What is Metabolism?
‘I think I have a slow metabolism, so I struggle to lose weight!’ How many times have you said or heard that statement when discussing weight loss with friends and family? My guess is a lot. We heard it and said it a lot too, before we learnt what metabolism actually is.
Your metabolism does have an effect on how quickly or slowly you lose weight, but it isn’t something that is set for life, it can change and fluctuate throughout our life dependent on many factors. And most importantly, we do have an element of control over it too.
How does metabolism affect weight management?
If our metabolism isn’t particularly efficient, our bodies won’t do the jobs it needs to do very efficiently either, so this therefore means that it metabolises the energy from the food we eat slowly too. This in turn means that we burn calories slower than someone who has a faster metabolism.
Our body composition, age, gender and activity levels all affect the rate at which our metabolism works, along with other things such as hormones, illness. Unfortunately things like increasing age mean a decreasing metabolism, which is completely beyond our control, but there are things we can change so, what we need to do is to get our metabolism working as efficiently as possible so that our body is working at it’s optimum levels – giving us all the best chance at managing our weight successfully.
Think of your metabolism like your central heating system. You need fuel to get the boiler running, then you need to keep it well maintained and burning fuel efficiently to keep our homes warm and cosy. If you switch the boiler off overnight, and let everything go cold, it takes a long time in the morning when the heating comes back on, before everything is cosy and warm again. Whereas if we had left it on, just on low ticking over, it would be producing heat all the time, and when we wanted to turn the heat up, it would happen a lot quicker.
This is how we want our metabolism to run, just ticking over all the time, so that when we need it to fire up and burn energy, it’s ready and waiting to efficiently carry out the job.
How can we improve our metabolism?
There are lots of steps that we can take to give ourselves the best chance at getting our metabolism firing on all cylinders. Just to be clear this doesn’t outweigh the fact that we need to get a calorie deficit in order to lose weight, but if we can also take these steps our bodies will be working at optimum, giving us the best chance at achieving our goals.
Muscle mass – Increasing our muscle mass gives our metabolism a boost, because muscle is more efficient at burning energy than fat, even at rest. This is why men lose weight quicker, generally speaking, than women (sorry ladies!). Men tend to have a greater percentage of their body mass as muscle naturally, so therefore are more efficient at burning calories. Naturally, women have higher body fat percentages, because of where women naturally store fat – we are pre-disposed to store fat on our hips and breasts, so therefore even when we are at our leanest, men will have a higher percentage muscle mass than we can ever achieve naturally.
For both men and women to increase our muscle mass we need to build our muscles. We do this by undertaking weight bearing activity and exercise. Anything where we are jumping or bouncing, lifting things or using force, not just the more traditional strength training like toning exercises or lifting weights all help to tone and build our muscles, which in turn will speed up our metabolism.
Eating regularly – Eating food increases our metabolism for a few hours, so if we eat every few hours, rather than starving ourselves then bingeing, we are keeping our metabolism firing efficiently and burning our food, rather than letting it shut down by starving ourselves and then have to fire it up again, once we eat. This is called the Thermic Effect of Food (TEF).
Eating protein at every meal occasion – Protein causes the largest rise in TEF, as it is harder for the body to process, so essentially because it is a more complex macronutrient than fat and carbohydrate it takes the body more energy to burn it off, so therefore causes an increase in metabolism. Protein foods include eggs, lean meats, pulses and low fat dairy foods such as 0%fat Greek yogurt and low fat cottage cheese.
Drinking cold water – Drinking cold water increases your metabolism. As your body works to bring it up to body temperature, it burns additional calories. A number of scientific studies have shown that drinking 500ml (or a pint) of water can increase your metabolic rate by 10-30% for about an hour after drinking, the greater increases are seen when drinking really cold water.
HIIT exercises – HIIT exercise is short bursts of intense exercise, where you are working your absolute hardest for a specified time, alternated with a short recovery period. A scientific study has shown that on average, participants in HIIT exercise sessions have a greater increase in their Resting Energy Expenditure, than participants in regular aerobic exercise.
As an aside, it also showed that they had greater decreases in their Respiratory Exchange Ratio (VO2 max) – which is a measure of cardio vascular fitness – the lower the number, the fitter you are. So HIIT not only increases your metabolism but it gets you fitter quicker too!
Spicy food – Eating spicy foods is known to increase your metabolism, due to a chemical called capsaicin in peppers. Eating food containing this chemical has been shown to increase calorie burn by up to 10 calories at each meal, containing those foods. However, whilst this may be seen as negligible, combined with the strategies mentioned above, will only add to the increases in metabolism, so if you like spicy food its worth a go.
So, whilst our metabolism is something that we are born with, it doesn’t mean we can’t control it. I definitely think that my metabolism has improved since I have been following a healthier lifestyle, and probably because I have been doing all of the above as well as reducing my calorie intake. If you feel like your weight loss is sticking at present, have a go at some of the techniques above, there could be some changes that you can make, that might just give your metabolism the boost it needs to get fired up again.