Metabolism often comes up in conversation when talking about weight loss. But what exactly is metabolism, what makes it slow vs. fast, and is there a way to speed things up?
As part of our “Real Talk” series on important topics related to your health journey, we’re covering all there is to know about metabolism and its role in your health and wellness. And busting some common misconceptions in the process!
What Is Metabolism and How Does It Work?
Simply put, your metabolism is the rate at which your body turns food into energy. After you eat, digestive enzymes break down proteins into amino acids, turn fats into fatty acids, and convert carbs into simple sugars like glucose. (1)
As amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars enter your cells they become your body’s source of energy, powering everything you do from moving to breathing to thinking. Or, they get stored as energy for later. (1,2)
This process of metabolism breaks down into two main buckets: (1,3)
- Anabolism (constructive metabolism): The growth of new cells, the maintenance of your body’s tissues, and the storage of energy for future use.
- Catabolism (destructive metabolism): The breaking down of tissues and energy stores to produce energy for the body.
While thousands of chemical reactions power this process, the end result is simple. It’s all about converting the food you eat to the energy you need to stay healthy and happy. (1)
Metabolism and Weight Loss
Because metabolism is the process of breaking down your food to convert it into energy, we often hear about metabolism as it relates to calories. A calorie is a measurement of the amount of energy stored in a food item. The more calories in a food or beverage item, the more energy it can provide to the body.
But, the problem is, when the body takes in more energy than it needs to power your everyday functions, it stores this extra energy for later use. And a lot of that storage becomes excess body fat. (1)
This is how metabolism plays a role in maintaining a healthy weight. It’s important to give your body the energy it needs. But it’s possible to overdo it with unhealthy calories that contribute very little to your body’s functioning.
Fast vs. Slow Metabolism
But why is it that we all have that one friend or family member who can eat almost anything and not gain weight? If calories are all about energy use, why is it that some people seem to need more calories than others to perform the same functions?
To put it simply, everyone’s body uses energy and calories differently. This results in different metabolic rates from person to person (aka fast vs. slow metabolism). There are several factors at play that influence these differences. But the biggest impact on the speed of your metabolism is your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
You use 60-70% of your daily energy intake to power your basal metabolic rate (BMR). These are the calories your body is burning just to function at rest. Because even when you’re resting, your body needs energy for pumping blood, breathing, digesting, growing, repairing cells, and more. (4,5)
Because BMR makes up such a large portion of your calorie-burning potential, this means that the speed of your metabolism comes down to how many calories you burn while resting. (5)
But here’s the catch: the speed of your BMR is mostly determined by the genes you inherit. (6) In other words, the speed of your metabolism often boils down to how lucky you were in the gene pool lottery. (4)
Factors That Affect Your Metabolism
Yep, it’s totally unfair. But don’t get frustrated yet! There are also other factors outside of genes that impact the speed of your metabolism:
- Muscle mass: It takes a lot of energy to maintain and grow muscle tissue. So the more muscle mass you have, the more calories your body will burn at rest. (5)
- Physical activity: Moving your body burns calories (and we’re not just talking about exercising but any form of movement!). While physical activity doesn’t play as big of a role in your metabolism as BMR, it does contribute to the total number of calories you burn throughout the day (especially if you’re more active vs. sedentary).
- Body size: A bigger body takes more energy to move, which means that the bigger you are the more calories you’re expending when you exercise or perform everyday activities. This is why it’s common to experience a weight loss plateau as you start losing weight. Because as your body gets smaller you burn fewer calories.
- Calorie restriction: Your body is paying close attention to how much energy it has available. So if you restrict your energy intake by eating less, it’ll slow down your metabolism to conserve energy. (4) (Scroll down to our later section on “eating regular meals throughout the day” to learn more about why this can make weight loss harder!)
- Medications: Some medications like contraceptives, corticosteroids, diabetes medications, antidepressants, heartburn drugs, and hormone therapies can affect your metabolism. (7) Talk to your doctor if you’re taking any of these medications to understand how they impact your health.
- Age: As you age, your metabolism slows down. But recent research shows that this actually happens later in life than we originally thought. Turns out that it’s not until you reach your 60s that your metabolism begins to decline.
How Do You Know if You Have a Fast Metabolism?
So a fast metabolism burns more calories at rest than a slow metabolism. But how do you know if your digestive processes are fast or slow?
Here are a few symptoms you might be experiencing if you have a fast metabolism: (8)
- Difficulty gaining weight
- Excessive sweating
- Lots of energy
- Faster heart and breathing rate
- Hotter body temperatures even at rest
- More frequency of bowel and bladder movements (learn more about bowel movements and other not-so-comfortable-to-talk-about body issues in our Real Talk series!)
- Constant hunger or appetite
- Irregular menstrual cycle
- A lower percentage of body fat
Signs you have a slower metabolism include: (7)
- Weight gain
- Feeling cold
- Constipation or infrequent bowel movements
It can feel harder to lose weight if you have a slower metabolism. But don’t assume that weight gain is inevitable if your metabolism is slow. A slower metabolism simply means that your body doesn’t need as many calories to operate efficiently. So weight loss with a slower metabolism is just a matter of understanding your body and what it needs. (8)
And the good news is that you can make changes in your diet and lifestyle to help boost your metabolism…
How to Boost Your Metabolism
You can’t change your DNA, which means there’s not much you can do to change your resting metabolic rate or BMR. And, as recent research points out, your body is going to follow a planned trajectory of metabolism changes as you age, and there’s little you can do to influence that trajectory.
BUT that doesn’t mean metabolism is totally out of your control. There are lifestyle changes you can make to help improve your digestive processes:
Enjoy a Healthy Diet
It’s not your metabolism that is causing weight gain. The biggest factor in weight gain is a poor diet that doesn’t give your body what it needs (or gives too much!). (4)
The key to a healthy diet is a balanced mix of macronutrients including complex carbohydrates (like fiber!), high-quality protein, and healthy fats. And cutting back on sodium, added sugars, and unhealthy fats (like saturated and trans fats).
Watch Your Calorie Intake
Support your metabolism by giving your body the energy it needs, but not more energy than it needs. For example, if you live a sedentary lifestyle, you don’t need as many calories as someone living a more active lifestyle.
But it's not just about the number of calories you're consuming… It’s about the quality of those calories. With increasing levels of sodium, unhealthy fats, added sugars, and processed foods in the average American diet, we’re feeding our bodies empty calories instead of the nutrition it needs.
Listen to your body and eat nutritious foods only when you’re hungry. This helps limit the intake of unnecessary calories that your body doesn’t need.
Check out our calorie calculator for help in determining how many calories you need each day!
Eat Regular Meals Throughout the Day
But this doesn’t mean you should restrict your calories drastically or skip meals entirely. (We know this can feel tempting to do when trying to lose weight!)
The problem with this strategy is that your body needs fuel to survive. So when you force your body into starvation mode, it stops burning calories (and fat!) and starts breaking down muscle tissue instead. And while this will lead to weight loss (hence the short-term success of fad diets!), this isn’t a healthy or successful long-term weight loss strategy. (5)
By eating regular meals you keep your metabolism running at its normal pace so it can do its job of burning calories and keeping you healthy.
This is because eating increases your metabolism. This is called the thermic effect of food—otherwise known as the energy used to eat, digest, and store the food you’re consuming. And some foods (like protein!) have an especially high thermic effect, meaning it takes more energy to digest and absorb. (4)
Boost your metabolism by enjoying a healthy meal! Get ideas for healthy recipes by downloading our FREE 310 Meal Prep E-Book.
Get 8 Hours of Sleep
One of the best things you can do for your health and wellness (metabolism included!) is to crawl into bed and get a full night’s sleep. Think of sleep as your body’s reset button.
It’s during sleep that your body processes the events of the day, resets your metabolism, recharges your immune system, balances your hormones, regulates your appetite, and so much more. Without enough sleep, every single system, tissue, and organ in your body suffers. (9)
So do your body (and your metabolism) a favor and aim for 7-8 hours of sleep every single night. And learn more about the power of sleep in our blog here.
Start an Exercise Routine
Physical activity can not only burn calories as you sweat, but it’s also a great way to gain or maintain lean muscle mass. And because muscle burns more calories than fat during rest, this helps keep your metabolism working properly, especially as you age. (1)
Check out our 30-day workout schedule for help in staying motivated when building a workout routine. And make sure you’re maintaining your muscle mass by incorporating high-quality protein into your diet, like our delicious 310 blend of pea, pumpkin, and brown rice protein.
Metabolism is not always in your control but what you can control is your diet, exercise, and a good night’s sleep! And there are supplements you can try for a little extra metabolism boost like our 310 Metaboost and our brand new 310 All-In-One Shake.
Interested in more Real Talk topics? Head to our blog here.