Boosting your metabolism
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April 22, 2007 6:00 AM
A slow metabolism is often the scapegoat for problems with body weight. Dieters may comment that they are having trouble losing weight because they have a slow metabolism and envy the capability of thinner persons to maintain their lower weight because of a high metabolism. What is metabolism and how much does it relate to weight control?
Most people use the term "metabolism" to mean the rate at which the body uses calories. Calories are used for important body functions like breathing, heart rate, waste removal, growth and repair of tissues. Even while you are sleeping, these activities take place. This is referred to as your "resting metabolic rate" (RMR) or "basal metabolic rate" (BMR).
Additional calories are obviously used when the body is moving, with the rate of calorie burning increasing as the activity becomes more intense. Calories are also needed to process food eaten — digestion and absorption.
The resting metabolic rate varies from one person to another because of a number of factors. One of these is genetics. Some people are born to burn calories at a faster pace than others. Besides genetics, a body supporting more muscle, may also have a higher metabolism. Men tend to have a higher metabolism than women.
The timing and availability of food (calories) consumed can affect the rate of calorie burning as well. When the body undergoes periods of food deprivation, it slows the metabolism in order to conserve calories. Activities such as yoyo dieting (severely restricting calories followed by overeating) or skipping meals can set up this type of response by the body. This makes it more difficult but not impossible to lose weight.
If the body is so determined to protect itself from starvation, then how do we maximize our metabolism to lose weight? One of the best responses is to be physically active. Some activities burn calories. Those involving strength building can increase or protect muscle — muscle burns calories. More muscle means more calorie-burning. Metabolism is also raised somewhat for a period of time shortly after exercise.
Some recent studies are suggesting a relationship between sleep and body weight. People who get less sleep tend to weigh more. Adults should be getting around 7-8 hours of sleep nightly, while children and teens need at least 9-10 hours. Not only does sleep alter messengers in the body that regulate appetite, but being awake longer, may mean more time to eat. A number of overweight individuals consume extra calories, especially from less healthy calorie-dense foods, in the evening. Going to be earlier could prevent this extra eating episode. Some people mistake feeling tired for being hungry.
A common pattern of eating among overweight individuals is to eat minimally throughout the earlier part of the day and then consume larger amounts from mid-afternoon through the evening. This might look like a cup of coffee or more in the morning, skipping breakfast and lunch or eating minimally until getting home late afternoon. The body then tries to compensate by over-consuming for the rest of the day.
The alternative pattern, which is likely to result in a more normal body weight, is eating three meals with healthy snacks between. This means eating every three to four hours. The body is then comfortable with consistent fuel coming in throughout the day and does not slow the gears down. The added benefit is that your brain and your body will have adequate energy. It also means you will be in better control of the amounts and type of foods you eat.
To increase the chance that the food from each of these meals and snacks lasts for the three to four hours, try matching a carbohydrate source (your primary fuel) with protein and fiber. This allows the energy from the carbs to be available in a "time-release" type fashion. More processed/refined carbs tend to be used up more quickly and leave you low on fuel before the next eating episode.
Some supplements and weight loss products claim to boost metabolism — some actually do while others do not. Those that do only change the metabolism slightly. Most of these contain some form of stimulant that raises your heart rate. This can produce negative side effects such as heart palpitations, elevated blood pressure, trouble sleeping, and anxiety. It can also be dangerous if you are taking certain medications.
Safer ways to boost your metabolism and prompt healthy weight loss include doing at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise most days of the week and doing exercises to increase or maintain your muscles by taking them to fatigue two to three times a week. For cardiovascular exercise, the longer and/or more intensely you exercise, the more calories you burn. If you are using weight machines or free weights, skip a day between working the same muscle so the muscle has a chance to recover.
Food goals include eating every three to four hours and choosing carbs plus protein plus fiber each time you have a meal or snack. Start the day by eating within about an hour or so after waking to kick-start your metabolism.
Pamela Stuppy, MS,RD,LD is a registered, licensed dietitian with nutrition counseling offices in York, Maine, and at Whole Life Health Care in Newington. She is also the nutritionist for Phillips Exeter Academy.