Hoping to shed a few pounds, or maintain your current weight?
One oft-overlooked strategy is to keep your metabolic engine revving at a relatively high rate.
Your basal metabolic rate or BMR is the number of calories your body typically burns when you’re at rest.
Once you stop growing bone, around age 25, your BMR begins a slow and steady decline of about two percent a year.
So as you age, you need fewer and fewer calories just to maintain your current weight, with the extras getting stored as hard-to-lose, potentially pro-inflammatory body fat.
Cutting calories below your basic needs will just make your BMR plummet.
When you don’t eat enough calories to fuel your BMR, your body will consume muscle — and some fat — to get the missing calories.
And as muscle mass drops, so does your metabolic rate. Low-calorie diets tend not to work in part because they consume calorie-burning muscle … while triggering appetite-stimulating hormones.
The evidence suggests two keys to losing or maintaining weight:
And most experts agree on five simple, powerfully healthful ways to kick your metabolism into higher gear.
1. Don’t overdo low-calorie dieting
Drastic dieting is counterproductive, in part because it drives your BMR downwards.
Depriving your body and brain of their minimal calorie needs reduces your metabolic rate enough to derail attempts to burn body fat.
The key is to consume enough calories to meet your resting metabolic rate, so you get enough fuel (calories) to avoid the body’s survival-driven response: a counterproductive drop in your BMR.
How many calories do you need to maintain your BMR? The National Institutes of Health offers a Body Weight Planner tool that provides an answer based on your personal characteristics and your weight loss or maintenance goals.
Entering your information produces three key numbers:
2. Build and maintain muscle as you age
Simply put, the more muscle you’ve got, the more calories you’ll burn.
At rest, every pound of muscle burns about six calories, while a pound of fat burns only two.
So adding muscle will boost your metabolism even when you’re sitting on the couch or at your desk.
As we said, your metabolism slows as you age, and you lose muscle mass over time. Women lose muscle nearly twice as quickly, due to menopause-related hormonal shifts.
You can build muscle with “resistance” exercises, such as weightlifting, weight machines, or at-home exercises that leverage your own body weight.
Not everyone can or wants to lift weights, buy weight machines, or use gyms for resistance workouts.
Fortunately, “bodyweight” resistance training — i.e., exercises that leverage your own body weight to build muscle — can work really well.
Bodyweight exercises include things like squats, lunges, abdominal crunches, pushups, pullups or step-ups – which require only a floor with a rug or mat.
You’ll find 20 very short videos of bodyweight exercises at Live Strong.com. (See a trainer to learn safe technique, especially if you have bone/joint or other health issues.)
Adding just one or two weekly resistance training sessions can greatly help to preserve and build muscle, reliably raising your basal metabolic rate.
For example, State University of New York researchers examined the effects of resistance training — versus combined resistance training and walking — in moderately obese, previously sedentary women.
After 20 weeks/five months of exercise, the resistance-training group saw significant gains in strength, muscle mass, and in basal metabolic rate — even though its members didn’t lose body fat.
Exercise also helps shed obesity-promoting “white” fatty tissue — and omega-3s from seafood or fish oil help do the same thing, as we’ll explain.
3. Fishy omega-3s and antioxidant-rich foods spark fat-burning
Medical authorities use to assert that all calories were equal when it came to weight gain or loss, saying “a calorie is a calorie”.
That bit of conventional wisdom now lies in the dustbin of biomedical history, because it’s become clear that different foods exert very different effects on your metabolism.
Let’s take a look at two categories of foods that appear to spark fat burning: Antioxidants from plant foods, and omega-3 fats from seafood.
Growing evidence suggests that certain dietary antioxidants spark fat-burning to a measurable extent.
This appears especially true of the flavonoid-type antioxidants that abound in colorful, non-starchy vegetables, chili peppers, tea (black or green), coffee, and chocolate (especially bars with 70% cocoa solids or more).
Seafood-source omega 3 fatty acids
Fat contains twice as many calories, compared with carbs or protein.
So adding fat to your diet can be counterproductive unless you eliminate a comparable quantity of calories derived from starchy, refined grain foods like bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta, and pastries.
But there’s good evidence that frequent enjoyment of fish — in place of starchy carbs — gives your metabolism a modest but significant boost.
Why would omega-3s boost your metabolism?
The answer stems from the fact that your body contains two basic types of fat:
Once thought exclusive to babies, we now know that small amounts of brown fat occur in everyone — and people with a lower body mass index (BMI) tend to have more of it.
And growing evidence suggests that seafood-source omega-3s prompt the body to convert generally unhealthful white fat into fat-burning brown fat.
Back in 2015, we reported on Japanese research showing that in mice, supplemental omega-3 fish oil caused the animals’ “white” fat-storage cells to become “brown” or “beige” fat-burning cells … see Fish Oil Fuels Fat-Burning in Mice, and its links to our reports on supportive clinical and lab research.
Two recent studies from Spain and Texas confirm that — at least in mice — omega-3 fatty acids trigger the conversion of fat-storage cells into fat-burning cells (Quesada-López T et al. 2016; Pahlavani M et al. 2017).
Better yet, studies in mice suggests that omega-3s reduce the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals — which promote obesity, diabetes, and more — from white fat.
Other research shows that by supplementing with fish oil or eating omega-3 rich fish, participants add muscle mass (which boosts metabolism) and reduce body fat.
It’s believed that this effect may be due — at least in part — to fish oil’s ability to lower the levels of enzymes involved in storage of calories as fat.
Of course, we also need seafood-form omega-3s — DHA and EPA — for critical brain, eye, and immune functions.
(The plant-source omega-3 called ALA can’t serve these purposes until the body converts it — very inefficiently — into much smaller amounts of DHA and EPA.)
All wild seafood provides significant amounts of omega-3 DHA and EPA, but they’re especially abundant in fatty cold-water wild fish like salmon, tuna, sablefish, mackerel, and sardines (makes no major difference whether they're fresh, frozen, or canned).
You should avoid farm-raised fish, which are high in omega-6 fats, and (excepting farmed salmon) low in omega-3s.
4. Favor protein over carbs
Among other effects, protein aids weight control by making you feel fuller faster and longer.
And diets rich in protein help preserve muscle, which helps retain your metabolic rate as you age.
(The purported benefits of higher-protein diets were confirmed recently in an unusually well-designed clinical trial: see Low-Carb Diet Won for Weight Loss and Health.)
We’re not necessarily talking about meat, poultry, and seafood, although they top the list of foods providing the most protein per pound.
Vegetables — especially colorful, non-starchy, choices like greens, broccoli, peppers, and onions — can provide significant amounts of protein, and most of their carbs are actively healthful ones.
The same is true of beans and nuts, which is why a vegetarian diet can provide sufficient protein, albeit much less reliably than omnivorous diets that include some meat, poultry, or seafood.
Your body uses about 10 percent of dietary calories for the digestive process. Because it takes more time and energy to digest protein, you get a little metabolic boost from high-protein meals.
The value of higher protein diets has been confirmed by clinical trials in overweight and obese men and women who’d been placed on low-calorie diets.
In the relevant trials, researchers placed participants on low-calorie diets, and assigned them either to high-protein menus or normal-protein menus — each menu providing the same number of total calories — with the high-protein groups eating fewer calories from carbs.
Encouragingly, the participants assigned to high-protein diets reported feeling fuller after meals, for longer periods, and a greater sense of satisfaction.
Better yet, the people assigned to the high-protein diets preserved more muscle, which was being consumed by all of the participants’ bodies, to compensate for getting too few calories to maintain their basal metabolic rate (BMR).
5. Fuel up every morning
Your mother was right – breakfast may just be the most important meal of the day!
Starting your day with a nutritious meal helps to stimulate digestion and get your metabolism going.
The National Weight Control Registry tracks thousands of people. And among those who’d lost an average of 60-plus pounds and kept it off for more than five years, nearly 80% ate a morning meal every day.
So eating breakfast seems to stimulate your metabolism — particularly if it includes a cup of coffee or tea.
And eating higher-protein/lower-carb breakfasts should help maintain muscle mass, boost your metabolism, and discourage storage of calories as fat.
By all means, enjoy breakfast featuring whole grain cereals with fruits, nuts, and full-fat yogurt, but to maximize metabolic rate, don’t make such meals your exclusive morning routine.
For more on the benefits of breakfast — especially ones that feature protein and fat versus carbs — see High-Protein Breakfast Helps Blood Sugar Control, Can Paleo-Style Breakfasts Curb Food Cravings?, Protein for Breakfast Allays Appetites All Day, and Fat for Breakfast May Deter Diabetes.
Note: This article originally appeared in March, 2017.
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