Myth: The metabolism is a mystical creature that no one truly understands... but if you want to lose weight, you better get one!
Reality: Your body's metabolism is a system that is constantly in flux, and most people know nothing about it.
When you’re trying to lose weight, navigating the sea of nutritional information can be an overwhelming task. There are a million and one diets and schools of thought for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and losing weight, but which one is right? Or, more accurately, which one is right for you? Well, before you can figure out the answer to that question, there are some basic metabolism facts and information about the way your body utilizes food that you need to know.
The dictionary describes metabolism as the chemical processes that occur within a living organism that allow it to maintain life. That’s a lot of responsibility! But for those of us who don’t speak science, ‘“your metabolism” can be a deceiving term. Metabolism is not so much a thing inside your body as it is an action that your body takes: it is the process by which your body breaks down calories and converts them into energy to fuel itself. There are a lot of things that contribute to your metabolism, both in the type of nutrients you take in, and what your body uses those nutrients for. Here are some basic facts you need to know about your metabolism:
BMR, or basal metabolic rate, is the total number of calories your body needs in order to survive on a daily basis, i.e. the energy your body uses to keep you breathing, your heart pumping, and your brain working. Somewhere between 60% and 70% of the calories your body burns in one day goes towards keeping your vital organs functioning, meaning that your BMR is a key player in your metabolism.
Your BMR depends on a variety of factors, including body size and composition (whether you have more muscle or fat on your body,) your age, hereditary factors, your hormones, and your health. You can get a basic estimate of what your BMR might be by googling “BMR calculator” and computing your calorie needs based on your height, weight, age and sex. Just make sure to double check this suggestion on two or more different calculators—as expected, some of these calculators are not accurate. Also keep in mind that a BMR calculator that doesn’t take into account all of the factors listed above will not be wholly accurate; it is merely a suggested calorie usage to help you plan your dietary goals. Again, this is only an estimate of what your body needs to take in to survive without any activity at all.
Has anyone ever told you about celery’s ability to burn more calories that it physically holds? While that is not true, the notion is based on the very real thermic effect of food. What is the thermic effect of food? It’s the energy (aka calories) your body needs to break down, digest, and convert food into more energy. To explain it via metaphor, food thermogenesis is the exercise you get walking from your home, work, or car to the gym before you actually exercise. The thermic effect of food accounts for roughly 10% of your daily calorie burn.
Out of all the macronutrients, protein has the highest thermic effect of food. This means if your goal is weight loss, you should prioritize consuming calories from protein first. Check out some high-quality protein powders to help you increase your intake here.
This is more than just exercise. This is everything from waking up in the morning and walking to the bathroom, to typing on your keyboard. For the Average Joe, physical activity only accounts for around 20% of your body’s daily calorie burn. Surprise you?
Despite what the food pyramid would have you believe, all foods break down into three basic energy types that your body processes differently. These three types are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. No, this doesn’t mean that everything you eat needs to be steak, bread, and potato chips (sorry, Dad). But this does mean that if you want to lose weight, you should be mindful of the types of food you’re “energizing” your metabolism with. For instance, your metabolism uses somewhere between 0% and 3% of the calories fats provide for digestion, while it takes 5-10% for carbohydrates and 20-30% for proteins.
After reading that last fact, you may be thinking that restricting yourself to a high protein diet is the answer to getting lean. But keeping with the idea that a calorie isn’t just a calorie, there are a lot of factors as to why you need more than just protein to make it through your day. For one, your body uses the energy it gains from protein, carbs, and fat differently. You need fast energy, like those you get from carbs, in order to perform a difficult workout, while you need protein to help repair. Fats, in smaller portions, are also used as an easy energy source that your body uses when it goes into a fasting state, like sleeping. But over-ingesting any one type of macronutrient can cause you to store fat.