Fact versus Fiction: Your metabolism
I’m not sure how I got on this trend, but I have noticed a number of the ads I have seen on various site pages and YouTube are all about different foods that ‘fix’ your metabolism. Sounds pretty good, right? Eat certain foods and you lose weight. Unfortunately, following their advice will not only not help you to lose weight (if that is your goal), but it might actually lead you down a path of misconception or even cause you harm. I know, I shouldn’t be a fear-monger, but I want you to be aware, I want you to be educated. And, most essentially, I want you to make the best, most healthful decisions for yourself and for your family. So let’s start at the beginning and go from there.
What the heck is ‘metabolism’?? And, more importantly, why should you care? Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. This is a complex process, and I am not going to bore you with all of the details. Suffice it to say, the calories you ingest in the form of food and drink go into your body, are absorbed through the digestion process, combine with oxygen, and in the end, release the energy your body needs to function.
Many different factors and considerations are part of a discussion about metabolism. First, know that even as you rest, even as you sit and do nothing, even as you just breathe, your body is burning calories. The basic functions your body does just keeping you alive – breathing, heart beating, brain functioning, hormone production, growing and repairing cells, etc – is called your basal metabolism. Your basal metabolism is impacted by your body size and composition (more on this later), your age, and your gender.
Gender: Men tend to have higher metabolisms as they tend to have less body fat as compared to muscle than do women. Men also tend to be larger in size; the larger your body is, the more energy it will take to maintain and to move it.
Age: As you gain years (and knowledge and experience, but that’s a different article….), your basal metabolism will start to slow, mostly due to the fact that as you age you tend to decrease the amount of muscle in proportion to fat. (I know, it isn’t fair.) There are other factors to consider, too, like hormones and greater propensity for being less active.
The other two things that contribute to your metabolic rate include food processing (digesting, absorbing, transporting and storing the food you eat) and physical activity. Physical activity is by far the most variable of the factors that impact your metabolism.
Certain disorders can impact your metabolism, causing weight gain or extreme weight loss. These are, of course, medical conditions that should be treated by a specialist knowledgeable about them. However for normal, everyday life, remember that your body likes ‘normal’ and it will do what it can to maintain such as long as possible. It does not want you to lose or to gain weight. It wants to stay where it is, and stay normal.
So we get to the part about why you should care. Your metabolism is directly tied to your weight loss and weight gain … sort of. When it comes to weight maintenance and loss, I’d like to say the equation is easy: less calories in, more calories burned, then weight loss happens. The problem is that the human body is an amazing thing, and it will do all sorts of tricks to not let weight gain and weight loss happen. The body can and does store energy in different ways when in times of stress or when you are not getting enough sleep. When in a state of constant calorie deficit, it will slow less vital functions (like hair or skin cell growth) to conserve energy. The body will focus energy on the core elements instead of worrying about circulation to hands and feet. Your body has all sorts of tricks up its proverbial sleeves to conserve energy and hang on to ‘normal’; weight loss and weight gain are not easy. The only thing that will work to change your ‘normal’ is persistence with your calorie deficit.
What helps your body increase its metabolism:
Muscles – Muscles are more metabolically active. First, know that one of the downsides to any ‘diet’ regime (read: the kind where you are trying to lose weight): your body is smarter than you think it is. While you are cutting calories, trying to find that balance between calorie deficit and not having a growling stomach all day and hangriness, your body is responding with lowering your metabolic rate in an attempt to ‘hold’ onto the calories. This is totally normal; your body LOVES homeostatis and will do what it can to stay at your ‘normal’. Don’t get too frustrated; you can outsmart your body. How? Build your muscle mass. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat. It actively burns more calories just sitting there, than does fat. So … you can rev up your metabolism again, even with the caloric reduction.
Activity – in order to perform an exercise, you have to move your body out of ‘normal’. You have to move your legs around, move your arms around, maybe even lift a thing or two. All of these activities take energy; the more you do these activities, the more things you lift, and the faster you do both of these things, the more calories you will burn. Any extra movement burns more calories; even fidgeting can contribute.
Here’s another thing that people often don’t realize about metabolism: your body, the genius that it is, is very good at figuring out how to use the minimum energy necessary to complete a task it does regularly. Read: it is extremely efficient. This is a good thing; this is a quality survival skill, not just your body being difficult, I promise! The best way to not let it figure out how to ‘save’ calories? Change things up. Do different exercise routines, run one day, and do HIIT the next. Add kettlebells or weight lifting. Try surfing. Whatever, just don’t do the same workout day in, day out, or know that your body is working to make it as minimally calorie-intensive as possible.
One more thing about activity and your metabolic rate: During the activity – especially if it is vigorous, and lasts at least 30 minutes – your metabolic rate will increase. It will remain at an elevated level for up to several hours or even a day. The more intense the activity, the greater this post-activity boost and the longer it will last.
Foods – There are a few foods that are ‘metabolic boosters’ but not many. Foods high in protein such as lean meat, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds tend to cause an increase in metabolic rates for a brief period after consuming them. Why? Because your body has to work harder to digest these foods. The other bonus to eating foods higher in protein is that you will feel full longer after eating them for this same reason (taking longer to digest). These are often the same food sources that are high in iron, zinc and selenium which help keep your thyroid functioning properly; your thyroid is the gland that regulates your metabolism. Seaweed is another food that contributes to thyroid health and function by containing a large amount of iodine.
Other foods gave a minimal bump including coffee and green teas. It’s not clear if it is different phytochemicals in the drinks or, more likely, the caffeine that gives the boost. Caffeine also helps your workout performance.
Other foods that are touted to get a tiny boost to your metabolism include chili peppers, some spices (e.g. ginger and cayenne), and cacao may also contribute to a boost in energy use. Other studies suggest apple cider vinegar and coconut oil may temporarily boost metabolism, however, there really aren’t a lot of conclusive studies.
So, the take away: Yes, your metabolic rate is important. There are a number of things you can’t change that have an impact on your metabolism: your gender, your age, a number of different genetic factors. But, and yes, there are things you can do to positively impact it. You can move more, move at a higher intensity, and for a longer period of time.
I know you’re going to ask so yes, there is a general formula for calculating your Basal Metabolic Rate. Know that this is a general calculation and does not take into consideration all factors.
Women: BMR = 655 + (4.35 x weight in pounds) + (4.7 x height in inches) - (4.7 x age in years)
Men: BMR = 66 + (6.23 x weight in pounds) + (12.7 x height in inches) - (6.8 x age in year)
Once you have figured out your BMR, you can get a good guesstimate of your total calorie needs by multiplying your BMR by your activity level.
1.2 = sedentary (little or no exercise) 1.375 = lightly active (light easy runs 1-3 days/week) 1.55 = moderately active (recreational spirited running 3-5 days/week) 1.725 = very active (training, running, and/or racing 6-7 days a week) 1.9 = extremely active (racing, hard running, and physical job)
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