Weight Loss and Slow Metabolism Syndrome

Is a slow metabolism stopping you from losing weight?

Posted Mar 18, 2019

Is "Slow Metabolism Syndrome" preventing you from losing weight? 

In one of the weight loss groups my business partner has belonged to over the years there was this one guy (let's call him Joe) he distinctly remembers.  Joe was BIG, only 5' 6" but 275 pounds, and even though Joe did everything right, he couldn't lose weight.  Every meeting they’d go over his food journal (which he kept meticulously) and every time he reported eating EXACTLY according to plan.  Joe was also exercising 4-5 times a week, verified by the group moderator who did her daily walks in the same park where he rode his bike.

The moderator started him on a 2,200 calories/day plan.  Then took him down to 2,000, then to 1,800.  At which point, he should've been losing several pounds a week, but he didn't shed a single one.  Finally, the moderator recommended he test his metabolic rate, and Joe happily obliged (even though the test was expensive).

And, NOTHING!  Joe's metabolism was apparently perfectly normal.  The group was heavily invested in Joe's weight loss at this point so they went through his food journal with him line by line.  My business partner kept asking him "Are you sure you didn't eat more?  Are you SURE?"

Then Joe blurted out "Well, I guess I might've put more peanut butter on the toast than I should have."   The room went silent.  There was no peanut butter anywhere on the food plan!  And it turned out that “a little peanut butter” wasn’t the only “little cheat” Joe was indulging in.  In fact, Joe had been overeating the whole time, but he figured it "didn't count" because it was just "a little something extra" which he therefore kept secret.

Well, there's another secret I'd like to share.  Perhaps the real secret to weight loss.  See, the secret ingredient to success is not the super-special-amazing diet you choose, it's your ability to follow it!

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as a slow metabolism, but by far my experience with clients is that they’re eating more than they think.  So before you diagnose yourself with the slow metabolism curse, methodically go through what you are eating with the idea that everything counts.  

Your reptilian brain desperately wants to convince you that a little of this and a little of that doesn’t matter, but it really does, because even an extra 120 calories per day adds up to about a pound each month, or 12 pounds per year.  And even just 60 calories/day (1/2 pound per month) mounts the fat on your waist, thighs, or hips when you consider its sustained month after month after month. At the very least it can stop you from losing weight.

But suppose you do have a slow metabolism.  Sometimes it actually is the case!  Here are some legitimate factors to consider changing with the advice of your doctor and/or licensed dietitian:

  • All calories are not equal.  There’s research which indicates, for example, that a higher percentage of calories from whole fruits and vegetables is burned as energy vs. stored as fat.  Empty calories are more likely to get deposited on your body.  Moreover, if your diet is replete with empty calories, your body is somewhat malnourished, and it only makes sense that it would want to hold onto reserves because you’re signaling it that enough nutrients aren’t consistently available.
  • Certain medications can slow your metabolism: Ask your doctor if your antidepressants, diabetes medication, steroids, and/or hormone therapy might be the culprit and see if (s)he might be willing to adjust them to help with weight loss.  Don’t take it on yourself to do this please, however, as this can be dangerous.  And sometimes just changing the time of day you take your medication can help.
  • Hypothyroidism and other health conditions:  Your thyroid isn’t the only authentic health condition which could be slowing your metabolism.  Check with your doctor. 
  • Over-restriction:  Eating too little can actually slow your metabolism.  Going through periods of severe caloric and/or nutritional deficits signals the body it’s got to make do with less.  It only makes sense.  Between this and the fact that for binge eaters in particular, going through the “famine” part of the feast and famine cycle seems to tell the brain that as soon as food is genuinely available (e.g. you break your diet even a little bit) it should hoard all it can because it never knows when the next famine is coming.   

    For this reason, I find the solution for binge eaters is regular, sustained nutrition throughout the day, day in and day out, at a small caloric deficit, NOT fasting or even intermittent fasting...at least not for the first six months to a year that they are recovering from overeating.  Once you’re solidly on your plan and approaching your goal weight I do understand there are medical benefits to fasting, etc.  But binge eaters don’t seem to have the capacity to go through these periods without a rebound binge that does even more damage – at least not in my experience with them.
  • It’s Too Warm Where You Live:  In the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism several respected researchers reported that a small reduction in ambient temperature at night could as much as double the activity of brown adipose tissue, a type of fat which burns calories rather than stores them. “Brown fat becomes more active in cooler temperatures to help keep us warm,” explains Aaron Cypess, an endocrinologist. He suggests you turn down the heat, sleep in cooler temperatures, and spend more time outdoors. 
  • Lack of Exercise:  If you don’t exercise you create conditions which are more likely to allow fat to build up in your body.  Regular exercise, and particularly aerobic interval training, seems to boost metabolism. 
  • Not Drinking Enough Water:  If you don’t drink enough water the odds are the liquids you are drinking may be filled with empty calories, which in turn slow your metabolism (see above). 
  • Not Getting Enough Sleep:  Less than sufficient sleep has been shown to increase levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin while reducing levels of the fullness hormone leptin.  It also increases cortisol levels which can cause you to store more fat.  Gotta get your Zzzzs!

I hope that helps.  For more practical tips, tricks, and a video overview of the system I've developed to help permanently overcome overeating, please see this Psychology Today blog article


Davy, B.M, Dennis, E.A., Dengo, A.L, Wilson, K.L., and Davy, K.P.  (2008).  Water consumption reduces energy intake at a breakfast meal in obese older adults.  Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Jul;108(7):1236-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2008.04.013  

Kong Y. Chen Robert J. Brychta Joyce D. Linderman Sheila Smith Amber CourvilleWilliam Dieckmann Peter Herscovitch Corina M. Millo Alan Remaley Paul Lee, Francesco S. Celi (2013).  Brown Fat Activation Mediates Cold-Induced Thermogenesis in Adult Humans in Response to a Mild Decrease in Ambient Temperature.  The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 98, Issue 7, 1 July 2013, Pages E1218–E1223

Stodard, G. (2018, November).  Changing Your Metabolism Isn’t Complicated or Mysterious.  [Blog post] Retrieved from https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/mbya73/changing-your-metabolism-isnt-complicated-or-mysterious