#Health & Fitness

Taking the Mystery out of Metabolisms

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Taking the Mystery out of Metabolisms

Genetics determine your metabolic rate, but you can make healthy lifestyle changes to have a say in nature's way. 

Just last week, I chided a friend about skipping meals in an attempt to lose a few pounds. “It slows down your metabolism, so you’ll just gain weight,” I reasoned. “How does it do that?” she wanted to know. “Well … it … okay, I don’t know. But it does!” I responded, rather sheepishly.

Anyone who has picked up a health or fitness magazine has read about the need to keep our metabolisms “revved up” to burn calories efficiently and that certain bad habits—like waiting too long in-between meals or omitting them altogether—are detrimental to the cause. All too commonly, the actual explanations for why our metabolic rates increase and decrease are edged out by diet buzz words and cheesy motivational messages. Perhaps if we understood the basic workings of the metabolism and how our actions affect it positively or negatively, it would be easier to adopt the lifestyle changes necessary for keeping it at an optimal rate.

I consulted Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, a registered dietician with Nutrition for You, to find out the answers to the most common questions his clients have about the mighty metabolism.

What’s a metabolism?
Metabolism refers to your body’s ability to digest and utilize food energy (in calorie form) in order to maintain essential bodily functions like breathing and regulating heartbeats. “It’s the amount of calories that your body uses to make sure that it’s continually surviving,” Villacorta explains. One’s metabolic rate is determined by how quickly it can use up consumed calories, and that rate is affected by a variety of factors: age, weight, exercise, eating habits, and so forth. In order to condition our metabolisms to perform at peak levels, we must address each of these factors when coming up with a plan.

Are people really born with fast or slow metabolisms?
“Metabolic rates vary based on genetics,” he says. “It’s kind of like your fingerprint.” However, that doesn’t mean that metabolic rates are set in stone. Just like other genetic predispositions, they can be affected by making certain lifestyle choices, such as eating well and developing more muscle mass. The more muscle mass one has, the higher the metabolic rate. Villacorta likens muscles to bundles of cells that are “like engines creating energy.” He says that metabolic functions can increase by fifty calories for every pound of muscle gained.

Why do I put on weight more easily now than five years ago?
Even if our eating habits don’t change over our lifetimes, we still are more likely to put on weight as we age. That’s because our metabolisms naturally slow down as we get older. Therefore, if we want to maintain our weights, we have to adjust our calories accordingly as the years pass. “About every ten years, metabolic rate decreases about 10 to 15 percent,” Villacorta says. “So when [my clients] in their forties say, ‘My old tricks aren’t working anymore,’ I tell them it’s because their metabolic rates have completely changed.” He advises that people reevaluate their diets at these points to keep the pounds off.

Is an apple a good snack?
Fruit is always a great idea for a snack, but an apple or a banana alone might not be as beneficial as we think. Incorporating different food groups into a snack actually makes our bodies work that much harder at digesting everything, thereby increasing our metabolic rates. “You want to keep your body working all the time,” Villacorta explains. “If you have an apple, add some almonds and low-fat cheese.” He finds that many people eat too minimally in the hopes of losing weight. A plain salad with chicken seems like a healthy choice, but he actually says this is one of the worst meals one could eat. With a meal like that, “you’re not adding grains or fats, which help your metabolic rates,” he says. “It’s the combination of things that help; not just having one thing.”

What types of exercise will increase metabolic rate?
“Definitely strength training,” he advises. One common mistake that people make is putting too much of an emphasis on cardio. Though cardio is important, muscle mass is what speeds up our metabolisms. Ideally, there should be a balanced combination of the two for health reasons alone. To get our metabolic rates revving, Villacorta suggests doing strength training three times a week, with each session lasting thirty minutes.

Do women’s and men’s metabolisms work differently?
“It’s the same for both of them,” he explains. However, because men tend to have more muscle (and can build it more easily) than women, their metabolisms are often more efficient. Women carry more fat for reproductive purposes, so it can be harder for them to achieve the same metabolic increases as their male counterparts. Regardless of gender, people need to perform the same kinds of actions—eating frequently, exercising, and so forth—to keep their metabolic rates up.

Why do I have to eat breakfast in the morning?
Villacorta (and almost all dieticians) believe that delaying meals is one of the worst things that people can do when trying to maintain or lose weight. He explains the need for breakfast: “During the night, even though you’re sleeping, your body is still at work … but you’re not fueling. Because you’re not fueling, your body has to preserve whatever it has, so metabolic rate slows. Delaying breakfast will slow you down even further, which with time, will make you build more fat.” Basically, eating first thing in the morning gives your metabolism that necessary first boost to keep it running smoothly and efficiently for the rest of the day.

And that’s eating first thing in the morning—he is quick to point out that eating a few hours after waking up is when we should be having our first snack, not our first meal. (He is a big proponent of eating smaller meals every three hours to keep metabolic rates steady and speedy.) “Breakfast should be eaten within the hour of waking up,” he says. His recommended metabolism-jumpstarting breakfast? A cup and a half of high-fiber (5 grams or more) cereal, flaxseed meal, 1/2- to 3/4-cup of blueberries, and soy or low-fat milk.

Understanding our metabolisms can help us eradicate the misconceptions many of us have—misconceptions that may be impeding our health and weight loss goals. Quick but temporary solutions, such as fad dieting, skipping meals, or only following one of the suggested metabolism-boosting guidelines (such as focusing on cardio or only watching our diet) can have an adverse effect on our goals. Instead, we should aim for a balance between exercise and sensible eating habits to keep our metabolic rates working for us, not against us.