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Metabolism, Lifestyle and Food

By Terry Passano, RDN, LDN, CLT – University Dietitian

If you’re looking for professional weight loss advice beyond “eat less, move more” then you’re in for a treat. You and I both know that weight is just one of many, many measurements of health and whatever your measurement happens to be, it should not define you. I can tell you that I get a ton of questions on metabolism and weight loss/maintenance, so I want to share it with you in this month’s post.

There are so many options to try when it comes to metabolism and nutrition for weight loss and maintenance. Not one single approach or diet helps everyone. Finding one that works for you can take some trial and error, and even when something does work, it may stall, and you may need to try new options.

Don’t worry. I have your back.

I’ve collected a bunch of my best tips and strategies, with several examples of each so that you can try them out. I’d love to hear how these work for you.

Metabolism and Weight Loss/Maintenance

Weight is just one measure of overall health, but it concerns many people who come to see me. If this describes you, then this article is for you. A recent Harris Poll/Health Day survey found that 63% of U.S. adults plan to change their diet in 2022; that’s nearly two of every three adults! The reported planned changes include eating less or cutting back on specific foods. Coincidentally, being overweight and obesity are so common today that two-thirds of adults and one-third of children experience these in the United States right now. That’s hundreds of millions of people, so please don’t feel alone. Achieving a healthy weight, eating nutritious foods and being physically active can help improve your health and reduce your risk of illness. It can also aid in relieving joint pain and boost energy levels.

But as you know, there is so much more to the old advice to “eat less, move more.”

Weight loss is very challenging for many reasons:

  • There is an abundance of food available around most of us 24/7.
  • Eating isn’t just something we do for sustenance; it’s gratification, a social activity and sometimes even a reward.
  • Computers and cars, etc. have contributed to a much more sedentary lifestyle – we don’t all need to be physically active farmers to survive anymore.
  • Reducing calories voluntarily is really, really hard; it’s a huge challenge to change habits.
  • Many diets work in the short term but fail later on because they’re simply unsustainable.
  • After losing weight, maintaining weight loss is extremely difficult; this is particularly true for women after a certain age.

Today, let’s go over some strategies to overcome weight loss challenges.

What is metabolism, and how can I lose weight?

Your weight is based on several factors, some are controllable, and others are not. For example, your genetics, family history and hormones can impact your weight, but there’s not too much you can do to change those significantly.

On the other hand, what and how much you eat, the medications you’re taking, the amount of stress you’re under, how you manage that stress, and how much sleep and physical activity you get also contribute to weight and are a bit more controllable (albeit not completely controllable).

Here’s where metabolism fits with weight. Your body does so many things at rest: breathing, pumping blood, adjusting hormone levels, maintaining your body temperature, growing and repairing cells.

The amount of energy (calories) your body uses to perform these essential functions is called your “basal metabolic rate.” Overall, your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or metabolism, accounts for about two-thirds of the calories your body burns every day.

“Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

Your body size and composition influence your metabolism. This means that a bigger person, with more muscle and heavier bones, burns more calories doing nothing.

Because men tend to be bigger and have more muscle, they naturally tend to have a higher metabolic rate than women. This is also true for younger people, who tend to have more muscle mass. Because bone and muscle mass tend to decrease (and fat mass tends to increase) with age, if you don’t take steps to maintain bone and muscle mass, your metabolism will likely decrease in adulthood, resulting in increased weight.

Increasing muscle mass and maintaining healthy bones helps boost metabolism.

Certain medical conditions also can affect your metabolism. For example, the hormonal conditions of Cushing’s syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) can slow your metabolism down. These conditions often come with a range of other symptoms beyond just weight gain. Don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor or health care professional about tests to confirm these diagnoses if you suspect an underlying medical condition.

A slower metabolism may be one factor that influences your weight, but it’s not the only one.

How your body processes what you eat or drink and how active you are also play roles in your weight. Digesting food burns about 10% of the calories we consume. Plus, the amount of physical activity you do also accounts for some of the calories you burn every day.

Microbiome influence.

In recent years, there has been much research surrounding our gut microbiome’s role in our health. The microbiome consists of bacteria and other microorganisms. These bacteria have many functions ranging from absorbing and synthesizing nutrients, including vitamin K and B complex, and may influence our weight by encouraging or discouraging fat storage. How many and which organisms one has is influenced by factors including what we inherited from our mother’s body, what we eat, our activity and our lifestyle. Generally speaking, we benefit from an abundant and diverse population of bacteria in our gut microbiome. A properly balanced microbiome will help nourish you, strengthen your immune system, help prevent chronic disease and assist with weight management.

Weight Loss/Maintenance Strategies

Before you start a weight-loss program, be sure to speak with your health care provider. Many weight-loss products or programs can be harmful depending on your current state of health and goals. Be particularly wary of products or programs that promise quick, long-lasting or effortless weight loss.

Your behaviors and habits have a huge influence on your weight, and you are empowered to adjust them as you see fit. Successful weight management takes effort and time, but the benefits can be felt and seen in just a few weeks.

Here are my top seven strategies for better health and weight management.

  1. Set specific, realistic, forgiving goals
    • Instead of a goal to “lose weight,” try smaller and more specific goals that you can attain. Daily or weekly goals can be, for example, to cook a vegetable-rich meal on the weekend, decrease food cues (hiding cookies out of sight or disregarding food ads) or up your activity. For example, if you usually walk 20 minutes a day, increase it to 30 or 45 minutes.
    • Try to stick with a new habit for at least a week or two to start making it routine. Then when one habit becomes consistent, add another one.
    • Remember, it’s not uncommon to take six months to lose 5% of your body weight, so that may be a more realistic goal to aim for.
  2. Ditch the "diet" mentality and focus on making lasting improvements for sustainable health
    • Focus on improving your food choices for overall health rather than “dieting” for weight loss.
    • Enjoy lots of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.
    • Enjoy healthy fats such as olives, avocados, olive oil, nuts and seeds.
    • Focus on the quality of the foods you eat, increase fresh and minimally processed foods while decreasing fast food and convenience foods. Highly processed foods have been linked with eating more calories and weight gain . The food we eat is information for our body.
  3. Meal-Time Vibes: Change your eating routine and see what works for you.
    • Ideally, each meal should take at least 20 minutes to eat, so eat slower. Enjoy your food more and listen for fullness cues that subtly signal when you’re getting satisfied and it’s time to stop eating.
    • Eat more mindfully by focusing on and enjoying what you’re eating while you’re eating it. Pay attention to your food’s smell, taste and texture as you’re eating it.
    • Chew food well. Chewing is the beginning of digestion and sends signals to the body that aid digestion. Try putting your fork down between bites and thoroughly chewing before swallowing.
    • If you have a habit of snacking in front of the TV or computer screen, try getting used to replacing that with a glass of water or unsweetened beverage instead.
    • Make your environment relaxing. Lower the lighting and put on some gentle, calming music. A recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) study showed that diners in a relaxing atmosphere ate less and enjoyed their meals more than those who ate the same foods in a brightly lit and loud restaurant.
  4. You don’t have to do exercise to be more physically active (but you can).
    • Boost your activity; move for at least 30 minutes per day (even three 10-minute sessions can help); more movement can bring greater benefits.
    • Aerobic activity (e.g., walking, bicycling, etc.) is the most efficient way to burn calories.
    • Weight training (e.g., using weights or pushing your body against gravity) builds your muscles, increasing your metabolic rate; ideally, you’d include at least two weight training sessions per week.
    • Don’t forget you don’t have to do “exercise” to be physically active, you can take the stairs more often, park further away, walk a bit faster, or do housework or gardening – they all count toward your physical activity.
    • Remember that any physical activity is better for your health (and weight loss goals) than none.
    • Try something new or join a group class, a dance class, gi gong, hiking club.
  5. Reward your successes.
    • According to the NIH: “frequent small rewards, earned for meeting smaller goals, are more effective than bigger rewards that require a long, difficult effort.”
    • Each time you reach a goal, however small, reward your success with a non-food activity or item.
    • For example, you may want to buy yourself that book, movie, music or game that you’ve wanted for a while. Or re-read, re-watch or re-listen to an old favorite.
    • Perhaps you can put a small amount of money away to save up for a larger reward. Save for a massage or facial or day trip or weekend away.
    • Rewards don’t have to be monetary. You can take some time for yourself, like have a bath, do your nails, or enjoy a craft or hobby you love (or try a new one).
    • Maybe you’d prefer some time to watch comedy skits or funny animal videos online.
  6. Persevere.
    • Losing weight is very hard and most people have to keep trying before they find a way that works for them.
    • Every day is a new day. If you go off track, get back on track and try again.
    • Don’t give up. A study published in September 2020 found that trying to lose weight over and over again (also known as “weight cycling”) can significantly reduce your risk of dying. According to the NIH: “repeatedly losing and regaining weight was better than giving up after one or two attempts or, worse still, never trying to lose weight at all.”
    • Stick with it! The changes you make do more than help you lose weight. Eating well and exercising improves our skin, slows aging and prevents disease. These things are arguably more important than what the scale says.
  7. Eat to support a microbiome that is abundant and diverse.
    You can take steps to tilt the balance of your microbiome to your favor with these actions:
    • “Seed” your gut with the right bacteria by eating cultured and fermented foods. These contain probiotics.
      • Yogurt, kefir, cultured buttermilk, cultured butter, aged cheese, cultured sour cream
      • Kimchi, fermented pickles, fermented vegetables
      • Kombucha
      • Miso, tempeh, soy tamari
      • Sauerkraut
    • Fuel these bacteria with fiber-rich foods. These contain prebiotics.
      • Insoluble fiber: Legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains
      • Soluble fiber: grains - oat, barley, rye; fruits - berries, apples, pears, plums, apricots, citrus (especially the peel/zest)
      • Jerusalem artichokes (sunchoke), onion, chicory, garlic, asparagus
    • Support a beneficial microbiome environment
      • The Mediterranean-type diet uses olive oil over vegetable oils; limits portion sizes of meats; is rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains; and has been shown to support microbiome strength.
      • Avoid highly processed foods and sugar. It may not be realistic to completely avoid these foods in our environment. Try avoiding them most of the time or saving them for special events or circumstances.

Bottom line

While weight is but one measure of health, it is a big concern for many people. Losing weight is not easy. Your metabolism is influenced by many different factors – some you can’t control (e.g., your genes) and others you can (e.g., what and how you eat).

The fundamentals of weight loss include enjoying healthier, nutritious foods more often and being more physically active, but there are many approaches that help make this happen for you. The way you approach dieting and eating, the way you set your goals and reward yourself, and the way you persevere are all totally customizable so you can try and see what works for you.

If you are looking for a nutritious approach to metabolism and your weight, reach out to me. We can work with your concerns and preferences.

Recipes

Make Your Own Fermented Vegetables and Hot Sauce

Fermented Fruits with Only Fruit and Salt

Winter Citrus Smoothie

Turkey Rissole over Salad

Roasted Chickpeas with Zaatar seasoning

References

Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2020, November 10). Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories. Retrieved from https://.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/metabolism/art-20046508

Fast Food Restaurant Lighting and Music Can Reduce Calorie Intake and Increase Satisfaction Psychological Reports, vol 111.1: pp 228-232. Wansink First published Aug 2012 From Sage Journals

Harvard Health. (2018, May). Burning calories without exercise. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/burning-calories-without-exercise

Harvard Health. (2018, July). Small tricks to help you shed pounds and keep them off. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/small-tricks-to-help-you-shed-pounds-and-keep-them-off

Harvard Health. (2019, March 19). The lowdown on thyroid slowdown. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-lowdown-on-thyroid-slowdown

Harvard Health. (2019, November 20). Building simple habits for healthy weight loss. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/building-simple-habits-for-healthy-weight-loss

Intramural Research Program. (2020, Dec 8). Attempting Weight Loss Linked to Reduced Risk of Death. Retrieved from https://irp.nih.gov/blog/post/2020/12/attempting-weight-loss-linked-to-reduced-risk-of-death

Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2019, February 21). Is a slow metabolism the reason I’m overweight? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/slow-metabolism/faq-20058480

Mayo Clinic Healthy Lifestyle. (2019, February 21). Can I boost my metabolism to lose weight? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/metabolism/faq-20058346

NIH National Center for Complementary and Integrative Healthy. (2017, September). Weight Control. Retrieved from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/weight-control

NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Aim for a healthy weight. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/index.htm

NIH National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Guide to Behavior Change. Retrieved from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/behavior.htm