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Taking the Mystery Out of Understanding Metabolism and Weight Loss

Metabolism is simply the process of your body turning what you eat and drink (calories) into energy. Without going into the scientific process, I want to look at some common ideas people have about metabolism.

5 Common Ideas People Have about Metabolism

  1. “My metabolism is so slow or non-existent.”FALSE.
    Your body must burn calories to carry out basic function such as breathing, growth and repair of cells, circulation and hormone level regulation. The energy it takes to exist is called your basal metabolic rate. Heavier people actually tend to have a higher BMR because there body has to work harder to function. Some of the factors that determine your BMR are: body size and composition (lean muscle mass/fat mass), gender, and age. Sorry, ladies, men typically burn more calories at rest than you do.
  2. “If you greatly restrict calories for a period of time, your metabolism will slow down and you’ll  stop losing weight.”TRUE – Sort of.
    Your body will do what it needs to do in order to keep functioning but it does slow down to conserve energy.  However, that is not typically what is happening when a person is struggling to lose weight.
  3. “To increase your metabolism and lose weight, drink green tea, eat spicy foods, or drink coffee.”FALSE.
    Marketing is a powerful thing, and we fall victim to it every day. It is true that the compound ECGC in green tea and the capsaicin in hot peppers will boost your metabolism, however; it’s a slight boost and won’t likely have a weight loss benefit. The studies concerning caffeine are mixed and other variables make it difficult to say that in and of itself it aids in weight loss.
  4. “Metabolism naturally slows as we age.” TRUE.
    From about 25 years of age, the average person will have between a 5%-10% decline in her metabolism per decade. Over the course of your life span, that is a 20%-40% decline in metabolic power. The odd thing is, this is a very North American problem. Why? Simple, we typically become less active as we age and people who maintain their physical activity as they age will only experience a 1%-2% total drop over their lifetime according to John Berardi, PhD, CSCS, and President of Precision Nutrition.
  5. “Muscle burns more calories than fat when I am at rest so if I build more muscle, I will have a higher metabolism.”  Sort of…
    One of the frustrations about understanding our metabolism is the conflicting research concerning how to increase your metabolism. You may have heard a trainer say or seen a Facebook post claiming that to increase your metabolism, you need to increase muscle mass. The numbers are all over the map on this one. One source claims that a pound of muscle burns up to 50 additional calories just to maintain itself without any effort on your part.  According to Kelli Calabrese MS, CSC, ACE, a pound of muscle burns 35 calories a day where as  a pound of fat burns only 2 calories per day. Still another source (Heymsfield SB, et al. in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism. 282:E132-E138; 2002) states that you burn a measly 6 calories per additional pound of muscle per day. That is not very many extra calories when you are wanting to lose weight.

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“So, how do I boost my metabolism to achieve weight loss?”

There are some easy and practical things you can do to increase your metabolism, use more energy, and lose weight.

To lose weight, you need to be in an energy deficit. In other words, you need to burn more in calories than you are taking in. You can do this by INCREASING your calories expenditure (working out) or by DECREASING your calorie input (eat less).  It’s not quite that simple, but that’s the basic idea in terms of big picture. To burn more calories you can increase your aerobic activity by including at least 30 minutes a day of these activities: walking, biking, swimming,  or jogging. Strength training burns calories and helps you build a leaner body mass which increases BMR slightly. Make more active lifestyle choices such as taking the stairs, yard work and gardening, house work, and recreational sports to name a few. All of these activities add up over time and help you burn more calories and build a healthier metabolic machine.

Calories are tricky. Creating a deficit will create weight loss but you want to “feed” your metabolism to keep it running. Much like you fuel your car to keep the engine running, you need to fuel your body. I am a firm believer in “clean eating,” which for me, means eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, whole grain carbohydrates and minimal sugar and processed foods. With good fuel, you will keep your engine running and you will burn calories.  Your body won’t panic that it’s not getting fed and therefore, slow down. As a bonus, the extra energy needs will be pulled from stored fat. It’s an ideal set up for healthy metabolism and weight loss.

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There have been mixed opinions/studies about whether eating every 2 1/2 to 3 yours is helpful to build a strong metabolism. There is research out of Georgia State University that shows that people who every 2-3 hours have less body fat and after metabolism than people who eat just 2 or 3 meals a day. There are also studies that show that it is really a matter of calories in and calories out that determine body fat. Regardless, I find that eating every 2 1/2 to 3 hours does help keep me satisfied and helps me avoid cravings therefore, promoting weight loss.

Research done at the University of Western Ontario has shown that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil helps you burn 400 more calories per day. Fish oil increases levels of the fat-burning enzymes and decreases levels of the fat storage enzymes acceding to their study. They recommend at least 300 milligrams of EPA and DHA total daily.

Another key component is rest! A rested body burns more calories than a worn out body. A lack of sleep does affect the rate at which you burn calories at rest and can make your workouts sluggish and not effective.

Bottom Line – Listen to Your Body!

There are some basic principles that all people will benefit from. Clean eating, exercise, and rest will help everyone live a healthier life, but you  have to fine tune as you go along to find what really works for you to achieve weight loss. Don’t give up if you are making changes and not seeing results. After a few weeks, evaluate, make changes as needed and be consistent for another few weeks (at least 3-4 week) to see how your body responds.

On a side note, there are very real medical problems such as Cushing disease and hypothyroidism that do affect weight gain and metabolism, but those conditions are not common. Skipping a few meals or fasting periodically will not cause major metabolic problems or cause your metabolism to shut down so don’t use that as an excuse for why you can’t seem to lose weight. With extreme training and dieting, you can do some major damage to your metabolism and you need to seek professional help. As always, listen to your body!

What Crazy Things You Heard Concerning Metabolism?

Leave a comment and let me know what crazy things you’ve heard concerning metabolism. There are lots of goofy things spread around!

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