What is metabolism and can you actually speed it up? More importantly, should you?

What is metabolism and can you actually speed it up? More importantly, should you?

By Trisha Malhotra

Think of metabolism like a hamster running on a wheel to light up a bulb. When the hamster runs fast, the bulb is brightly lit, and when it slows down the bulb is dimmer. Younger people tend to have a more robust hamster on the wheel, but the hamster slows down as you age. 

A common myth about metabolism is that you need it to be sped up to lose weight. Why? Because the higher your metabolism, the more calories you burn per minute. In fact, this is called your basal metabolic rate. The idea is that when your metabolism is slow, the food you consume is stored in your body as fat rather than being burned up for fuel. How true is this?

The truth: Metabolism doesn’t matter… as much as you think

Weight loss supplements love to advertise their metabolism-boosting effects. But the truth is that your metabolism is partly genetic, and therefore, its manipulation is highly outside of your control. In fact, whether or not you can change it beyond a temporary boost is up for debate in the medical community. It’s hard to accept but some people are simply lucky. They can just eat large amounts of food without gaining weight. 

Others tend not to be so lucky and end up with a slower metabolic rate. But we don’t like being deterministic here. Genes are not the end all be all. In other words, you might not have the most metabolism-friendly genetic code, but you can adjust your lifestyle to prevent these genes from working against you.

The power of habit

Habits have power. For example, leaner individuals have been found to be more active in their everyday activities than overweight individuals. The surprising reason for this is fidgeting, wherein leaner people are in motion even during non-exercise activities. Shaking your leg while sitting, getting up and moving around more frequently during work hours, and fidgeting with your hands have a profound effect on how many calories you burn each day. 

Nobody knows if this subconscious tendency is genetically programmed, but this simple behavioral tick can subtract hundreds of calories each day. On the other hand, an obese individual might burn up more calories per day, on average, than a leaner person since it takes more effort for them to move around. But studies have shown that they also tend to be more sedentary, making it harder to lose body fat. So…

Weight loss = Nature + Nurture

The rise in the prevalence of obesity and lifestyle-related illnesses like diabetes can be attributed to sedentary lifestyles slowing down people’s metabolic rates. Exercise, age, and diet are crucial. But the truth is that, no matter what your metabolism is, calories in versus calories out is the true culprit behind weight gain. 

Any excess energy, regardless of your metabolism, will be stored in the body as fat. If you went into starvation mode, your body would preserve calories by slowing down its basal metabolic rate. Picture a tired and hungry hamster. You want to feed your hamster, but also help it burn those calories by moving around yourself. 

New research points to the existence of a set point- a weight at which our internal hamster is happy. If you were to be under your body’s set point by losing excess weight, you might feel chronic hunger that will bring your weight back up. More data is needed to ascertain how and why the setpoint exists. 

Should I speed up my metabolism to lose weight?

From eating a heavy breakfast to drinking green tea, you can boost your metabolism temporarily through a multitude of tricks. But is it even worth it? If you are prepared to feel more hungry and avoid acting on it, boosting your metabolism might work for you. Most people, however, counteract these effects by overeating. This backfires, and you might even end up gaining more weight. In other words, targeting your metabolism won’t give you the biggest bang for your buck when you’re trying to lose weight. 

Metabolism is a side effect of your habits and genes. The better way to phrase this statement is “Once I start losing weight correctly, my metabolism could also speed up.” But what does losing weight correctly look like? Essentially, it involves building more muscle mass by strength training, eating more lean protein and veggies, getting adequate amounts of rest, and gradually reducing caloric intake over months. The process is grueling and slow, but much more effective in the long run than just drinking green tea for breakfast. 



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