Metabolism has been at the forefront of the health and wellness conversation for decades. While it’s incredibly complex and a topic that scientists continue to explore, having a basic understanding of metabolism is essential for anyone interested in optimizing their health. In a landscape muddled with questionable metabolism-enhancing products and dubious marketing claims, understanding the basics of metabolism becomes even more important.
In this guide, we'll dive into the science of metabolism and help you understand what it is, how it works, the factors that influence it, and practical methods to naturally boost your metabolism for improved overall well-being.
Your metabolism comprises an intricate series of biochemical processes that convert the calories you consume into energy that powers your body’s essential functions and physical activity [ 1
To better understand your metabolism, it's beneficial to familiarize yourself with the main components of energy expenditure and their relationship to metabolism. Here are some key terms to know [ 1 2
Total Energy Expenditure (TEE): This is the total energy your body uses daily. It includes energy used for essential bodily functions, physical activity, and the digestion and utilization of the food and beverages you consume.
Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): The number of calories your body uses at rest for things like breathing, blood circulation, hormone regulation, brain and nerve function, and cellular repair. Your BMR is primarily determined by the amount of muscle mass you have and accounts for 60-80% of the calories you burn each day [ 1 3
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR): This is very similar to BMR, but it also includes the energy used to digest food.
Thermic effect of food (TEF): The energy your body uses to digest, absorb, transport, and store the nutrients from the foods and drinks you consume. TEF accounts for approximately 10% of your daily energy use [ 3
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT): Energy used during everyday activities like doing chores, running errands, and even fidgeting.
Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (EAT): Energy expended during intentional exercise like running or sports.
NEAT and EAT can vary greatly depending on your daily activity levels and exercise habits, but movement-related activities typically account for 15-30% of TEE [ 3
Now that you have an understanding of the components of metabolism, let’s explore how metabolism works.
Two key processes are responsible for how metabolism works: catabolism and anabolism.
Catabolism is the process of breaking down complex molecules into smaller units, releasing energy in the process. It predominantly occurs during digestion, where dietary proteins, fats, and carbohydrates are broken down into amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars, respectively. These amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars serve as energy sources and building blocks for anabolic reactions that enable the body to maintain, grow, and repair cells and tissues. In the absence of food, the body breaks down muscle and fat tissue to generate energy for vital functions [ 4
Whereas catabolic reactions drive the breakdown of molecules and energy production, anabolic reactions promote the construction and repair of the body using energy generated by catabolism. When caloric intake from carbohydrates, protein, and fat exceeds the body's anabolic needs, the excess energy is typically stored as fat.
Both catabolism and anabolism are essential for life and are carefully regulated by hormonal signals in the body. Catabolic hormones (like cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline) stimulate the breakdown of molecules and energy production. In contrast, anabolic hormones (like insulin, estrogen, testosterone, and growth hormone) are crucial for synthesizing new molecules and supporting growth and repair [ 4
Many factors can influence how your metabolism functions. These include:
Age. Many adults lose muscle mass and become less active as they age, which can lead to a reduction in BMR [ 5
Sex. Men typically have a higher BMR than women of the same age and weight, as they tend to have more muscle [ 5
Muscle mass. Muscle tissue requires significantly more energy to build and maintain than fat tissue. Individuals with higher muscle mass will have faster metabolisms and require more calories to maintain their weight [ 5
Body composition. People with a higher body fat percentage tend to have a slower metabolism than people with a lower body fat percentage.
Genetics. Scientists have found that genes play a role in how much energy your body needs and how it burns calories and stores fat [ 6
Activity level. The more active you are, the higher your metabolism will be. Strength training can be particularly beneficial since it burns calories and also promotes muscle growth, which can increase BMR [ 5
Sleep. Not getting enough sleep can impair metabolism by disrupting the production of hormones that regulate appetite and energy expenditure.
Menopause. During menopause, hormonal shifts like declining estrogen and rising androgen levels can lead to muscle loss and increased abdominal fat, impacting energy expenditure and BMR [ 9
Hormones. Hormones like insulin, testosterone, estrogen, thyroid hormones, leptin, ghrelin, neuropeptide Y (NPY), and cortisol can impact hunger, feelings of fullness, blood glucose levels, and muscle mass and have a direct or indirect influence on your metabolism [ 10 11 12
Smoking. Nicotine increases metabolism and calorie burn —which is why many people put weight on when they quit. Still, the health risks of smoking far outweigh any metabolic benefits [ 5
Medications. Some medications can make you hungrier or reduce your body’s ability to burn calories. Common medicines that may affect your metabolism include antidepressants, mood stabilizers, corticosteroids, diabetes medications, anti-seizure and migraine medicines, and beta-blockers [ 13
Health conditions or disorders. Conditions such as Cushing's syndrome or hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid gland) can lead to a decreased metabolism and weight gain. Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid gland) increases one's metabolism and can make it challenging to keep weight on [ 5
Metabolism and weight are closely related since metabolism directly influences the number of calories the body burns.
A person with a slower metabolism, or BMR, will burn fewer calories at rest and during activity and thus require fewer calories to maintain weight. In contrast, someone with a fast metabolism will burn more calories and have to consume more calories to maintain their weight.
Despite differences in metabolism, all bodies are designed to store excess energy as fat and conserve energy when it is scarce. Consuming more energy (calories) than you need will lead to weight gain, whereas consuming fewer calories than you expend will result in weight loss.
Metabolism plays a significant role in weight loss and can be impacted by it as well. Regular physical activity and building lean muscle through strength training can elevate your BMR, promoting gradual weight loss and making it easier to maintain weight loss over time [ 14
Conversely, restricting calories to lose weight can reduce your BMR as your body tries to adapt to a lower calorie intake and conserve energy. A loss of lean mass, one of the downsides of weight loss, can further reduce BMR. A reduction in BMR related to weight loss can hinder progress but can be minimized through diet and exercise, like strength training [ 14
seven science-backed strategies to help you lose weightthat can help minimize impacts on metabolism and performance.
Metabolism plays a pivotal role in weight gain. Several factors, including genetic predisposition, hormonal imbalances, poor dietary choices, and a sedentary lifestyle, can collectively contribute to metabolic dysfunction and the accumulation of unwanted body fat [ 5 6
It is important to note that while certain medical conditions like Cushing's syndrome or hypothyroidism can indeed impede your metabolism and cause you to gain weight, these instances are relatively rare. In most cases, poor diet, low physical activity levels, insufficient sleep, and chronic stress are more significant contributors to weight gain [ 5 6
While weight is important, there’s much more to metabolism than the number on the scale. Your metabolism is closely linked to your overall health and can play a significant role in the prevention or progression of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
In cases of obesity, excess nutrients trigger inflammation in fat tissue, muscles, and other parts of the body, leading to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes [ 15
Metabolic disturbances can also increase your risk of heart disease. For example, obesity and diabetes can alter the heart's metabolism, leading to increased fatty acid uptake and decreased glucose oxidation. These changes promote insulin resistance, compromise the heart's energy supply, increase oxidative stress, reduce cardiac efficiency, and may contribute to structural changes in the heart [ 16
Given its role in regulating cell growth and repair, metabolism also plays a part in cancer development. Research has shown that people of normal weight who have metabolic problems face a higher risk of certain cancers, including colorectal, esophageal, pancreas, bladder, endometrial, thyroid, and breast cancer [ 17
An efficiently functioning metabolism helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels, helps balance inflammation, and supports healthy cardiovascular and immune function —all crucial factors in maintaining good health and reducing your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.
Now that you have a basic understanding of metabolism and the significant impact it can have on your health, here are six ways you can increase metabolism naturally and optimize your metabolic health.
The quickest way to increase your metabolism is to increase the amount of energy you expend. Any physical activity, whether a workout, errands, household chores, or a quick walk around the block, jumpstarts your metabolism by signaling to the body to utilize surplus energy. You can be more active by taking the stairs, parking farther away, or standing rather than sitting at your desk. In addition to making an effort to move more, experts recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity and two days of muscle-strengthening activity per week [ 18
Because muscle mass is the primary determinant of (BMR), the amount of muscle you have becomes particularly important as you age [ 5
Research indicates that inactive adults experience a 3% to 8% loss of muscle mass per decade, contributing to decreases in RMR and increases in fat accumulation [ 19 19
19]. As such, strength training is an effective and natural way to maintain muscle mass and metabolism as you age. One study found inactive people who did two resistance training sessions per week for ten weeks experienced an increase in muscle mass of 1.4 kg and a 7% boost in resting metabolic rate [
To give your BMR a boost, experts recommend including at least 2-3 strength training sessions in your weekly exercise routine to build and maintain muscle.
Incorporating plenty of nutrient-rich foods can further support a healthy metabolism. Here are some foods to include in your diet for a healthy metabolism.
Complex carbohydrates. Foods such as whole grain bread and pasta, brown rice, oats, farro, and barley provide a steady source of energy while minimizing spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels.
Lean protein. Foods like fish, poultry, eggs, lean meat, beans, tofu, and dairy products support muscle maintenance and growth, which can help increase your BMR.
Healthy fats. Foods such as avocados, salmon, olive oil, and nuts help regulate hormone production and maintain healthy cells.
Certain vitamins and minerals. B vitamins are essential for converting carbohydrates, proteins, and fats into energy; iodine for synthesizing thyroid hormones; and iron for growth, development, and overall metabolic function. You can get these vitamins and minerals through foods (like lean meat, eggs, dairy, fish, seafood, and edible seaweed) or supplements.
Eating a nutritious diet is the best way to support a healthy metabolism; however, supplementation can help cover any nutritional gaps or address deficiencies. For example, if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, supplementing with B12 (which can be harder to obtain from plant-based foods) can help ensure you get enough of these nutrients to fuel a healthy metabolism.
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Protein plays an essential role in building and maintaining muscle, which is vital for a well-functioning metabolism. It also requires more energy to digest and utilize than carbohydrates or fat and, therefore, can increase energy expenditure [ 20
Protein foods like lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, and dairy products can support a healthy metabolism and maximize muscle gains from strength training. You can also fill in the gaps with high-quality whey or plant protein
high-quality whey or plant proteinif you need help meeting your protein needs.
Because your body can only utilize 20-40 g of protein for muscle synthesis at a time, dividing your intake into 4-6 protein-rich meals will ensure your body has a regular supply of amino acids to support essential bodily functions, tissue repair, and recovery [ 21
Studies show insufficient sleep can increase levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin and decrease levels of the satiety hormone leptin, which directly increases appetite and food intake. Sleep deprivation can also disrupt the body's circadian rhythm, leading to changes in metabolism, energy expenditure, and appetite [ 22
Experts recommend a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night; however, more than one-third of Americans fall short of that mark. For optimal metabolic benefits, aim to get 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night.
Chronic stress is bad for metabolism as it increases the production of stress hormones (like cortisol), which can cause metabolic dysfunction through increased blood sugar levels, appetite, and fat storage. Chronic stress can also increase inflammation and make it harder to lose weight 23
harder to lose weight[
Specific lifestyle changes, like getting regular exercise, sleeping 7-8 hours each night, or adopting a meditation practice, can help relieve stress. Research shows that some supplements may also be helpful for stress management
some supplements may also be helpful for stress management.
Metabolism is a complex and essential aspect of overall health, encompassing processes that convert calories into energy that fuel our bodily functions. It works through catabolic and anabolic processes and can be affected by factors like age, gender, hormones, muscle mass, genetics, and lifestyle. Metabolism plays a central role in your health through its involvement in weight management and the prevention or progression of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Consuming a nutrient-rich diet rich in quality protein, remaining physically active, engaging in strength training, ensuring adequate sleep, and effectively managing stress are all crucial for maintaining a well-functioning metabolism.
Disclaimer: The text, images, videos, and other media on this page are provided for informational purposes only and are not intended to treat, diagnose or replace personalized medical care.
Your metabolism plays a crucial role in your overall health and well-being.
Muscle mass is the most significant determinant of your basal metabolic rate. Still, your metabolism can also be affected by factors like age, sex, diet quality, physical activity level, hormones, medications, and some health conditions.
Weight management is closely linked to metabolism, and metabolic dysfunction is associated with a higher risk of chronic health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
You can naturally increase your metabolism by eating a nutrient-rich diet rich in quality protein, remaining physically active, engaging in strength training, getting enough sleep, and effectively managing stress.
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