Select Page

Of Course Metabolic Damage Exists: Part 2, A Reply to Critics


Hopefully you have had time to read Part 1 of my response to the idea, currently in vogue, that “metabolic damage doesn’t exist.”

If you watched Dr. Schwarzbein’s excellent lectures you should understand a bit more about metabolic damage and how it plays out. Dr. Schwarzbein explained some of it this way: yes, hormones regulate metabolism. When metabolic dysregulation occurs — as in the circumstances we are outlining here and calling “metabolic damage” — then hormonal disruption and obstruction and biochemical chaos take place as a result. Because the hormones that regulate metabolism are obstructed or disrupted, energy metabolism and metabolic and hormonal balance suffer as well, in a kind of negative feedback loop scenario. This is substantiated science.

I refer back to Part 1 for more on that, but here in Part 2 I would like to get to my own observations regarding some critiques that were made of my updated book Metabolic Damage.

On Chauvinism

First, there seems to be an element of chauvinism involved here — sometimes unintentional, sometimes not. From what I’ve seen, most experts who claim that metabolic damage doesn’t exist… seem to be males. Metabolic damage from dieting and getting to unnatural levels of leanness that thwart metabolism is primarily a female issue in the fitness industry.

This reminds me of Tom Cruise flippantly publicly admonishing Brooke Shields for saying she took anti-depressants during a serious period of post-partum depression. (At the time, other insinuations were also made along the lines that post-partum depression didn’t “really” exist either.)

The current industry position that metabolic damage doesn’t exist reminds me of the same kind of thing — men questioning the reality of a scenario that mostly affects women. This is more true, I’d note, amongst the followers rather than the experts that are out there. Theoretically, any expert coach should have at least some experience with his female clients. But the followers who just parrot what they’re told? What experience do they have beyond themselves?

Let the Record Show…

The position that metabolic damage “doesn’t exist” is an insult to anyone suffering from real metabolic damage right now. You’re suggesting that they are lying about what they eat, and/or they are undisciplined with diet and training. This is lazy scapegoating to the nth degree. Anyone who’s been in this industry as a coach has probably seen the symptoms of metabolic damage manifesting. You can’t dismiss all of these cases as “Well, they’re lying/exaggerating/making it up.”

Let me be clear here, because this is important: some of the clients I have Coached with real metabolic damage are some the most committed, the most disciplined and most regimented hard workers you will ever meet.

In fact, it’s these very elements of their character that got them into metabolic trouble to begin with. Think about it: they trusted their past prep guru or whoever and they stuck to ill-advised diets and training because they are the kind of people who don’t give up and who see things through to the end. They are committed and disciplined. I have had such clients and they would eat wood if I told them to.

To suggest that these people are just making it up, or that they have just suddenly completely changed their character and weirdly all-of-a-sudden have become lazy and undisciplined and are lying about their food intake — well, it’s insulting to say the least. This is doubly the case when it comes from men with no experience at all with this stuff, and the ignorance and offensiveness notch gets raised to the nth degree.

On Dogma and the Fitness Industry

If you followed Part 1 of my rebuttal and you listened to Dr. Schwarzbein’s lectures then maybe you get a glimpse of understanding the importance of going outside the “fitness and diet industry” opinion factory, to true academia if you truly want to learn about an issue. Also, learning about an issue is much different than finding out what the current vogue opinion is about it and then falling in line.

In real academic inquiry, NO ONE has the first and last and only say on any line of inquiry. An expert merely has an informed opinion about it. Real experts would be more than comfortable with this point. It’s always their followers who don’t get it. I’ll get to that but let me give you a couple of examples here:

Example 1: Paleo

The fad-diet Paleo nonsense first came about the usual way. Make some points, misrepresent some research, and use marketing to get consumers and followers to fall in line and “believe.” As usual with fad diets, this formula works for a while. But then here is what unfolded: actual paleontologists heard about this “Paleo Diet.” They went to investigate it—and at first this was not even necessarily to critique it or debunk it. As experts they were interested, and thought they could learn from it. But when they go and look into it, they see it is fraught with mistakes and bad research and leaps in logic that just aren’t true. It starts with some Paleo academics speaking out and saying, “Look, I’m not a diet expert, but the Paleo side of this Paleo diet just plain isn’t true.” Simple and to the point. Eventually academic nutritionists looked at it and started in on the critique as well. You have to look outside of industry opinion to learn beyond the vogue trends that are presented and marketed as truth.

Example 2: Vitamin Supplements

Here’s another example. Inside the fitness industry, you would be hard-pressed to find any experts who do not believe in vitamin supplements of various kinds. Well, I am one of these experts — I don’t believe in vitamin supplementation.

But when you look outside the industry to the more objective research, you find academics — ones just searching for the truth and with no personal bias — who point to the uselessness of supplements as a complete waste of money, or worse, as actually compromising health. There are researchers who have studied vitamins and supplements for their whole careers, sometimes for 50+ years, and they see no value and even possible danger in vitamin supplementation. Some of their research is mentioned in David Lightsey’s Muscles, Speed, and Lies, Dan Hurley’s Natural Causes, and Paul A. Offit’s Do You Believe in Magic, to name just a few recent books.

In the fitness industry, though, followers tend to attack the messenger when they don’t like the message. Such attacks don’t change the science. Generally speaking, pure academics don’t have an army of followers on social media. They don’t play the online popularity game. But their educations at Harvard and other reputable institutions as professors and as writers of some of the best textbooks ever written on nutrition doesn’t dampen the attacks that get heaped on them. That’s ridiculous.

I also think supplements are useless and dangerous. I don’t take any form of vitamins. I follow the research of people who are truly in the know in this area. I deliberately seek them out. Note that I deliberately do not follow fitness-industry pundits on this subject either, because experience has taught me they have a bias toward seeing what they want to see.

On Respecting Real Experts

Let me be clear about this as well. It’s not necessarily the industry gurus themselves, but their sheeple followers who turn internet following into “tribal” membership and conflict, which is silly. There’s a helluva a lot more to being informed then being told what to think. Followers of some industry expert start to care less about what is being said, and care more about who is saying it. That is not scientific inquiry or a thirst to learn. It’s just plain old perception bias.

When I re-released the Metabolic Damage book I got a bunch of comments from “flocking followers” on my Facebook page and elsewhere. The notion was that Layne Norton admitted metabolic damage doesn’t exist, and therefore that was the end of it.

First, let me say this: I take true expertise seriously, and I can count on two hands those who I consider to be real experts in nutrition and fitness. Layne Norton is one of them. I have a huge amount of respect for him. He has both the academic background, and he has real-world proven experience in the trenches. That goes a long, long way with me.

But that also doesn’t mean I am not allowed to disagree with him on some things. I put my own decades of experience and research acumen up there with anyone’s, and I don’t kowtow to any single expert for their opinion on topics like metabolic damage. Again, I look at research outside the industry. I look at my own experiences with clients. And from what I’ve seen, Layne Norton and I say more things in agreement than we do things that contradict each other, at least in regards to metabolic damage, although we may use a different vocab in our arguments.

I can respect Layne Norton as an expert, and consider myself as an expert, yet still disagree with him on some things.

Like I said, the problem is with the followers, not the leaders. More often than not, the real experts have meagre digital followers (e.g. academics). They are too engulfed in their pursuit of science and the truth. (Dr. Layne Norton is an expert and has a huge following; he is an exception.) Look at the number of Youtube views for Dr. Schwarzbein’s lectures I provided in Part 1. Not a lot by industry guru standards, but the quality far exceeds that of so many others.

On Non-Expert Trainers

Let me move away from that for a minute and get specific about some “followers” who present themselves as experts or Coaches: What I am driving at above and right here is that you need to get away from the opinions of people who have a vested interest in selling dogma one way or another: What I am talking about here is Coach/Trainer Bias when it comes to metabolic damage and the idiotic statement that “metabolic damage doesn’t exist.”

Listen, there are absolutely brutal, uneducated, imbecile trainers and contest-prep Coaches out there who use “metabolic damage doesn’t exist” as a way to wipe their hands clean and not be held accountable for the consequences their contest diets cause. You see silly keto diets and endless cardio 6-7 days per week, and they make up the difference with pharmaceuticals, which causes even more damage in the form of hormonal chaos and obstruction. (Also, yes, as has been pointed out to me, Layne Norton has also pointed this out and lambasted contest prep coaches like this in his videos on metabolic damage. Before I get accused of anything: I’ve been saying these things since 2003.)

So on contest-day the clients of these irresponsible coaches “represent,” and then 6-8 months later, you know, when all internal hell breaks loose, well it’s the client’s fault for being undisciplined, because metabolic damage doesn’t exist. It’s ridiculous. This does nothing more than provide a very convenient “out” for these contest-prep morons. Denial, scapegoating and “blaming the victim” are better terms. Make no mistake, many of the contest-prep Gurus heralded at shows for producing champions are some of the worst people out there in producing a deluge of future suffering of metabolic damage.

Saying metabolic damage doesn’t exist is a green-light for such so-called Coaches to go on truly hurting a lot of people and never being held accountable. This makes me sick. They should be exposed for all the damage they do.

Semantics and “Metabolic Damage”

Back to actually discussion metabolic damage than the nature of expertise and biases. When I released the book, there were those that took issue with my use of the word “damage,” saying really I should talk about metabolic compensation or dysregulation, or I should really be talking about hormones or something. Okay, fair enough, but as you can see in Dr. Schwarzbein’s lecture, a clear expert in this area uses the term “damaged metabolism” over and over again, and she has reasons for doing so. These things are connected, and they do not exist in isolation.

Over ten years ago I initially used the word “damage” as a blanket, catch-all term to encapsulate any and all issues caused by dieting for too long or getting too lean for what that individual’s personal metabolic genetics could tolerate. The word “damage” was meant to denote and underline any undesired negative consequences occurring as a result of dieting too long, competing, or achieving an unnatural leanness that the individual’s body couldn’t handle and then reacted to in a negative and damaging way. This “damage” occurs over the long-term scale of time after the diet-undertaking or competing or whatever.

Critics want to quibble over the word “damage.” They also want to focus solely on the word “metabolism” as it relates to energy metabolism only. This is a myopic view. If you want to come at my for my terminology or use of the term damage, okay, fine. But you have to remember when I first started using the term “metabolic damage” back in early 2003, all these consequences of dieting and competition were coming at me from everywhere, with various levels and unique distinctions of “suffering” in the post-diet, post-competition period. The word “damage” just made sense, because it encapsulated all of it.

As a side note, let me also add here that experts in metabolism and the biology of weight-control have pointed out over and over again that the natural bodyfat disposition for females — that is, the bodyfat level that promotes hormonal balance and health — is about twice the bodyfat level of males. So for ladies to bring bodyfat down to levels resembling “lean men” who have also dieted down to get lean, means these women have usually taken their bodies to further extremes in this way, because it is simply unnatural relative to the female body’s natural preference. So of course it is understandable there would be more “compensatory reactions”  than you would typically see in men. Once again, saying it doesn’t exist at all is to not understand the issues involved on any deep level. Moreover, I would say that claiming “compensatory reactions,” “adaptations” or “mechanisms” are not “damage” is quibbling over semantics. Tell that to someone actually suffering; you’ll find the word “damage” resonates with them quite well.

Some experts prefer metabolic “adaptations” as the right word. The actual phrase being used in academia right now is “metabolic compensation system.” I also myself use words like metabolic resiliency (or lack thereof), metabolic genetic proclivities, compromised metabolism, and so on.

Two distinctions are important here: the term “metabolic” isn’t meant to be limited to just calorie use and efficiency in the post-diet period. The term “metabolic” here means that the issues begin in the metabolic context of diet, diets, and dieting, usually to accomplish an unnatural state of leanness. The long-term consequences of this – the actual damage if you will – extends beyond metabolic concerns only. All bodily systems are interconnected. The “damage” I refer to can be hormonal, metabolic, and/or biochemical in nature.

Here is what you need to embrace: unwanted long-term negative consequences from dieting to get unnaturally lean and/or losing weight too fast and/or from yo-yo dieting is “damaging” if those issues didn’t exist before the dieting began.

Here are a few of the more common examples:

  • If the person had a healthy thyroid before dieting and leaning out, but now has to be on thyroid meds for the rest of her life, then this is “damage” considering it wasn’t there before. (Hormonal obstruction, metabolic dysregulation.)
  • If the person had a normal menses cycles before dieting and leaning out, but now has no period, then this is “damage” considering it wasn’t there before. (Hormonal obstruction.)
  • In relation to the above, if the person now has to have fertility treatment or take other drugs to establish regular periods and/or to conceive, and there were no previous indicators of this issue before dieting to lean out, then this is “damage” considering it wasn’t there before. (Hormonal dysfunction.)
  • If the person suffers P.C.O.S. Now, but this condition wasn’t present before dieting to get lean, then this is “damage” considering it didn’t exist before the diet-undertaking. (Biochemical chaos, hormonal obstruction.)
  • If the person previously could lose fat and get lean on 1,500 calories per day, but now either can’t lose weight at this calorie level, or even gains fat at this level, then this is “damage” considering this wasn’t the case prior to dieting and leaning out. (Metabolic dysregulation, metabolic compensation or “adaptation” if you will. Also, it doesn’t matter if it’s affected only BMR or only NEAT or only energy burned during activity, or it’s a combination of these things.)
  • If the person had sound digestive health before the diet, but now has any of a myriad of constant digestive issues: cramping, bloating, constipation, increased food sensitivities, then this is “damage” considering none of it existed before the diet-undertaking. (More biochemical chaos and obstruction.)
  • If the person’s normal weight keeps climbing well past their initial pre-diet start weight and their bodyfat percentage keeps increasing along with the increased weight, then this is “damage” considering this scenario didn’t exist BEFORE the dieting to get lean period.  (Metabolic compensation, negative and undesired metabolic “adaptation” if you will; and internal biochemical and hormonal obstruction and chaos changing the body weight set point and the body fat disposition.)
  • If the person had normal blood sugar profiles before the dieting to get lean period, but now has wild blood sugar swings and may even require Type 2 diabetes meds to control blood sugar, then this is “damage” considering it didn’t exist before the diet undertaking. (This one’s actually more common in men, this is more “hormonal” obstruction and dysfunction.)
  • If the person had no issues with energy or fatigue before the dieting, but in the long-term after dieting and leaning out now has chronic fatigue syndrome, or related issues, then I would yet again consider this “damage” since it didn’t exist before the diet. (Hormonal chaos and metabolic dysregulation of energy metabolism.)
  • If the person had no issues of upper tract digestion previously to dieting to get lean, but after dieting and leaning out has chronic heartburn (esophageal reflux) then I would consider this to be “damage” since it is an unwanted negative condition that did not exist previously.

These are just some of the more common consequences experienced by those with less resilient metabolisms. The metabolic adaptations that ensue in the post-diet period are labelled as “damage” because they are unwanted, undesirable, negative effects that did not previously exist. These are all consequences of dieting supported by research.

To quibble over the words “metabolic” and “damage” is to miss the point. It starts in a metabolic context of diet and achieving an unnatural level of leanness beyond individual tolerance, and the long-term consequences of this that so many experience can be labeled “damage” if those consequences are negative, unwanted, and didn’t exist prior to the diet. The consequences don’t need to be limited to “metabolic” effects only. As I said, that view is myopic. The consequences are metabolic dysregulation, hormonal and biochemical obstruction and chaos, and likely other areas as well not previously considered.

I am keeping this to the physiological effects of “damage” right now. Arguments can be made regarding the tremendous psychological consequences, including but not limited to permanent eating and food issues that did not exist in the pre “diet to get lean” period. These ones in particular can be labelled “damage” because it may very well be that actual brain chemistry has changed in the post-diet period. This one requires more investigation, to my mind.

A lot of this reminds me of modern politics in terms of perspective: In politics and political agenda what we witness is that those people on the political right vs. and those people on the political left will look at the exact same facts and yet interpret them in entirely different ways. And a little bit of this is going here as well when it comes to the topic of metabolic damage.

Last point: On the claim that I am “scare mongering.”

One of the other critical and more asinine comments regarding my writing about metabolic damage is this notion that anyone using the term metabolic damage is “scare mongering.” Obviously I find this personally insulting. Anyone who knows me, knows I do my due diligence and research and if anything I am often the person calling out other industry practices for the same thing,  for example on things like cleanses and fearing carbs, or even food more generally.

To insinuate that anyone using the term “metabolic damage” is scare mongering for their own advantage is completely ridiculous. Is it “scare mongering” that health warnings are put on every package of cigarettes?

Now finally I will say this as a side note: of course there are always going to be some people who want to hide behind the label of “metabolic damage” and just be victims. However, it’s insulting to insinuate that therefore anyone who has experienced metabolic consequences from dieting and competing is just pretending and that these issues don’t really exist. I’ve dealt with droves of people with metabolic damage for over a decade now. To suggest I should now just abandon my real-world experience of this phenomenon just because others want to say it doesn’t exist makes no sense. I will take real-world tangible experience over esoteric arguments to the contrary any day.

I’ll sum up: of course metabolic damage exists. I pray you don’t have to find this out the hard way.

Some of you will get it; some of you will not. And of course, the attacks shall continue.