Many people attribute their failed weight loss efforts to a slow metabolism. Some look for answers in a magic pill or meal replacement powders. The truth is, no pill or artificial aid can speed up your metabolism. The reason why these mistaken notions exist is because most people don’t understand how the human metabolism works. So let’s start at the very beginning…
What is metabolism?
The simple definition: Metabolism is the rate at which your body burns calories to sustain life. This means that your body burns calories 24 hours a day, every day, whether or not you exercise. This is because your body needs energy ALL THE TIME, even while you sleep!
Question: What has the greatest impact on your metabolism?
1. Your activity level? 2. Your thyroid? 3. Your age?
Answer: None of the above. While these factors do influence your metabolic rate, they are nothing in comparison to…MUSCLE TISSUE!
The more muscle you have, the more calories you burn AT REST, regardless of how active you are, how old you are, etc.
Factors which impact your metabolism in descending order of importance:
- Muscle tissue - Burns calories 24 hours a day, every day!
- Meal frequency – The longer you go between meals, the more your metabolism will slow down to conserve energy
- Activity level – This is important but it won’t make a difference if you don’t match your eating to your energy expenditure
- Food choices – Low-fat diets tend to slow down the metabolism due to poor hormone production. Eating healthy fats (such as omega-3) is essential for efficient metabolic activity
- Hydration – Since 70% of all body functions require water, insufficient intake will cause the system to slow down and add to the body’s stress levels
- Genetics – Some people have a faster metabolism than others, but there is no cause for concern since anyone can win the metabolic battle!
- Hormone production – A lot of people mistakenly blame the thyroid for a slow metabolism. Stabilizing blood sugar levels through dietary changes along with a progressive exercise regimen can very often fix the problem at the source by improving hormone production and hormonal balance
- Stress – Tends to slow one’s metabolism by placing an extra burden on all systems. Besides, people tend to overeat when they are stressed.
What causes metabolism to slow down?
Myth: Your metabolism starts slowing down around the age of 30.
Fact: Metabolism does NOT slow down with age but due to loss of lean muscle. Further, you don’t lose muscle due to aging, it is lost through lack of exercise. There are 3 major causes responsible for slowing down your metabolism:
- Activity levels tend to decrease as you get older
- You lose lean muscle due to lack of activity
- Your body cannibalizes your muscle tissue when it needs energy because you haven’t supplied it in a timely fashion due to skipping meals or “dieting”
So what’s the solution?
- Avoid extreme calorie-restricted diets. Overly reducing your calorie intake forces the body to go into starvation mode. The end-result is a slowed metabolism.
- Stop the storage of new fat. In order to prevent new fat from being stored, one needs to match energy intake to energy expenditure, making sure there is no energy surplus (which can get stored as fat). Remember, anything can get stored as fat…even a salad. The optimal way to do this is to slightly reduce caloric intake while dramatically increasing activity. One must never go hungry.
- Eat breakfast. Your metabolism slows down while you sleep and it does not get into high gear again until you give it some fuel.
- Make sure you include protein with each meal. According to the American Dietetic Association, "Protein is made up mainly of amino acids, which are harder for your body to break down (than fat and carbohydrates), so you burn more calories getting rid of them.”
- Get a good night’s sleep. A University of Chicago study shows that when you're exhausted, your body lacks the energy to perform its normal day-to-day functions, which includes burning calories, so your metabolism is automatically lowered.
- Do not allow more than 4 hours to elapse between meals. Doing so will cause low blood sugar levels, which in turn will lead to adrenal exhaustion and eventually to a compromised metabolism.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates, artificial fats and readymade low-fat foods. Refined carbohydrates will create abnormal surges in insulin, which promotes fat storage and a lowered metabolic rate. Instead, stick to complex carbohydrates such as green leafy vegetables, low-glycemic fruits, nuts and seeds. Artificial fats (such as refined or hydrogenated fat) put a heavy burden on the digestive system. Poor digestion leads to a sluggish metabolism. Research shows that low-fat diets tend to slow down the metabolism due to poor hormone production. Instead of shying away from all fat, learn to distinguish between good and bad fats. Make sure you consume healthy fats (such as omega-3 from nuts and seeds) on a regular basis and put your metabolism in high gear.
- Don’t skip meals. Since the body burns energy 24 hours a day for various activities, it is important to keep feeding it the fuel that it needs constantly. Skipping a meal sends a signal that there is a famine. The body will immediately respond by conserving energy by lowering the metabolic rate (i.e. turning down its furnace).
- Eat multiple mini meals. For some, eating 5 or 6 small meals rather than 3 big meals keeps their metabolism in active mode. Experiment to see if this works for you. This approach also has the advantage of not allowing your blood sugar levels to come down too much over time.
- Learn to relax. Deep breathing and relaxation will go a long way in reducing stress levels. Studies show that long-term stress can make you fat by flooding your system with stress hormones. These hormones stimulate fat cells deep in the abdomen to increase in size and encourage fat storage. As one accumulates more fat, there is a corresponding decrease in metabolic rate.
- Increase muscle mass by lifting weights. Weight training is one of the best ways to kick your metabolic rate into high gear. A pound of muscle burns nine times more calories than a pound of fat does. Regular strength training can increase your resting metabolic rate by 7 to 8 percent. (That means that if you weigh 60 kg, you could burn around 100 more calories a day, even when you're just watching TV).
- Avoid alcohol or keep it to a minimum. Stick to red wine if possible, for its antioxidant properties. When alcohol is consumed with or before meals, the body burns off the alcohol first increasing the possibility of storing the rest of the meal as fat.
Note: These are general guidelines. Most people will get good results by following the above advice. However, some people may have conditions such as insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, etc. These people will need the additional guidance of a skilled dietician, nutritionist or doctor who can customize a plan to suit the individual’s needs.