Megan Witt, RD
No more whiny “I have a slow metabolism” excuses allowed. While genetics do play an important role in determining one’s metabolic rate, that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. There are many things you can do every day to help speed up your metabolic rate and burn more calories.
First, let’s talk about what metabolism actually is. In simple terms it is all the chemical processes that occur when the body turns the food we eat into energy. We use this energy for everything that our bodies can do. The metabolic rate is the speed at which you are able to burn calories from food.
There are three different components of your Total Metabolic Rate. The majority of the calories that you burn everyday actually comes from doing nothing. Well, that you are aware of anyway. This is called your Basal or Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) and it includes all the chemical processes involved in breathing, brain function, circulation, immune function and anything else your body needs to do to keep living. It makes up a whopping 60-80% of your metabolic burn!
Then there is the Thermic Effect of Food which is the number of calories used to eat, breakdown, and digest the food you consume. Roughly 10% of your calorie usage can go to this effort. Some foods require more calories to digest than others. Protein requires the most energy to break down with roughly 20-35 calories burned for every 100 calories consumed. Processing carbohydrates burns between 5 and 15 calories for every 100 consumed. Higher fiber carbohydrate foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains require more energy to break down than refined “white” carbohydrates. Fats take the least amount of energy to break down and use only about 2-3 calories per 100 consumed.
The final component to your Total Metabolic Rate is the obvious- the calories burned from daily activities and purposeful exercise. It may seem unfair, but physical activities only account for 10-15% of your daily energy expenditure. But don’t despair! There are many things we can do throughout the day to rev up each of these areas of metabolism.
Get More Muscles
Think of muscles as little calorie and fat burning engines. While you cannot turn fat cells into muscle cells, you can build more muscle with weight and resistance training which will increase your resting metabolic rate, helping you to burn more fat. When we have more muscle mass we burn more calories while resting, even sleeping!
Include purposeful cardiovascular exercise 4 to 6 days a week to burn more calories and reduce fat stores.
Even small activities like chewing gum, pen clicking, fidgeting, pacing, and toe tapping contribute to calorie burning. A 2005 Mayo Clinic study found that normal weight people “fidgeted” more than obese people. The obese people were found to sit for an average of 2.5 hours per day more than the lean study volunteers. The lean volunteers burned 350 more calories per day simply by being more active over the course of the day. Think about how long it takes to reach 350 calories burned on a treadmill! Get up and move around if you find yourself sitting for too long. Park far from the store, use the stairs, play with the kids, etc. Don’t get the mindset that just because you got your run in that you can be lazy the rest of the day. You could miss out on thousands of calories burned every year!
Eat Enough Calories
Over restricting calorie intake can put the brakes on your metabolism. When you cut back too much on calories, your body responds as if you are starving and will hold on for dear life (literally) to all available energy stores. This is thanks to our pre-historic ancestors who were able to stay alive even when food was scarce. Also when you don’t eat enough to support your basal metabolic needs your body may start to break down muscle. Remember muscle mass helps boost metabolism. Although everyone has different needs, try not to go below a minimum of 1200 calories/day as a general rule of thumb, especially if you training hard.
Eat smaller more frequent meals and snacks. Do not go more than 4 hours without eating.
When your body knows that it will soon be fed again, it will be happy to burn calories without fear of an impending food shortage. Eating regularly will help prevent you from getting to the “I’m starving!” stage where you tear open the cabinets and gorge. Researchers from Georgia State University reported that athletes who ate 250 calorie snacks three times/day in addition to 3 regular meals increased their metabolic rate, ate less at regular meals-lowering total calorie intake, and reduced body fat levels. (Presented at the 2005 American College of Sports Medicine Annual Meeting)
Protein, Fiber, Complex Carbs
Eat some protein and healthy high fiber carbs at each meal and snack. Protein, fiber, and healthy fats slow digestion and will help keep you satisfied longer. Some simple examples include: small bowl of high fiber cereal with a handful of almonds, an egg and a piece of fruit, salad with grilled chicken and a yogurt, hummus and carrot or celery sticks, handful of walnuts and ½ cup blueberries, Ezekiel bread and nut butter, lean turkey wrapped in lettuce leaf. Eat at least 2 fruits and 3 low starch vegetables every day. This is an absolute minimum, aim for more-especially the veggies! Protein and high fiber foods take the most energy to digest. Don’t forget to include some healthy fats from nuts, seeds, oily fish, avocado, and olives.
We know how important it is to stay hydrated, especially when we are active, but it may also give our metabolism a boost. According to a 2003 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers found an increase in metabolic rate of 30% shortly after drinking about 2 cups of water. The authors of the study also noted energy was used to warm the cold water, so add some ice cubes to burn a few extra calories. Now, there is no need to drown yourself with ice water, over-hydration can be dangerous-especially for runners.
Tea, caffeine, and spices
Green tea, caffeine, and spices such as ginger, cayenne pepper, and curry spice (which is a blend of spices including turmeric) may give your metabolism a slight boost. They won’t be a magic bullet for weight loss, but they can make your diet much more exciting and flavorful. Replace that diet soda with a cup of green tea and you’ll also get a nice serving of healthy antioxidants. Multiple studies have found diet soda to be associated with a greater risk of weight gain and expanding waistline.
Omega 3 Fats
Omega 3 fatty acids found predominantly in cold water fish have been shown to have a beneficial effect on metabolism with regular intake. They help suppress appetite, increase fat metabolism and energy expenditure, and reduce fat storage. If you don’t like fish look for a high quality fish oil supplement containing EPA and DHA-the potent part of “fish oil”. The amount of EPA and DHA should add up to about 1000mg/day. Cheaper supplements will often have less EPA and DHA per pill.
Journal of the American College of Nutrition
Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism
Joslin Diabetes Center