4 Keys to Metabolic Health
Metabolism has become a highly misunderstood term in modern nutrition science. Most people think of it solely in terms of weight gain (or loss), but really it encompasses much more than just weight and daily calorie burn. In fact, metabolism refers to all the chemical processes that occur within your body to sustain life. This includes breaking down food to produce energy for your cells and synthesizing essential substances vital for your overall health and well-being.
There are four key areas to keep in mind when it comes to metabolic health.
- Total Energy Expenditure or TEE
- Thermic Effect of Food or TEF
- Blood Sugar Management
- Exercise and activity (i.e. movement)
Total Energy Expenditure or TEE
In terms of the calorie requirement aspect of metabolism, it’s important to understand what makes up total energy expenditure or TEE, which is the total number of calories that you burn on a daily basis. TEE is made up of three things: Resting metabolic rate (RMR), the thermic effect of food (TEF), and exercise. Resting metabolic rate refers to the calories your body burns at rest and makes up approximately two-thirds of TEE. RMR depends on your age, sex, body size, genetics, body composition (how much muscle versus fat that you have), and hormone levels.
Regular strength training and eating adequate amounts of high-quality protein can help offset muscle loss, which is one of the most important things that you can do to optimize metabolism. Muscle not only burns more calories than fat, even at rest, it also helps improve blood sugar metabolism, even if you are overweight. Genetics also plays a role in RMR, but it only explains about 11% of the variability between people.
What is TEF and Why is it Important?
The second component of TEE is the calories you burn digesting and processing the food you eat, known as the thermic effect of food (TEF), which accounts for only about 10% of the total calories your burn daily. Protein burns more calories to digest than carbohydrates, and carbohydrates burn more than fat, but that doesn’t mean that you need to eat like a bodybuilder to burn more calories. Total caloric intake still matters the most when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and managing blood sugar and the best way to do both is by focusing on high quality protein like eggs, chicken, lean meat, yogurt and beans with most meals, along with healthy carbs rich in soluble fiber and healthy fat like avocado, nuts, seeds and olive oil to help keep blood sugar stable optimize your body’s response to insulin which is critically important for a healthy metabolism.
Blood Sugar Management
One more important aspect of the TEF is when you eat. If you have jumped on the intermittent fasting bandwagon for either weight loss or better blood sugar control, the earlier you stop eating, the better. One study showed significantly greater metabolic improvements with the 10am to 6pm eating window than with the 12pm to 8pm window. And a recent review showed that late-eaters were more likely to be overweight and have worse metabolic health than early morning eaters, despite eating the same number of calories. In addition, spicing up meals with cayenne and ginger can help increase the TEF slightly, and herbs and spices also help feed the healthy bacteria in your gut which can help you better maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Exercise is Key to a Healthy Metabolism
The last major component of TEE is exercise which accounts for 15% to 30% of the total calories you burn each day. This includes both purposeful exercise like going to the gym, weight lifting, biking, hiking, running, or playing tennis, as well as non-exercise activities such as taking the stairs at work, gardening, grocery shopping, standing more and even fidgeting. In some cases, non-exercise activity can burn even more calories than regular exercise, up to hundreds of calories per day. Unfortunately, this type of activity has dropped significantly in the past 50 years. For optimizing metabolism, it’s important to focus on both increasing exercise and non-exercise activity. In fact, just breaking up the amount of time you spend sitting with short periods of light activity can significantly improve metabolism and decrease your risk of both diabetes and obesity.
- We lose 3% of our muscle mass per decade as we age starting in our 30s
- Strength training and eating high-quality protein can offset muscle loss
- Muscle burns more calories than fat, even at rest
- Genetics can play a role in RMR as well so it’s important to test for that
In summary, there is a lot you can do to optimize your metabolism, whether your goal is weight loss, building muscle, preventing or reversing diabetes, or just improving your energy levels throughout the day.