By Rehana Begg
Remember when you could eat anything and not put on a pound? Oh, sure, unlike your best friend who eats mounds of pasta without gaining an ounce, you’re watching your weight and even making it a habit to avoid the vending machine. Yet, for some reason your waistline is growing and the pounds keep piling on. Here’s what’s happening: Your metabolism – the rate at which your body performs its vital functions, or the amount of calories your body uses daily – is slowing down. That’s the bad news.
The good news is, if you understand how your metabolism works, you can alter your metabolic rate. This in turn can help you burn more calories, replace fat with muscle and give you more energy.
Simply put, metabolism is how your body converts food into energy and burns that energy as calories. Metabolism varies from person to person; you may have a faster metabolism than normal, or a slower one. The largest component of your metabolism (approximately 70 percent) is called your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and refers to the number of calories you burn as your body performs vital body processes, such as breathing, keeping the heart beating and maintaining body temperature.
The rate at which you use energy during digestion (dietary thermogenesis) and how quickly you burn energy during physical activity are the two other factors involved in your total metabolic rate. If you want to improve your metabolic efficiency, all you need to do is alter what you eat and what you do to experience a difference in how you look and feel.
Genetics, gender, age, diet and exercise habits all play key roles in the way women burn calories and fat, says Dr. Pamela Peeke, a physician who specializes in nutrition and metabolism and author ofFight Fat After Forty. For example, a slow metabolism or a fast metabolism can be inherited. Two people can be the same weight and age and have the same fat percentage, but possess different body types and therefore have different metabolic rates. Women tend to have less muscle mass than men do and thus typically have lower BMRs than men. And people under the age of 30 tend to have higher BMRs for the same reason – higher muscle mass.
Micromanage your metabolism
Even though genetics, age and gender are beyond your control, you can manage your diet and master your metabolism. “Many factors affect your [metabolic] register,” says Dr. Liz Applegate, a nutrition consultant and author of Encyclopedia of Sports and Fitness Nutrition. “It is a big mistake to think that any one change you make will boost your metabolism.”
While there’s no substitute for exercise – particularly a combination of aerobic and resistance training for optimal fat burning and metabolism boosting – there are a number of ways you can support and maximize your metabolic rate by adopting healthy eating patterns. Here are a few pointers on the best ways to stoke your engine:
1. Eat balanced meals
“There are no particular foods that can speed up your metabolism,” says Peeke. “Instead, you should look at which foods cause the body to work harder – in other words, cause it to burn more [calories] and metabolize them efficiently.” The body needs a constant supply of nutrients to perform efficiently. For instance, calcium is involved in the breakdown of fat and low calcium intake may lead to a net weight gain, says Applegate. Protein, such as fish, poultry, lean meats, soy, tofu and low-fat dairy products cause the body to work hard and will boost lean muscle mass, says Peeke. “Protein is also satisfying and takes the longest to break down.” Essential fats, found in olive oil, avocados and nuts, are “good” fats that the body can’t produce by itself and play an important role in maintaining body temperature.
2. Start off on the right foot
Don’t skip breakfast. Your body burns calories at a slower rate when you sleep. Since your body is deprived of food throughout the night, your metabolism slows down. Breakfast is essential to jump-start your calorie-burning mode, says Peeke. If cells don’t receive sufficient nutrients they function less efficiently on smaller amounts and store more fat to compensate for times of deprivation. Therefore, if you skip breakfast you may ultimately burn fewer calories for the rest of the day, she says.
3. Don’t starve yourself
Severely cutting calories is a definite mistake, says Applegate. Your body needs a certain number of calories to function and your BMR slows down when you’re on a diet that doesn’t meet its caloric needs. When your body detects a state of famine – roughly three to four hours for women – it responds by going into survival mode and slows down your metabolic rate in order to conserve energy, says Brandeis. Hence, the “plateau” effect of dieting.
4. Eat small meals often
“The body’s natural [clock is set] to feed every three to four hours,” says Peeke. Six smaller meals eaten throughout the day instead of your three squares will keep your body’s fuel supply consistent and your metabolism charged. Smaller, more frequent meals help stabilize insulin levels. The less insulin you have in your blood, the more fat you burn and the less you store. Your metabolic rate increases after you’ve eaten due to the thermal effect of food, which estimates the energy required to metabolize the food.
5. Avoid product scams
There are some pharmaceuticals on the market that make false claims about influencing metabolism. Be warned, say our experts. This method of raising your metabolism is not safe and there is very little evidence to prove sustainable or long-term weight loss. Although the effects of the more common stimulants, such as nicotine and caffeine, are very slight, the health risks still outweigh the benefits.
6. Sip green tea
A Swiss study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutritionfound that consuming green tea extract resulted in a significant increase in energy expenditure (a measure of metabolism) and had a significant effect on fat oxidation. Green tea, which contains high concentrations of antioxidants such as catechin-polyphenols and many other compounds including caffeine, caused subjects to burn 3.5 percent more calories per day. While our experts agree that studies suggest green tea extract may boost metabolism and burn fat, they caution that there have been no specific studies of this herb in overweight or obese individuals and cannot be relied on for boosting metabolism.
7. Spice up your life
Research done at Laval University in Canada has shown that hot, spicy food, such as hot peppers or mustard, will temporarily shift your metabolic rate into high gear. (An earlier British study showed a 25 percent increase in BMR.) Capsaicin, a compound found in jalapeno and cayenne peppers, will stimulate your body to release more stress hormones, such as adrenaline, thereby speeding up your metabolism and increasing your ability to burn calories. But before you rush to sprinkle pepper on your potato, bear in mind that all our experts were skeptical about the overall effectiveness of peppers. The effect is transient and ineffectual, says Peeke.
8. Drink water
Drink at least six to eight glasses of water per day. Water is necessary to stay hydrated and aids your metabolic processes, says Alana Gold, a registered dietitian based in Toronto. And, according to a study reported in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, water consumption increases the rate at which people burn calories. While the study’s findings are preliminary, the researchers estimate that over the course of a year, a person who drinks 1.5 liters of water a day would burn an extra 17,400 calories for a weight loss of approximately five pounds.