Metabolism is one of those words that gets tossed around casually, but do you truly understand what it means? In essence, the metabolism refers to the chemical reactions and processes that occur in the body to help keep it alive and fuel it with energy. As Tara Allen, RN, a women’s health nurse, personal trainer, and nutritionist, puts it, the metabolism is our body’s furnace, burning through fuel (aka calories) at an ever-changing rate, helping us breathe and digest food while delivering nutrients to our muscles and cells. And while it’s true that many of the factors that control our metabolism — i.e. age, gender, genetic predisposition, and body composition — are out of our control, many are, in fact, in our total (or at least partial) control. If you’re trying to boost your metabolism to no avail, here are some of self-sabotaging habits that might be holding you back from reaching your goal.
Josh Axe, DNM, CNS, DC, founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com explains that, because your body works to conserve energy when it’s fatigued, not getting enough sleep at night can seriously slow down your metabolism. “There’s a proven link between a properly functioning metabolism and getting adequate sleep and rest, and lack of sleep can mean lack of weight loss in the long run,” he says. For this reason, he suggests making it a priority to get seven to nine hours of sleep each night in order to keep hormone levels in check, which could otherwise cause the body to store more fat.
Lack of physical activity
Many of us spend most of the day sitting at a desk. While this in itself won’t throw off your metabolism, not compensating with physical activity on your off time will. “Research has shown that prolonged sitting greatly affects our body’s glucose use, meaning it’s a large component of not burning enough calories during the day,” says Roger E. Adams, PhD, personal trainer, doctor of nutrition, and owner of eatrightfitness. “While this doesn’t affect the part of the metabolism involved in extracting energy from our food, it does affect the part responsible for using those calories.” Even moving for short periods of time during the day will help, be it a walk around the block or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Not consuming enough calories
It’s common practice to cut back on the amount of calories consumed when trying to lose weight; however, consuming too little calories can have an adverse effect. “Our body has a built-in survival mechanism that allows it to drastically cut the amount of calories it burns to adjust to a period of very low calorie consumption, such as during famine, illness, or extreme dieting,” explains Allen. If you are cutting calories in an effort to shed pounds, she recommends doing so slowly. “Aim for a healthy, balanced diet full of protein, good fats, complex carbohydrates, and lots of colorful veggies — and pay attention to your hunger cues,” she adds.
The only thing potentially worse for your metabolism than consuming too little calories is yo-yo dieting, or going on a calorie deficit followed by an inevitable surplus. “You can wind up entering a catabolic state known as ‘starvation mode’ that causes hormonal and cellular changes, which drive up hunger and thirst while slowing down your fat-burning abilities and muscle growth,” warns Dr. Axe. “One of the best ways to make sure you keep your metabolism humming along is to eat consistently throughout the day, not skipping any meals.” This means avoiding crash diets and properly feeding your body the nutrients it needs to maximize your metabolism.
Eating processed foods
Certain foods, namely the processed kind, disrupt the digestive system, slowing it down and increasing free radical damage (the main cause of aging). “The body recognizes processed and inflammatory foods as toxins, and therefore eating these triggers your innate immune system’s fight-or-flight response, which increases stress hormone production and slows down metabolic functioning,” explains Dr. Axe. “Sugary drinks, processed junk, refined vegetable oils, and artificial sweeteners can all contribute to a sluggish metabolism.” Instead, he recommends opting for mostly unprocessed, whole foods, which can supply your body with the nutrients it needs to function and thrive.
Boozing too hard
Although the effects of alcohol on metabolism are not completely understood, alcohol is known irritate the digestive system. “When we consume alcohol, our digestive and detoxification systems go into overdrive to clear the alcohol out of our system,” says Allen. For this reason, she recommends cutting back on the amount and frequency of alcohol you consume, and, if you do plan on having an adult beverage, avoiding junk food.
When we’re stressed out, our body produces an excess of the hormone cortisol, which can often cause us to overeat. “Overeating often leads to a higher body fat percentage, which, in turn, slows metabolism,” says Allen. “Besides reducing stress as much as possible, consider a time period to experiment with stress-relief techniques to find what works best for you, be it yoga, journaling, walks outside or hitting the gym.”