4 Ways to Make Over Your Metabolism

Starting in your 20s, your metabolism slows down by 2 to 4 percent a decade. But research says weight gain isn’t inevitable. Here’s how four women turned back the clock

by Shelley Levitt
woman on stairs image
Rita Tritter
Photograph: Ari Michelson

Sometime around age 40 or 45, you wake up and find yourself facing a labor problem: Your metabolism has staged a work slowdown. Whereas once it incinerated calories with the ferocity of an eight-burner Viking range, it now warms them with the timidity of an egg poacher. You’ve had to go up a jeans size or two . . . or three. If you’re a practiced dieter, you may turn to the weight-loss methods that have been so reliable in the past—and discover they no longer work.

Though this metabolic slowdown takes most of us by surprise, it has been developing for many years. Our metabolic rate—the total number of calories the body burns every day—dips 2 to 4 percent a decade starting in ourtwenties, says David Heber, MD, PhD, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. The cause of this decline is a shift in our body’s muscle-flab ratio. Every 10 years we lose five to seven pounds of muscle, which is replaced by fat, and this exchange continues for the rest of our lives. In metabolic terms, lean tissue is a champ, and fat is a -slacker: A pound of fat burns a mere three calories an hour, while muscle burns 14.

Say you’re a moderately active woman who burned 2,000 calories a day when you were 25. Keep exercising and eating exactly the same way, and you’ll burn 1,900 calories a day at 35. At 45, you’ll burn only 1,800.

And it gets worse. The loss in muscle mass accelerates when we approach menopause, and our levels of sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone drop. Wendy Kohrt, PhD, founder of the Image Research Group (Investigations in Metabolism, Aging, Gender, and Exercise) at the University of Colorado, found that our metabolic rate is highest when estrogen and progesterone are at their peak. When these hormones dip, we require about 70 fewer calories a day to maintain body weight. Jennifer Lovejoy, PhD, a researcher in Seattle who studied how body composition changes during menopause, estimates that over the roughly 10-year period of perimenopause and menopause, about 50 percent of women gain 10 to 15 pounds because of a lowered metabolic rate.

The bottom line: If you’ve gained weight and you’re thinking, “It’s not me; it’s my metabolism,” you could be right. However, with some tweaks to your diet and exercise regimen, you can get your metabolism to hum the way it did when you had a shag haircut and were living in your first apartment.

To effectively rev up your metabolism, you need to understand the components. Basal metabolic rate, or BMR (also called resting metabolic rate, or RMR), accounts for 60 to 75 percent ofdaily calorie expenditure. Sit still all day and your body will burn up this chunk of energy through activities like pumping blood, breathing and maintaining body temperature. An additional10 percent of your daily calories are spent on digesting food. The balance of your calorie tally—15 to 30 percent—is expended through movement, from tapping your feet as you listen to Pink to training for a half-marathon.

Your goal is to increase the number of calories burned in each of these areas. To do that, you need to eat and work out smarter, which will mean something different for each of us. Here, the stories of four women who took different paths to boosting their metabolism. You can try whichever strategies best suit your lifestyle and athletic abilities. Ladies, start your engines!

Rita Tretter's Secret: Constant Movement

Age: 52

Height: 5’5”

Used to weigh: 169 lb.

Now weighs: 133 lb.

At the end of 2011, Rita Tretter set out to lose weight, and at first she did. Without changing her diet, she dropped 17 pounds in three months by taking a one-hour power walk every day. But at 152 pounds she hit a plateau—and then started to gain. So in April 2012 she changed her strategy: She added running intervals to her morning walks  and began to build other mini bursts of movement into her life. A St. Paul, Minnesota, medical biller who works at home, Tretter typically spent 70 to 80 hours a week sitting at her desk. For her new regimen, she paced her house for a few minutes every hour, bounced in her chair while studying a spreadsheet and replaced her 2 pm coffee-and-chocolate break with a leisurely 15-minute walk outdoors. She found other means to be active as well. “I changed the way I do pretty much everything,” she says. Four months later, she’s 133 pounds, her weight at age 35.

Tretter’s behavior changes raised her level of what Mayo Clinic researcher James Levine has dubbed NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis. Basically, NEAT is all the movement you engage in that isn’t actually -exercise—so while Tretter’s morning run counts as a workout, all her other changes fall into the NEAT category. In this way, Levine says, the average person can boost her daily energy expenditure by 350 calories. “Just getting off your bottom and standing up requires so much muscular activity that your metabolism spikes immediately,” says Levine. Tretter’s new strategy was inspired by a compact-size gadget called the Gruve Personal Activity Monitor (gruve.com), which was specifically created to keep track of NEAT. The device counts the calories you burn throughout the day, and as the number rises, the Gruve changes color from red to orange to yellow to blue to—yay!—green. You can customize it with your own target: For example, to lose one pound a week, you have to burn roughly 3,500 calories a week, or 500 a day. Sit too long at your desk, and the device vibrates, reminding you to get moving. “Sometimes I hit green by 2 o’clock, but sometimes it’s 7:30 at night and I’m not at green yet, so I’ll take the dogs for an extra walk,” Tretter says. She isn’t the only one surprised, and heartened, by how effective mini bursts of exercise can be. In a new study, a team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen found that participants who worked out at moderate intensity for 30 minutes a day actually lost more weight than those who worked out vigorously for 60 minutes a day. In 13 weeks, the hour-a-day exercisers dropped five pounds, whereas those who exercised half as long dropped seven. Why? The study suggests that the latter group was deliberately more active throughout the day. “When people work out for an hour, consciously or not they tell themselves, Great, now I can sit on my butt the rest of the day,” says Mark Blegen, PhD, a researcher on the effectiveness of exercise on metabolism at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Also lifting Tretter’s metabolism: She has started sleeping through the night for the first time in decades. The reason that helps, says David Katz, MD, director of Yale University Prevention Research Center, is that when you’re sleep deprived, your hormones go haywire, leading to surging levels of insulin and cortisol, which in turn contribute to the accumulation of body fat. Furthermore, getting less than six hours’ sleep for just a couple of nights pumps up the hormone ghrelin, which tells us we’re hungry, and causes a slump in leptin, the satiety hormone that promotes sensations of fullness. “I feel younger than I did at 40,” Tretter says. “At 35, before my daughter was born, I felt perfect—slim and curvy—and I feel pretty much the same way now.” 

Kelly Boyer's Secret: Frequent Meals

Age: 47

Height: 5’4”

Used to weigh: 137 lb.

Now weights: 109 lb.

Kelly Boyer, who’d had a successful career in human resources, went back to school at age 38 to change fields—and ended up gaining the freshman 15. A lifelong foodie, she enrolled at Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and was soon preparing dishes such as banana-hazelnut soufflĂ© and braised lamb risotto with bucketfuls of butter and cream. At one point during the 18-month program, Boyer weighed 137 pounds, her all-time high. “I had a tire around my belly, breasts that had doubled in size from 32B to 34DD and ham hocks flopping from my upper arms,” Boyer says. “It was as if someone had flipped the metabolism switch to off.”

She tried several diets, including Weight Watchers, the Zone and Atkins. They all worked . . . kind of. “They’d get me down to 115, so I liked the way I looked,” she says. “But I was hungry all the time, and on diets where a big proportion of my calories was coming from beef, I felt as if my insides were dying.”

In the summer of 2005, after studying up on nutrition, Boyer stopped skipping breakfast (and sometimes lunch) and started a daily pattern of three small meals and two snacks. For example: ground turkey patty, poached egg and roasted broccoli for breakfast; apple slices with peanut butter for a late-morning snack; three ounces of grilled chicken with a white bean salad and asparagus for lunch; a few bites of hummus on cucumber wedges for a late-afternoon snack; and, for dinner, a four-ounce portion of steak and a big salad of arugula and tomatoes.

The strategy was a sound one. By spreading your total calories among frequent meals—without eating more overall—you supply your body with a steady stream of nutrients. This helps you avoid the spikes and dips in insulin levels that can make you drowsy at 3 pm or ravenous at 7. Those slumps often lead to poor food choices. “I’d get so hungry by 7 pm that I’d wolf down whatever I could get my hands on,” says Boyer.

Four months after she started eating mini meals, Boyer achieved her target weight of 108. She also had the energy to stick to a regular exercise program. In the past, she’d seesawed between two- to three-hour treadmill marathons at the gym and no exercise at all. “I used to be too tired to work out regularly,” she says. Now she exercises five days a week and builds high-intensity interval training into her 45-minute sessions (she runs at an I-can-barely-do-this pace for a minute every seven minutes). Those spurts help charge metabolism by increasing the number of mitochondria, the cell’s microscopic energy generators, and they burn fat nine times as effectively as endurance training.

As Boyer started looking tauter and more toned, many friends started asking for her secrets, so she drew on her culinary-school experience and launched Paleta (paleta.com), a meal-delivery business that focuses on fresh seasonal ingredients. Since its start in 2005, Paleta has served more than 15,000 clients.

Boyer says her mini meals and regular workouts have not only slimmed her but also soothed her. “I feel calmer and -smarter,” she says. “I feel more capable of making good decisions in everything from whether to add new services to my business to what kind of vacation to plan.”

Debbie Puig's Secret: No More Sugar 

Age: 53

Height: 5’2”

Used to weigh: 179 lb.

Now weighs: 139 lb.

In her midtwenties, Debbie Puig was an amateur body builder, entering local East Coast competitions in the middleweight division. She worked out four hours a day and followed a strict diet (one example she offers: “I’d weigh my lettuce”). Her weight was 125 to 133 pounds, with only 4 percent body fat. (A healthy range of body fat for women in their twenties is 21 to 32 percent.)

Over the next couple of decades, Puig gained weight, but to drop the pounds, she needed only a couple of extra sessions at the gym, some attention to portion size or a short Weight Watchers stint. Then, at age 52, she shot up to 175. “My clothes were tight, my arms and legs looked thick, and my stomach was hanging over my belt,” she says. None of her old weight-loss tactics worked. “I couldn’t understand what was happening to me,” she says.

The time for professional help arrived in September 2011 when Puig stepped on a scale and it hit 179. She hired Lauren Slayton, a registered dietitian and the founder of Foodtrainers, a New York City nutrition-counseling service. Reviewing her new client’s food log, Slayton immediately spotted a dietary villain: sugar. Puig gobbled Jolly Ranchers throughout the day and also regularly ate simple carbohydrates—which are basically sugar—in the form of pasta and rice.

Slayton swapped those offenders for foods that have a lower glycemic load (your GL is a number that estimates how much eating a certain food will raise your blood glucose level). Her suggestions included legumes, such as cannellini beans; whole grains, such as quinoa and brown rice; gluten-free pasta and bread; and nonstarchy fruits and veggies.

These low-glycemic-load foods are the utility infielders of weight loss. They kick up your metabolism by burning “hotter” than simple sugars and carbs, says Katz. This means your body must spend more calories to convert them into fuel, so the part of your metabolism that’s devoted to digesting food—what scientists call TEF, the thermic effect of food—is revved up. Furthermore, low-glycemic foods keep sugar levels steady, so you avoid the insulin spikes that can stimulate hunger. 

Puig’s diet from Slayton allows four servings of simple carbs a week, but these days Puig often skips them. “I don’t have those cravings anymore,” she says. Instead, she finds fullness in the roster of healthy fats that have been added to her diet: avocados, tuna in olive oil, whole eggs and yogurt with 2 percent fat. She has also integrated into her diet nutritionally rich superfoods such as green tea, chia seeds and shredded coconut. All show some evidence of boosting metabolism slightly.

Forty pounds lighter than she was just over a year ago, Puig says, “I feel like my body is running the way it should. I can honestly say that when I look in the mirror, I like what I see.”

Ashley Loging's Secret: More Muscle

Age: 35

Height: 5’8”

Used to weigh: 190 lb.

Now weighs: 135 lb.

Like the smoker who’s so good at quitting she’s done it a dozen times, Ashley Loging was a pro at losing weight. “I put 30 pounds on my hips with my first child and 30 pounds on my butt with my second,” she says. Each time, she explains, her weight-loss plan consisted of spending up to two hours a day “killing myself” on the treadmill and “starving myself” on 1,100 calories a day. She never ate breakfast and often skipped lunch, especially if she was meeting friends for dinner. That approach worked, but only temporarily. Loging would drop 15 or 20 pounds, then gain it back a couple of months later, a cycle that repeated itself a half dozen times.

According to experts, Loging was trapped in a doomed war with her metabolism. Skipping meals frequently puts your body into preservation mode, so it’s likelier to store calories as fat than to burn them, says Joy Dobust, PhD, RD, a Washington, D.C., nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Loging found a better strategy four years ago, when she signed up with Rick Kattouf, a fitness and nutrition coach who was training her husband for a triathlon. Kattouf changed Loging’s regimen radically. He slashed her cardio sessions to 30 minutes a day and added 30 to 40 minutes of weight training six days a week.

Building muscle through strength training is the only reliable way to kick up your basal metabolism (the energy required to keep your body functioning while at rest). But to achieve this, you need to work out consistently and  strenuously. In the past, Loging had done biceps curls and triceps kickbacks with three- or five-pound weights. That will get you toned but won’t necessarily increase your muscle, says UCLA’s Heber. “To do that, you need to stretch the muscle fibers apart to the point where they get inflamed and have to repair themselves,” he says. The energy expended in repairing is what burns extra calories.

Kattouf switched Loging to fewer repetitions with heavier weights, which grew even heavier as she got stronger. Today she works her biceps with 20- pounders and leg-presses 140 pounds, almost triple the 50 pounds she pressed four years ago. These strength-training sessions also raise her heart rate, giving her even more of a metabolic boost.

The bonus of any exercise session: afterburn, the extra calories your body expends to restore its pre-exercise equilibrium. One recent study showed that participants burned about 500 calories in 45 minutes of vigorous cycling and an additional 190 calories in the next 14 hours. Kattouf also tweaked Loging’s diet, upping her calorie intake to a healthier level of 1,500 to 1,900 calories a day. And he advised her to swap calorie-dense but nutritionally empty food, such as french fries, for fruits, vegetables, lentils and whole grains. At first, Loging was shocked at the volume of food she was consuming. “I asked Rick, ‘Are you sure I’m supposed to be eating this much?’ ” she says. But by normalizing her calorie intake with high-nutrient foods, she actually boosted her metabolism, and the weight started coming off. She dropped 40 pounds in 18 months and in October 2011 hit 135, a weight she’s maintained ever since. The best part, says Loging, is that she has simultaneously slimmed and toned. “Women who lose a lot of weight in a small amount of time often end up with a roll of skin hanging over their jeans or flapping from their arms,” she says. “But because I gained muscle as I lost pounds, I’ve been flab free.”

SHELLEY LEVITT is a Los Angeles–based freelance writer.

Next: (Almost) Everything You Know About Saturated Fat Is Wrong

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First Published Tue, 2013-02-05 14:55

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