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

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Today’s guest post comes from personal trainer and strength coach Lucas Serwinski.  Some of you may remember his name from an excellent series of articles he wrote for my site last year titled How Did Your Food Live? Know the Health Behind Your Food Parts One and Two.

He did a bang-up job with that article, and given I don’t discuss nutrition nearly enough on this blog I felt inviting him back would be a welcome change of pace.


PS:  I also understand that this is a topic that MANY people are passionate about, and to give full disclosure this is NOT an area that I am an expert in.  Ie: I did not write the article.  Someone who has more experience on the topic did.

I understand that by posting it I’m “vouching” for it, but having said that, if it sparks some debate and conversation, fine.

Hopefully we can all get along….;o)

Recently I’ve been considering the path I’ve taken with my eating and how my calories and macronutrients have changed and increased or decreased so many times that it’s mind boggling.

With some influence from Layne Norton and John Berardi (always giving props)I’ve been delving back into the science concerning the adaptations our metabolism makes while increasing or decreasing calories.

Let me tell you right now, I can feel this article giving a Tolstoy novel a run for its money in length, but I think understanding that the relationship between our metabolism and necessary functions of our body are so heavily influenced by our diet is important to know.

Observationally, I’ve noticed ( and other coaches may tell you the same thing), that some diet approaches work best the first time and only the first time.

Some people respond the same to supplements.  They’ll take creatine for the first time, gain 10lbs and get stronger.  However, the next time they add it back into their regimen, nothing happens.  I find this approach work very similarly with low-carbohydrate diets, low calorie diets and the addition of excessive exercise.

Ask yourself what happened the first time you ever dropped your calories very low?  You probably lost a significant amount of weight, albeit some of it was probably water weight and muscle, but I bet some bodyfat came with it.

How about the first time you ever dropped your carbs way down, or went from no exercise to four-days of exercise a week?  These initial changes sometimes produce drastic and impressive results, but the momentum is usually short lived and such extreme waves in calories and exercise duration often produce the most inconsistent results.

Here’s a scenario comparing two women who both need to lose significant bodyfat.

They are both 5’2” but  Person A is 210 lbs and Person B is 180lbs.

Person A – Basal Metabolic Rate 1692calories

Daily Energy Expenditure from Exercise and Activity:  946 calories

Total Daily Calories Needed to maintain Weight:  2623 calories

Person B – Basal Metabolic Rate 1561 calories

Daily Energy Expenditure from Exercise:  851 calories

Total Daily Calories Needed to Maintain Weight:  2420 calories

Consider that Basal Metabolic Rate is just the energy it takes to keep you alive.  Energy expenditure is added on top of that to factor in exercise and daily activity.  These samples are merely hypothetical but are taken from the Harris-Benedict Equation and give you an idea of how two people of the same height, age and sex with different bodyweights “hypothetically” expend different amounts of energy.

Even if both people are overweight, we can assume Person B has less total bodyfat from Person A simply because they are 30 lbs lighter.  I would find it highly unusual, especially for a woman, to have 30 lbs more muscle than someone of similar height.

At 5’2” and 210lbs, Person A may very well be about 45% bodyfat.  Since Person B is significantly lighter but still considered “overweight”, she might be closer to 35% bodyfat.

Person A:  210lbs, 45% bodyfat =  115.5lbs lean body mass

Person B:  180lbs, 35% bodyfat =   117lbs lean body mass

Here’s where the above formula doesn’t really hold up.

Simply weighing more doesn’t mean you are expending more energy than someone who weighs less.

As noted above, person B is lighter but actually has slightly more muscle mass than person A who is heavier.  Consider that fat tissue has barely any mitochondria, unlike muscle cells which use mitochondria to burn nutrients.

So fat tissue is almost entirely inactive from an energy use perspective.

“Well, Luke….wouldn’t someone who weighs more have to exert more energy because they are carrying extra weight around?”. 

This would make sense if you think simply in terms of more weight equating to more energy expended.  However, fat tissue is all about efficiency.  It is highly calorie dense, doesn’t require much energy to stay on the body and even insulates against cold.

People with more bodyfat are simply more efficient with their energy than leaner people.  Muscle tissue is highly active and literally IS your metabolism.

In addition, individuals with significant bodyfat may even find it (and I note this observationally) harder to exert the same level of intensity during exercise, when similar muscle mass is taken into account.  Having a lot of bodyfat and not being well-trained just means its going to be hard to exert your full potential any time you exercise, making your total calorie expenditure, again, less than a leaner person with similar muscle mass.

Back to the Harris-Benedict Equation above.

I’ve seen many times people fitting the height and weight used in the above equation consuming much fewer calories than Person A and not losing weight.  Why?  Remember, there is a baseline number of calories you need daily just to maintain a healthy metabolism.

Add to that the stress of work, kids, commuting and then exercise and you have significant requirements for energy.

Cutting your calories too low doesn’t leave much wiggle room for intense weight training, jogging, gardening, making dinner for the family and anything else you do on a daily basis.

The body’s response is to down-regulate the amount of energy it needs by lowering thyroid (t3).  T3 activates mitochondria in your muscle cells and organs  to burn nutrients.  T4 is the inactive form of thyroid and is the majority of what your thyroid produces.  You rely on liver and kidney enzymes to convert T4 to T3, but if your body is over-stressed from dieting, excess cortisol can suppress thyroid stimulating hormone and decrease thyroid function.

Still following me here?  I didn’t lose you did I?

The two most disruptive changes to thyroid levels are first, reducing calories too low and second, reducing carbohydrates too low. 

A study on hypo and hyper caloric diets with different ratios of macronutrients showed that when calories stayed the same, but carbohydrates were replaced with fat, concentrations of T3 dropped significantly.  So, even if you don’t drop your calories too low, dropping carbohydrates too low can inhibit your metabolic functioning.

You’ll find people who reduce their calories too low are often less energetic, cold and don’t respond to stress very well.

Note from TG:  They’re also 10x more likely to scissor kick you in the face the second you eat a piece of bread in front of them. It’s science.

Maybe they exercise often and keep doing their normal life activities but at the cost of their metabolism.

I’ve seen real people such as Person A above who is exercising often and leading a busy life consuming less than 2000 calories a day. 

Hmmm….shouldn’t they be burning at least 623 calories a day from fat, leading to over one pound of fat lost a week? (3500 calories in a pound of fat).

Quite often, they don’t because their metabolism has adapted to such a low calorie diet that it won’t chance increasing energy expenditure for fear of burning through it’s precious energy stores.

Calories in and calories out work to a point, especially with a healthy metabolism.  However, with some metabolic issues, consuming more of the right calories might be the first step to losing weight.  If you’re already at rock-bottom with your calorie consumption and exercising often, you have only one caloric place to go:


What the First Step?

Here’s where things get personal.  That is, they need to be personally adapted per person, as just prescribing all encompassing recommendations rarely work for most people.

Even though calories count in total weight loss or gain equations, actually counting them is an exercise in futility. Furthermore, simple fixes need to be applied to most diets before getting obsessed with the details.  These usually are eating more protein, hydrating properly and getting enough vitamins and minerals.

Thermic Effect of Food

First off, each of the three macronutrients; protein, carbohydrates and fat require a certain percentage of their inherent calories to just be metabolized.  What’s the percent?

-Protein 20%

-Carbohydrates 5%

-Fat 5%

Right off the bat, consuming greater percentage of certain macronutrients directly affects how many calories are burned for digestion.

In one study, participants consumed either 5, 15 or 25% of their calories from protein, with each group consuming almost 1,000 calories a day OVER maintenance.

Each group gained  about 3.5 kg of fat over the course of the study,  but the high protein group actually gained 3.5 kg of muscle while the low protein group lost a kg of muscle.

In addition, the high protein group saw an 11% increase in their metabolic rate.  Researchers concluded while over eating, the low protein group turned about 90% of their excess calories to fat while the high protein group only turned about 50% of calories into fat.  Pretty cool.

Thermic Effect of Whole vs Processed Foods

Studies have shown that while consuming equal calories and macronutrients, whole food has a 50% greater thermic effect than processed foods.  The whole food groups in such studies had an increase in their metabolic rate hours after eating while the processed food group actually had a decrease in metabolic rate.


I’ve noted in past articles that a 2% decrease in bodyweight from water loss can have a 22% decrease in aerobic performance and 10% decrease in anaerobic performance.

Remember that your aerobic metabolism runs primarily on fat for fuel.  Inhibiting general aerobic performance by being dehydrated actually makes burning fat for fuel harder!  Dividing your bodyweight in half and consuming that many ounces a day in water is a good jumping off point.  Even more feedback-based is checking urine color.  Anything the color of hay/straw is good.  If your urine is dark, you are already dehydrated.

Vitamins and Minerals

This is certainly a tough one to tackle because to check if you are deficient in any vitamins, minerals or micronutrients you’d have to get a blood test.

You can do a dietary recall and plug it into an online database but that may not be as accurate.  Even for those of us who consume lots of greens and veggies, we most likely consume the same ones week in and week out, out of habit.

As a whole, many Americans are deficient is some of the most important nutrients.  86% of us are not meeting the RDA for Vitamin E, 68% for magnesium and 73% for calcium, just to name a few.  The RDA is quite conservative as well, so not even meeting their standards is pretty lame.

Vitamin E is the body’s most powerful antioxidant, more than C.  Magnesium is involved in hundreds of metabolic reactions and calcium is necessary for bone growth, blood clotting and nerve function (depolarization, anyone?).

Taking a chance on being deficient in just a few areas can lead to trouble, so a low-level multivitamin and mineral is probably a good idea.

Note from TG: And that’s it for part one.  In part two Lucas covers intervention strategies and numerous measures one can follow to help “recover” their metabolism.

And just to throw it out there, for those interested in reading more into the topic – it’s a doozy and something that affects more people than you think – I’d HIGHLY suggest checking out Leigh Peele’s excellent manual Starve Mode.

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

  • Complete Health News

    Can you tel me the foods that boot metabolism?

    March 5, 2014 at 11:53 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Børge Fagerli

    A couple of inaccuracies here: cortisol prevents t4 > t3 conversion, on a diet cortisol levels INCREASE, which is one of the regulatory mechanisms of lowered bioactive thyroid hormone levels that prevents weight/fat loss. HighER protein *might* be a good idea, just depends on how much you are already eating. As this study shows, going beyond 1.6-1.8g/kg (0.7-0.8g/lbs) of bodyweight per day might actually be detrimental as it lowers carb/fat intake at a given caloric level: Pasiakos SM, Cao JJ, Margolis LM, Sauter ER, Whigham LD, McClung JP, Rood JC, Carbone JW, Combs GF Jr, Young AJ. Effects of high-protein diets on fat-free mass and muscle protein synthesis following weight loss: a randomized controlled trial. FASEB J. 2013 Jun 5. [Epub ahead of print]

    March 6, 2014 at 2:58 am | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks for chiming in Borge - much appreciated!

      March 6, 2014 at 7:57 am | Reply to this comment

    • Luke

      Borge, thanks for the feedback. I appreciate the correction of the thyroid ultimate point was that high levels of stress can decrease thyroid output. I will make the correction to the article. The protein intake of most people I see and talk to is drastically low, much lower than 1.6-1.8g/kg. Sometimes the goal is to eat more specifically because it DOES lower their fat or carbohydrate intake, especially when they are eating too much of either. Yep, drinking too much water can cause hyponatremia, but I really really doubt the average person is going to over-consume water. The recommendation for urine the color of straw comes from Dr. Armstrong of UCONN, who has done an outstanding amount of research on fluid balance in regards to salt and electrolyte intake and his is a leading expert in that research. His preference is to use urine color as feedback.

      March 6, 2014 at 8:41 am | Reply to this comment

      • Luke

        Oh, one more thing. Excess cortisol can suppress TSH, which can suppress thyroid output. Either way, I'll make the changes. Thanks

        March 6, 2014 at 8:43 am | Reply to this comment

        • Børge Fagerli

          Yeah, I was just pointing out the cause-and-effect relationship, you specifically said that we rely on cortisol to convert t4 into t3, and that a diet will reduce stress hormones...when it is the exact opposite. Cortisol and glucocorticoids goes UP in a deficit, and it is very true that an increase in cortisol has a detrimental effect on both thyroid output and conversion into bioactive t3.

          March 6, 2014 at 8:55 am | Reply to this comment

          • Luke

            Yep, you were right and the change is being made. On the lowered cortisol front I was referring to the negative feedback loop in which excess cortisol prevents further release of CRH, but that loop can be broken with long-term stress. I have no problem admitting that it was not stress hormones but rather liver/kidney enzymes that convert t4 to t3 and I am glad you caught it right away so it can be fixed.

            March 6, 2014 at 9:22 am

      • Børge Fagerli

        Actually, I see the "average person" - at least when you look around a commercial gym, overconsuming water because of various reasons. And there is plenty of research and experts having the opposite view of Dr. Armstrong, e.g.

        March 6, 2014 at 8:53 am | Reply to this comment

        • Luke

          Sure, in athletes, measuring sweat rate is more accurate, as you can assign a specific amount of fluid to replace exactly what was lost during activity, but I see how thirst is more practical and regarded as safer. However, this wasn't meant for marathon runners and most of these over-hydration cases (from observation) seem to be during extreme exercise, not just day to day living and activity. Good point though, thank you.

          March 6, 2014 at 9:06 am | Reply to this comment

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    March 8, 2014 at 3:18 am | Reply to this comment

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