I’ve had a lot of requests for a Metabolic Balance review. I had the Metabolic Balance diet mixed up with Metabolic Renewal, which I’ve already reviewed, so once I had that straightened out, I started looking into Metabolic Balance.
A huge thank you to the people who shared the Metabolic Balance PDFs with me, and who set me up with a Metabolic Balance coach who could (sort of) answer all of my questions about the program. I also interviewed the CEO of Metabolic Balance Canada, Vera Jamin.
We’ve come a long way in terms of the science around metabolism.
Interestingly, up until right now, nobody in the scientific community has discovered a way to ‘boost’ or ‘reset’ metabolism using any sort of diet. I’m just going to leave that here.
What is Metabolic Balance?
Metabolic Balance is a diet program that was developed in Germany in 2001. The company claims that ‘Metabolic Balance is not a diet – but instead is a health and well-being lifestyle.
Just as an aside, the sale of what I’d call restrictive diets as non-diets, ‘lifestyles,’ and ‘health and wellbeing-promoting’ is, I think, why our relationships with food and our bodies is so messed up.
Meal plans that are super low in calories, a ton of rules about what, how, and when followers can eat, using words like ‘cheat’ or ‘treat,’ and making weight loss the primary focus of any nutrition program are all telltale signs that what you’re buying into is a diet.
It’s no wonder that we equate restriction with ‘health and wellness.’ It’s what we’ve been sold for decades.
Metabolic Balance says its ‘unique goal’ is to ‘activate your metabolism and influence weight and well-being in a positive way, without the yo-yo effect.’
Current science tells us that eating unique combinations of foods, eating at certain times of the day, and/or restricting food will not do anything positive to our metabolism. Metabolism isn’t like an electronic device that can be reset or charged; much of our metabolic rate is pre-determined, and the common claim that it can somehow be tinkered with using a special diet, has no supporting evidence behind it.
Spencer Nadolsky D.O., agrees.
There’s no such thing as ‘activating’ your metabolism. They are likely trying to use a different form of ‘boost your metabolism’ to perhaps distinguish their program from the others out there. Regardless, science does not recognize the term ‘activated metabolism.’
Also, it’s important to add that there is really no good way to measure your metabolic rate, unless you have access to a metabolic chamber (which you probably don’t, because there are only a handful in North America and most if not all, are at hospitals).
So, claims about metabolism usually go untested. Just because you lose weight on a low-calorie diet doesn’t mean anything about your metabolism has changed (it also doesn’t mean you’re any healthier, physically or emotionally, than when you started).
I’d also argue that ‘wellbeing’ isn’t usually the result of being on a strict diet.
The Metabolic Balance Rules.
There are 8 core rules that govern the Metabolic Balance program. They are:
Eat exactly three meals a day. Do not eat more, do not eat less. Eat exactly what is on your food list.
There must be five hours between each meal.
No meal should last more than 60 minutes.
Always begin each meal with one or two bites of protein.
Eat only one type of protein per meal, but a different type of protein for each meal. I asked the coach the reason for this, and she told me “you only want 1 protein at a time, because every protein has a different absorption rate. More inflammation results if you mix proteins.”
According to basic physiology, there is no reason why you’d ever need to worry about absorption rates of different foods – our bodies are well-equipped to deal with that. And as far as the inflammation part? I have never seen any evidence that supports this theory. I’ve actually never even heard of it until now.
Don’t eat after 9pm.
Drink the amount of water that has been calculated for your body.
Eat any fruit from your list (you must eat one apple a day) as part of your meal or as a dessert. Never mix fruits or eat fruit between meals. According to Jamin, fruit is not mixed at Metabolic Balance meals because fruit does not only contain fructose, as is commonly assumed, but many different types of sugar. A mixture of the different types of fruit can result in a correspondingly high proportion of glucose, which contributes to the blood sugar level and thus the insulin level rising sharply.
I’m getting food combining vibes from this already.
(Read my post about food combining, here)
Desiree Neilson, R.D. agrees: Fruit contains primarily fructose and sucrose, which is a molecule of glucose bound to fructose. The impact of those sugars on blood sugars depends on the overall amount of sugar as well as the glycemic impact of the sugars + the food they are contained in, which is called the glycemic load. If you eat a quarter pound of the same fruit or a quarter pound of mixed fruits, the body will still break them down in the same way.
The program also states, ‘Eggs may increase inflammation when eaten at breakfast, but it isn’t the case when eaten later in the day.’
Jamin told me that some people have higher levels of inflammation that’s worse in the morning. She believes that eggs have more omega 6 fats than omega 3 fats in them, and that ‘omega-6 fatty acids can additionally fuel the inflammatory process.’
There is no evidence behind this claim or the rationale, says Nadolsky.
Recent research actually calls into question the link between omega 6 fats and inflammation. In any case, no causal link has ever been established between them.
The program uses coaches, just like many weight loss programs. For the record, the coach that my source had was a Holistic Nutritionist. To become a Metabolic Balance coach, you must be a ‘practitioner,’ which I’m assuming means a health professional.
Holistic nutritionists aren’t regulated in Canada, so ‘practitioner’ may be a term that’s used loosely.
Metabolic Balance has a ‘Research’ tab on its site, which contains one Metabolic Balance-financed 2010 study on the program. Here is the study. The TL;DR of it is that while weight loss and quality of life scores improved on the diet, the diet itself wasn’t proven to do anything with metabolism. Sure, people lost weight, but was that a result of an increased metabolic rate, or a low-calorie diet? Those two things are very, very different.
Also, that study was over 10 years ago. Where are those people now, weight-wise and health-wise?
The attrition rate in the study was 50%, meaning that 1 out of every 2 people did not stay on the diet for the full 12 months. This is a very high dropout rate for any research study, and one has to question why it was this high.
Metabolic Balance Phase 1: Preparation, 2 days.
Phase 1 thankfully lasts only two days, and during those days, you’re not eating much. You’ll probably be on the toilet a lot, since one of the primary objectives of this phase is to ‘gently prepare for your nutritional conversion.’ This means you’ll be taking a laxative, or getting an enema or colonic (which Metabolic Balance says is ‘more gentle.’
As the company puts it, ’It is important for the intestines to be fully evacuated during this time to avoid hunger and cravings later on.’
In response to my question about the necessity of this step in the process, Jamin said this:
The bowel does not always empty itself completely, especially in the case of improper nutrition, overeating and lack of exercise. Harmful deposits in the intestine and on the intestinal walls can occur over time. Our gut is populated by many different bacterial strains, including some that feed primarily on glucose. If we have many of these in the intestines, we are more easily prone to hunger and cravings, especially for foods from which glucose is quickly available, i.e., sweets and white flour products.
I’m not aware of any ‘harmful deposits’ on the bowel wall in normal, healthy individuals. The large intestine isn’t like a sewer pipe – there aren’t globs of anything building up and sticking onto it.
While I’ve heard a couple of influencers talk about gut bacteria causing us to crave sugar, I’ve never seen or heard of any scientific evidence that confirms this. Moreover, cleansing the colon doesn’t selectively eliminate only the ‘bad’ bacteria…it disrupts the entire microbiome.
The health of the gut microbiota is absolutely critical to our overall health and well-being. But the gut doesn’t need external cleansing: when we consume adequate fiber from a variety of plant foods alongside water, we drive the growth of beneficial microbes and help encourage the timely turnover of the gut barrier. What’s more, cleansing regimes such as colonics can actually harm the fragile balance of the microbiome.
Food will always be in your GI tract if you’re EATING. This is NORMAL. You should not need to cleanse, ever.
In addition to your cleanse, the Preparation phase stipulates three meals a day.
Breakfast is ‘half of your normal breakfast’ – a one-egg omelette is given as an example.
Lunch is homemade vegetable soup made with up to 1.1 pounds of vegetables, and an apple.
Dinner is up to 1.1 pounds (raw weight) of vegetables, with herbs…but NOT herb blends. You aren’t allowed to blend your herbs, apparently.
As an alternative, you can eat a mono diet each day of this Phase, meaning one single type of food.
Metabolic Balance Phase 2: Strict Conversion, 14 days +
The Strict Conversion phase is when, according to the company, you ‘detoxify’ and ‘eliminate the poisons.’ It also ‘balances your hormones and your enzymes,’ according to one Metabolic Balance coach.
As a dietitian, that sounds pretty extreme to me, given that hormone ‘balancing’ is pretty much a pipe dream (read what I wrote about hormone balancing diets here), and enzymes don’t really need to be ‘balanced.’
‘These initial 14 days are…your opportunity to let go of any unhealthy habits or attitudes towards food and replace them with healthier ones. You will learn to become familiar with your body’s inner signals and will be able to identify the foods your body really needs.’
I’m popping in here to say that I’m not sure how an actual diet with tons of rules can improve your attitude towards food. It’s usually the other way around, honestly.
Phase 2 is when you start following your Metabolic Balance meal plan, which, according to the company, contains ‘lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. The alkaline minerals in the diet bind acids, and therefore the acids are eliminated from the body.’
As an RD, I can assure you that I’ve never, in my 22+ year career, seen proof that 1. healthy people are walking around with poison in their bodies, especially those that need detoxification with something other than their own organs and 2. that the acid-alkaline diet and theory has any supporting science.
(Read my post about the alkaline diet here)
The Metabolic Balance meal plan doesn’t specify individual foods; rather, it tells the member how much of which food group to eat. For the first two weeks of Phase 2, there are no oils or fats allowed.
There are also no snacks, ever. Even in the Maintenance Phase, snacks aren’t part of the program. I asked the Metabolic Balance coach about this, and she told me this: “Every time you eat a snack, your insulin rises.” I mentioned having protein-rich snacks (protein does stimulate insulin production, but not nearly as much as carbs). She said, “Even with protein, there is insulin released with gluconeogenesis.”
While she’s theoretically correct with the physiology, I don’t agree with the sentiment. Here’s why:
I got the impression from speaking to Metabolic Balance staff that a significant part of the diet was based on minimizing insulin levels as much as possible.
But, that shouldn’t be anyone’s goal.
Insulin is necessary for the absorption of energy into the cells. It’s not some terrible hormone that makes us sick, and should be suppressed at all costs. Sure, many people have insulin resistance, but even so, you still need insulin to live. Yes, you want to lower insulin levels in that case. But no, you don’t need to never eat a snack in order for that to happen.
When people are forbidden from snacking, it can create guilt and shame around eating – because a no snacking rule can be really tough to stick to. Depending on your lifestyle, you may need a snack sometimes, and that’s FINE!
When I communicated to the coach that not snacking and eating such low calorie meals may lead to hunger, she had this to say:
“The program is designed for you not to be hungry because your insulin will be at a good level. It’s not your stomach being empty that will make you hungry, it’s your insulin levels”
In people with insulin resistance, elevated insulin may cause hunger. But in people without insulin resistance, the release of insulin actually promotes satiety. Regardless of insulin levels though, an empty stomach secretes ghrelin, a hormone that causes us to feel hunger.
It’s not as simple as ‘low insulin equals less hunger.’ Normalizing an empty stomach that’s asking for food, isn’t healthy at all.
Here’s my source’s meal plan, which has three ‘suggestion’ days. Please keep in mind that members are required to follow this meal plan for at least 14 days, and up until they lose their desired amount of weight.
You’re allowed a ‘treat meal’ occasionally, but must follow these ‘treat meal guidelines’:
Treat meals can only be once a week
You must drink water before and after your treat meal
If the meal lasts more than 60 minutes, you must take a break of 15 minutes and drink water. Then you can continue your treat meal, starting with bites of protein.
Before eating out, eat some nuts or cheese for a protein snack.
For the remaining meals that day, omit fruit and starches such as bread.
Avoid rice, heavy sauces and carb-heavy sides.
If your treat meal is chocolate, it can only be a small amount of 70% cocoa, eaten slowly.
Limit your consumption of alcohol and drink water alongside it.
As I always say, if you’re on a diet that you have to ‘cheat’ on, you’re on the wrong diet.
(Here’s why I don’t agree with ‘cheat days’)
Many of the rules in this program, including the time-restrictions and food restrictions, are likely in place ‘to reduce caloric consumption. That is all, Nadolsky told me.
Metabolic Balance Phase 3: Relaxed Conversion
You’re allowed to eat a bit more on the Relaxed Conversion Phase.
Unfortunately, the extended food list for this Phase is very short.
New foods are added back one at a time in a sort of pseudo ‘elimination diet,’ and one coach states that if you’re losing too much weight, you can add more food (protein and vegetables first) by 5 grams each until you stop losing.
5 grams. That’s the same weight as a nickel or three playing cards.
In Phase 3, you can have 30 grams of starch at lunch, building it up by 5 grams to 60 grams of rice or other grains (around 1/4 cup), 150-200 grams of potatoes (1.5 cups), or 80-100 grams of pasta (around 1/2 cup).
Metabolic Balance seems to rely heavily on weights and measurements not only of food, but of bodies, in order to ‘keep tabs’ on things. This can be disruptive to life in general, as well as to psychological health. The scale tells you one thing – your weight. It doesn’t tell you your overall health and emotional wellness, or your worth, for that matter.
Although you can stop weighing your food in this phase if you choose, you may not be able to stop weighing yourself, at least not if you want to maintain your weight. Some followers set a ‘personal alarm weight,’ which is the weight they don’t want to exceed. One coach indicated that this is calculated by the following equation: target weight x 1.05 pounds.
If the client goes over this, this coach recommends that they ‘rebalance’ by starting the program over.
Wait a second.
If Metabolic Balance fixes your metabolism, why would you need to redo the program? If your metabolism is truly different, shouldn’t you then be able to go off the program completely and see little to no weight gain?
Am I missing something here?
I asked Jamin, who said this:
Various life situations and stages such as pregnancy, menopause, llnesses, increased sporting activity (especially high performance) or stress, can lead to the need for adjustments to a previously balanced metabolism. Metabolism is constantly changing and cannot be adjusted for life!
In fact, recent research by metabolism god Herman Pontzer suggests that our metabolism is mostly stable between the ages 20 and 60, including during pregnancy and menopause. Much of the metabolism is accounted for by Basal Metabolic Rate, which is essentially predetermined and tough to change. While caloric needs can vary day-to-day, metabolism isn’t as variable.
(Read my interpretation post of this metabolism study here)
Metabolic Balance Phase 4: Maintenance
In Phase 4, members eat from their food plan twice a day, and eat their own meal once. The 8 core rules and treat meal rules, though, are forever.
If you follow the program to the letter, you’ll forever be separating your proteins and not mixing your fruits. Forever eating one apple a day. Forever not eating after 9pm, and waiting 5 hours between meals.
For some people, this might not be such a sacrifice. For many of us, it is.
The Metabolic Balance website has a ‘ family’ section, in which you can pass your disordered habits to your children *ahem* I mean, integrate your Metabolic Balance eating plan into your family’s meals!
It talks about being a good role model to your children, while missing the point that dieting in front of your kids is one of the worst things you can do for their relationship with food and eating.
I think the ‘rule’ that bothers me the most is the one that says, “Make sure that the daily, healthy snacks don’t exceed the amount that can fit in a child’s hand.”
Does this mean the entire day’s snacks need to fit into the kid’s hand? Or, each snack shouldn’t exceed the size of their hand?
Never mind: kids shouldn’t have strict portion rules. Period.
Metabolic Balance Review in Conclusion
As a dietitian, I see a lot of ‘diet’ in this ‘not a diet’ plan.
A focus on weight as the primary outcome.
Tons of rules.
The more rules you have, the less you eat.
The fewer foods you’re ‘allowed,’ the less you eat.
Do you get the gist here?
There is no current (or past, for that matter) science that supports eating to ‘reset’ or ‘rebalance’ or ‘boost’ of the metabolism. If it worked, the diet industry would cease to exist..or at least, there would be no reason to have to redo the program.
Metabolism is a complicated code that isn’t cracked by bloodwork and a personalized meal plan and a diet with multiple phases.
While we need to understand and be mindful of insulin (and blood sugar) levels, that doesn’t mean that we need to keep these things as low as possible. Insulin rises after eating, and that’s normal. Ideally, we want it to rise gently, not too high, and go back down in a timely fashion. We don’t need a strict diet for that to happen – eating less added sugars, high fibre, lots of plants (and yes, you can mix your fruits), and having carbs along with fats and proteins, will help. So will physical activity.
Not mixing proteins and fruits is based on an unproven theory.
While it’s important to remember that any diet will work for someone, that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy or a good idea to follow.
In my professional opinion, Metabolic Balance appears to be a highly restrictive, low-calorie diet. Even in the latter phases, there are still many rules to follow, which as a dietitian, I don’t recommend.
Dr. Nadolsky didn’t hold back on his final assessment of Metabolic Balance:
This diet tries to make it seem like it’s special in that they “activate your metabolism” and “balance your hormones” so that you don’t have to eat fewer calories to lose weight, but that’s exactly how it works. The rules just make things confusing to the end user because most will fail losing weight with the program (just like any other program out there) and be confused as to why.
These are the types of programs that over promise and underdeliver but sell well because they make up a bunch of stuff.
Order Desiree Neilson R.D.’s bestselling new cookbook, Good for your Gut, here.
Follow Dr. Nadolsky on Instagram here.