What is Metabolism?
The word “metabolism” is used around a lot when on a weight management program.
We know that if ours is too slow we might gain weight. But what exactly does this all mean?
Well technically “metabolism” is the word to describe all of the biochemical reactions in our body. It’s how we take in nutrients and oxygen and use them to fuel everything we do.
Our body has an incredible ability to grow, heal, and generally stay alive. And without this amazing biochemistry, we would not be possible.
Metabolism includes how the cells in our body:
● Allow activities we can control (e.g. physical activity etc.).
● Allow activities we can’t control (e.g. heartbeat, wound healing, processing of nutrients & toxins, etc.).
● Allow storage of excess energy for later.
So when we put all of these processes together into our metabolism we can imagine that these processes can work too quickly, too slowly, or just right.
This brings us to the “metabolic rate”.
This is how fast our metabolism works and is measured in calories (yes, those calories!).
The calories we eat can go to one of three places:
● Work (i.e. exercise and other activity).
● Heat (i.e. from all those biochemical reactions).
● Storage (i.e. extra leftover “unburned” calories stored as fat).
As we can imagine the more calories we burn as work or creating heat the easier it is to lose weight and keep it off because there will be fewer “leftover” calories to store for later.
There are a couple of different ways to measure metabolic rate. One is the “resting metabolic rate” (RMR) which is how much energy our body uses when we’re not being physically active.
The other is the “total daily energy expenditure” (TDEE) which measures both the resting metabolic rate as well as the energy used for “work” (e.g. exercise) throughout a 24-hour period.
What affects our metabolic rate?
In a nutshell: a lot!
The first thing we may think of is our thyroid. This gland at the front of our throat releases hormones to tell our body to “speed up” our metabolism. Of course, the more thyroid hormone there is the faster things will work and the more calories we’ll burn.
But that’s not the only thing that affects our metabolic rate.
How big we count as well!
Larger people have higher metabolic rates, but our body composition is crucial!
As you can imagine muscles that actively move and do work need more energy than fat does. So the more lean muscle mass we have the more energy our body will burn and the higher our metabolic rate will be. Even when we’re not working out.
This is exactly why weight training or resistance training is often recommended as a part of a weight loss program. Because we want muscles to be burning those calories for us.
The thing is when people lose weight their metabolic rate often slows down which we don’t want to happen. So we definitely want to offset that with more muscle mass.
Aerobic exercise also temporarily increases our metabolic rate. Our muscles are burning fuel to move so they’re doing “work”.
The type of food we eat also affects our metabolic rate!
Our body actually burns calories to absorb, digest, and metabolize our food. This is called the “thermic effect of food” (TEF).
We can use it to our advantage when we understand how our body metabolizes foods differently.
Fats, for example, increase our TEF by 0-3%; carbs increase it by 5-10%, and protein increases it by 15-30%. By trading some of our fat or carbs for lean protein we can slightly increase our metabolic rate.
Another bonus of protein is that our muscles need it to grow. By working them out and feeding them what they need they will help us to lose weight and keep it off.
And don’t forget the mind-body connection. There is plenty of research that shows the influence that things like stress and sleep have on the metabolic rate.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to metabolism and how so many different things can work to increase (or decrease) our metabolic rate.
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