Thanks to the research from a few weeks back, so many people are clamoring for information about metabolism. “Does losing a lot of weight lower your metabolism?” “How can I stop or fix my metabolism?”
This is something I’ve been railing on about for forever, now. There is more to weight loss than “calories in vs calories out” and “eat less, move more.” Here are some answers to the most common questions people ask about metabolism.
1) “What is metabolism?” Metabolism is, quite literally, the measured amount of energy required for a cell (or group of cells) to function healthily. We don’t need to get as deep as the cellular level on this, but it’s important to understand that every part of making you into a living, breathing, growing person requires energy. And, by energy, I mean “calories.” The stuff you get from food. (This is part of why an adult’s metabolism can decrease as they age. Less ”growing” going on.)
When I say “every part of making you into a living, breathing person,” I literally mean everything. Thinking requires calories; this is why your brain feels foggy when you’re not eating enough. Chewing and digesting food, from entry to exit, requires calories. Breaking down and rebuilding muscle requires calories. Bone repair requires calories. Your reproductive system requires calories for running optimally and priming you for fertility. Growing requires calories, but most of us already know that, since we’ve seen how much teenagers eat. And good grief do they eat a lot. Oy.
When I say that a process requires calories, I mean that it’s burning stored energy to make it happen. Your body is in a constant cycle of storing eaten calories as body fat, and burning it as necessary in order to fuel all the necessary functions that keep you going strong. You can strengthen these processes by eating enough to fuel your day, or you can weaken them—generally speaking—by eating far less than you should.
This is why dramatic decreases in calorie consumption result in loss of your menstrual cycle, also known as amenorrhea; as well as contributing to osteoporosis; loss of hair; loss of teeth; flimsy nails; and, yes, weight gain. Your body can fight to hold onto every calorie you consume, shutting down internal processes deemed less-essential than liver health or breathing, because it may believe it’s time for famine. Which leads me to my next question…
2) “Does weight loss impact your metabolism?” Yes. Every ounce on your body requires energy—calories—to be maintained. Start cutting a few calories, your body naturally starts to cut down how many calories you need by getting rid of body fat*. Cut a few too many calories, your body starts trying to reduce your muscle. Cut way too many, and your hair begins falling out and your menstrual cycle stops. You feel like you can’t think clearly, and may feel like your emotions are completely out of control. Your bones become brittle. You fall, you break something. (Also note that this is what many people suffering from chronic anorexia face.)
When you reduce the amount of pounds on your body, you’re also reducing the amount of total calories needed to help you operate optimally. Reduce your weight by a drastic amount, reduce your metabolism, too. And, if you reduce your weight by a dramatic amount, you should reduce your caloric intake by a dramatic amount as well in order to maintain it. But, as I said before, our brains are chemically attached to the way we eat, which makes maintaining those smaller portions hard, hence…
3) “What is yo-yo dieting and how does it affect metabolism?” Yo-yo dieting is a culmination of things. You gain weight, decide you want to lose it, so you change the way you eat. Eventually, over time, your eating habits shift back to where they were, resulting in weight gain again. Except, the pounds you lost might’ve been muscle—so many “diets” result in people losing lots of weight too quickly because they’ve cut so many calories, resulting in loss of essential muscle mass which required more calories to manage than body fat—which means you’ve likely dramatically reduced your metabolism thanks to this diet. What’s more, when you finally weigh what you did when you started, your metabolism is still less than it was when you first began…which only results in your weight increasing even more.
4) “Can eating 4-5 times a day increase my metabolism?” So, the answer to this depends on a few things, in my opinion. The general understanding of this is no, eating more times per day cannot increase your metabolism beyond what is inherently capable within your body.
It has been my understanding that so many people have been eating so much less than what they should, it wouldn’t surprise me if, in the quest to not be one of the “8 in ten black women who are overweight or obese,” (ahem) many of us were eating so little as to have already negatively impacted and shut down many of our body’s natural processes… processes that would burn calories properly if they were fueled properly. Healthy hair, skin, and nail growth; fertility; bone health; and organ health are all negatively impacted by eating too little. Eating more calories, whether it be more frequently or not, can only improve your metabolism because your body no longer feels as if it has to shut down other internal processes in order to keep you alive.
My experience with this is that eating more frequently has other benefits. Turning you into a “fat burning furnace?” Not quite.
5) “How can I healthily improve my metabolism?” You have a few options. The first includes eating more calories, from more nutritious sources. You can eat more calories in the form of Big Macs and White Castle if you want, but are you getting the nutrients you need to help your body run healthily and, by extension, optimally? Likely not.
A properly nourished body has the best chances of operating on all cylinders. Are there conditions that can affect that? Definitely. But you wouldn’t even have a chance without that.
Secondly, frequent and consistent full body strength training is your best bet. The breaking down and rebuilding of muscle fibers is, too, a process that burns lots—lots—of calories inside and outside of the gym, and it’s an ongoing process. This is also better supported by a diet with ample and diverse protein sources—yes, vegetables and beans can be sources of protein—so that your muscles can healthy repair and rebuild, too.
Lastly, get rest. Drink plenty of water. Manage your stress healthily. Ditch your vices (I know, I know, easier said than done.) All things that can, in a roundabout way, impact your metabolism and, by extension, your weight loss goals. Trust me—your body will thank you for it!