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We’ve heard people talk about metabolism. “She can eat anything. She has a fast metabolism,” or “Our metabolism slows as we age; that’s why we gain weight.” But do you really know what your metabolism is or how it affects our bodies? Read on as we explain metabolism, how it works, and what you can do to improve it.
“Metabolism is a vital tool our body uses to create and spend energy,” says Jendy Newman, RD, CDE, at PeaceHealth Southwest Specialty Clinic in Vancouver, Washington. “It’s often misunderstood and thought of as pure genetics, but there are many things you can do to affect your metabolism.”
Metabolism is a series of chemical reactions that occur in your body. The three primary purposes of metabolism are the conversion of the energy in food to energy available to run cellular processes; the conversion of food to building blocks for proteins, lipids, nucleic acids and some carbohydrates; and the elimination of metabolic wastes.
Metabolism is broken down into two processes: anabolism and catabolism.
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the number of calories your body needs to accomplish its most basic (basal) life-sustaining functions, such as breathing, circulation, nutrient processing and cell production. Your BMR can be used to help you gain, lose or maintain your weight. There are multiple ways to calculate your BMR; the Mifflin-St Jeor Equation is considered the most accurate. Calculate yours using this online calculator.
“Even the best BMR calculators provide only an estimate that should be used as a guide,” says Newman. “Meeting a registered dietitian and discussing your lifestyle habits and goals will help them form a nutrition plan to meet your needs.”
The general factors that affect metabolism are:
Certain endocrine disorders, such as hypothyroidism, can affect metabolism, causing it to be slower. In addition, several metabolic disorders can also affect the body. These disorders may cause a buildup of fatty substances in organs or an excess of minerals.
The relationship between metabolism and weight is often misunderstood. It’s easy to blame problems with weight on metabolism. But maintaining weight is a complex process involving genetics, hormones, diet, lifestyle, sleep, physical activity and stress.
Having a fast metabolism does not necessarily lead to thinness. In fact, studies show that people who are overweight/obese often have fast metabolisms. Their bodies need more energy to keep essential body functions going.
A lack of activity combined with lower energy needs creates a slow metabolism (meaning your body needs fewer calories to energize its essential functions). If you give your body too much energy in the form of calories, that energy has nowhere to go and is stored as fat leading to weight gain. Take in fewer calories than you burn, and you lose weight.
Your metabolism is working to maintain your weight. Extreme dieting often leads to weight loss consisting of muscle mass and not fat. You can’t change your routine for a few days and expect significant changes. Balancing good habits will help your metabolism recognize a new ideal weight.
No miracle drug will improve your metabolism. But there are healthy lifestyle habits that will help improve your metabolism.
“Metabolism is a complex process, but one that can be improved with some basic healthy lifestyle habits that will also help improve your overall health,” says Newman. “It takes time for your metabolism to adjust, so make one or two small habit changes and give your body time to adjust.”
If you want a healthy metabolism, eat fiber and nutrient-rich foods, avoid smoking and exercise moderately. Talk with your primary care doctor or a dietitian if you want to learn more.