“Metabolic Damage” and “Starvation Mode,” Debunked by Science


Key Takeaways

  1. “Metabolic damage” isn’t real, has never stopped someone from losing weight, and doesn’t need to be “fixed” with special diet techniques.
  2. “Starvation mode” is sort of real, but isn’t nearly as dramatic as many people think, and naturally resolves itself after you stop dieting.
  3. Keep reading to learn the real reasons weight loss slows and what you can do about them.

Have you ever experienced this before?

You’re doing everything right to lose weight . . . 

And at first, everything was going gangbusters. Your weight and waist size were dropping and your muscle definition was emerging like clockwork.

Then, the gears ground to a halt.

For no apparent reason, the scale stopped moving and your reflection in the mirror stopped changing. Determined to get the ball rolling again, you further cut your calories and increased your cardio.

It worked, of course, but then you got stuck again, feeling even more frazzled than before.

What to do? 

Is this just as far as your body will go? Have you reached its “set point”? Is a lower body fat percentage just not in your genetic cards?

Then, you hear about “starvation mode” and “metabolic damage.”

You find stories about people, typically women, who say they aren’t losing weight with extremely low-calorie dieting and hours of exercise every week because of metabolic abnormalities caused by calorie restriction.

Essentially, the story goes like this:

Dieting dramatically decreases your basal metabolic rate, eventually halting fat loss, and if you go too far, you’ll need to follow a lengthy “recovery” protocol to fix the “damage” to have a healthy metabolism again.

Hence, the term “metabolic damage.”

When your body is experiencing the physiological adaptations that apparently cause metabolic damage, it’s said to be in “starvation mode.” This apparently kicks in the first day of your diet and gets progressively worse and worse as time goes on.

How true are these claims, though? 

Well, the short story is this:

  • “Metabolic damage” isn’t real, has never stopped someone from losing weight, and doesn’t need to be “fixed” with special diet techniques.
  • “Starvation mode” is sort of real, but isn’t nearly as dramatic as many people think, and naturally resolves itself after you stop dieting. 

And in this article, you’ll learn why.

Furthermore, you’ll also learn the real reasons why weight loss stalls and what you can do to break through weight loss plateaus.

Let’s dig in.

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metabolic damage solution (1)


According to most theories, “metabolic damage” refers to a condition where various physiological systems have been disrupted and, as a result, your metabolism is impaired.

In other words, it’s a hypothetical state wherein you burn far fewer calories than you should based on your body weight and activity levels. Additionally, once you’ve “damaged” your metabolism, it apparently remains hamstrung even when you’ve finished dieting and just want to maintain a steady body weight.

Read: How to Change Your Body Weight Set Point

It’s called “metabolic damage” because the theory is your metabolism is quite literally “broken” to one degree or another and requires “fixing.”

And in case you’re not familiar with the term, your metabolism is the collection of physical and chemical processes your body uses to produce, maintain, and destroy material substances, and to make energy available

When most people say “metabolism,” though, they’re typically referring to either their resting or basal metabolic rate. 

Resting metabolic rate (RMR) refers to the number of calories your body burns at rest in 24 hours, whereas basal metabolic rate is an estimate of the number of calories your body requires to simply stay alive every day. 

As you can see, these terms aren’t semantically interchangeable, but as they come out to more or less the same number, you can think of them as synonymous for the purposes of this discussion.

The causes of metabolic damage are allegedly remaining in a calorie deficit for too long and/or severe calorie restriction (starvation dieting), especially in combination with lots of cardio.

Therefore, when you stop losing weight for no good reason or struggle to prevent weight gain after a period of dieting, some people claim that you probably have metabolic damage that needs repairing.

The evidence to support all of this is almost always stories. Stories of people failing to lose weight on a measly few hundred calories per day, and even worse, stories of people gaining weight while following very low-calorie diets and intense exercise routines.

And so men and women everywhere have become convinced that dieting has screwed up their body—maybe even permanently—and that their only hope for returning to normalcy is special dietary measures.

Summary: “Metabolic damage” refers to a hypothetical condition where various physiological systems have been disrupted through dieting and, as a result, your metabolism burns less energy than it should.

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The most common protocol for fixing metabolic damage is simple: increase your daily calorie intake by small amounts every week, usually 50 to 100 calories, until you’ve reached your total daily energy expenditure.

In some cases, very precise instructions are given regarding macronutrient breakdowns as well. This process is referred to as reverse dieting, and you can learn all about it in this article: 

Read: The Definitive Guide to Reverse Dieting (2020)

Proponents of reverse dieting claim that by slowly eating more calories, you “train” your metabolism to burn more calories and thus prevent post-dieting weight gain. 

How does this work exactly? 

According to reverse dieting advocates, the root cause of metabolic damage lies in hormonal dysfunction, and the only way to “repair” your “damaged” metabolism is to eat more food, which will then normalize your hormone levels (particularly leptin levels). This process takes time, though, and until your hormones are rebalanced and your metabolism is firing on all cylinders again, your body will readily store any excess calories as fat. 

Thus, the idea is to increase your calories only as quickly as your metabolism can properly process them, and to do otherwise is to court fat gain.

That’s the idea, anyway . . . 

Summary: The most common protocol recommended for fixing metabolic damage is reverse dieting, which involves gradually increasing your daily calorie intake in 50- to 100-calorie increments every week until you’ve reached your predicted daily energy expenditure. 

What Is “Starvation Mode”?

The idea behind “starvation mode” is similar to metabolic damage.

It goes like this: if you’re too aggressive with your calorie restriction, your metabolism will slow to a crawl, making it more or less impossible to continue losing weight without eating less than the average runway model.

According to many fitness gurus, if you remain in starvation mode for too long, then the next phase of punishment will begin: muscle loss and fat gain. And eventually, of course, we’ll suffer metabolic damage.

The only way to avoid all of this, we’re told, is losing weight slowly through a small (10 to 15%) calorie deficit. If we get greedy, they say, we’ll pay for it later.

The way most believers describe it, the interaction between starvation mode and metabolic damage looks like this:

  • You eat too little and lose weight too fast.
  • You plunge your body into starvation mode, and weight loss slows or stops.
  • You eat even less and move even more, which exacerbates the problem and causes metabolic damage.
  • The longer you remain in this state, the less weight you’ll lose regardless of what you do, and the more damage you’ll accrue.
  • If you stay in starvation mode too long, some of the metabolic damage may become permanent.

While there’s a shade of truth to this story, it’s more wrong than right.

Summary: Starvation mode is a hypothetical condition wherein excessive calorie restriction slows or even halts weight loss and may even lead to muscle loss and fat gain.


how-to-reverse-metabolic-damage


No.

*drops mic*

*shuffles around awkwardly, picks mic back up*

Okay, I’ll explain.

While your metabolism does decrease slightly while dieting, the drop isn’t nearly as dramatic, significant, or prolonged as many people make it out to be. 

A salient example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. In this study, the researchers had 171 overweight women lose enough weight to achieve a healthy body mass index, which worked out to an average weight loss 26 pounds in 5 months.

The scientists also measured the participants’ body composition and resting metabolic rate (RMR) at four different times: 

  • Before they lost weight
  • Four weeks after they reached their goal weight (they lost weight, and then ate at maintenance calories for four weeks before their RMR was measured)
  • One year after losing weight
  • Two years after losing weight

Then, the scientists used mathematical models to estimate what the women’s RMRs should have been after the weight loss, and compared this number to what their metabolic rates actually were. 

If the women’s actual metabolic rates were significantly lower than what the models predicted, it would be a sign of metabolic damage.

In reality, the researchers found that after losing weight, the women’s metabolic rates were more or less exactly what they predicted and only dropped about 50 calories per day by the end of their diets. What’s more, a year after losing weight, their metabolisms had basically fully recovered to where they were before.

Several other studies have shown that the metabolic decline associated with dieting, including long periods of very low-calorie dieting, ranges from less than 5 to about 15%. 

Furthermore, it took about a 10% reduction in body weight to produce the larger, double-digit drops, and most of the research on the matter was conducted with people who made every mistake in the book—they ate too few calories and too little protein and did no resistance training.

To put those numbers into perspective, if your RMR should be 1,500 calories per day after you lost weight, a 5% decrease because of dieting would mean your RMR would be 1,425 calories per day, and a 10% decrease would put you at 1,350 calories per day. And again—this shortfall would likely disappear soon after you stopped restricting your calories.

That isn’t to say there isn’t evidence that says otherwise, though.

Several studies appear to show that some people do experience a large reduction in metabolic rate when they lose weight that can persist for months or years. 

For example, a study on contestants of the show The Biggest Loser made headlines when it claimed that the participants’ metabolisms were still burning 500 fewer calories per day on average six years after losing weight. 

There are several reasons you can’t take the results of these studies at face value, though. 

First of all, as the authors of the Norwegian study point out, some of the participants in these studies were still dieting when their metabolic rates were measured. Since it’s normal for your metabolism to drop while dieting, it’s not surprising their metabolisms were sluggish, but it’s incorrect to hold that up as evidence of metabolic damage.

Another limitation with these studies is, because of excessive body weight, obese and overweight people have a higher RMR than lean people with similar amounts of muscle mass (it takes more calories to maintain and move a bigger body). 

For example, the average RMR among participants in The Biggest Loser study I mentioned a moment ago was 2,600 calories per day before they lost weight—just a couple of hundreds calories shy of my maintenance calories, and I’m very active and fit by anyone’s standards.

Read: This Is the Best TDEE Calculator on the Web (2020)

After they lost weight, however, the average RMR was just 1,900 calories—a significant reduction that has a very simple explanation: 

These people started out at 330 pounds and then lost 130 pounds on average, so you’d expect a much larger decline in RMR than in someone starting out much lighter and losing much less weight, but not disproportionately so.

That is, these people’s metabolisms weren’t “crashing”—they were returning to where they should be as their body weight returned to a healthy number. 

Another example of this phenomenon comes from a study conducted by scientists at the University of Alabama with 24 overweight women. In this case, the women dieted to lose enough weight to reach a healthy BMI, and the researchers measured their RMR before and after their weight loss.

Then, the scientists compared the women’s after-diet RMRs to the RMRs of women who weighed the same but who had never been overweight or dieted. They found that the RMRs of the previously-overweight women and the normal weight women were identical. There was no evidence of metabolic damage. 

The authors concluded that it’s normal for your metabolic rate to decline slightly while dieting, but it bounces back once you start eating more. Metabolic damage doesn’t exist. 

Summary: Your metabolism does decrease slightly when you restrict your calorie intake to lose weight, but this is normal and the decrease isn’t enough to significantly impact weight loss or damage your metabolism. 

Scientists have known for decades that dieting checks metabolic rate and that this can make it harder (but not impossible) to continue losing weight.

They don’t refer to this effect as metabolic damage, though. Instead, it’s known as metabolic adaptation.  

To understand why this is, you first have to understand the principle of energy balance, which dictates that weight gain and loss is determined by calories in (eaten) and out (burned).

Read: What 33 Studies Say About the CICO Diet for Weight Loss

Energy balance alone explains why meaningful weight loss requires that you eat fewer calories (less energy) than you burn for an extended period of time, and why the essence of effective dieting is “eat less and move more.”

What many people don’t realize, however, is their energy expenditure can change significantly once they start dieting. When they reduce their “calories in,” their “calories out” also drops, often without them realizing it. 

Restricting your calories doesn’t just cause weight loss—it also leads to a cascade of unfavorable changes in hormones like leptin, ghrelin, thyroid hormones, and testosterone, which all work to reduce energy expenditure and increase energy intake. 

In these ways (and others), calorie restriction affects your metabolism in various ways that make getting leaner increasingly difficult as time goes on.

This counterpunch can be frustrating when you want to lose fat, but it’s also been vital to our survival as a species. For most of human history, calories were scarce—we’d regularly go for days without eating—and so our body adapted to favor the storage of excess calories as fat.

In other words, humans physically and psychologically evolved to endure famine by storing and conserving calories. And when you decide to temporarily restrict calories to get rid of your belly fat, your body responds the same way as if you were truly starving—it employs “defense mechanisms” to keep you alive.  

Thus, calorie restriction acts as a physiological tripwire that increases hunger, decreases motivation to move and exercise, and reduces metabolic rate.

This is why the term “metabolic damage” is a misnomer. Dieting doesn’t “damage” your metabolism. In fact, your body is responding exactly how it should—by attempting to eliminate the calorie deficit that’d eventually kill you if you never stopped dieting. Unfortunately, your brain doesn’t know that you just want abs, not the afterlife.

Ironically, research also shows that the main reason your body burns fewer calories while dieting isn’t mysterious and uncontrollable reductions in RMR, but simply a decline in physical activity levels.

There are three reasons this occurs: 

  1. As you reduce your body weight, you also reduce the amount of energy burned during exercise (it costs less energy to move a lighter body).
  2. Restricting your calorie intake appears to increase your body’s “energy efficiency” (it burns fewer calories during the same activities). For instance, research shows that even when body weight is artificially increased during weight loss, energy expenditure during exercise remains lower than normal. 
  3. Your motivation to move flags, which can decrease your spontaneous activity levels and workout intensity in subtle but significant ways. 

This third point is worth elaborating on, as it’s one of the most overlooked reasons for why weight loss slows as you get leaner. 

Every day you engage in varying amounts of natural movement like walking around while on the phone, hopping to the bathroom, drumming your fingers when you read, or bobbing your legs when you think.

The energy burned by these activities is known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), and although it sounds insignificant, it can play a major role in total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

Read: Research Review: How Many “Hidden Calories” Are You Burning? 

Research shows that NEAT can vary by up to 2,000 calories per day among individuals, and the same research indicates that people could burn an additional 350 calories per day by taking simple actions to increase general activity levels, like taking the stairs when possible, walking short distances instead of driving, doing chores instead of watching TV, and so on.

What’s more, studies show that spontaneous activity levels often naturally decline when dieting, and if this isn’t consciously compensated for with additional movement, daily energy expenditure falls as well.

As you can see, your total daily energy expenditure is a moving target and one of the challenges of dieting is adapting your exercise routine and meal plan as needed to ensure you remain in a large enough energy deficit to continue losing weight.

The important thing to remember, though, is that while metabolic adaptation can slow weight loss, it can never stop it entirely. Additionally, these adjustments quickly reverse themselves once you’re no longer in a calorie deficit.

There’s more good news, too:

There are simple steps you can take to mitigate metabolic downsides of dieting, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Summary: The primary reason your metabolic rate drops while dieting isn’t due to an innate decrease in your resting metabolic rate, but due to a decrease in physical activity levels. 

Is “Starvation Mode” Real?

No, not in the strict sense of how most people understand the term.

As you now know, your body responds to calorie restriction with crosscurrents meant to stall weight loss (metabolic adaptation), but there’s no physiological switch that flips or “mode” it enters that makes any further weight loss impossible.

A striking refutation of the starvation mode theory is one of the most extreme studies on human metabolism ever conducted: The Minnesota Starvation Experiment.

This experiment started in 1944 as the end of World War II was approaching, and its purpose was to discover the healthiest way to help the millions of starving people in Europe return to a normal body weight.

As you can guess, this study began with . . . starving people. For real.

Scientists recruited 36 normal-weight volunteers who had the choice of shipping off to the front lines or doing this and, to replicate the conditions of your average POW camp, had them do several hours of manual labor every day and march 22 miles per week on a diet that provided about 50% of their average daily energy expenditure. 

For six freaking months.

As you can imagine, things got pretty grim. By the end of the study, the men looked like this . . .


metabolic-damage-study (1)


. . . some had almost starved to death, and one even cut off several of his fingers to finish early.

What about their metabolisms, though? Were they as devastated as proponents of metabolic damage and starvation mode would predict?

Nope.

After losing about 25% of their body weight on average, their basal metabolic rates were about 20% lower than scientists predicted based on their body weights. In other words, their metabolisms were “under-performing” by about 20% on average after enduring six months of the most extreme weight loss regimen you could ever devise.

Then, in the next phase of the study, subjects were put on a “recovery diet” to allow them to regain most of the weight they lost, and after 12 weeks of this, their metabolic rates were assessed again.

This time, average metabolic rates were only about 10% lower than where they should have been, and in some cases, everything was back to normal, as if nothing had ever happened.

Not great news, of course, but not too bad considering what they had put their bodies through.

For example, if you started your weight loss journey with a basal metabolic rate of about 1,800 calories per day, played concentration camp for six months, and then regained the lost weight, you could expect a basal metabolic rate of about 1,600 calories per day. Again, not ideal, but not enough to make you incapable of losing weight again.

There’s more to the story, too.

According to a new study (largely compiled by a member of Legion’s scientific advisory board, Menno Henselmans), when you look at the men’s metabolic data over the long-term (instead of just the first 12 weeks of recovery), there’s no evidence of any metabolic injury.

That is, everything eventually went back to normal in everyone, but in some people, it just took longer than 12 weeks.

This radical experiment also provides another nail to drive into the coffin of starvation mode:

Every participant continued to lose weight up until the very end. The rate of weight loss slowed down, of course (for the reasons explained earlier), but never came to a complete standstill.

It’s safe to assume, then, that if people can eat about 1,500 calories per day and do many hours of moderately intense exercise every week and still lose weight steadily . . . for six months . . . then we have nothing to worry about.

What’s more, this research also rebuts the anecdotes of people supposedly unable to lose weight despite eating just 1,000 or fewer calories per day and doing hours of cardio. The home truth is if they were actually doing what they claimed, they’d lose weight. End of story. 

That doesn’t mean they’re all lying, either—many people may believe they’re only eating 1,000 calories per day or burning many more, but they don’t realize how easy it is to underestimate calories in and overestimate calories out.

Summary: Starvation mode doesn’t exist, and there isn’t any physiological “switch” that flips that makes further weight loss impossible. 

3 Proven Ways to Break Through Weight Loss Plateaus

None of everything we’ve discussed so far is to say that weight loss plateaus don’t exist and are always easy to overcome.

Weight loss can suddenly stall and the standstill can sometimes seem insurmountable. You never have to remain stuck, though. 

The first step to getting the needle moving again is ensuring you’re actually in a weight loss plateau. Weight loss can be difficult to detect for a variety of reasons—you may be holding some water weight, you may be gaining muscle, or you may be a little constipated.

So, before you work yourself into a tizzy, read the following article to learn how to know if you’re actually in a weight loss plateau . . .  

Read: Stopped Losing Weight? Here’s Why (and How to Fix It)

Assuming you actually are stuck, though, here’s how to get the ball rolling again: 

1. Do lots of heavy strength training.

While many people know that heavy strength training is effective for building muscle, what they often don’t know is that it’s also highly effective for burning fat. 

There are two reasons for this: 

  1. Strength training preserves muscle mass, which is one of the best ways to maintain a high metabolic rate. 
  2. Strength training burns a lot more calories than many people realize.

For example, a study conducted by scientists at West Virginia University found that untrained, overweight people lifting weights and eating 800 calories per day (with only 80 grams of protein) lost 32 pounds of fat in 12 weeks, and retained virtually all of their muscle.

Here’s the kicker: Thanks to their strength training, their resting metabolic rates actually increased during the study. Basically, the metabolic boost from weightlifting more than cancelled out any metabolic adaptation that might have occured. 

Another benefit of strength training is it burns quite a few calories. 

Research shows that just four heavy sets of deadlifts can burn over 100 calories, and that’s not taking into account the further energy expenditure resulting from the “afterburn effect.”

So, if you want to minimize metabolic adaptation, make sure you’re following a good strength training program. 

Check out these articles if you’re looking for one to follow: 

The 12 Best Science-Based Strength Training Programs for Gaining Muscle and Strength

The Definitive Guide to the “Push Pull Legs” Routine

The Best Way to Train All 6 Major Muscle Groups

2. Increase your activity levels. 

The simplest way to counteract metabolic adaptation is to just move more. That’s it. 

It doesn’t have to be formal exercise, either, and every little bit helps. As you learned a moment ago, ordinary daily activities alone can burn a lot of calories. 

Thus, I recommend you first boost your activity levels in subtle but consistent ways before jacking up your cardio. For example: 

If this isn’t enough to kickstart weight loss or you simply prefer formal exercise, start by doing enough of it to burn a few hundred extra calories per week—about 30 to 90 minutes of moderate to vigorous training, for instance—and see how your body responds. 

Prioritize strength training over cardio, too, but if you can’t get back into the gym or are already maxed out on strength training (4 to 6 hours per week when cutting), feel free to add cardio (or more cardio) to your regimen.

As for how much cardio you can profitably do while dieting, a good rule of thumb is to spend no more than 50% as much time doing cardio as you do lifting weights. That is, if you lift weights for four hours per week, you shouldn’t do more than two hours of cardio. 

Check out these articles if you’d like to learn more about how to properly use cardio to lose weight: 

The Easiest Cardio Workout You Can Do (That Actually Works)

The Top 3 Reasons to Do High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) 

The Beginner’s Guide to How Much Cardio You Should Do 

 3. Use an aggressive (but not reckless) calorie deficit. 

A common mistake among many dieters, but especially those who think they’re suffering from metabolic damage or starvation mode, is to restrict their calorie intake as much as possible. 

While this does cause rapid weight loss, it can also cause extreme hunger, lethargy, and usually, intermittent binging

While I don’t have any hard data to prove this, this “starve and binge” pattern is probably the main reason many people claim to not be losing weight or even gaining weight while eating 1,000 calories per day. 

They eat 1,000 calories per day . . . for a few days . . . and then they eat 4,000 calories per day for a few days . . . and repeat ad infinitum. 

We want to avoid this and any type of starvation dieting, but we also want to lose fat as aggressively as we can. 

And that’s why I recommend that you set your calorie deficit at 20 to 25% (eat 20 to 25% less calories than you burn every day).

Research shows that this will allow you to lose fat rapidly without losing muscle or suffering any of the serious side effects of calorie restriction that we’ve discussed in this article. And if you follow the rest of the steps in this article, you also shouldn’t run into much in the way of hunger or cravings, either.

Check out these articles if you’d like to learn more about setting and maintaining a proper calorie deficit: 

How Many Calories You Should Eat (with a Calculator) 

This Is the Best TDEE Calculator on the Web (2020)

How Long Should You Stay in a Calorie Deficit? 

4. Eat a high-protein diet.

Research shows that high-protein dieting beats low-protein in every way, especially when you’re cutting.

Eating adequate protein helps you . . . 

So, what’s the right amount of protein?

When you’re looking to lose fat, you should eat about 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day.

And if you’re very overweight (25%+ body fat in men and 30%+ in women), then this can be reduced to about 40% of your total calorie intake per day.

Check out these articles if you’d like to learn more about the benefits of high-protein dieting and how to make it work for you: 

The Top 4 Scientifically Proven Benefits of a High-Protein Diet 

How Much Protein Do I Need? The Definitive (and Science-Based) Answer 

How Much Protein You Should Eat to Build Muscle 

5. Take fat loss supplements that actually work.

I saved this for last because it’s the least important.

Unfortunately, no amount of weight loss pills and powders are going to give you the body you want.

In fact, most fat loss supplements are completely worthless.

But, here’s the good news:

If you know how to drive fat loss with proper eating and exercise, like we’ve covered in this article, then certain supplements can help speed up the process.

Based on my personal experience training for over 10 years, and working with thousands of people, I’m comfortable saying that a proper weight loss supplementation routine can increase fat loss by about 30 to 50%.

In other words, if you can lose 1 pound of fat per week through training and diet (which you can), you can lose 1.3 to 1.5 pounds of fat per week by adding the right supplements.

Read this article to learn what these supplements are and how to take them: 

The 3 Absolute Best (and Worst) Fat Loss Supplements 


metabolic damage repair


Metabolic damage and starvation mode are mostly bogeymen.

Your metabolism may slow down as you lose weight (or may not), but if you know what you’re doing, the effects will be negligible and quickly reversed once you stop dieting.

In fact, even if you’ve done everything wrong to drop pounds—starved yourself, ate very little protein, did way too much cardio—you still don’t have anything to worry about. Once you start eating normally again, any lingering metabolic impairments will disappear (and certainly if you also start doing strength training).

Lastly, if you’re currently stuck in a weight-loss rut and want to kickstart weight loss again, just follow these steps: 

  1. Do lots of heavy strength training.
  2. Increase your activity levels.
  3. Use an aggressive (but not reckless) calorie deficit.
  4. Eat a high-protein diet.
  5. Take fat loss supplements that actually work. 

Do that, and you’ll lose weight consistently—metabolic damage adaptation be damned.  

If you liked this article, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you like to hang out online! 🙂

What’s your take on metabolic damage? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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