When it comes to weight loss, one word that repeatedly comes up is “metabolism”. But what is it and how exactly can it affect your weight management goals?

What is metabolism?

The word metabolism has Greek origins and means “change” or “transformation”. It is basically the rate at which your body burns energy (in the form of calories) to perform its various functions throughout the day, whether you are active, resting or sleeping.

The various systems and organs of the body require continuous “fuel” (in the form of nutrients) in order to function correctly, and it is your metabolism that regulates this fuel.

How can metabolism affect weight loss?

You will often hear slimmers referring to the fact that they have a “slow” metabolism, which they believe is hindering their weight loss efforts. What they are actually referring to is their resting metabolism (or basal metabolic rate (BMR)) – the total measure of energy expended for the normal maintenance, repair and functioning of their body and which accounts for between 40% and 70% of the calories you burn each day.

It is certainly true that metabolism is linked to weight, but a slow metabolism is actually rarely the true cause of weight gain. While your metabolism certainly influences your body’s basic energy requirements, it is ultimately your diet and level of physical activity (among many other factors) that determine how much you weigh. More often than not, the reason for weight gain is not a slow metabolism, but rather the fact that you are simply consuming more calories than you are burning.

Having said that, clearly the faster we are able to burn calories, and the more calories are burned each day, the less likely it is that they will be stored by the body and converted into fat as energy reserves (and excess weight). For some people, their body’s ability to break down food and use it for energy is a quick process (a fast metabolism) and for others it can take a little longer (a slow metabolism). Those with a slower metabolism are certainly more likely to store fat.

Other factors that can affect weight loss

Simply put, you gain weight when you eat more calories than you burn. However, weight gain is complicated, and rarely caused by just one thing. Instead, there tend to be one or two underlying causes, plus a number of other contributory factors.

For example, a combination of diet, genetics, hormone balance and lifestyle (including stress levels, sleep quality and whether you smoke). All of these factors can lead to an imbalance in the energy equation in your body.

Plus, in addition to your basal metabolic rate, two other notable factors can influence how many calories you burn each day:

1) Food processing (or thermogenesis): The complex process of digesting, absorbing, transporting and storing the food you eat also burns calories. In fact, this accounts for anywhere from 100 to 800 calories per day! This is one of the reasons that healthy digestion is such an important part of healthy, long-term weight loss success (and why it is essential to address any underlying food allergies or intolerances before attempting any weight loss plan). For the most part, however, your body’s energy requirements for the process of digestion stay relatively stable and aren’t easily changed.

2) Your level of physical activity: Exercise and all other forms of physical activity and movement account for the rest of your calorie usage each day. This is by far the most variable of the factors that determine how many calories you burn, and one of the easiest to improve!

Exercise is also one of the few means of directly affecting your metabolism. People who have more muscle than fat usually have a higher metabolism than people who are overweight. This is because muscle burns calories faster than fat.

Muscle cells need a lot of energy, which means that they burn a lot of calories. In fact, they burn more calories than fat cells, even when you’re not exercising. So, the time you spend working out and building muscle reaps benefits long after you leave the gym!

When you increase your muscle mass, you actually boost your resting metabolic rate. Weight-lifting burns calories, raises your metabolism and builds muscle that will continue to use up extra calories later on. This means that all other things being equal, your body will burn more calories even when you are doing nothing if you increase your muscle mass through exercise.

A healthy metabolism – just one link in the chain

Therefore, it is now easy to see that a healthy metabolism, within a balanced body system, is just one piece of the weight loss puzzle. However, it is certainly worth understanding better.

For one thing, it can be helpful to know that metabolism tends to slow as we age. In addition, metabolic rates can vary significantly from person to person, even as between those people with the same height and weight.

Knowing your own rate of metabolism can therefore certainly help in terms of devising an appropriate weight management plan and exercise regime. For example, many people think that skipping meals will help them to lose weight fast when, in reality, this is not only an unhealthy technique, but one that can actually cause you to gain weight and lose muscle tissue.

The big secret about weight loss and boosting your metabolism is that there is no secret! It’s all about balance, variety and moderation:

Balance: Firstly, balancing the number of calories you take in with the number of calories you burn off. And secondly, ensuring that you have a healthy source of calories, which your body can convert into the quality fuel that it needs to efficiently and effectively perform its many functions (including the regulation of fat levels in the body). Nobody has to live a life without treats – that would be unrealistic. The key is to balance the good with the bad, in the right proportions.

The missing link in most people’s calorie-counting equation is metabolism – how the body turns food into fat. And the key is maintaining even blood sugar levels through a balanced diet. For example, by eating a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet your appetite decreases. This is because this combination doesn’t cause a blood sugar spike. This, in turn, means that your body doesn’t have to make more insulin to carry excess sugar out of the bloodstream, which would then get dumped as fat.

Variety: Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. Ensuring that you have variety in both your diet and exercise regime will not only ensure that you are getting a broad spectrum of nutrients and staying fit and healthy, it will also make it easier for you to maintain a healthy metabolism and weight loss for the long-term because you are less likely to become bored and revert to old bad habits.

Moderation: Adopting a policy of everything in moderation makes for a happy, healthy and slim life. Allowing yourself the occasional treat and having a little bit of what you like will make your health goals far more realistic and achievable.

The bottom line

So, while it may be tempting to blame your metabolism for your weight gain or your inability to shift those unwanted pounds, it is worth remembering that metabolism is a natural process, and your body has a range of mechanisms in place to help regulate it.

Only in rare cases do you get excessive weight gain from a medical problem that slows metabolism (for instance, with conditions like Cushing’s syndrome or an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism)).

Having said that, and as we have seen, there are certainly a number of ways that you can actively promote a healthy metabolism to support your weight loss efforts, not least through diet, exercise and lifestyle choices.

There are even some foods from nature that are thought to have thermogenic (metabolism-boosting) effects, including: chilli pepper, horseradish, mustard, cinnamon, fennel seed, garlic, ginger, ginseng, guarana and turmeric. Some studies* have shown hot pepper and very spicy foods can increase metabolism by as much as 20% for approximately 30 minutes!

*Link for study mentioned above: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14649970

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