The metabolic system is a fairly misunderstood part of the human body, and it’s easy to blame our metabolism when we feel we aren’t reaching our body-composition goals.
We complain about how ‘slow’ it is or how it doesn’t compare to a male friend’s metabolism or a younger person’s metabolism. We can’t eat the things they can without consequences. And, honestly, we aren’t necessarily wrong. There are things that you may be doing or have done to lower your metabolic rate, but there is hope.
You have a fair amount of control over your metabolism unless you have certain medical conditions. Nothing is fast or easy, so throw that notion out now, but there are ways to maximize your metabolism, repair damage you may have done to it, and make sure your body is working the best it can to achieve your goals.
At the most basic level, metabolism is the chemical process by which our bodies convert what we eat or drink into energy that keeps our bodies alive. By examining exactly how it works, we can understand how some of our choices move us closer to our goals or further away from them.
Our metabolism is working all the time, even at rest. Our body uses that energy in four main ways:
1) For our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). Loosely translated, this is the amount of energy in calories that our body burns just keeping itself alive. (Think breathing, pumping blood, feeding muscles and bones.);
2) To break down food consumed in order to turn it into energy for use;
3) For physical activity such as working out and lifting weights; and
4) For non-exercise-related activity such as fidgeting, climbing stairs or walking as part of your normal routine.
Calories in vs. Calories out
We’ve all heard the overly simplified message that achieving weight loss is as simple as “calories in vs. calories out;” meaning that if you eat fewer calories than your body burns you will lose weight. To a point, that idea is true, but what we need to do is figure out a way for our bodies to safely burn more calories without damaging our metabolism.
Everyone has heard of the popular television show “The Biggest Loser,” where contestants spend hours in the gym, restrict their diets, and compete to win money by losing the most weight. Many contestants were extremely successful losing a hundred pounds or more. But a 2016 study published in the journal Obesity, followed 14 individuals who competed on the show. The study found not only that six years after the show ended most of the contestants had regained a significant amount of weight, but also that they suffered a drastic changes in hormonal levels that resulted in a slowing of their metabolic rates.
The significance of the study being that spending hours in the gym while severely restricting calories caused significant damage to their bodies’ BMR so that years later their bodies metabolized at a much slower rate than other individuals of a similar age and weight who had not undergone such drastic weight loss. In short, the former contestants could eat the same meal as someone the same size and age but actually end up storing more of those calories as fat instead of burning it.
It’s also for this reason that you should be skeptical of one-size-fits-all diets that encourage you to only eat a set amount of calories a day. A common one is a 1,200 calorie-a-day diet. What happens when that 1,200 calories stops working for you? You will need to cut back to 1,000 to 800? You see where this is going. This type of restrictive dieting is not sustainable for a long-term healthy metabolism.
Raising our BMR
For most people, the majority of their daily calories spent (about 60 to 80 percent) will be in that first category above: our Basal Metabolic Rate. Surprisingly we burn far more calories just trying to keep our bodies alive on a daily basis than we do in physical activity. Physical activity generally constitutes about 10 to 30 percent of our overall calories spent.
We can only work out so long every day, so the more efficient way to get our bodies to burn more calories is to work on raising our BMR. And exactly how do we get that BMR higher? By changing our body composition and building more muscle. Bodies with more muscle mass need more energy (calories) to get through the day.
This is the reason that men (who carry more muscle mass and often less body fat than women) generally have higher metabolisms. Have you ever turned to a man in your life and wonder why he can eat in a certain way and still maintain his body composition while you are over there busting your ass, eating less, and not seeing the same results?
To burn more calories, we need to build muscle. The problem is society works against this message by telling women they need to be smaller, have less muscle, and by scaring them with terms like “bulky.” Meanwhile we know that building muscle ultimately yields a smaller body and better body composition. And if you are one of the women who are concerned about “bulking up,” know that true body building takes an extreme amount of time and dedication. You are not going to walk into a gym, pick up a 25- or 35-lb dumbbell and miraculously grow a Popeye arm overnight.
In order to build muscle that burns more calories we need to lift heavy weights. To be clear: 700 reps with 5 lb weights is not weightlifting and you aren’t building muscle by doing that. So what does heavy mean? We mean heavy relative to you. Every person is different and starts at a different level. Lift what’s heavy for you. Also, your idea of heavy should change as you continue to lift long term.
Supplements and food quality
Any supplement that claims to boost your metabolism is lying to you. Throw it away. Or better yet, don’t buy it.
As we have said before there is no quick fix. Our minds want change now, but we need to realize that for the body change is slow, plodding work. So what do we do? Make sustainable changes to our routines and food habits that will have long-term impact.
A great way to start is by increasing the quality of food we put into our bodies. We need to move away from processed foods and toward natural or whole foods. We want our bodies to have to work hard to break that food down and turn it into energy. Remember item 2 on the list above? Our bodies actually burn calories trying to break down food, and it will work harder to break down an apple than it will apple sauce or apple juice. It will have to work harder to break down a chicken breast than a protein shake.
When making smart, healthy nutrition choices think about the work involved. If you had to put a bit of effort into making whatever it is you are about to eat, your body likely has to work harder to break it down.
We also need to reframe how we look at food. It’s not about a good food vs. bad food or healthy meals vs. cheat meals. Sometimes we may want a sweet treat, and that’s OK. We need to look at the food we eat as fuel for our bodies and as we are making decisions about our food, ask ourselves: Is this food moving me closer to my goals?
Limiting our sugar intake has positive effects on our metabolism. When we take in too much sugar, our body can’t use it all for energy, so a panic signal is sent to the brain ordering the release of insulin. Insulin grabs all that sugar we just consumed and begins storing it as fat rather than feeding muscles. Studies have shown that the body has a similar reaction to sugar substitutes. The brain thinks real sugar is entering the body, cues the release of insulin, which shoves that energy into fat storage.
Macro tracking and caloric deficits
Moving forward. We are lifting heavy. We are eating nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods. We are limiting our sugar and sugar substitute intake. Now, we need to make sure we aren’t in a massive caloric deficit like those Biggest Loser contestants we mentioned. If we are, that could lead to loss of muscle mass and increased storage of fat.
Tracking and hitting a specific macronutrient goal may be something that you are used to or want to pursue. Macro tracking can be a helpful way to analyze and alter our diets, but if you are using macro tracking in order to fit in a cookie or an ice cream sundae, then you are missing the point.
We would rather see athletes focus on journaling; eating whole, nutritious foods; and eliminating sugar.
Sleep and Stress
Stress affects our hormones, which in turn can impact our metabolism.
One way to help manage our stress level is to make sure we are getting enough sleep. The more rested we are, the lower our stress level will be, and the more time we have given our body to repair and build those muscles that we worked hard in the gym.
If you’ve read this far and realize that you have participated in behaviors that have been destructive for your metabolism, hope is not lost. Use this road map to begin the process of encouraging a healthier metabolic rate:
- Lift heavy;
- Don’t drastically restrict your calorie intake;
- Eat nutrient-dense food;
- Get ample sleep;
- Kick ass and rule the world.