Ask an Expert: Metabolism and Weight Loss

Q: “I am cursed with a slow metabolism, so I burn calories slowly and gain weight easily. What can I do to rev up my metabolism?”

Answer provided by Valerie Edwards, M.S., R.D., L.D., clinical dietitian, Providence Portland Medical Center, and Michelle Guitteau, M.D., director of ambulatory education, Providence Portland Medical Center: 

Most of us would love to speed up our metabolism — the faster our bodies burn through the calories that we eat and drink, the easier it is to maintain a healthy weight. People who struggle with weight problems often assume that their metabolism is slow, but in many cases, the bigger culprit is an excess of calorie intake and/or a lack of calorie burning through physical activity.

While your metabolism is affected in part by age, gender and genetics — factors outside of your control — there are many things that are within your control that can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight, and potentially boost your metabolism, as well.

Three things you might be doing to contribute to weight gain

1. Skipping breakfast

This is the most common problem we see when we meet with people who are struggling with their weight. Many people skip breakfast thinking that it will help them cut calories, and some skip it simply for lack of time in the mornings. But as a weight-loss strategy, this often does more harm than good. Many people who skip breakfast find themselves overly hungry later in the day, which may be the reason that breakfast skippers typically eat more calories later in the day.

2. Going too long without eating during the day

As with skipping breakfast, people who skip other meals or wait a long time between meals often report overeating at the next meal. This may lead to eating higher-calorie foods and/or to eating larger portions. One example we see often is people who eat lunch at noon, and then don’t eat anything else until they get home from work at 6:30. Often these people will report snacking on chips as soon as they get home, then eating dinner, and sometimes following that with more high-calorie snacking. When we work with people who follow this type of pattern, helping them change their pattern typically makes it much easier for them to eat smaller dinners and to reduce their evening snacking.

3. Being inactive

In general, the less active you are, the slower your metabolism will be, and this can make it easier to gain weight. When we talk about activity, we’re not just talking about how much exercise you do. We’re also talking about your general level of activity. A person who sits all day at work and then drives home to sit in front of the television set all night will generally have a slower metabolism than a person who walks or bikes to work, stands or paces while making phone calls, and putters around the house or garden in the evening.

To speed up your metabolism and help you manage your weight, do the opposite

1. Always eat breakfast.

There has long been speculation that eating breakfast increases metabolism, but studies to date have given inconsistent results. Still, there is compelling evidence that people who eat breakfast have an easier time managing weight and have a lower BMI (body mass index).

Of course, your choice of breakfast foods also matters, so stopping at the coffee shop for a scone and a latte is probably not the best choice. High-fat, high-calorie breakfast choices, like a large bacon-and-egg breakfast or most restaurant meals, are associated with higher weights. Eating a lower-calorie, higher-fiber breakfast cereal, such as oatmeal, is associated with significantly lower BMI when compared to skipping breakfast or eating a high-calorie meat-and-egg breakfast.

Breakfast doesn’t have to be a big or elaborate meal. If you don’t feel hungry in the morning, start with something small, like half a banana with a little yogurt, cereal or whole-grain toast. Once your body gets used to a little food in the morning, you can start adding a combination of foods to strike a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats. A good example of a balanced breakfast would be one cup of cooked oatmeal with skim or low-fat (1%) milk, one or two tablespoons of nuts, and a serving of fruit.

If you find it really difficult or even nauseating to eat in the morning, try eating less at night — what you eat in the evening could be having an effect on the way you feel in the morning. Some people also feel better if they wait an hour or so before eating breakfast in the morning. Just don’t wait too long — try to eat within two hours of waking up. With consistent effort, you can retrain your body, and after a while, you’ll likely find that breakfast makes you feel better, more energetic and less hungry throughout the day.

2. Eat frequent, small, balanced meals.

It’s good to feel a little bit hungry before you eat, but you shouldn’t feel so ravenous that you want to eat everything in sight. Most people manage their hunger best when they eat small, balanced meals every three to four hours. An example of a small, balanced meal might be half of a turkey sandwich, a salad with one or two tablespoons of dressing, and a piece of fruit or a glass of skim or low-fat milk. Eating regularly keeps your energy level steady and prevents the over-eating that is bound to happen when you let yourself get too hungry. It’s also a good blood-sugar-control strategy for people with diabetes.

If your work or family responsibilities make it hard for you to stop for regular meals, pack along a cooler full of foods that you can eat on the fly, like dried and fresh fruits, cut up vegetables, small portions of nuts and seeds, low-fat string cheese, and whole-grain breads and crackers.

3. Increase your activity level.

You can speed up your metabolism by increasing your general activity level, or by exercising, or, ideally, through a combination of both.

A researcher named James Levine coined the term NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis), which is a complicated way of describing how we burn calories through the activities of daily living. As opposed to working out in a gym, NEAT is achieved through the kind of activity you get just by being on your feet, cleaning house, gardening, cooking or doing anything other than sitting still. Levine’s research shows consistently that people who are more active in general can burn up to 300 extra calories a day, without even counting exercise. If you’re trying to lose weight, 300 calories a day could help you drop 2-1/2 pounds a month without making any other changes in your diet or exercise routine.

You probably know someone who can’t sit still and is always jumping up, fidgeting or running around finding things to do. This is the kind of person who burns those 300 extra calories each day. If you’re not that kind of person, you can reap the benefits of NEAT by trying to emulate that kind of behavior. Find ways to interrupt your sedentary activities by getting up and moving around more. If you sit all day at work, get up regularly and walk around your desk or work place; stand up and pace whenever you’re on the phone; walk and talk to people instead of e-mailing. If you like to relax in front of the television in the evenings, spend part of the time on your feet, shifting your weight from foot to foot, and walk around at every commercial break. By building a little more action into your day, you can make a big difference in your metabolism without technically “exercising” at all.

That said, exercise is still a good thing and will increase your metabolism, and your fitness, even more. As with eating breakfast, if exercise is not part of your normal routine, start small and gradually work up to more. Set some reasonable, specific goals, such as, “I’m going to walk for 5 to 10 minutes every day this week.” That may sound like a ridiculously small goal, but the point is to choose something very doable so you’ll start building a habit. It’s pretty hard to say that you don’t have 5 minutes to go walk today.

Once you’ve started and you’re used to the routine, then it becomes easy to increase your goals, add a few minutes and build up to more. Walk, ride a bike, jump rope, swim, take an exercise class — whatever works for your lifestyle and body. And be sure to keep track of what you’re accomplishing. Jot it down on your calendar: “Ate breakfast. Walked 5 minutes.” Or give yourself a gold star for every day that you meet your goals. Studies show that the act of writing down and tracking diet and exercise goals helps people stay motivated and consistent. 

For more information about how people successfully lose weight and maintain their weight loss, visit the National Weight Control Registry.

June 2009
For more information: 
Ask an Expert: Exercise to Increase Metabolism  

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