No doubt you’ve heard of the word metabolism. Most people will be familiar with the idea that it can slow down as you age and that a slow metabolism could be the cause of some unwelcome extra KG’s. So, what is it and why is it important to know a little bit about it?
In a nut shell, metabolism is the sum of all the chemical reactions taking place in your body. We often associate it with the rate at which our bodies produce or “burn” energy for movement and normal function. This is known as catabolism, the breaking down of molecules and is just half of the metabolic equation. The other half is the anabolic side, which includes repairing tissue, producing enzymes or hormones and building new cells.
Our bodies are amazing and there are many ways we can produce energy from a combination of fuels found in our blood, stored in our muscles or packed in some unwanted places as body fat. Metabolic issues arise when there is a breakdown in a metabolic process such as one of the steps involved when converting fuel to energy.
There are a stack of possible reasons we can experience metabolic sluggishness, which could include poor dietary and lifestyle habits, organ failure, disease, or it could be a result of genetic or hereditary conditions. Hereditary fructose disorder is an example of a rare condition where an individual has a deficiency in producing a specific enzyme responsible for one small step in the metabolic process of breaking down fructose, a common type of sugar. Without being able to produce FP1 aldolase (the missing enzyme) the person is unable to completely metabolise fructose leading to a build up of certain molecules in the body which will lead to serious health issues if left undiagnosed. Thankfully most of us don’t need to spend much time worrying about hereditary metabolic issues, however there is a vital link between our dietary and lifestyle habits and our metabolism which is important to understand.
Metabolism is like a fire
I recently heard Ryan Faenle, an accomplished nutrition and body building coach, use the analogy of metabolism being akin to a fire. With a lot of high quality fuel, the fire rages on but as the fuel burns down the flames die down so you add another log to the fire to build it back up. Similarly, when you have a consistent diet and are continually adding the right type of fuel to your body your metabolism will act like the fire that regularly has a new log thrown on top. However, making a large change to the amount or type of fuel you consume will change the nature and size of the fire. Understanding this and how it impacts your body can be your biggest advantage or it could be your biggest dietary trap.
Let’s say you start a diet (purely hypothetical of course) and consciously reduce the fuel available to your body. For a time, say 2 to 3 weeks, your body will source the fuel to make up the deficit from other places such as stores of fat and muscle glycogen which will likely result in weight loss. Yay! Winning! However, due to receiving less fuel your metabolic rate may start to adjust, becoming slower as you begin to preserve your remaining fuel stores. Your body craves stability and will do everything is can to adjust to it’s environment. If you continue restricting fuel, your metabolism will continue to slow down to protect you from fading away into a skeleton. This is why perpetual dieting or constant fasting can lead to a slower metabolism and why fat burning results from “dietary restriction” alone will generally reduce over time.
Yo-yo dieting or crash diets are even worse and are one of the least effective strategies when trying to lose weight. Although being on a calorie restrictive diet may give you some initial results, as you start to reduce your levels of stored fuel not only will your metabolism slow down but you will begin to experience hunger. With a small amount of will power this can be tolerated for a while. If you continue restricting calories further you’re hunger may become intolerable and you will experience an increase in cravings particularly for energy dense foods (the sugary, high carb stuff). Indulging in the foods you’re craving will cause you to put on weight faster than you lost it and you’ll now be a step behind where you started. One step forward, two steps back!
Eating more can boost your metabolism
On the flip side, if your body starts receiving a gradual increase in fuel (you’re consuming more calories) it will begin to increase metabolic rate to break down, use, store or excrete the fuel faster as there is now more available. The flame gets bigger. This can be combined with other strategies to increase you metabolism, ensuring that while you increase your calorie intake you don’t just add it all to your hips. Building lean muscle mass is one strategy as muscle tissue is responsible for a large percentage of your metabolic rate due to it requiring a higher amount of energy to maintain and due to it making up approximately 40-50% of your total body weight. High intensity interval training is another proven method and there are also certain foods which have metabolism boosting properties that can be added into your diet plan.
Achieving sustainable body composition goals, creating the shape, ideal weight and tone you desire, usually requires a combination of strategies and tweaks over a number of cycles. There’s rarely shortcuts available in life and resetting your metabolism is no exception. A nutritious diet, proper exercise programming, healthy sleep habits and consciously living a healthier life takes a concerted effort. Boosting your metabolism and your energy expenditure efficiency requires holding a view of the bigger picture to properly plan for the phases and the challenges of your progress. Let me assure you it’s worth it. You’ll be rewarded with achieving the results that you want and creating sustainable healthy habits that you’re proud of in the process.
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