My metabolism is slow. How often have I heard that? Too many times to remember. It seems that the metabolism has become a convenient scapegoat to blame for our weight loss struggles. Is metabolism really to blame? And if it is, is there something that you can do about it? The sad truth is that the metabolism is more of an innocent bystander than anything else. But the good news is that a bit of knowledge may just help to put you in the driver seat and make the metabolism work for you and not against you.
What Is Metabolism?
Metabolism is the chemical reactions, through a complex network of enzymes and hormones, which convert the fuel from food into energy and also affect how efficiently that energy can be used. This process requires energy or calories and that is why most think of metabolism as the resting metabolic rate (RMR). It is an indication of how many calories are being used to sustain normal body functions and also how quickly we gain or lose weight. Not everybody burns calories at the same rate and a few factors have an influence. Genes and heredity does make a difference, as does age and sex. Metabolism will slow down over time, most notably after the age of 40. Men also burn more calories than women.
Metabolism is directly proportional to the muscles, bones, and water in the body. To put it differently, metabolism is a function of your fat free body weight. Two individuals with the exact same weight will probably have very similar metabolisms under normal conditions. Since there is not much that any of us can do about the bones we’ve been given, then the only factor that we can use to our advantage is to increase the muscle mass. But before I jump to a conclusion, let me first explain the relationship between metabolism, weight gain, and weight loss.
Gaining Weight Increases Metabolism
Great news! Now I don’t have to go on a diet, but rather increase my weight. In the battle for weight loss, metabolism is just one of the players. Yes, at an equal weight, a faster metabolism will help shed fat, but gaining weight to increase metabolism metabolism is not the right answer. Although not all experts would agree, it is generally agreed that one pound of muscle will consume 35 calories per day and one pound of fat will consume 2 calories per day. Unfortunately, when we gain weight about three quarters of that weight gain is fat and only one quarter is fat free. The metabolism has to increase to provide energy for all these new cells, but the increase in metabolism will never compensate completely for the increase in weight.
And by now it is easy to guess the bad news. As you lose weight, so your metabolism slows down. The body is accustomed to providing energy at a specific weight that was maintained for a sustained period of time. It will have to work harder to provide energy for more cells and it will have to work less to provide energy for fewer cells. That is one of the reasons why it is so easy to lose weight after recent gains.
The metabolism is faster and the combination of some exercise and dietary restraint will quickly result in significant weight loss. On the other hand, if you’ve been stationary at an overweight or obese weight, then the body will start to slow down the metabolism as more weight is lost. In fact, most experts agree that the first ten percent of body weight can be lost without much effort. Losing more than ten percent of weight will become increasingly difficult as you try to maintain weight loss with an ever slowing metabolism.
It is almost as if the metabolism wants to return to the last known state of equilibrium. If weight is increased significantly, then the metabolism will increase to compensate and try to get back to the known weight. If significant weight is lost, then the metabolism will decrease. And that is why the yo-yo diet phenomena is so prevalent. By the time we’ve reached our goal, our metabolism has also slowed down significantly, making it much easier to gain back most of the weight that we’ve lost. It is widely accepted that two people at the same weight will have roughly the same metabolic rate, but someone that has reached that through dieting will have a slower metabolism than a person that has been at that weight all the time. So what can be done to help?
Revving Your Metabolism
As I’ve mentioned, at an equal weight, the fat-free weight will determine metabolic rate. Exercise is one of the few things that we can actually do to turn the equation in our own advantage. Any form of exercise will help. Cardio exercises will not grow muscles to the extent that weight training will, but even that will over time increase muscle mass. Don’t blindly focus on the calories burned during exercise; the real benefit comes from the calories that are burned the rest of the day. Cardio exercise is not a bad place to start. It will burn more calories than weight training and will lead to additional muscle.
But weight training will have a much more profound impact on the overall body composition. Maximizing the benefits of a faster metabolism will require a higher percentage of muscle. I know that many women fear that they will become bulky and muscular. Women don’t naturally have the necessary hormones to build huge muscles. Even many guys with the correct hormones struggle to gain muscle easily. If you want to keep the weight loss permanent, then the best solution is to combine weight loss with muscle increase.
Eating Yourself Thin
If only it was that simple. The good news is that it is not far from the truth. It takes energy to digest food and keeping the metabolism active will certainly help to keep the weight off. There are two very important factors, though.
Keep the total calories constant. Increase the number of meals. Combining these two factors will have the best overall impact on your weight loss program. The best approach for weight loss is to slowly reduce the total number of calories that we consume each day. If we go a step further and split the total number of calories into more meals then we will also keep our metabolisms running at a higher tempo. This can offset the slowing metabolism and greatly improve the ability to keep it off. It is too easy to jump on the starvation wagon during a diet. Instead of starving the body, keep it going with frequent smaller meals.
Adding a snack in between the usual three meals will help a lot. Keep it around two hundred to three hundred calories and try not to exceed your daily calorie target.
The Right Choices
Not all food are equal in helping us keeping the metabolism charged and the fat off. Many of you may have heard about the supermodels and celebrities using red pepper, green tea, coffee, and the latest fat loss food craze to guarantee success. The metabolism is increased after a meal for about an hour. Although some of these foods might have other beneficial effects, the effect on metabolism is small to insignificant. Enjoy these foods for what they naturally provide and not for the metabolic benefits.
The real winner in keeping your metabolism revved is increasing the amount of protein. Protein requires about twenty-five percent more energy to break down and assimilate. So instead of reaching for just any old snack, making it a high protein snack will have a slightly better overall effect on metabolism. I know it is not always easy to find good, healthy, and tasty protein alternatives. To tell you the truth, most protein bars and snacks are downright disgusting. My focus has always been on healthy natural ingredients that I can find in the fresh food section at the local store. I enjoy cottage cheese and frequently create a healthy snack around a can of tuna.
Supplements are not all bad, but natural alternatives will always be my preference. Experiment a bit and find a few healthy proteins that you like. I like to have a target ratio for each snack and meal. I try to keep the ratio of carb/protein/fat as close as possible to 40/30/30. This seems to be higher protein level than the normal diet while not making it too difficult to maintain as a permanent diet.