apostolo G.  Dietary Induced Alterations in Thyroid Hormone Metabolism during Overnutrition.

American Diabetes Association, New York, 15-17 June 1975 (Diabetes. 24: 406).

Leanne M. Redman, Leonie K. Heilbronn, Corby K. Martin, Lilian de Jonge, Donald A.    Williamson, James   P. Delany,  Metabolic and Behavioral Compensations in Response to    Caloric Restriction: Implications for the Maintenance of Weight Loss Published: February 09, 2009 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004377

 Author’s Bio

Lucas Serwinski is a Strength and Conditioning coach and nutritional consultant for athletes and weekend warriors alike. Lucas holds a Bachelor’s in Strength and Conditioning from UCONN as well as an Associate’s in Culinary Arts from NECI,and is currently coaching at Bodylogy Fitness Studio, located in Hamden, CT.

Lucas has interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, MA, worked on low-carbohydrate research for fat loss and health,and  trained and competed in powerlifting.

He extensively studies the roles of digestion, sleep, nutritional habits and homeopathic medicine to help people of all walks achieve greater health. Lucas has also worked in multiple award-winning restaurants, including Arrow’s which was named 14th best restaurant in the country by Food magazine. Lucas incorporates knowledge and skill from cooking experience into creating a comprehensive plan for those he works with. Lucas has also worked as a social worked for years and takes mental and emotional considerations into each person’s plan and goals for success.  You can visit his blog HERE.

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Comments for This Entry

  • maikajah

    Hey great article and really helpful. My girlfriend is experiencing the problem of being in a calorie deficit (sometimes more than 1000 calories) for one week and she even gained weight !I'm trying to convince her to increase calories but she is a little anxious as she thinks she will gain even more weight. Do you think it is possible that her body is already in starvation mode and that an increase in calories can help?

    March 9, 2014 at 7:32 am | Reply to this comment

    • Luke

      Hey, Maikajah. Since I don't know what her level of exercise is and how many calories she is taking in total, it is hard to say for sure. Is she training so hard that she is expending 3000 calories but eating 2000? Or is she only expending 2000 calories but eating 1000? Those two comparisons can make a difference, in my opinion. Her best bet may be to slowly increase her calories by maybe 150-250 per day and do that for a week. Then she can increase them another 150-250 at a time until she is eating a decent amount. I think a slow and steady approach like that will prevent any huge weight gain and give her metabolism some time to adjust to it. Check her macronutrient levels too, if she is really low in protein, fat or carbs she may need to slowly increase her calories through one of those means. Then, maybe have her add some brisk walking a couple times a week to stimulate the metabolism but not wreck her energy levels.

      March 12, 2014 at 5:55 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Krista

    This is a great article! Very informative yet easy to understand. I have been working with a trainer to fix my metabolism after 8-10 years of restricting/under eating/bouts of bulimia. Over the past six months I have been consistently weight lifting and slowly increasing my calories. I am a smaller (5'1) female and have gained over 10lbs (now 140) on this new plan. Doesn't seem like a whole lot but on my frame it feels like it, especially as many of my clothes fit tighter and I feel slightly 'squishy' overall. Do you think it's possible my body may take longer to adjust to the higher caloric intake before returning to normal? (And hopefully she'd those pounds/start to lean?) What are your thoughts on metabolic recovery for those that have suffered bulimia? Thanks again for such a great article, Lucas!

    March 9, 2014 at 8:44 am | Reply to this comment

    • Luke

      Hi krista! Thanks for the feedback and sharing with me. I don't have any science to say exactly how long it takes to recover your metabolism, especially after 8-10 years of restrictive eating. Your body may very well be so hungry for those calories that it wants to store them all in case more periods of restriction happen again. As i mentioned about protein, it is very metabolically beneficial to consume "enough" and not restrict it, especially for putting on muscle and not fat. I would not be surprised if you were still under-muscled.....most nutrition books will tell you the average person needs around 0.8g protein per kg of bodyweight. At 140lbs that is only 51 grams of protein and really low in my opinion. Fat gets a bad wrap too and is really important for sex hormone production, cell health, satiety and digestion as well as many other things. I think slow and steady here is the best bet if you are going to decrease calories at all. I would say your macron's should break down to maybe 30-40% protein, 30-40% fat and around 20-25% carbohydrates. You may tolerate carbs better than this but I'd rather start conservative and adjust from there. Check your total calories and see how the breakdown is now and compare it to my suggestions. From there, try to transition to the recommended amounts and then maybe reduce calories. You can email me with more info if you'd like at before diving into this.

      March 12, 2014 at 6:08 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    Lucas, i appreciate you "bringing it down" to the common man's level. This is a complex subject and you did an awesome job. I'm going to use your advice with my clients. Thank you.

    March 9, 2014 at 4:10 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Andrea

    what does the meal plan for person B look like?

    March 12, 2014 at 8:38 am | Reply to this comment

    • Luke

      Andrea, do you mean how would the meals break down as far as timing and amounts per meal are concerned? If someone had gained a lot of excess bodyfat and currently did not have great insulin sensitivity, I would try to get the bulk of their carbohydrates through veggies at each meal and let them make up the remainder in just one meal per day....preferable later in the day or evening. Otherwise, to start I would just break up their protein and fat about evenly in 3, 4 or 5 meals (whatever they prefer) that they eat. They could consume unlimited greens, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini and other low-starch veggies at each meal. Then just get a single serving of starchier carbs like potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash or quinoa (etc) in just one meal later in the day. If they don't handle carbs well and don't have great insulin sensitivity, I'd rather have them limit their starchy carb feedings to a small window rather than stimulating insulin all day. I know protein, lactose, whey and amino acids/leucine all spike insulin but a meal of ground beef, coconut oil, spinach and broccoli is going to induce much less blood sugar issues than throwing a cup of rice in there. Person B would probably eat about 30-35 grams protein each meal, 20-25 grams fat plus lots of veggies. Then add half a sweet potato, cup of squash, 1 cup quinoa etc at dinner/later in the day to meal 3 or 4.

      March 12, 2014 at 6:21 pm | Reply to this comment

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