What is a metabolism, and can I “speed it up”?
Do you fondly remember times when you could eat more than you’re eating now yet you kept the weight from packing on? It’s probably not your imagination – back ‘in the day’ your body’s engine really did burn the fuel you took in at a faster rate than it is today. Why did it change? What happened? Can you get that engine revving again, burning through the food you eat instead of storing it as fat?
“Fast” versus “Slow” metabolism
Metabolism is one of those words – we all know what it means, sort of. At its most basic, metabolism is the process where your body converts what you eat and drink into energy that your body can use as fuel. If you’ve got a ‘fast’ metabolism, you can eat lots of food and your body burns it all as energy. If you’ve got a ‘slow’ metabolism, your body doesn’t burn all the food you eat as energy and you end up storing the excess energy as fat so it can be used at a later time.
It sounds simple, but in fact metabolism (also called the metabolic process) is an incredibly complex set of chemical reactions that break down the molecules of food and drink into ever-smaller bits, and then recombines them with oxygen molecules. This converts your food and drink into energy that your body can use to do all the things it needs to do that keep you alive – including breathing, circulating blood throughout your body, and repairing or making new cells.
What is a calorie?
Many of us count calories when we are trying to manage our weight. You may not realise it, but a calorie is a unit of energy and the calories in our food represent how much energy that food will generate when it is metabolised. The thing is, how many calories we need to keep our body functioning when at rest, called the basal metabolic rate (or your metabolism), varies from person to person. There is also a genetic component to your basal metabolic rate. In other words, different people require a different number of calories to keep their bodies functioning, even when they are resting.
Some people can eat lots of calories and burn every one of them (a fast metabolism). Other people can eat just a few calories, but their metabolism doesn’t burn them all, so they gain weight (a slow metabolism). There is also a genetic component to metabolism and to the susceptibility for obesity – some people are just naturally more likely to gain and keep weight on. There is an evolutionary advantage to having a slow metabolism – these are the people that will survive famines more easily. But that’s not much of a consolation during non-famine times.
Here’s the thing though, your metabolism decides how much energy your body needs to function, but your weight depends on many other factors, including (of course) how much you eat and drink, but also how much physical activity you do, what types of food you eat, and how old you are.
Good news: it is possible to change your metabolism
Bad news: it is not a one-time thing
Here are the three key ways to shift your metabolism so you burn more calories:
- Adjust your basal (resting) metabolic rate. Yes, you have your own unique basal metabolic rate but it can be tweaked. Muscle mass is the main factor in your basal metabolic rate – the more muscle you have, the faster your basal metabolism will work. Other factors are involved – for example men burn more calories than equal sized women and younger people have higher metabolic rates than older people. But increasing your muscle mass by doing resistance training (like lifting weights) is possible at any age.
- Protein is better. Yes, any person interested in losing weight is watching what they eat. But not all calories are the same. Some, especially protein-rich foods, need your body to burn more energy just to digest them. This is called the thermic effect of food. So you can burn more calories eating protein than eating the exact same number of calories of a different type of food. And extra bonus? Protein is the basic unit of muscle, so eating a protein-rich diet also helps maintain existing and build new muscle mass while you are resistance training.
- Build muscle and increase physical activity. This is the easiest way to adjust your metabolism because it is very easy to adjust the amount of activity you do. The old basics of taking the stairs instead of the escalator are good to remember. Take any opportunity to increase your activity and it will add up. Physical activity guidelines suggest about 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day as a minimum. As well, strength training exercises for all major muscle groups at least twice a week will help build all that magic muscle and increase your metabolic rate even at rest.
Help! I live in a food desert and my budget is tight.
Eating healthy food can be difficult for many families who live far away from fresh food stores and have limited transit options. Here are a few ways that may help you manage this challenge:
- Read food labels to make sure you are getting the healthiest options when you buy packaged food. Look for foods that have no more than 600 milligrams of sodium and 12 grams of sugar per serving.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables keep their nutritional value, so stock up when you see them on sale. While most fresh fruits and vegetables can be frozen, root vegetables just need to be stored in a cold dry place.
- Set up a garden space on your balcony or in your yard, or look for a community garden space near you. You can grow and cultivate produce for better access to fresh foods. If you have extra at the end of the season you can freeze or can it for later use.
- Go in with a group of neighbours to share large format food and break it down into smaller portions for each family. Look for a community kitchen where you can prepare and share healthy food with others to take home for the freezer.
- Multivitamins with minerals will help ensure you are getting all the vitamins and minerals you need.
Menopause and Weight Gain
Menopause and weight gain don’t have to go together. Getting older naturally slows your metabolic rate, mostly because as you age, you lose muscle mass. Menopause can be a trying time as you adjust to new realities about your body and learn to manage the difficult symptoms that can happen when your estrogen and progesterone levels start to drop.
You can take back some control of these changes by adjusting your food and your exercise routine. Yes, it’s frustrating but small changes to your daily routine can make you feel more in control of your changing body, and allow you to accept what is inevitably “the new, beautiful you.”
Click here for more information on weight changes in Menopause