Sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair. Your best friend feasts on whatever she wants and never gains a pound, while you suffer through carrots and celery and still can’t lose an ounce. Could your metabolism be to blame? It’s possible. Although genetics play a role in how your metabolism runs, you do have some power to increase metabolism and help burn calories more quickly.
Metabolism is a chemical process that converts your body’s fuel (calories) into energy. It’s involved in everything your body does, from breathing to moving and thinking. If your metabolism runs fast, it’s like a furnace quickly burning through fuel. If it runs slowly, it’s more like a smoldering fire using up your fuel supply gradually.
A slow metabolism is actually a very efficient one, says Michael Zemel, PhD, professor emeritus and former director of the Nutrition Institute at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He explains that our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who often didn’t know when their next meal would come. Their bodies held onto calories as a matter of survival. And because only the fittest people lived to pass along their genes, modern humans probably evolved from those with slower metabolisms.
Fast forward to you: Here’s how to boost metabolism for better weight management.
Build Muscle to Boost Metabolism
Lean muscle burns more calories than fat, even when you’re at rest, says Dr. Zemel. So increasing your muscle mass will help increase metabolism and burn calories more quickly. This is especially important as you move into middle age, a time when metabolism naturally slows down and you risk a loss of muscle mass. The answer is to add weight training to your workout routine. Zemel says this can be as easy as working out with resistance bands while standing in front of the TV.
Get Some Shut-Eye to Increase Metabolism
Sleep deprivation or having an erratic sleep schedule can contribute to a sluggish metabolism, says Zemel. Inadequate sleep also puts you at risk for metabolic diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, he adds. According to a study from the University of Chicago, even a few nights of poor sleep can do damage. Researchers say that healthy study participants who got only four hours of sleep for four nights became more resistant to insulin — and insulin resistance is a common precursor to developing diabetes.
Boost Metabolism by Spreading Out Your Meals
Rethinking how you eat can help with better weight management. If you eat cereal and yogurt for breakfast, have the cereal but save the yogurt for a mid-morning snack. At lunch, save part of your meal to eat in the middle of the afternoon. Zemel notes that spreading out meals can have a positive effect on metabolism and blood sugar levels.
Get Off Your Duff to Burn Calories
Zemel says that long periods of inactivity can contribute to a sluggish metabolism and bigger health problems. British researchers analyzed results from 18 studies that looked at inactivity and the risk for disease. They found that the most sedentary people have a higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease and an even bigger risk for diabetes.
At the office, don’t spend hours at a time sitting at your desk — get up and move around, says Zemel. Look for opportunities like walking over to a colleague’s office and having a conversation instead of sending an e-mail. Or consider walking around your office while talking on the phone. While watching TV at home, you can get up during commercial breaks to tidy the house or just move around.
Don’t Try a Starvation Diet to Lose Weight
A very low-calorie diet or skipping meals to lose weight can backfire. “Your body will fight you and slow down your metabolism,” says Zemel. It’s possible to lose 30 pounds on a low-calorie diet, but it takes fewer calories to maintain your body weight after a prolonged dip in calories — and most people gain back that weight and then, when they try to take it off again, it’s harder.
Have Your Thyroid Checked
If your weight gain is sudden, it may be due to hypothyroidism, which is an underactive thyroid gland. This is a common condition, especially in women older than 50. When the thyroid gland is not producing enough hormones, body functions, including metabolism, slow down. One of the biggest symptoms of hypothyroidism is unexplained weight gain. Simple blood tests can detect an underactive thyroid. There is no cure, but treatment using synthetic thyroid hormones is very effective.
Beware of Metabolism-Boosting Hype
Although spicy food is often touted as a metabolism booster, the effects may be exaggerated. One study in the European Journal of Nutrition did find that people who added capsaicin (the active ingredient in chili and other peppers that makes them hot) to their breakfast food felt more satisfied and ate less the rest of the day. Green tea and caffeine are other examples of dietary factors that can give a minimal boost to metabolism, Zemel says. Just remember that it’s fitness — not food — that can definitely help you burn more calories.