Metabolism Basics – How It Works In Weight Loss And Gain

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You have heard that you need to speed up your metabolism to burn more calories and fat. But what the heck is metabolism anyway? How does it work? What is the actual process which goes on in your body that converts food to energy and health?

What is Metabolism?

Human metabolism is incredibly complex. Explaining exactly what happens is well beyond the scope of this short article. Simply put in layman’s terms, your metabolism is a collection of thousands of chemical reactions which take place in your body. They convert nutrients in food into energy. This allows you to move and think and live. When your metabolism is working properly, you maintain a healthy body weight, your immune system is strong and you experience optimal health.

Actually, metabolism runs through 2 channels, catabolism and anabolism. Your catabolistic process breaks down carbohydrates, fats and protein into smaller pieces. This way your body can more easily break down food to create energy. Scientists often refer to this as your “destructive metabolism”.

Anabolism is alternately known as your “constructive metabolism”. Instead of breaking things down, the anabolic processes in your body naturally support new cell growth, healthy maintenance of tissues, and energy storage for later use.

Those processes are ruled by your nervous system and hormones. They can basically divided into the following 3 main components:

1 – Energy used for physical activity

How many kilojoules (a measurement of energy) you use when you move dictates how many calories you burn. Energy use during exercise or other types of physical activity can be 50 times your resting rate, so your metabolism is cranked up very high.

2 – The thermogenic property of food

When you eat and digest food, your metabolism increases. That is why dieters that skip meals and drastically limit their caloric intake usually do not lose weight, and they never seem to have any energy. When you eat, your metabolic rate rises, usually peaking 2 to 3 hours after your meal is over.

3 – Your basal metabolic rate (BMR)

Some call this your “resting” metabolic rate. It refers to how many kilojoules your body burns to simply maintain itself. This can be as much as 50 to 80% of your total energy use, depending on heredity and your level of physical fitness. Your BMR instantly rises when you burn fat and replace it with lean muscle mass.

What are the important takeaways from today’s short course on metabolism?

You should eat frequently, dividing your recommended daily calorie allowance over 5 or 6 meals. You need to keep moving, standing rather than sitting. And for every pound of fat you trade for muscle, your natural metabolic rate increases. So eat smart, keep moving, and add some muscle to develop a healthy and good-looking body that you feel great wearing.

Do Some People Really Just Have a High or Low Metabolism?

Genetics do have a role to play in our metabolism. Some people just have a naturally high metabolism, while for others it doesn’t work quite as fast. But before we get into the specifics of the causes of having a high or low metabolism and what can be done about either, let’s first discuss metabolism, so we have a better understanding of it.

What is Metabolism again?

Metabolism is a biological process in most living organisms that breaks down food consumed so the body can use the nutrients as energy. It has two parts called reactions – catabolic and anabolic.

The catabolic reaction happens first as it breaks down food so the nutrients can get into your bloodstream and get eventually into your cells. The anabolic reaction occurs after the nutrients enter your cells and are used to build new tissue and repair your body.

The rate at which the catabolic and anabolic reactions happen is your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR plays a large part in how your weight is affected. A low rate means food is broken down more slowly; a high rate more quickly.

High Metabolism

On the surface, it sounds great to have a high metabolism; in theory, you could eat whatever you want and not gain weight. But, it isn’t all that great because it can cause some serious health issues of its own.

People with high functioning metabolisms eat a lot of calories in a day just to keep from being hungry, but much of the food they eat not only tends to be high in calories, but also high in saturated fat, sugar, salt – all things not good for them. This can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, strokes, high cholesterol and diabetes.

While a high metabolism in many people is caused by their genetics, gender and age, other causes can be an overactive thyroid, smoking and stress. There isn’t much one can do about their genetics, but the other three are treatable and manageable.

Low Metabolism

Generally a low functioning metabolism can be due to a hormone imbalance. As we age we lose testosterone which helps regulate muscle mass. The more muscle we have, the more calories we burn. To build more muscle, add a couple days per week of strength training in addition to your cardio exercise routine.

Just as an overactive thyroid can cause a high metabolism, and underactive one can cause a slow metabolism. Your doctor may be able to reset your thyroid activity through thyroid therapy.

Stress can also cause a slow metabolism due to weight gain brought on by increased cortisol levels. Reduce the stress and you’ll increase your metabolism.

As you can see, having either a high or low functioning metabolism can cause health problems. If you think your metabolism is out of whack, and nothing you try is working to make it function more normally, see your doctor; many times they can help get your metabolism back on track.

What Does “Basal Metabolic Rate” Mean?

By definition, the Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) it is “the number of calories burned while at rest.” This encompasses supporting bodily functions while sleeping such as digestion, breathing, maintaining temperature and pumping blood throughout your system. It is responsible for about 70% of the total number calories burned each day.

Things that impact your BMR

Unfortunately there are several things that impact your BMR that you have no control over, like age, gender, height and genetics; they are what they are, you can’t do anything about them. However, there are some things that also affect it that you may impact on, such as hormones, weight and muscle mass.

If your body does not produce enough Thyroxin, your BMR can run slower than it should. Your healthcare professional can check your thyroid and prescribe medication to get your Thyroxin up to the prescribed level.

Losing weight
If done correctly, by eating healthy and exercising – both aerobic and strength training – losing weight can increase your BMR. However, if your weight loss plan is to “crash diet” you can actually further reduce your BMR because your body sense it is going into starvation mode and further cuts back on energy expenditure.

Muscle mass
The more muscle you have, the more energy it takes to feed those muscles even while at rest. Just a couple days of strength training per week can tone, firm and define your muscles thus increasing your BMR.

Calculating your BMR

Most BMR calculators use your gender, age, weight, height and activity level to calculate the number of calories you burn in a day. Just Google BMR Calculator and try a few to see how many calories you burn.

Once you have that information, then you can adjust the number of calories you eat per day so that you have about a 500-calorie-per-day deficit. This will give you about a one pound loss of body fat per week.

What you can do to raise your BMR

The amount and kind of physical activity can have a positive effect on your BMR. And it stands to reason – exercising burns calories; the more you do if it, the more calories you’ll burn. Cardio and endurance training burn the most calories, but as noted earlier, also include some strength training to build muscle mass.

Concentrate on the things you can control and don’t worry about the things you can’t. Stay the course with consistency in your eating – times, portions and types of foods – along with exercising and building muscle mass.

The Role of Metabolism in Bodily Function

The role metabolism plays in regards to how your body functions is extremely complex. Literally millions of processes and chemical reactions contribute to your metabolic rate. But in simple terms, your metabolism is the total of all those processes, which converts foods and liquids into energy.

The way that energy is used falls into 3 major categories:

Your body stores calories as fat.

You burn calories as a process to create heat or energy.

Your metabolic process uses calories to build muscle, blood, bone and fat.

The role your metabolism plays in those 3 different processes is equally spread out when your metabolic rate is “perfect” or optimal. The problem is, some people are born with a naturally high or naturally low metabolic process.

If you have a tendency for low energy levels, you find it hard to lose weight and often crave sweet foods like sugar, ice cream and pastries, you may have a low or slow metabolism.

Then there are those whose bodies are very good at burning calories. They seemingly eat whatever they like, exercise very little, are bounding around full of energy, and do not have an ounce of fat on their bodies. These people usually enjoy a very high metabolic rate.

Finally, when the metabolic role that dictates so many bodily functions is perfectly aligned, your body spends equal amounts of time burning calories, storing fat, and building a healthy body.

That 3rd category is where optimal health can be found.

The good news is, if you have a naturally high or low metabolism, you can do something about it. Ramp up the amount of Omega 3 essential fatty acids you get in your diet by eating fish like salmon, tuna and mackerel.

Exercise 3 to 5 times a week for 20 minutes each at a moderately intense level. Make sure you get 6 to 8 hours of restful sleep each night. Eat some protein at breakfast every morning. Drink lots of water throughout the day. Instead of 2 or 3 big meals, spread your daily caloric intake over 5 or 6 meals.

These are all effective ways to help develop, and regulate, a healthy metabolism. They begin to move your metabolic process in the direction of equal burning, building and storing activities. This means a healthy, strong body, naturally high levels of energy, and the ability to maintain a healthy weight without unhealthy gains and losses.

Does Drinking More Water Boost Your Metabolism?

Most studies show drinking water does boost your metabolism, but by how much? According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology, participants showed a 30 percent metabolic increase that lasted between 10 and 40 minutes after drinking two cups of water. By drinking the recommended 8 cups per day, you would burn an additional 96 calories. Other studies support these finding, just not to this great of an extent.

Keep in mind, drinking water alone will not increase your metabolism enough to show any appreciable weight loss, but when added to your other weight loss efforts it will help, plus it will keep you from being dehydrated – a major nemesis to weight loss.

If keeping hydrated is part of a weight loss strategy, then why do 22 percent of us not get our 8 glasses per day? Because we falsely use thirst as our guide to drink.

Most studies have found that by the time you feel thirsty, you have already lost 2 percent of the water in your body. While that might not sound like much, it is huge when our body is made up of at least 50 percent water.

Tricks to increase your water consumption

There are a few hacks you can use to get the most metabolic increase from the water you drink:

Drink it cold: When you drink something cold, the body has to work harder to warm the liquid up to body core temperature. The warming process burns additional calories over drinking tepid to lukewarm water – water that is closer to body core temperature.

Add lemon to it: Adding lemon to your water does a couple of things – 1) it makes your water taste better and 2) one lemon has up to 40 percent of your daily requirement of vitamin C and provides the replacement of the electrolytes potassium, magnesium, sodium and calcium lost during an exercise workout. All with the addition of only 15 calories.

Put a day’s worth of water in a pitcher: It is easy to lose track of how much (or how little) water you drink in a day. An easy way is to fill a pitcher with 64 ounces of water, add the juice of one lemon and put it in the refrigerator. All three hacks accomplished at once. Periodically throughout the day get a glass of water from the pitcher. Make sure it is empty by the end of the day.

Drinking an adequate amount of water not only speeds up your metabolism, but is so important for good health. Make it a part of your daily regimen so that you ensure you are getting enough.

How Does Breakfast Affect Your Metabolism?

If you break down the word breakfast itself into break and fast, the answer is much clearer. You are breaking the fast you were on while sleeping (unless you are one of those munchers that get up during the night to eat something).

When you get up, your metabolism has already processed all the food you had in your system when you went to bed. Because there isn’t much work to do at the moment, it is kind of napping itself and not really working much at all beyond the bare minimums it needs to do to keep your body going.

Unless you give it a reason to wake up, it will keep more or less at its “vegetative” pace. That is where breakfast comes in. When you eat, all of a sudden you are flooding your digestive system with food and your metabolism jumps into action at a high rate in its endless pursuit to process the incoming food.

What does a good breakfast look like?

A healthy first meal of the day should include protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats. Fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains and lean meats are all good choices along with eggs.

A two-egg omelet with spinach is my favorite. Scrambled eggs with diced bacon is another favorite. Use a little olive oil to make the eggs; it is much better for you than using butter. Complement your omelet with a piece of whole grain toast topped with some peanut butter. You could even add in a meat, such as bacon or sausage, both made from turkey.

Other breakfast choices could include oatmeal with cinnamon and banana slices, yogurt with granola or a smoothie made with protein powder, almond milk and your favorite fruit. Stay away from the unhealthy saturated fats, simple carbohydrates and sugar.

If you need something on the go, choose a couple of hard-boiled eggs, or some trail mix or apple slices with some peanut butter. For a beverage, choose black coffee or tea; the caffeine in either will help speed up your metabolism.

As far as how fast your body processes food, about 75 percent of the calories processed is dependent on your age, gender, weight, body composition and genetics. The other 25% is processed by the physical activity you do during the day.

Speaking of physical activity, try to work in at least 30 minutes of exercise each day. Cardio is good for burning calories and will keep your metabolism elevated long after you quit your workout. Mix in a couple days per week of strength training to build more muscle. The more muscle you have, the harder your metabolism has to work to keep feeding all that muscle mass.

Is It Really Possible to Speed Up Your Metabolism?

There are three parts to your metabolism: Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR); Thermal Effect of Food (TEF); Physical Activity Energy Expenditure (PAEE). Your RMR – the rate at which your body burns calories when at rest – is generally defined by your age, gender, and genetics. Of course, there really isn’t much if anything you can do to change these three.

However, the other two elements are ones that you can affect to a limited degree. TEF is the rate at which your metabolism burns calories after you eat something. Once that food has been processed by your metabolism, it reverts back to the RMR level. One way to keep your metabolism functioning at the higher TEF level is to keep food in your stomach.

Six smaller meals, or a breakfast, lunch and dinner along with a snack in the morning and afternoon, spread throughout the day will keep your metabolism functioning at the TEF level longer. Of course the trick is to keep the number of calories ingested at a level you need to either maintain or lose weight.

The last part of metabolism – PAEE – is where you can make the most difference. The level at which this process operates is almost entirely dependent on exercise; in specific:

1) Type

There are generally two types of exercise – cardio and strength training. Examples of cardio include walking, running, bike riding and tennis; anything that you do at a moderate level over an extended amount of time.

On-the-other hand, strength training is generally done at a more intense level, but for a shorter amount of time. The difference between the two is the kind of calories each burn. With cardio, the calories come from stored fat – not the type of fat that need to be replaced. With strength training, your metabolism burns glucose stored within your muscle mass and it does need to be replaced once depleted.

The biggest difference with strength training is your metabolism stays up long after the exercising has stopped until glucose is back at its proper levels. The longer your metabolism stays at a higher functioning level, the more calories burned.

2) Frequency

This relates to how many times per week you exercise. Each time you exercise, your metabolism kicks up to the higher PAEE rate of burn. It makes sense that the more times you kick it in high gear each week, the more calories you’ll burn that week. Experts generally agree six days per week is the most anyone should exercise. Your body needs that seventh day off to rest and repair itself.

3) Intensity

How hard you work out also affects the number of calories you burn. Kettlebell, medicine ball toss and weight lifting are all higher intensity-type exercises. Because you cannot do high intensity exercises for a long period of time, many fitness professionals recommend interval training.

With this type of training, you perform at a high intensity for a short period of time, then drop back to a lower intensity cardio exercise, before kicking it back up again. This up and down intensity gives you the highest calorie burn over a given time.

4) Duration

The amount of time you exercise at any one given time is duration. Many people end up not exercising because they think they have to do it in one chunk of time. Actually the opposite is true; three 10-minute workouts per day, actually burn more calories than one 30-minute workout. Why? Because you are getting up into the PAEE more times per day and getting three post-exercise burns instead of one.

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