Ever wonder why some people can eat whatever they want, not exercise and never gain any weight? Then there are those who seem to gain weight at the mere presence of a donut in spite of their efforts to exercise regularly and eat well. Personally, I’m one of the latter people. I gain weight at the drop of a hat. As my teenage son, Ramsey, would say, my body has “no chill.” It’s one of the many reasons I strategically eat the way I eat and live the way I live.
So why do some to people tend to gain (or not gain) weight so easily?
Are some folks just born lucky?
I hate to say it, but yeah, kind of.
While our body weights are influenced by a number of different factors, one of the most influential factors is genetically predetermined – that factor is metabolism.
I’m sure you’ve heard the word “metabolism” tossed around. You’ve probably heard people say, “I can’t lose weight because I have a slow metabolism.” Perhaps you’ve even said the same thing yourself.
There is indeed some truth to the notion – the real question though is why? Here, I’m going to talk about metabolism and its role in the body weight equation. Once you have a good understanding of your metabolism, you can easily flip it for successful weight loss and long-term control. We’ll talk about how to do that too. But first things first, what exactly is metabolism anyway?
What Is Metabolism?
Also known as, the “metabolic rate,” metabolism essentially refers to the rate at which our bodies burn calories to fuel vital functions like breathing, blood pressure and brain activity, amongst many other things. We mainly obtain calories from a combination of the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein) housed in the foods we eat and the beverages we drink, though some calories are stored in our liver, muscles and fat cells too.
Metabolism itself is affected by numerous factors that can collectively influence your body’s ability to reach and maintain a certain weight. Those “born lucky” generally have high metabolic rates and can therefore eat more and do less without gaining weight. But this isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all. Your metabolism doesn’t have to be a limiting factor. There are some components of the metabolic rate you do in fact have a good bit of control over.
Let’s talk about the specific components of metabolism and how each influences body weight.
Components of Metabolism
While often used as an umbrella term to describe how our body constantly burns calories, the metabolic rate actually includes three unique components: (1) the basal metabolic rate (or “BMR”), (2) physical activity-induced energy expenditure (or “PAEE”) and (3) diet-induced thermogenesis (or “DIT”). Forgive me for using all these acronyms. It’s the scientist in me 😊
Basal Metabolic Rate
Also called the resting metabolic rate and typically used interchangeably with metabolism, the BMR accounts for about 60-80% of the calories our bodies burn each day. Yup, you read that right! We burn the most calories when physically doing absolutely nothing. That’s because our bodies are always working and using energy, even when we’re sleeping.
Although the BMR varies from person to person, on average it’s about 1,500 calories per day. Consider this the minimum number of calories your body needs to function at rest.
Needless to say, from a calorie-burning perspective, BMR is the most significant component of metabolism. It’s also the component that’s most influenced by our genetic makeup and other uncontrollable factors like our age, stature and gender. Given this realty, there’s really not a whole lot we can do about our BMR. Some people are genetically predisposed to having a high BMR while others are burdened with a BMR that’s naturally sluggish.
Generally speaking, being young, tall, male and, of course, having a good set of genes is a great recipe for a high BMR. Unfortunately, we can’t stop the aging process, stretch our bodies to get taller, naturally change our assigned gender or swap out our parents. We can, however, increase the physical energy we expend on a daily basis.
Physical Activity-Induced Energy Expenditure
As implied by the name, PAEE is essentially the amount of energy, or the number of calories, we burn whenever we move – whether it’s housing cleaning, leisurely walking or engaging in exercise. It accounts for about 15-30% of the calories we burn each day. While the exact number is tied to our inherent BMR simply put: the more we move, the more we burn. This is why regular physical activity is especially critical for weight loss and long-term weight control.
Exercise in particular is an extremely beneficial component of PAEE. This is largely due to its effects on lean mass, which includes all the bones, muscles and organs in the body. Lean mass itself is a metabolic engine. In other words, the more you have the higher your metabolism – this applies to all components of metabolism, the BMR too. This is one of the reasons why women tend to have lower metabolic rates than men. Men are just naturally leaner.
The natural decline in metabolism that comes with aging is also connected to lean mass, specifically age-related declines in muscle mass. This is why people who were naturally thin all their lives, tend to gain weight (fat mass) as they age. So, as you can see, PAEE is a powerful component of metabolism that matters through all phases of life. And, again, it’s a component we actually have some control over.
This brings me to DIT, which is the third and final component of metabolism and one we have a wee bit of control over too. While the name might sound complex, DIT simply refers to the temporary increase in metabolism that comes with eating, digesting and, ultimately, storing foods. It only accounts for about 5-10% of the calories we burn each day, but if your metabolic rate is sluggish, any little boost can help.
Let me explain this further in a very short and simple way.
Thermogenesis is basically the body’s way of producing heat. By increasing thermogenesis, you’re essentially increasing your metabolism and thereby burning more calories. Though DIT generally occurs whenever you eat something, certain foods contain certain nutrients that heighten the process and, therefore, the calorie burning effect. Eating slowly by chewing your food thoroughly before swallowing it can also boost thermogenesis.
The key takeaway here is pretty cut and dry – What and how you eat has a big influence on DIT and your metabolism overall. If you’re trying to lose or control your weight, as with PAEE, you can really use the process of DIT to your advantage.
Boosting Your Metabolism
There’s no doubt that metabolism plays a major role in weight loss and long-term weight control. If your metabolism is naturally high, managing your weight is a pretty simple process – whether you regularly build your bowl with salads or build your plate with chili dogs and regardless of whether or not you exercise. On the flip side, folks with lower BMRs (including myself) can miss just one workout or think about a piece of cake and gain weight.
Okay, okay, so my last point is an exaggeration, but if you’re an easy weight gainer, I’m sure you feel me. At the end of the day though, these are the cards we’ve been dealt. Luckily, there are simple ways to flip the switch and rev up your metabolism. Here, I’ll talk about six of them.
1. Training with Resistance
As I’ve already mentioned, the more lean mass you have, the higher your metabolic rate. Since resistance training inherently strengthens and preserves lean muscle mass and helps prevent bone loss, it’s one of the absolute best ways to keep your overall metabolism in check. In fact, just one moderate-to-high-intensity resistance training session can elevate metabolism for up to 12 hours. This means you’ll continue to burn calories long after you’ve stopped exercising.
As little as 2-3 days a week of training with free weights, machines, rubber tubing or your own bodyweight is all it takes. Start today with some of these exercises.
2. Upping Cardio Intensity
At any intensity level cardio exercise can bring countless health-promoting benefits but at high intensities it can really amp up your metabolic rate. Performing high-intensity cardio essentially means increasing your physical effort (how hard you work) for a short period of time, or even sporadically within a lower intensity workout. Either way, the goal is to work out at a level that considerably exceeds the normal demands you place on your body – ideally for 15-20 minutes.
For instance, if your normal leisure walking pace is 2.0-2.5 mph, your intense walking pace might hit the 3.0-4.0 mph mark. If you use a treadmill, walking on a 2-4% incline is another great way to ‘intensify’ your otherwise leisure walking pace.
3. Going to Sleep
Wait, what? Sleep? Now here’s a nontraditional way to boost metabolism. I say “untraditional” because, unfortunately, a lot of us just don’t get enough sleep. Some people even wear sleep deprivation like a badge of honor. Not a good look as prolonged deprivation comes with some pretty significant consequences. In fact, just a few days of sleep deprivation can completely disrupt BMR, trigger fat storage and even increase appetite stimulation and overeating.
While most adults need 7-8 hours of good quality sleep each night, at a minimum, you can shoot for six. Having a regular nightly routine helps. This could include things like taking a warm shower or a bath, reading a book, or performing light stretches just prior to bedtime. It would also behoove you to turn off those TVs, computers and smartphones to avoid overstimulation.
4. Chewing Your Foods
Though I personally love a good smoothie, I’ll be the first to admit that drinking smoothies isn’t as metabolically beneficial as eating foods whole, mainly since no chewing is required. Slowly and thoroughly chewing your foods as opposed to just drinking them or eating them fast and furiously, prolongs the overall digestive process in ways that heighten DIT. This prolonged process results in higher calorie burn rates.
For maximum benefits, whenever you eat, try to chew every layer of your food at least 30 times before swallowing. Eating whole food salads is a great way to practice and perfect this art. I also encourage you to practice mindfulness whenever you eat. Now, if you’re a smoothie fan, not to worry. There’s no need to stop drinking smoothies altogether. Just enjoy them in moderation and always choose your layers wisely.
5. Consuming Quality Proteins
Whether poultry, fish, lean meats, eggs, cheese, soy foods or legumes, the simple act of slowly eating and fully digesting protein-rich foods can substantially boost DIT, even by as much as 35%. This temporary boost can elevate metabolism for up to three hours. Protein also helps preserve lean mass and promotes efficient fat burning. This is why I generally recommend consuming a good amount of protein at every meal.
While everyone’s protein needs vary, taking in an average of 0.40-0.50 grams of protein per one pound of your body weight per day is a great target for metabolic benefits (click here for valuable tips on choosing your proteins).
6. Adding Spice to Your Life
Since thermogenesis essentially involves the production of heat, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that spicy foods like jalapeño, cayenne and other chili peppers have powerful thermogenic effects. This is largely due to their rich content of capsaicin, a potent phytonutrient that naturally increases DIT. Believe it or not, the simple act of eating spicy foods can increase metabolism by as much as 20% immediately after ingestion.
Eating spicy foods comes with pronounced appetite suppressing effects too. This is especially beneficial if you’re trying to lose weight. To reap the metabolic and other benefits of spicy foods, include them in your favorite meals and snacks – that is, if you can tolerate them.
Now, I can literally go on and on with all kinds of tricks for stimulating temporary metabolic boosts – whether it be drinking ice-cold water or enjoying quality caffeinated beverages like coffee and tea. But I think you get the point. At least I hope you do.
When it comes to weight loss, long-term weight control and wellness, metabolism can be a friend or foe. The latter holds especially true in the presence of common chronic conditions like diabetes, thyroid disease and other hormonal and metabolic disorders, some of which may necessitate medical intervention. However, in most cases, following the tips I’ve highlighted here can significantly rev up your metabolism for the better. Try some of them today!