Can Dieting Make You Fat? A Look at Metabolic Burnout

There’s been numerous discussions online and we’ve heard the chatter offline about “Metabolic Burnout”. The blame game continues to be played with few players stepping up to take responsibility. We decided to consult with professionals to get their take on the matter and help shed some light on this hot topic.

What is Metabolic Burnout? Are you suffering from it? What causes it? The answers to those questions and more.


Can Dieting Make You Fat?
Metabolic Burnout is a recently popular term used by many women in the competition world.  It is known to occur due to the result of many years of abuse (stress, lack of sleep, prescription and over-the-counter medications, poor diet and exercise patterns) that cause your organ(s), most specifically the adrenal glands, pancreas or thyroid, to work less efficiently. Your internal balance is thrown off and the body struggles to bring itself back into equilibrium.  A few of the most common symptoms include: fatigue or inability to fall asleep, hunger and difficulty losing weight.

This controversial topic embodies the notion that if an individual drops below an intake of about 1400 calories/day (or perhaps 1200), the metabolism will “shut down” and he or she will “hold on to fat” and will not lose weight.  In addition, the extreme low calorie dieting then predisposes them to acquire even more body fat.  This debate underscores the large gap that exists in our understanding of basic physiological laws that govern the regulation of human body composition.  A striking example is the key role attributed to adipose (fat) cells as feedback signals between adipose tissue depletion as a consequence of dieting followed by increases in food intake.  A feedback loop between fat depletion and food intake cannot explain why individuals after dieting begin to overeat well after body fat has been restored to a normal level, and then continue to eat and cause “fat overshooting”. In order to address the credibility of dieting causing predisposition for increased fatness, this paper will examine both the physiological and psychological relationship between dieting and re-feeding.

The Metabolic Effects of Low Calorie Diets
A low calorie diet is a diet that contains between 900 and 1,300 calories a day, while a very low calorie diet has no more than 800 calories per day. Typically a very low calorie diet is for obese individuals on a short-term basis and monitored by a physician.  This type of chronic restrictive dieting may tend to decrease a person’s basal metabolic rate overtime. A study published in the 1987 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition was conducted over a six-month period to determine the effects of a low calorie diet, energy expenditure and resting metabolic rate. The 15 women who participated in the study had a reduction in basal metabolic rate in the last three months as well as a decrease in energy expenditure. Another study published in the 1991 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that the participants had a significant decrease in resting metabolic rate in the last two weeks of the three-week study.

As the results of these studies indicate, a low calorie diet may lead to an initial weight loss but could also cause a lowered metabolism that may not necessarily recover to its original levels even after increasing your calories back to a normal amount. So while you may drop a ton of weight fast by minimal calories a day, over time, your body will go into “starvation mode”, decreasing the amount of calories you burn at rest so as to conserve your body’s energy stores and prevent death. It may sound dramatic, but remember, our genes haven’t changed all that much since pre-historic times when death from starvation was commonplace.

Post Low Calorie Dieting and Fat Overshooting
It’s not that dieting makes you fat, but that being fat makes you more likely to diet!  Most competitors fall into this “Post Dieting – Fat Overshooting” category.  This is basically the process of losing body fat and then increasing food intake and decreasing energy expenditure to such an extreme that the person regains far more body weight than needed resulting in body fat overshooting.

The weight rebound that comes after the period of dieting apparently includes an overshoot in both increased appetite and fat gain. People seem driven to eat more than necessary to restore their normal weight, and they gain more body fat than they had prior to the beginning of the diet.

Psychological Causes for Post Dieting – Fat Overshooting
There have been countless psychological research studies concerning the most effective ways to maintain weight loss.  This research has proven that weight loss maintenance has not only a physiological component, but a psychological one as well.  Of course you do not want to attempt to maintain your contest weight and conditioning year round.  However, there is no need to find yourself in a weight loss and gain cycle due to behaviors, which cause you to re-gain all of the weight you worked so hard to lose.

As human beings, we are naturally goal oriented.  A research article published in the 2013 edition of Psychological Review outlines a common internal conflict in those concerned with their weight. This conflict exists between the desire to lose the weight and keep it off, versus the desire to enjoy food. Sports psychology research shows us that staying committed to a task-oriented goal is much easier than staying committed to an outcome based goal.  The goal to obtain a particular physique for a competition is task oriented in nature, and this task- oriented desire to obtain a stage-ready physique can often overrule the goal of food enjoyment and lead to weight loss success.  After a competition has ended, competitors no longer have the short-term, task oriented goal of obtaining a stage-ready physique to drive them to continue with their lifestyle modifications.  The goal associated with their food intake behavior then becomes outcome oriented in that it is not based on a specific event, rather it is based upon the broad outcome of not re-gaining the weight.  The less effective outcome specific goal mixed with an immediate short-term goal of food enjoyment can lead to a behavioral shift.  This shift can cause the individual to completely abandon all lifestyle modifications that led to their weight loss.  Without a task oriented physique goal in sight, this shift in goals can lead to weight gain, which often exceeds that in which they lost.

Research demonstrates that those who regain weight after losing weight during a period of dietary restraint, displays several common behavioral factors and personality traits.  In clinical trials cited in the 1997 and 1998 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology concerning individuals who experienced successful weight loss and then suffered subsequent gain, the following behaviors were observed; lack of attempt to restrain their eating, marked decrease in physical activity, an increase in television viewing, reports of marked hunger and eating due to depression.  Another very interesting and well-documented behavior found in those who regain weight, is that they often stop weighing themselves once they have reached their weight loss goal.  This statement is not advocating that obsession with the scale is healthy.  However, according to researchers at the University of Hertfordshire, those who were able to keep their weight loss over time found the ability to utilize the scale as a measure of behavioral restraint. These individuals found themselves able to modify their dietary behavior if they observed themselves regaining an abundance of the weight in which they had lost.  Those who were not able to maintain their weight loss were more likely to have either abandoned the scale all together or did not attempt to modify their behavior when observing an increase in bodyweight.

Researchers at Brown Medical School found that there are many baseline personality traits (personality traits observed before the dietary restraint began) to be associated with the regaining of weight after weight loss goal completion.  These factors included a higher baseline level of disinhibition in relation to desirable food, higher baseline levels of binge eating behavior, a self-reported inability to maintain unrelated lifestyle and behavior modifications and a history of yo-yo weight gain and loss.  This does not mean that individuals who possess these personality factors cannot be successful in maintaining weight loss.  Rather, it serves as an alert to these individuals that they must be conscious of their predisposed triggers, which may cause them to have difficulty in maintaining their weight once their weight loss goal has been achieved.

Following a diet that contains too few calories can have some very negative (and possibly permanent) effects on your metabolism and overall health. Not only is it impossible to meet your nutrient goals for the day, but chronic crash dieters or contest dieters are also shooting themselves in the foot in terms of weight loss by slowing their metabolism and thereby making it even more difficult to shed excess pounds in the long-term. In addition, you’ll be setting yourself up for nutritional deficiencies, which can have long-term complications (i.e. anemia, osteoporosis, etc.)

It seems as if those people who are claiming damage from dieting and competing most often “cheat” on their nutrition plans and then attempt to make up for it by increasing exercise duration and cutting back calories even further.  The even bigger issue is that many of these same people will gain 20-30 pounds (or more!) after their competitions by completely ceasing exercising and becoming a stranger to the gym for weeks or months! So when its contest time again they have even more weight to lose!

Competing in a sport based on obtaining a lean, tight, sculpted physique requires dietary restriction.  However, starving one’s self or resorting to extremely low calorie diets is not necessary to obtain a stage-ready physique.  By taking your time to lose the initial weight correctly, the final stages of your competition prep will not be as difficult.  In addition, having a strategy for success after you have left the stage is equally as important.  Honestly assess your personality traits in relation to the research demonstrated concerning those who have difficulty in maintaining weight loss success, and take the steps necessary to assist yourself in modifying your behavior.  Additionally, prepare for how you are going to maintain a majority of your weight loss after your task oriented competition goal has been completed.

This type of “yo-yo” weight loss makes losing weight more and more difficult over time.  In order to be successful and healthy throughout years of this sport, you MUST make this a lifestyle and live it 365 days a year.  Then it won’t be so difficult or dangerous when its time to prepare for a competition.  The intelligent choice is to remain within 5-7lbs (no more than 10lbs) of your contest weight year round.  This lifestyle choice makes competition training and nutrition easier and more enjoyable.  If you chose to be involved in this sport then you aspired to be fit and healthy so why would anyone allow herself to gain 20+ pounds of fat?  LIVE THE LIFESTYLE and be happy, healthy and fit forever!

Tracey C. Greenwood, PhD
Associate Professor of Exercise Science
Eastern University
IFBB Fitness Pro

Shannon Dey
M.S. Heath Education
Doctoral Candidate Sports Psychology
IFBB Fitness Pro

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Disclaimer: Reader discretion advised, please consult your physician before beginning any exercise or diet program.