In the last few years, there has been a troubling corresponding scenario developing: metabolic damage. Dieting and training can actually make you fat long term if done improperly and to extremes. I used to see this to some extent in females in general, but now with the figure & bodybuilding competition boom as well as just trying to look good naked, it's becoming almost an epidemic. It's time someone pointed this out, and also time to search for solutions.
The problem is that for several years after a contest prep or drastic diet that was ill-advised, the body responds in ways to prevent the situation from ever happening again. While it takes some time for the body to reprogram itself like this, there is also immediate, resultant metabolic damage from undertaking poor diet and training strategies. The result is that within one to two years after a drastic diet or post-contest a previously cooperative metabolism starts to malfunctions, or shuts off completely. This sets off negative hormonal events, as well as various potential metabolic dysfunctions, one of which I will discuss.
The bottom line is that the individual gets fat and fatter still, even on controlled calories and carbohydrates. Should this person desire to lose weight again or compete, he or she will likely be prescribed even more cardio and caloric restriction.
Anyone who has ever heard me talk knows the dangers of absolute caloric deprivation. Combined with more exercise, this leads to eventual metabolic stress and dysfunction. The result is that within a few years, women and men are out of the sport and getting fatter and fatter each year, even though they stay on consistent diet and training protocols. Think of those "before and after" pictures in reverse!
Recent discussions with colleagues and their own observations and feedback from other colleagues reveal I am not the only one noticing this pattern. The saddest part of it is that the individuals who usually must endure the most to get contest ready are the ones who will suffer more from metabolic damage in the near future.
One of the problems up to now has been that it goes relatively undiagnosed when taken to a physician. Blood tests reveal that everything is normal, but as a practicing professional, I know for these clients everything is anything but normal. Staying on a properly controlled diet, and a training protocol and still gaining weight, fat, bloating, or cellulite is not normal and is indicative of a problem. The most contentious issue is that there is no observable evidence.
So doctors who know little about training adaptations and effects send these individuals away telling them all is normal and nothing is wrong, yet all other evidence points to the contrary. One of the existing manifestations of this is now illustrated in Wilson's low temperature syndrome.
Here is one of the problems: we now know that many things can screw up or otherwise distort this process even though it would not show up on blood tests. The first thing is just general hypothalamic burnout.
Too much stress on this gland for too long and it just does not function as efficiently. Next is what we now call Wilson's Low Temperature Syndrome. The whole T4 to T3 conversion is affected by many variables; the top ones being stress, diet or fasting, illness, and increased cortisol levels. Well, right away that calls to mind the people I see with metabolic damage, who have both over-stressed their systems physically and usually mentally, while dieting, as well as being on absolute caloric deprivation for far too long.
So the really sinister thing about Wilson's Low Body Temperature Syndrome is that it doesn't show up on a blood test at all. Individuals can suffer all the symptoms of low thyroid function, but still show normal thyroid on a blood test. This means that they will gain weight easily even while dieting, and will suffer fatigue, irritability and other symptoms.
This is just one way metabolic damage can manifest itself after a disastrous contest approach and too long on a caloric depletion diet, with too much macro nutrient deprivation for far too long. Sometimes it seems that the ones who bust their ass the most are the ones who suffer the most, and competing in one show after another only exacerbates the issue.
This can also develop in other situations. For example, ladies who diet for their weddings for far too long often end up with the same bad metabolic response over time. So when a woman suddenly puts on a ton of weight after the wedding, it's not always simply the case of her eating habits changing: the metabolic damage ensued as a post-diet, stress response to the wedding itself. Surely, lots of women find their weddings mentally and emotionally stressful: at least as stressful as a figure competition.
I have seen and have several clients who formerly got bad advice and prepared for their contests with a "win at all costs" mentality that is now hurting them long term. Ladies and gentlemen too, you need to start choosing your coaches and trainers more wisely. Going to extremes of 2 of hours cardio per day, plus training, plus over-dieting, may get you to the winner's circle at level 1 or 2 or make you look good for a short time, but at what cost to you?
One of the reasons I got into the whole Metabolic Power/Metabolic Training business was to try to find ways around these other potentially damaging pre- contest protocols. And the Cycle Diet also explains how to prevent the effects of absolute caloric deprivation, from destroying your metabolism long term. I hope anyone reading this is paying close attention and will forward this to any other individual they know who are dieting for a show or anything else and may be doing damage to themselves. If your nails are brittle, and your hair is falling out, these are warning signs. Please heed them.
I feel sorry when I see competitors at events damaging themselves for a bit of glory. Some are born to do it, others struggled like hell to get up there, and unknowingly (and usually by actually being coached) have set themselves up for a one-way ticket to Fatsville.
All kinds of medical literature exists about the "natural protective mechanism" of BMR downgrade from dieting. However, medical literature also indicates that when prolonged or frequent dieting occurs, such BMR adjustment may be permanent! This would be a death knell for the "competitors," or anyone who would then start getting fat even on 800-900 calories per day. (Mount Sinai School of Medicine 1995: p297.) Therefore, repeated bouts of dieting and training to compete can permanently alter metabolism for the worst. If you have a coach/trainer pushing you to always compete, to "get your face out there," you may need to reconsider both the advice, and the advisor!
Unfortunately competition also seems to appeal to people who are least genetically suited to do it, thereby again increasing the odds of metabolic damage. It is a fact, although no one wants to admit it, that many active individuals just do not function well at very low levels of body fat. Many also cannot healthily achieve it, nor should they try. This is a reality no one seems to want to recognize.
Do not fall prey to cultural or coaching pressures in setting unrealistic body composition goals. Many who wish to alter their physique have unrealistic body images that they haven't the time, the ability, or genetics to achieve. Make sure guidance is based on what is best for you, and what is reasonable for you as well. If not, the road may lead to shortcuts that have long term adverse consequences.Once again warn anyone you know who may be damaging themselves by following crazy pre-contest rituals of ultra-low caloric intake and marathon cardio sessions. Both are unnecessary and ill-advised.
By Scott Abel