Do you consider yourself someone who has a slow metabolism? A fast metabolism?
What does that even mean? Is there anything we can do to change it?
There are a multitude of things that can have an effect on your metabolic rate, these range from how much you eat, to your current age and body fat percentage, to activity level and diet history. The important point to consider is that as any of these variables change, there will be a measurable impact on your metabolism.
What is Metabolism?
The first thing that you must keep in mind when thinking about how dieting for fat loss or muscle gain affects your metabolism is that your body is a survival machine. Metabolic adaptation is something that helped keep our ancestors alive through both times of hardship and times of plenty. When food supply was low, metabolism would slow down to accommodate – helping to ensure survival. Metabolism is a moving target.
Let’s pretend that one of our ancestors could scrape up an average of 3,200 calories worth of food per day and maintained their weight at that. Now the weather starts to change and food is scarcer, the average intake drops to 1,500 calories per day. Of course, weight is going to be lost which will slow down the metabolic rate, but also you must consider the thermic effect of food; because you’re eating less, your body is using fewer calories to process and digest food.
Once the body senses that it’s in a low-calorie environment, it’s going to immediately start making metabolic survival adaptations. This includes ditching anything that’s using precious energy and isn’t vital to survival, such as muscle. Muscle is a highly energetic substance and more muscle means a faster metabolism. If you suddenly cut your intake of calories and tell your body that it’s going into starvation mode, it will quickly start to shed the energy-hungry muscle mass.
“Once the body senses that it’s in a low calorie environment, it’s going to immediately start making metabolic survival adaptations.”
This would be highly beneficial in a survival situation where resources are limited, but for most of us, we live in a land of plenty so we run into the opposite problem. We overeat to the point where we gain large amounts of fat, then because we’re not comfortable with how we look we start to artificially starve ourselves, but the reality remains that as we’re physically starving there’s food all around us. It’s going to be really hard to fight off millions of years of evolutionary survival behavior by refusing a hot, fresh, juicy cheeseburger when every instinct you have is screaming at you to start gorging yourself.
What Does This Mean For Dieting?
It’s clear to see how the ability of your metabolism to slow down makes sense when you look at the big biological picture. And when you take it a step further and look at the current state of health in this global time of plenty, it makes even more sense that so many people are overweight. Now there is something that can be done about this and it starts with some basic education: metabolism is adaptive, it can slow down, but it can also speed up.
This is great news for anyone whose butt has gotten sore from joyrides of futility on the figurative, and sometimes literal, diet bike.
Finally, let’s fix that metabolism
So let’s say that you’ve dramatically cut calories at one point, and lost a decent amount of weight, but then you plateaued. To keep the weight coming off, you started to add in more and more cardio. The weight loss gradually resumed, but once again it stalled out. So now you’re doing endless cardio and basically subsisting on next to nothing. You have two choices at this point: you can either call it a day for the diet or go back to your normal eating habits (which is what most people do) or you can see the error of your ways and start the process of a reverse diet.
Because of the massive gap between your now painfully slow metabolic rate and your pre-diet calorie intake, if you jump right back into a seemingly normal diet, rapid fat regain is bound to happen. So the first choice is not really the smartest one. Well informed 21st century humans will opt for the second choice of the reverse diet.
This is where you gradually (keyword) add calories back into your diet. You’re letting your body know that the time of starvation is over and it can start to adapt to better food conditions. The human metabolism isn’t quick to readjust and start firing on all cylinders at the beginning of a reverse diet – it’s a cautious animal. However, as you slowly increase caloric intake, your metabolism will begin to creep back up. It’s also important that you do things like strength training as you reverse diet so that you send your body signals to adapt to the external forces your placing on your body through weight training. This will induce the growth of muscle tissue which aids in boosting your overall metabolic rate.
Keep Your Metabolism Running Strong
So it would seem that to get the most out of your metabolism you need to give it a reason to stay elevated – this is easy as incorporating strength training and making sure that you meet your calorie requirements for either reverse dieting or any level of muscle gain. Reverse dieting and keeping your metabolism running fast will also make burning fat a much less painful process should you ever decide that you would like to get extra lean for a vacation, wedding, or any other event where your physique is in the limelight.
Now the next time someone suggests that if you want to boost your metabolism you should, “eat six small meals per day”, you can politely correct them and help to bust that common myth by letting them know that it’s all about survival adaptations and energy balance; and that meal timing does about as much for your metabolism as alcohol does to keep you sober.