Do You Really Have a Slow Metabolism?
by Catherine Morris | January 5, 2021, updated about 2 years ago
We don't always think of them in technical terms, but our bodies are some of the most complex, efficient and hard-working machines on the planet. They're constantly running, burning up fuel, and converting it into dozens of different, life-supporting processes.
At the heart of it all is your metabolism, but what exactly do we know about this vital function? Not much; and most of it is wrong. We're accustomed to griping about it—
“It's too slow and that's why I keep putting on weight”
“It's not as good as my skinny friend who can eat whatever she wants”
But metabolism is about so much more than your waistline, it's the hub of your health.
What is Your Metabolism?
Simply put, metabolism is the process of converting food into energy. Every time you eat something, the body uses that fuel to power a range of functions—from cell repair, to muscle growth.
We're used to hearing about metabolism in the context of weight loss because if you're consuming more than you're burning, chances are your weight will creep up. Metabolism isn't just about calories in, calories out though. Your metabolism, which is regulated by your thyroid, controls every single chemical reaction in the body so it's more concerned with keeping you alive than keeping you in your current dress size.
Nutritionist Terence Boateng, says—
“Metabolism is the sum total of all the chemical reactions that happen in the body. Those reactions need a certain amount of energy that they typically get in the form of calories.”
To boost our metabolism and keep everything humming along, we have to first understand it, and clear up some pervasive myths.
Not just weight loss
When we can't shift the weight, we blame our 'slow' metabolism, when we see someone eating constantly without putting on a pound, we say they're blessed with a fast metabolism...but is it really that simple?
Nope. Some people are genetically predisposed to have a fast metabolism, but it's also heavily influenced by external factors.
We burn calories when we're at rest, when we're digesting foods, when we exercise, and when we go about our normal lives. So if you're a person who exercises a lot, or someone who is naturally active—you might fidget, you have a hard time sitting still, you walk regularly—then you'll burn more than someone who might be genetically blessed with a speedy metabolism, but who is also very fond of just sitting on the couch.
Does your metabolism really slow down as you age?
We're led to believe that the dreaded middle-aged spread waits for all of us, ready to pounce as soon as we hit forty, and our metabolism 'slows down'. This is another myth that needs debunking.
Just like every other bodily function, your metabolism will slow down as you age... if you don't look after it. Our bodies degrade, that's the unfortunate truth of mortality, but there's no rule saying your metabolism falls off a cliff on your 40th birthday.
If you're entering middle age, you just might have to work a little harder in the gym, says Boateng.
“Your metabolism does decline as you age, but the biggest predictor of that is a decline in muscle mass as you age. The more muscle you have, the more you can mitigate the majority of your metabolism loss via aging.”
Ways to Protect Your Metabolic Health
Getting better acquainted with your metabolism means you're better able to address any problems you may have with it.
Metabolic disorder happens when the mechanism breaks and throws everything off balance. Causes include nutritional deficiencies, inherited 'faulty' genes, or disease in the organs involved in metabolism (liver, pancreas, thyroid). Metabolic disorders, the most common of which is diabetes, have been linked to cognitive decline and movement problems.
Then there's metabolic syndrome—a cluster of symptoms that show up as warning signs that something's awry. These symptoms include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and abnormal cholesterol levels.
Protecting our metabolism is a must. While your metabolic base rate is largely set by your genetics, there are some things you can do to move the needle and a combination of dietary and lifestyle changes can have a big impact.
Put the wrong type of fuel in your vehicle and you'll be looking at a hefty mechanic's bill down the line. Similarly, if your diet is full of junk food, you're not giving your metabolism the nutrition it needs to work efficiently.
Given that it's your thyroid which does most of the metabolism heavy lifting, it makes sense to eat thyroid-supporting foods when considering metabolic health. These include foods rich in zinc and selenium. Fatty fish, nuts, and leafy greens are a good choice.
Pick high-quality protein in favour of sugar-releasing carbs for a sustained energy boost and to keep you feeling fuller for longer. “Protein is the key in maintaining metabolic health, and the older you get the more important it is to prioritize protein in your diet. It's more satisfying [than carbs] and beyond that, it's also key for maintaining muscle mass,” says Boateng, who also recommends getting fibre in your diet to help regulate blood sugar.
Green tea and spices like cayenne are also good at revving up our metabolic engine, but be wary of diet products, such as 'weight loss teas', that claim to boost your metabolism—no single food can guarantee metabolic health and those supposedly healthy teas are usually just designed to dehydrate you so all you're losing is water weight.
It's not just about what you're eating either, it’s also when you eat. Studies show fasting can kick your metabolism up a notch and indicate that regular fasting might be preventative against metabolic disease. You don't have to go without food for days either, alternate day fasting and intermittent fasting improve metabolic health.
Boateng adds a word of caution, saying that fasting isn't suitable for everyone. There are a lot of athletes among his clients, who need food to fuel their workouts, and others who might not be comfortable with restrictive eating plans. “If you're going to do some high intensity exercise, food is required,” he says. “I use fasting as a tool but I take it person to person. The ideal fasting candidate is someone who needs structure, and people who don't normally feel like eating breakfast anyway.”
The more we eat, the more we need to move and your metabolism is the thing powering you through life. Boateng says—“Your metabolic health is hugely influenced by exercise. Muscle consumes a lot of energy so getting to the gym regularly will increase your metabolism over time.”
So keeping fit is key, but what’s the best form of exercise if you're concerned about your metabolic health? There's a couple.
Strength training has shown good results in studies with weight-lifters increasing their resting metabolic rate by 7 percent just through a few power moves. Another good option is High Intensity Interval Training. Working out in short bursts of intense activity is so beneficial for metabolic health, it can treat insulin resistance in diabetics, and improve outcomes for heart patients with metabolic syndrome.
If all the above sounds too strenuous, you can get some metabolic benefits simply from moving more and reducing how much time you sit in a day. Consider investing in a standing desk or scheduling regular work breaks to get on your feet more often. Boateng reminds us—
“Exercise is great but standing up more, taking walks, and building movement into your day really helps.”
We all know the basics of good health—move more, sleep better and eat well. These hold true for metabolic health, but are often overlooked in that context, especially sleep.
Sleep is when our bodies get a chance to rest and reset. Poor sleepers and those who routinely skip their eight hours a night are at risk of damaging their metabolism, specifically the processes involved in hormone secretion and glucose tolerance. Practising good sleep hygiene and regularly getting a full night's rest is key to our metabolic health.
Boateng says—“Sleep is very critical. When you don't get enough sleep, it lowers your resting metabolic rate because your body doesn't have the energy it needs to get through the day. It also really influences our ability to make healthy choices.”
Another habit your metabolism will thank you for is staying hydrated. Our cells need water and, in our coffee culture, it's easy to skip the water and become dehydrated. Healthy adults need around 10 to 15 cups of water today, but a good rule of thumb is to pay attention to your thirst and be alert to signs of dehydration such as dizziness, nausea or fatigue.
If the water you're drinking is cold, so much the better. Mild cold exposure is another effective way to boost metabolism. Simply put, being cold burns calories. Your body has to work that bit harder to protect your organs and keep your core temperature up. This has the effect of boosting your metabolism, particularly in the first 30 minutes of being in the cold.
A Healthy Metabolism for Life
“There are no quick fixes,” says Boateng.
“It's about making tiny changes that build up over time. Eating one salad will not fix your metabolism problems for life, it has to be a regular habit.”
The nitty gritty of metabolism may be complicated, but having good metabolic health is not. Boateng says it's important to drill down on the basics and, if dealing with metabolic disorder or poor metabolic health, use a holistic approach to ensure sustainable progress and healing.
“A lot of people jump on certain trends and think it will be the answer, but if something sounds like it is too good to be true, it probably is. You need intervention that is long-term.”
If you want to talk to someone about your metabolic health, strategies for weight loss, or simply building a better eating plan, reach out to a Which Doctor nutritionist or dietitian today for professional advice and guidance, tailored to your individual needs.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.