Metabolism is a complicated bodily process that often gets blamed when people put on weight or have trouble losing weight. Speeding up your metabolism can help you burn calories, replace fat with muscle and give you more energy. The problem, though, is that there isn’t a simple solution for how to speed up your metabolism. The first step to increasing your metabolism is understanding how it works.
Reading through the books and articles I consulted about the topic, I realized that, while there are a multitude of diets designed to rev metabolism, each with their own spin, the main content boils down to the same message: you need to eat in order to increase your metabolism. Understanding what, when and how you should eat are the keys to successfully speeding up your metabolism, losing weight and gaining energy.
Methodology: I started my research by reading over two dozen online articles about metabolism. I discovered the same information was being passed around, but without addressing the more serious issues related to metabolism inefficiencies. To find out more about how metabolism affects your overall health, I read seven e-books on the topic, including "Fast Metabolism Food RX: 7 Powerful Prescriptions to Feed Your Body Back to Health" by Haylie Pomroy, and spoke with two experts: Dr. Gerry Mullin (also known as The Food MD) who is the author of nine books, including "The Gut Balance Revolution," and Kate Deering, who is a lifestyle and nutrition coach, former Olympic coach and author of the book "How to Heal Your Metabolism."
What is metabolism?
Metabolism is a combination of physical and chemical processes called catabolism and anabolism. Catabolism involves breaking down molecules, such as during digestion when large food molecules are broken down into biomolecules. Anabolism is powered by catabolism and builds larger biomolecules from smaller ones. These two complex processes work together to stimulate metabolism, which converts the food you eat into energy.
Your body uses energy for everything you do, even when at rest, so having a slow metabolism can lead to more problems than just weight gain. A slow metabolism can impede your body’s ability to regulate body temperature, lower your resting heart rate and cause sleeplessness, which can lead to other problems including weight gain, difficulty concentrating and a weakened immune system.
How does metabolism work?
Metabolism “drives the way we process food into energy,” Mullin explains. “When it becomes dysregulated, that energy is either stored or expanded,” which can lead to weight gain, a drop in energy and even the onset of chronic health conditions.
While the basic function of metabolism is the same for everyone, every individual’s body metabolizes differently. A body’s reaction to food isn’t the same for any two people. That’s why your skinny best friend can down a burger, fries and a beer five nights a week without gaining weight, while just one meal like that can throw your body off for a few days.
The consequences of dysregulated metabolism are also much more serious than a lot of people think. “Metabolism affects every single aspect of your life, from your bones, hair, skin, nails, tendons, and ligaments to your moods, immune system function, stress hormone production, cholesterol metabolism, libido, memory, and cognition,” says Pomroy. This means slow metabolism doesn’t just cause you to pack on a few extra pounds. It can affect everything else from your hair to your sex drive.
Now, it’s important to remember that your metabolism naturally slows down as you age due to several factors. It’s not realistic to try to get your metabolism back to where it was when you were 19 now that you’re 45. The good news, though, is that it is possible to get your metabolism up to a normal speed for your age.
5 signs of a slow metabolism
- You experience sudden weight gain
Suddenly putting on weight even though you haven’t altered your diet or exercise routine is one of the most obvious ways of noticing your metabolism is slowing. If you haven’t made any significant changes to your diet and exercise routine and are suddenly packing on the pounds (especially around your stomach), your metabolism might have slowed down.
- You have unexplained muscle aches and pains, fatigue and/or dry skin
These symptoms often appear in people who have hypothyroidism, which is a condition caused by an underactive thyroid gland. Your thyroid gland regulates your metabolism, so hypothyroidism and slow metabolism tend to go hand-in-hand.
- You’re not hungry four or more hours after you wake up
It’s uncommon to wake up famished, but people tend to get hungry within an hour or so of getting out of bed. If you are regularly awake for four or more hours before you start feeling hungry, it might be because your metabolism is slow. When you consistently wait four or more hours to eat breakfast, you essentially put your body into survival mode since it doesn’t know when it’s going to get food again, which slows down your metabolism.
- You always crave an afternoon sugar rush
Regularly experiencing an afternoon crash that results in downing a bag full of M&Ms or other sugary snack is a sign that your adrenal glands aren’t living up to their potential. These glands are responsible for signaling your body to release fat for fuel, and when that doesn’t happen, your blood sugar drops. Your body responds by signaling hunger, so you eat something to get quick and easy energy, usually in the form of sugar or another simple carb. You fall into the cycle of feeling sluggish in the afternoon, eating a pick-me-up in the form of sugar and then crashing and feeling even worse an hour or so later.
- You’re always cold
If you’re always uncomfortable because your hands and feet are cold, it could be because you have slow metabolism. Figure out if your body temperature is low by taking your temperature before you get out of bed for five consecutive days. Work out the average of these five days. If your result is 97.8 or less, you might have slow metabolism.
5 ways to boost your metabolism
While there is no easy fix for a slow metabolism, there are several things you can do to get it in working order if you are willing to put in some work and be patient. Keep in mind that boosting your metabolism long-term means changing your lifestyle. You may need to take one step at a time instead of diving in feet first, depending on your lifestyle and fitness level.
Here are five ways to boost your metabolism:
- Eat breakfast
Breakfast is essential. Your body has been deprived of food throughout the night, and therefore your metabolism has slowed. If your cells do not receive sufficient nutrients, they will begin to function less efficiently in smaller amounts. In turn, they will actually store more fat to use during these times of nutritional deprivation.
You don’t need to eat the second you get out of bed, but, according to Pomroy, “eating within thirty minutes of waking up gives you the best chance to set things right for the rest of the day.” Your body runs through a series of transitions as you move from sleeping to waking, including a rise in temperature, a change in brainwave patterns and the excretion and suppression of several hormones that help your body wake up. “All these changes have specific micronutrient needs, and if you aren’t meeting their needs, those systems might not work as well as they should,” says Pomroy.
You can find time for breakfast, even if you don’t have time for a leisurely meal. Cook half a dozen hard-boiled eggs on Sunday that you can quickly grab as you run out the door on weekdays. Whole fruits like bananas and apples are also easy-to-grab breakfasts. Ideally, your breakfast will include some protein, so put peanut butter on your fruit or pair fruit with a handful of nuts for a healthy breakfast that will rev your metabolism and keep you full for a few hours.
- Eat throughout the day
One major mistake people make when trying to speed up their metabolism is trying to burn more calories than they eat. While this equation does work for fast weight loss, it is not a long-term healthy solution. According to Pomroy, “Food is essential for metabolic repair. To achieve the results you want, the energy you crave, the body you desire, and the health you dream about, you cannot fear food. You cannot avoid food. You must embrace food.”
Deering advises making time for healthy snacks in between meals and before bedtime, which can improve sleep quality. “The deeper your sleep, the more fat you’ll burn” during the night. Some ideas for late night snacks include a handful of nuts, a spoonful of natural nut butter or a cup of air-popped popcorn.
- Eat more whole foods
Eating more whole foods is a simple way to improve your overall health and speed up your metabolism. This one can take some getting used to, depending on what your diet currently looks like.
If you’re used to regularly eating convenience foods, start by taking small steps, such as:
- Replace one or two boxed dinners with homemade dinners made from real ingredients every week. Make extra, then freeze the leftovers for a healthy convenience meal you can enjoy another day.
- Add a couple servings of whole fruits and veggies to your daily routine (homemade smoothies can be an easy way to add these nutrients to your diet).
- Swap pop for water when you go out to lunch.
- Pack your lunch instead of going out to eat.
- Set yourself up for success by starting your day with a balanced breakfast.
- Exercise, but take it slow
The best way to jumpstart your metabolism is to exercise. You may be familiar with exercise and diet programs that promise to boost your metabolism in as little as 30, 60 or 90 days. According to Deering, these types of programs do work, but only in the short term. Exercising stresses your body, which can lower your metabolism in the long term, especially when you repeatedly engage in intense exercise.
A combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training is best for optimal fat burning and metabolism boosting. Contrary to popular belief, weight lifting does not speed up your metabolism. It does, however, burn fat and increase your lean muscle mass, which increases your resting metabolic rate.
Deering advises people concerned with their metabolism to continue to exercise but not to overdo it. She suggests more relaxing forms of exercise, which will improve fitness without unnecessarily stressing the body. As for when to exercise, “there’s no magic time,” says Deering, although “ideally you want to work out when you have the highest level of energy.” Avoid exercising at night when possible, as night workouts can impede on your sleep quality.
- Cut out caffeine and alcohol
Two of the worst culprits for slowing down your metabolism are caffeine and alcohol. According to Pomroy, “Both alcohol and caffeine influence insulin output, glucose metabolism, and liver function. In fact, they can interfere with an important phase of liver detoxification—so much so that these substances are often used as challenges during tests for liver function.”
If you just can’t shake your coffee habit, try cutting back on how many cups you have throughout the day. Switch to black coffee instead of adding sugar, and replace your afternoon cup of joe with a cup of green tea, which has some caffeine but not nearly as much as a regular cup of coffee.
If you’re serious about revving your metabolism, then it’s time to take a break from alcohol. The problem isn’t just the ingredients inside a beer, cocktail or glass of wine. The way the body processes alcohol is the real culprit that negatively impacts your metabolism. The liver prioritizes processing alcohol when it’s introduced into the body, which reduces the liver ’s efforts in burning fat.
Additionally, alcohol dehydrates you, and your body stops burning fat when it recognizes a shortage of water. If you do indulge, make sure to drink at least eight ounces of water in between alcoholic drinks to stay hydrated and minimize some of the damage.