A family member came to me the other day with weight-loss angst. “My metabolism is slow,” he said. “It’s not fair.” It got me thinking…how much weight does this statement hold? (I know, I always make bad jokes). But seriously, what role does our mystical metabolism play in weight loss efforts? And can we speed it up?
I came across an article last week about how contestants from “The Biggest Losers,” the NBC show, gained their weight back and then some. Their metabolisms are all whacked out. You can read about it here, but if you want the cliff notes version it goes like this: A researcher tracked the Season 8 participants for six years, and studied their resting metabolism (meaning how many calories they burn while not engaged in activity). They burned far fewer baseline calories during the day than other people of the same size. When they started the show they were overweight, but had functioning metabolisms. Dieting slows everyone’s metabolism, so the fact that their metabolisms had slowed shortly after the show ended wasn’t surprising, but what was surprising was that six years later, their metabolisms hadn’t recovered and had only gotten worse. Why? My nutrition studies tell me that when your body thinks it is starving, it freaks the hell out and tries to hold on to weight. That is my super boiled down and un-scientific explanation of homeostasis.
The truth is, we don’t even need the science to understand it…we just need logic. Your body doesn’t know that you are strategically cutting calories and exercising more. It thinks you are in a famine (dieting) and running from wild lions (exercise). As advanced as our human minds are, we are still animals. Our bodies are smarter. It’s true. Think about it. Generally speaking, our hearts never forget to beat; our lungs don’t forget to breathe; we make babies without telling our bodies how to do it, and milk when those babies arrive. We are amazing creatures.
For this very reason, I don’t ever put my clients on crash diets or crazy exercise regimes. It doesn’t work from a biological perspective or mindset standpoint. The truth about changing our body and healing our metabolism, much to many people’s dismay, is that it can’t be done overnight. It is a slow process—one of healing–not one of punishment. It is about changing a few habits that create bigger changes over time. But that isn’t what people want to hear. They want the 21-day fix, or 6 minute abs, or the 2-day juice cleanse. Guess what happens after that 21 days? Yup. You gain back all the weight and then some. Your body freaked out and your habits never really changed. We are American. We want results and fast. That’s why shows like “The Biggest Loser” are such a hit.
The most disturbing quote from the researcher in “The Biggest Loser” study was, “Even the most motivated are working against their own biology.” This made me sad. These poor people just wanted to change their lives and the cards got stacked against them. I wanted to better understand how the metabolism works and how we can go about healthfully losing weight for life.
Here are the most common metabolism-destroying mistakes, and ways to avoid these pitfalls and lose weight more healthfully (and permanently).
- Crash dieting.
When you restrict calories, your metabolism slows. Your body adapts to this lesser intake by burning fewer calories. This is normal and expected when restricting calories. But can you guess what happens when you are on a super strict and restrictive diet for an extended period of time? You whacked out your metabolism. It is slow as a turtle. Then, you see a piece of cake. And you want it. Like so bad. So you eat the crap out of it. Your leptin levels (one of the hormones in charge of signaling satiation) dropped and you got freaking hungry. The craving was real; it was biological. That cake was so good, and you already fell off the wagon, so then you eat your kid’s grilled cheese at lunch. You are just so hungry. Next thing you know, you are down the rabbit hole and eating a ton of calories because you are craving them (remember, your body stopped producing a healthy level of leptin to signal fullness). Now your metabolism has slowed and doesn’t know what to do with the sudden up-take, so you gain the weight back quickly and then some. This isn’t to say that one bad day creates that shift, or to say that periods of restricted food intake aren’t beneficial. Both have their place. It is going to the extreme that creates the lack of balance in our bodies.
What to do instead: Practice patience. Fat loss should not be rushed. You should aim to lose about a pound a week depending on how much fat you have to lose. You want to create sustainable habits that you can implement for life. Starving yourself results in muscle loss (muscle burns a ton of calories), and this wreaks havoc on your metabolism. You need to have a solid plan, and strive to make a few attainable changes at a time. Remember, you are trying to create changes for life, and that takes time.
- Cutting macronutrient groups too low.
The three macronutrient categories are: protein, fat, and carbohydrate. There are many fad diets that significantly restrict one macros or another. This can be problematic if done to an extreme. Our body needs all three to be an optimal fat-burning machine. Let’s go over each of them, and why we need all three.
Protein: Protein is the building blocks of our muscles. If you aren’t getting enough protein your body will essentially eat its own muscle for fuel. You want to keep your calorie-scorching muscle and lose the fat, so please feed your muscle with adequate protein.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of fuel and is needed for activity and brain function. They provide the body with quick energy and provide glycerin to replenish muscle store, and keep your body ready to move.
Fat: Fats are very important in brain health, vitamin absorption, and are the most concentrated source of energy (9 calories per gram, versus 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate and protein). Fat is not the enemy.
What to do instead: Balance is key. Aim for a balanced plate at each meal—mostly vegetables, a palm-sized serving of protein, and a healthy carbohydrate (like sweet potato, squash, rice, etc.). Your body needs all three for an optimal metabolism.
- Doing a cleanse or eating too many meal replacement shakes.
I see so many moms out there reaching for a shake, singing praise for the latest detox tea or whatever other sales gimmick is in style. Sure, a protein shake can be great if you are in a pinch, but don’t eat that instead of real food. The thing about drinking your meals is that it can often leave you feeling hungry and unsatisfied. And juice cleanses, which are all the rage, can really mess with your metabolism. When you do a cleanse and deny your body the nutrients it needs, you lose weight, but it is mostly water and muscle. And when you start eating again, you often gain the weight right back, and often even gain more weight because you lost your fat-burning muscle in the process.
What to do instead: Eat real food, and eat diversely. What is real food? Things that come from the earth and aren’t processed. And since we are talking about metabolisms today, did you know that your body actually burns calories digesting foods, especially vegetables and fruits? Also, vegetables and fruits are filled with fiber, and keep you full longer. So load up that plate with real, whole, chew-able produce.
- Eating sugar AND/OR sugar substitutes.
So, we all know that sugar is bad for us, but how does it affect our metabolism? When we eat sugar, it causes a rise in insulin. When this rise drops (the crash), we get crazy hungry. So we eat more sugar. When insulin is chronically elevated, our body starts storing fat, which slows the metabolism. One of insulin’s jobs is to send signals to our fat cells to pick up fat from the bloodstream, store it, and avoid burning the fat we already carry. Because humans are biologically primed to crave sugar, many try to switch to the “sugar alternative.” Recent studies have proved that artificial sugars cause just as much trouble (and they are often super processed chemical foods–yuck!). When you eat fake sweeteners, the receptors in your body are anticipating calories from sugar, so your body responds in the same fashion—releasing that fat-storage beast also known as insulin.
What to do instead: Limiting sugar is hard. It sucks. I’m sorry. But once you rip the bandage off, you will crave it less and can heal your body in many ways—including your metabolism. There are two ways to going about lessening your sugar intake. You can slowly wean yourself, or go cold turkey. Different strategies work for different folks.
- Not eating enough.
This one is similar to my first point, but it needs to be reiterated. When our bodies are starving, our metabolism slows down. When the body senses that it is fed and satiated, it keeps the metabolism and hormones running properly.
What to do instead: Change what you are eating. Don’t deny yourself food. Instead, load up on whole foods. Be sure to eat lots of leafy greens, some starchy veggies, fruit, and healthy fats. Keep your body fueled with the right foods to change your body. Keep your metabolism healthy and your hormones happy.
- Avoiding weight training exercises.
Many people focus too much on the scale. Muscle weighs more than fat, but many women focus on that number on the scale. Another weightloss mistake is not doing weight training. Weight lifting increases muscle mass and muscle burns fat…all…day…long.
What to do instead: Add weigt lifting to your routine if you haven’t alreay. No, you won’t bulk up. Yes, you will get lean and sexy.