How metabolism affects your weight

Your body needs energy to function. But you can change the way your body uses that energy. And if you do it right, you can better control your weight.

Do you know someone who can eat nonstop without ever seeming to gain a pound? Ever wonder what his or her secret is?

Metabolism may be largely responsible.

“Metabolism is the complicated process by which our body breaks down nutrients and creates and uses energy,” says Vandana Sheth, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

That energy is what enables us to get out of bed in the morning, type on a keyboard and work out at the gym. It’s also what makes it possible for our hearts to pump blood, our lungs to fill with air and our brains to think. In short, metabolism is what keeps our bodies functioning.

The energy you need

“Each of us metabolizes differently,” Sheth says. “Some of us have a faster metabolic rate, and some people’s rate is slower.”

In other words, some people burn up the calories they consume more quickly than others.

Each of us has different energy needs as well.

Most of the energy your body needs is used for basic functions—like pumping blood—that happen no matter what you’re doing. The amount of energy used for these basic functions is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR). (To estimate your BMR, multiply your weight in pounds by 10.)

Generally, your BMR represents about 60 percent of your overall daily calorie needs, according to the academy. Of the remaining calories you need, 30 percent are required for powering physical activity and 10 percent for digestion itself.

If you eat more calories than your body uses up, you’ll gain weight. But you can take steps to “rev up” your metabolism and burn excess calories before they’re stored as fat. Understanding the factors that influence your metabolic rate—both positively and negatively—is a good starting point.

Unchangeable factors

Certain factors affecting metabolism are beyond your control. These include:

Age. Kids and adolescents need more calories per pound than adults because their bodies are growing—and that requires fuel. As we get older, however, growth stops and muscle is gradually replaced with fat, which burns less energy. Generally, as we age, our activity level declines as well. All of this contributes to a drop in BMR and energy needs.

Genetics. Just as family ties can influence your health and risk for disease, they can influence your metabolism.

Body size and sex. The heavier you are, the more effort—and energy—it takes for your body to do things. Of course, you can change your weight. But this is one reason why men, who often weigh more than women and have more muscle, typically require more calories.

Height is not changeable—and it comes into play too. The body of a tall person has more surface area than a short person and loses more heat as a result. Therefore, regulating body temperature—another process fueled by basal metabolism—requires more energy if you’re tall.

Hormone levels. The American College of Sports Medicine reports that thyroid hormones, which essentially tell your body’s cells how many calories to burn, typically become less active in women after age 40.

Metabolism boosters

You can increase your metabolism by:

Building muscle. Muscle burns more energy than fat. So changing fat into muscle will help you burn more calories, even at rest.

“Research has found that for every pound of muscle we carry, we’re burning about six calories, whereas for every pound of fat we carry, we burn about two calories,” Sheth says.

Being active all day. Metabolism gets a better boost if you’re active throughout the day in as little as 10 minute increments rather than simply spending one hour at the gym. Sheth recommends aiming for a total of at least 30 to 60 minutes of activity a day.

Eating more often. Try eating more often—but not more food. Several small meals and snacks each day are better than three large meals, says Sheth.

“If you can get the right kinds of foods going in [to your body] every three to four hours, you have a sustained level of energy and your body is revving up burning those calories as well,” she adds.

Eating the right things. Giving some thought to what you’ll eat is important too.

Carbohydrates are people’s main energy source, but the body works harder to process protein. If you consume protein with carbohydrates, your metabolic rate may actually increase.

Healthy carbohydrates include fruits; vegetables; yogurt; and whole-grain breads, pasta, cereal and crackers.

Examples of healthy proteins include lean chicken, fish, eggs, beans, tofu and peanut butter.

Not skipping meals. “When you skip meals, you’re basically sending a signal to your brain that you’re in starvation mode,” Sheth says.

Because the body isn’t sure when it will get food again, metabolism slows to help you survive.

A word for dieters

There are certain foods that can boost metabolism. And you might hear of them being associated with certain diets or diet products. Green tea and cayenne pepper are two examples.

According to Sheth, the effects of these products aren’t long-lasting. And she cautions anyone looking for a metabolism bump from pills or supplements to be aware that these products may cause side effects.

If you really want to drop pounds, the best advice is to employ the strategies that are tried and true—exercise and eat well. They’ll boost your metabolism and lead to weight-loss success.

reviewed 9/18/2013

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