What do scientists and the multi-billion dollar diet industry have in common: they are obsessed with metabolism. Chances are, you are too, because, well, who doesn’t want to be a lean, mean, fat-fighting machine? Your metabolism can play a role in getting you into fat-fighting-form, but contrary to popular opinion is definitely not the reason you packed on that extra weight in the first place. The quality, quantity, and type of food, sustained restful sleep, exercise type and duration, and the amount of water we drink play much larger roles.
So, we are all obsessed, but what is metabolism… and why should we sweat it?
Metabolism is basically why we have digestion; it is the part of digestion that converts what goes into our bodies into energy. Energy in this case means the kind of energy that makes you feel like facing your day, and also the kind of energy you physically need to run up stairs, breathe, and yes, even digest more food. The key is how calories interact with oxygen; just as with exercise, increased oxygen is necessary to get the job done.
Our body uses a ton of energy even when it’s at rest. In fact, everything from sleeping to watching TV, all require our bodies to operate multiple systems at once. Think of your body like your laptop or smartphone, and the battery icon keeps going down even when you aren’t even watching youtube videos. You open the application manager and BOOM, you have 10 running applications—that’s just like your body, keeping everything going for you so can actually focus on that latest Freelee the Banana Girl webisode.
Our body has preferences for where it gets energy, too. As our body breaks down the food we eat, it converts it into glucose (energy from sugar), amino acids (energy from proteins), and fatty acids (energy from fats). When you don’t eat, stored glycogen (that sugar energy stored), proteins and fats are used instead, provided it’s within a couple days of a calorie shortage. That fat that we carry around on our bodies, however, comes from eating more than our bodies use over a longer term, and typically represents surplus over 60 days—and will take much longer than that to burn off. This fat storage thing would be great if we all lived on the show Survivor, but since we don’t, mobilizing the fat our body generously stored for us is a tricky thing– especially with a pretty steady stream of new calories coming in everyday. The body much prefers to use new energy, rather than its stores, and the longer the energy gets stored, the harder it is to access, kinda like old dry goods in your pantry. Accessing stored fat requires signals from things like the ACC and CPT enzymes becoming active, which is kind of a big deal.
Hormones, especially regulated by diet, are the best at encouraging activity in these enzymes. Hormones and fat have a pretty unique relationship, and understanding the role of dietary fat, and accumulated body fat, will be necessary to boost your metabolism. Lower fat intake has been shown to produce greater overall enzyme activity, hormone balance, liver health, and blood sugar regulation. While, blood sugar levels do spike from sugar you eat today (even naturally derived sugars from fruits), fat ingestion has a similar effect to refined white sugar on overall metabolism function, including things like metabolic syndrome and diabetes, and in fact may be of more concern over the long term.
More than anything else, carrying extra bodyweight is the biggest downer to metabolism, but scientists are making some radical new discoveries about how different kinds of fat, and fat mobilizing strategies, can help you shed unwanted inches. Did you know there are in fact two different kinds of fat: brown fat and white fat? As it turns out, the purpose of white fat is to store fat for later need, and the purpose of brown fat is to mobilize fat to be used as energy. Typically, brown fat is found in babies, but can also be found in adults who live in colder climates. Some recent studies have also shown that brown fat can be increased by exposing people to cold temperatures, demonstrating that burning fat may have something to do with the way our bodies keep stable body temperatures (hint: its muscle related). This is called the thermogenic effect. While it is a relatively new subject of research, there is evidence to suggest that brown fat, and the above mentioned hormones and enzymes, can be increased through diet and exercise.
So you probably already think that metabolism boosting is the key to weight loss, but you are probably still wondering why.
What we know is that higher metabolisms burn more energy, and that this metabolism efficiency can be measured using something called the Basal Metabolic Rate. As it turns out, 70% of calories that do not end up on your trouble spots are burnt off as a result of your Basal Metabolic rate, and the remaining 30% is burned off during what is known as thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is essentially the heat that is generated by your body as a by-product of burning off energy, from things like eating complex whole foods, and doing strenuous activity. The more often we bring our body from cool to warm, or resting to working, the more thermogenesis our body experiences. This thermic effect also means that foods that produce heat in the body, like hot peppers and citrus, interact with the body’s resting temperature, so if your body is colder it takes more energy to make it warmer, thus doing more work. This is the dietary equivalent to running up 10 stairs, and then having each stair increase by 10%. You are still running up 10 stairs, but you’ve actually done the work of running up 11.
Like me, you probably think of cold seasons and climates as responsible for that delightful winter weight. Well, oddly enough, people from naturally cold climates have higher concentrations of brown fat, whereas obesity and added poundage is commonly associated with white fat. Brown fat is like the MVP you’ve unwittingly kept on the bench all these years. Recent medical studies have explored brown fat’s curious tendency to burn off more than just calories. A 2011 study (replicated in 2012, debunked in 2014, and re-proven in 2016) found that brown fat could also mobilize triglycerides, a common fat that when otherwise left in the body could result in things like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and more. Brown fat, it seems, also can feed off of sugar in the blood, making you less likely to store that extra glucose as fat, and making you more able to burn it off when you exercise. Big metabolism win-win-win.
The bad news is, brown fat and high BMIs tend to not get along, but activating brown fat cells may still be part of the solution to revving up your metabolism, since brown fat can burn about five times more stored energy.
Metabolism Boosting: 5 DOs and 1 Big Don’t.
- Drink water. Every diet website says this, so…its time. Drink up. More than 6 cups a day is what I’m saying, but space them at least 30 minutes before and 60 minutes after your meals (a sip or so while you eat is fine). Not only does this keep your body flushing out the bad without reducing your stomach enzymes, it also keeps your body temperature lower, which causes your body to work harder to keep its temperature regulated. This path to thermogenesis may be one of your easiest methods of brown fat promotion available to you, take advantage of it.
- Aerobic exercise is another one of those things every website will tell you to do and its important. 30 minutes a day of brisk walking will do, but as it turns out HIIT, or intense interval training, consumes even more oxygen, making your body work all the harder to burn off excess calories. Intervals, and high intensity workouts, also cause muscles to produce and release the hormone Irisin, which scientists believe could play a key role in determining which cells become fat and which become things like bone cells. (HINT: more intense exercise means more cells become muscle and bone).
- Make time for strength training. That aerobic exercise needs to become a part of your day. But 2 times a week for at least 20 minutes, you need to take some time to build muscle. Light weight-training or resistance exercises increase muscle, and the more muscle, the higher your metabolism, and the more energy your body burns when it moves. This combined with fat melting daily aerobics, and you’ll start to see your Basal Metabolism numbers, and your waistline, change.
- Sunshine is really an undervalued component of overall health. We crowd into gyms with fluorescent lighting, and do sit-ups in our living room. Vitamin D increases muscle tissue, which means better metabolism, and vitamin D, like many things, is best from the source. Even better yet, pair that sunshine with a 30 minute brisk walk after a spinach salad so the calcium from the spinach can help you metabolize the vitamin d. This power packed calcium + D and aerobic exercise combination is your golden ticket to metabolic firepower and brown fat.
- Just keep moving. Add movement into your life any way you can, like skipping the elevator and taking the stairs, or doing stretches or yoga while watching TV instead of doing your best couch potato imitation. Even sitting on an exercise ball while at the office can help your body keep moving more. All these little steps won’t feel like you are working more, but the thermic effect on the body, and overall calorie burn could go up to 200 extra a day, which could mean a couple shed pounds a month!
- I would tell you to get lots of sleep, and to go to bed before midnight, but if you actually do half of the above, you’ll get there all on your own.
And the DON’T: No more skipping meals. Caloric restriction reduces metabolism, so eating at regular intervals is good. Keep your calories steady, even if you are cutting your calories for diet reasons, keep them above 1200 per day for women and 1500 per day for men, and never go below that.
Didn’t you mention that eating was part of this?
Why yes, yes I did. Eat, I want you to really eat. I want you to eat more often and more variety than those diets out there tell you. Eating isn’t the problem, but your food choices may be.
Eat your vegetables, and skip that steak. As I mentioned above, saturated fats are a doosie. Did you know that most dietary saturated fats come from animal sources? Recent studies have shown that vegetarian diets affect oxidative metabolism, the amount of oxygen your body has access to burn and breakdown what you put into it. Vegetarian diets are also almost double in CPT (that handy little enzyme we talked about) that breaks down sugars and fats from stored fat in the body. In particular, beans and spinach help by providing iron to carry the oxygen needed to fuel that metabolism. Plus proteins like beans give a double thermogenesis boost by being both protein and fiber rich, making your body burn off even more from digesting them than comparable protein levels from non-plant sources.
Bring on the heat. Cayenne pepper, has Capsaicin (the spicy part of things like hot peppers) not only have a thermic effect on the body you can feel when they make your sweat, they also speed up metabolism. In fact, cayenne pepper may have such a strong effect on metabolism that it can cancel out some of the metabolism lowering effects of things like calorie restriction. Also, the metabolic benefits of capsaicin seem to increase with more exposure, having an almost cumulative effect. Further bonus, capsaicin is like a natural aspirin, decreasing inflammation, and increasing blood flow, which means you’ll get more for your workout buck, and with less of the soreness.
Look for success in unlikely places. So often when we diet we cut out things we love like bread, chocolate, and nuts. While these things definitely should be enjoyed in moderation, they are all good sources of L-arginine, a truly important hormone regulator that increases our recovery when we rest, and allows us to get the most out of exercise. L-Arginine is an important metabolic substance, and can be readily acquired from plant foods.
Go green (tea). Sometimes fad diets get it right. Green tea (especially my favorite, matcha powder, which can really be added to everything) is a powerful antioxidant, with a bonus: catechins. The catechins in green tea provide a serious metabolism boost you will feel immediately, with more energy and more successful bathroom visits.
Go organic. Research suggests that chemicals, like those found in pesticides, can interfere with weight loss, and these effects can also be triggered by weight loss (perhaps because these chemicals accumulate in fat stores—EEEK!)
Nutrient density. Flax seeds and walnuts are an excellent source of Omega fatty acids, which is handy for regulating your hormones and blood sugar. Bonus!
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