Do you or someone you know struggle with a slow metabolism? It’s a common complaint, but what does it really mean to have a slow metabolism? Does our metabolism slow down as we age, and is there anything we can do to speed it up and burn more calories to help with weight loss? In this article, I will explore these questions and provide guidance on how to increase your metabolism.
What is metabolism?
Your metabolism is the biochemical process that turns food into usable energy. Our bodies need energy all day every day, not just to run after your kids or crush it at your spin class. We need energy for functions such as breathing, thinking, circulating blood, processing food, adjusting hormone levels and growing and repairing cells. The number of calories your body uses to complete these basic functions is called your basal metabolic rate–your metabolism.
What does having a slow metabolism mean?
The food you eat is either used immediately for fuel or stored for later use. If your metabolism is slow, you’ll have a harder time using food for fuel and therefore the calories you consume will be more readily stored in your fat cells. As you probably guessed, this sets you up for easy weight gain and difficult weight loss. The goal in speeding up your metabolism is to do things that make it easier for your body to burn energy instead of store it, and therefore lose weight instead of gain it.
The speed of your metabolism is dependent on a handful of things, such as your age, gender, genes, body size and composition, physical activity and, of course, eating habits. Let’s talk about that first one for a minute: age.
You’ve likely been told that your metabolism starts tanking around age 30. While there is some truth in the idea that our metabolism slows down with age, it’s a little more complex than just having a birthday. As we get older, we experience hormonal changes that influence the way we burn and store fat. The pituitary gland slows its production of growth hormone, which stimulates cell growth and is important for building and maintaining muscle mass and utilizing fat for fuel. As women get closer to menopause, estrogen production declines, which can also affect metabolism. Additionally, most people are less physically active as they age due to working more hours, having babies, etc., in contrast to when they were in their 20s, so lifestyle factors can also be at play.
It is totally possible to speed up a slow or aging metabolism so don’t worry! Below is your guide to supercharging your metabolism at any age.
1. Drink lots of water
Many of us are in a constant state of dehydration. You’d probably pay closer attention to finishing off your Nalgene if you knew that drinking enough water can lower your appetite and boost your metabolism by as much as 30%. So simple, but so effective!
The recommended amount of water you need to drink is half your body weight in ounces daily (e.g. a 150 lb. woman should get 75 ounces). You might need to increase this if you live it a hot climate or get sweaty during a workout. Try to sip water between breakfast and lunch and between lunch and dinner. Avoid guzzling at meals because too much liquid can dilute the digestive juices needed to break down your food and absorb the nutrients.
2. Fast intermittently
During periods of fasting, the body calls upon its stored energy, breaking down fat to fatty acids to use for fuel. If you’re a beginner, start with fasting for 12 hours between dinner and breakfast (i.e. 7pm to 7am). As you become a better fat burner and build metabolic flexibility, experiment with extending this fasting window to 13 hours and up to 16 hours. In my experience, women are more sensitive to fasting than men so don’t push it!
3. Eat breakfast within 1-2 hours of waking
A good breakfast stabilizes your blood sugar which prevents insulin spikes, snack attacks and energy dips throughout the day. Your morning meal should include protein, healthy fat and fiber to help you stay full and energized.
4. Have a cup of coffee or green tea
Both coffee and green tea increase thermogenesis, the process by which your body produces heat, which can rev your metabolism and increase the number of calories you burn.
5. Ramp up antioxidants
Altered metabolism is linked to oxidative stress and inflammation, so boosting your antioxidant levels can help with this. Eat the rainbow! Aim to include at least two different colors on your plate at each meal–red from bell peppers, green from kale, blue from blueberries, etc. Try enhancing the flavor and antioxidants of your meals by including spices, such as turmeric, cinnamon, oregano, etc.
6. Eat fat to burn fat
Eating healthy fats (while limiting carbs and sugar) helps to train your body to burn fat for fuel. Fat burning takes more energy than sugar burning. My favorite metabolism-boosting fat is MCT oil. Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a special type of fatty acids which are quickly absorbed by the body and efficiently converted to fuel for immediate use, instead of being stored as fat. MCTs have been shown to enhance thermogenesis (heat production) in the body, thereby promoting fat burning.
7. Turn up the heat
…in your food by adding chilis and cayenne pepper. The capsaicin in these spices has been shown to boost metabolism by increasing thermogenesis. Put a pinch of cayenne pepper in your morning smoothie, or add some chili flakes to your egg scramble.
8. Stop snacking
This one surprises many of my clients because we’ve been told to eat lots of snacks or small meals throughout the day to keep our metabolism humming. This myth might be causing you to actually gain more weight! Here’s why: eating raises blood sugar, which also raises insulin.
Constantly elevating insulin will lock the doors to your fat cells so you can’t burn off stored fat for fuel. By spacing out your meals, your insulin levels can go back to baseline and your body can shift into fat-burning mode. If you’ve been on the grazing-train for a while, you’re likely a primed sugar-burner. To start shifting your metabolism to burn fat, try to go 4-6 hours between meals. To do this, you must include PFF (protein, fat and fiber) at every meal to elongate satiety.
9. Do HIIT and resistance training
HIIT stands for high intensity interval training (30-60 seconds of all-out work, followed by a couple minutes rest, and repeat). The harder the workout, the more calories are burned during and after thanks to the afterburn effect. No more slogging away on the treadmill for hours! Also, be sure to incorporate weight-bearing exercises into your workout routine to help you build more lean muscle mass. Muscle uses more energy than fat so increased muscle mass means increased basal metabolic rate.
10. Cut back on alcohol
Bummer, I know, but alcohol puts a major damper on your metabolism. When you drink, your body has to stop what it’s doing to deal with the alcohol. It puts burning calories on the backburner, causing your ability to burn fat to decrease by 73% after having just one drink! If you’re really keen to heal your metabolism, be mindful about how much alcohol you’re having each week, and perhaps try an alcohol-free month. You’ll be surprised by how much of a difference it can make!
11. Manage stress
The body’s main stress hormone, cortisol, is secreted by the adrenal glands in response to stress. When you’re stressed, cortisol is released into the bloodstream which increases hunger (cue cravings for fat, sugar and salt), slows your metabolism and makes you gain weight. Manage stress by incorporating at least one stress-reducing practice daily, such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, walking in nature and harnessing the power of adaptogens!
12. Get good sleep
Being sleep-deprived wreaks havoc on your metabolism, hunger hormones, insulin sensitivity and ultimately your waistline. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. At a very minimum, ensure you’re getting six. If you’re struggling to meet these guidelines, check out these sleep hacks and simply start by getting in bed 15 minutes earlier each week.