Can you really boost your metabolism? When most people think of what it means to have a “high metabolism,” they picture someone who’s “luckily” naturally thin. We assume these people can maintain a healthy body composition mostly due to their genetics, despite whether they try to eat a healthy diet and exercise or not.
While a properly working metabolism is definitely important for preventing unwanted weight gain, boosting your metabolism is also critical for many other bodily functions related to maintaining general health.
What does “metabolism” really even mean? Technically, metabolism is all of the chemical reactions that take place in a living organism every day to keep it alive. Our metabolism is the process of the body turning calories we consume into usable energy. Calories (also called kilojoules) are really a measure of energy, and our body depends on getting enough of them to keep us functioning in all aspects of life.
Every single system within the body, from the endocrine system to digestive system, is linked to our rate of energy production at the cellular level. A strong metabolism is tied to more than a svelte body — it’s beneficial for immune function, lower rates of infectious and degenerative diseases, fertility and a healthy sex drive, lean muscle mass, having more energy and vigor, brain functionality, longevity, and much more. Your brain is actually one of the biggest benefiters of a strong metabolic rate, since its energy demands are extremely high — approximately 16 times more energy is needed to keep the brain working than to support skeletal muscle! (1)
Your metabolism naturally slows steadily after age 40, which means you need to proactively add certain metabolism boosters into your daily life to keep yourself feeling and acting young.
Are You in Need of a Metabolism Boost?
Your metabolism is determined by several factors, including your genetic makeup, body composition (percent of muscle mass and fat), gender, hormonal health, level of activity and age. Some of these factors are within your control (like muscle mass and activity level, for example), while others are not (genetics and age). Luckily, there are some proven metabolism boosters that can kick-start the body into using calories more efficiently, protecting the body from disease and slowing down signs of aging.
Your metabolic rate determines how well you can “burn” calories, and this has a big impact of on your appearance, mood and energy levels — which is why most of us strive to achieve a higher metabolism. If you fear that you’re “just one of those unlucky people” with a slow metabolism, you’ll be happy to know that this isn’t necessarily true. In fact, studies have shown that people who identify themselves as having a fast metabolism don’t actually differ that much in terms of calorie expenditure compared to others who assume they genetically are at a metabolic disadvantage. (2)
How do you know if you’re in need of a boost to your metabolism? Here are common signs you’re suffering from less-than-ideal metabolic functioning:
- ongoing fatigue
- cold body temperature, frequently feeling cold
- thinning hair on your head
- cracked, dry, skin
- low libido and poor sexual health
- irregular periods
- slow-growing, brittle fingernails
- trouble sleeping through the night
- constipation and slow-moving bowels
- bloating after eating
- mood disorders like anxiety and depression
- frequently urinating
- struggling to lose weight
- excessive thirst and dry mouth
- trouble concentrating or brain fog
- allergies and hypersensitivities
- low energy levels
- low motivation for physical activity
- getting sick more often
How Diets Can Sabotage Your Metabolism
Healthy metabolic function is one of the body’s ultimate forms of protection — and we need to consistently eat and rest enough to keep ourselves thriving. While cutting or counting calories is usually most people’s go-to approach for attempting to lose weight, taking this too far can have a negative impact on metabolism, ultimately backfiring in terms of fat loss.
On a cellular level, the pathways of your metabolism rely upon your nutrient intake. You need to obtain various nutrients, including proteins, carbohydrates, fats, trace minerals and vitamins, in order to produce energy that is then used by the body to synthesize new tissue and proteins in the form of nucleic acids. While calorie intake varies from person to person, we all need to meet our needs in order to supply the necessary chemicals that are used for building, upkeep and repair of all body tissues. Very low-calorie diets miss key nutrients, which robs the body of raw materials like carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus or sulfur, which are supplied in carbohydrates, lipids, protein and water from our diets.
Weight loss potential decreases when your body becomes convinced that you’re starving and deprived of calories. Even though you might intentionally cut calories and work out more, the body can’t tell the difference between starvation done “on purpose” and the kind we experience during times of famine. Dieting over and over sends the signal of deprivation and starvation to your metabolic hormones as well, which means you unknowingly hold on to every precious calorie you eat in order to ensure survival!
In addition, to support a healthy and stable weight, one of the most compelling reasons to work on increasing your metabolism is that this keeps us from prematurely aging and getting sick often. When you have a sluggish metabolism, the body’s natural defense mechanisms and levels of immunity drop, as you become more susceptible to lurking viruses, yeasts, fungi, parasites and bacteria that surround us.
Too little energy (calories) coming in means the metabolism has less fuel to work with. You’re more likely to deal with the common cold, reproductive problems, mood changes or various infections when your metabolism slows down, since this is a sign that the body is putting its limited energy elsewhere. When there’s only so much energy to go around, we have a built-in system that ensures we devote our energy resources to essential daily functions like keeping our hearts beating, lungs breathing and so on.
6 Practical Metabolism Boosters to Practice Now
1. Stop Dieting! Give Your Body the Calories It Needs
If you’ve ever been on a diet in the past (and who hasn’t?), you probably noticed yourself becoming moody, tired and possibly even sick more frequently. These are signs of your metabolism becoming more sluggish. On the other hand, keep your body properly fueled and it will perform much better in all areas of life.
As explained above, if you live in a calorie deficit because your exercise level is too high and food intake is too low, your metabolism gets the message that it must slow down all functioning to conserve energy. You can wind up entering a catabolic state known as “starvation mode” that causes hormonal and cellular changes that drive up your hunger and thirst, while slowing down your fat-burning abilities and muscle growth. I recommend you stop counting calories and instead focus on nutrient density.
Eating enough every day, especially when you consume calories from a variety of unprocessed whole foods, is critical for cognitive, hormonal, sexual and digestive health. People who are well-fed and avoid yo-yo dieting often experience better digestion, positive moods and more motivation, stronger desire to be active, better mental health, stronger sex drive, and more stable blood sugar levels. Eating enough usually means you have more motivation to be active, gain strength and muscle mass quicker, and feel less fatigued. (3)
Another benefit of eating enough calories every day for your body’s needs is that you’re much more likely to have a healthier relationship with food. Being deprived can increase cravings and preoccupation with “forbidden” foods, while practicing balance and moderation allows you to make better decisions related to healthy eating long term. You’ll have the ability to go longer periods without needing snacks and without any noticeable discomforts, less mood fluctuations, fewer energy changes and better digestive function when you work on boosting your metabolism by eating enough.
One of the best ways to make sure you keep your metabolism humming along is to eat consistently throughout the day, not skipping meals — like skipping breakfast — in an attempt to cut calories. This is especially true for breakfast, which is a meal that has been tied to better weight and mood management. Meal timing can look differently for different people, some choosing to eat three square meals a day with fewer snacks, while others prefer eating smaller meals but more often. Either approach is OK as long as it keeps your energy, blood sugar and hunger levels stable.
In fact, if you try a keto diet and are able to reach a state of “ketosis,” the end result is staying fueled off of circulating high ketones. These can alter your metabolism in a way that some people like to say turns you into a “fat-burning machine.”
2. Get Plenty of Rest
There’s a proven link between a properly functioning metabolism and getting adequate sleep and rest — lack of sleep can mean lack of weight loss. “Running on fumes” can seriously slow down your metabolism since the body works to conserve energy when it’s fatigued. Make it a priority to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night in order to keep hormone levels in check, including cortisol, which leads the body to store more fat. High cortisol levels associated with a lack of sleep are tied to poor mental functioning, weight gain and becoming more resistant to insulin that controls blood sugar.
Another way to maintain hormonal balance is to rest enough between exercise days. Overtraining repeatedly causes fatigue, muscle loss and a lower metabolic rate, not the opposite as you might think. Exercise impacts your hormonal status, and intense workouts without rest elevate cortisol levels. This winds up impairing insulin sensitivity, stalling the body’s ability to recover from workouts and damaging the processes that repair and build healthy muscle tissue.
3. Try High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
Exercise of any kind is important for keeping metabolic function working into older age. Some studies have found that while metabolism usually declines as someone gets older, this isn’t necessarily the case if you stay active and maintain muscle mass. A 2001 study published in the American Journal of Physiology showed that there wasn’t a significant difference in resting metabolic rate between groups of young and older physically active men who were matched for exercise volume and estimated energy intake. (4) A decline in metabolism seems to be related most to age-associated reductions in exercise volume and calorie consumption but doesn’t always occur in men who maintain exercise volume and eat enough to support their needs.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT), a form of exercise that features intervals that vary between all-out effort and short periods of rest, is known to especially jump-start metabolic functioning better than steady-state workouts can. Quick bursts of intense exercises — such as sprinting, cycling, or burst training and plyometrics — help the body continue to burn calories even after your workout is over, a concept known at the “afterburn effect.”
One of the best things about HIIT workouts is that they require less time than traditional cardio workouts, yet they have more profound benefits. Several studies have investigated the effects of calorie expenditure and fat loss in adults practicing HIIT workouts and have found that while HIIT typically burns fewer calories during the actual workout when compared to steady-state cardio exercise, HIIT can result in more fat loss due to its overall effect on metabolism. (5)
This phenomenon is due to the way the body uses higher levels of oxygen to recover following intense physical activity. HIIT burns more fat over the duration of the day, builds more muscle and improves metabolic function compared to steadier exercises. These workouts are also effective for improving cardiovascular function, helping with insulin sensitivity, lowering cortisol, and improving respiratory endurance and stamina.
4. Start Lifting Weights
Lifting weights can help speed resting metabolic rate because it builds lean muscle mass, which naturally uses more calories than body fat does. To gain muscle means to increase the amount of metabolic work your body needs to do daily in order to just keep you going, since muscle tissue is more active than fat is. (6) Find a way to practice resistance training regularly, whether this means trying CrossFit workouts or simply using dumbells and performing body resistance moves at home. If you are trying to gain muscle quickly, I recommend ideally doing heavy weight training of six to 12 reps, five days a week for 45–75 minutes.
5. Avoid Inflammatory Foods
Certain foods slow down digestive processes and increase free radical damage, which is the cause of aging. You can think of these as “metabolism death foods.” The body recognizes processed and inflammatory foods as toxins, and therefore eating these triggers your innate immune system’s fight-or-flight response, which increases stress hormone production and slows down metabolic functioning. Sadly, even some foods that seem “healthy” are the culprits for unwanted weight gain, thyroid dysfunction, ongoing fatigue, hormone imbalance and digestive distress.
I recommend avoiding the following foods as much as possible:
- sugary drinks (including soda and juices)
- processed foods made with grains, especially the kind that contain gluten (including wheat products like bread, pasta, cereal, crackers, muffins, desserts, flours, chips and granola bars)
- refined vegetable oils
- artificial sweeteners and ingredients
- low-quality dairy and animal products (the kind that are not grass-fed, pasture-raised, raw and organic)
6. Add Metabolism Power Foods
Certain foods might help the body use and expend energy better. This has to do with the thermic effects of some foods, meaning the body works harder to break down and metabolize certain fat-burning foods, in some cases because the food has a warming effect on the body that uses up calories.
Eating enough protein, for example, is tied to a strong metabolism, as are some spicy foods and also drinking natural forms of caffeine in moderation, like coffee or tea. Packing in healthy high-protein snacks and sources throughout the day — in the form of wild-caught fish, cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef or raw dairy products, for example — is one the simple metabolism boosters that also keeps you full for longer. Protein is beneficial for keeping energy and blood sugar stable while also helping build calorie-burning lean muscle mass. (7) Eating foods with protein naturally forces your body to use up more calories during the digestion process than when you eat carbs.
Green tea is another healthy addition to your diet, since its consumption has been considered a natural metabolism booster for centuries thanks to special antioxidant compounds in addition to low levels of caffeine. Garlic is another food that acts as a thermogenic in the body, which revs up the metabolism’s heat-producing effects. It’s also tied to lower blood sugar levels and less fat accumulation thanks to a compound called allicin.
Naturally warming foods like cayenne pepper, chili and other spicy ingredients are known to increase heat in the body thanks to an active compound called capsaicin. There’s evidence that warming spices like cinnamon, pepper and ginger aid in lipid oxidation, which is the process of burning fat for energy — obviously highly desirable when weight loss is the goal. These antioxidant-packed spices also might help decrease appetite and slow the growth of fat cells.
Lastly, let’s not forget about apple cider vinegar, one of my favorite ingredients for digestive health and balancing blood sugar.
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