If you’re wondering about your metabolism and how it works, then chances are you might also have questions about your body shape and/or your body weight. Perhaps you’re comparing your body to another dancer’s (a practice I suggest you stop ASAP!) and thinking, “wow, she (or he) can eat whatever they want! I’d gain so much weight if I ate like that! I have the slowest metabolism!”
“Metabolism” is a scientific term representing the intrinsic chemical reactions that support the multitude of systems working in your body. To function, your body utilizes calories (from food) as energy to fuel everything from your basic metabolic needs (like breathing, blood pumping, and thinking) to your physical needs (like walking and dancing).
Many factors play a role in how your body utilizes this energy to perform such tasks. Your genetic blueprint is one such factor, along with other variables like your age, your individual body composition, your activity levels, and even your eating behaviors.
Okay Rachel… two questions: am I genetically-doomed to have a slow metabolism and are there specific foods that can help it?
Let’s break down these questions into 2 parts: nature vs. nurture. Yes, genetics play a role in your body’s use of energy, and thus, your body’s metabolism. This also means that genetics play a role in your body shape and even in your body weight. In a previous article, I discuss what it means to reach your body’s “set-point weight”, which, in a nutshell, is a weight range where your body feels happiest both physically and mentally. Your set-point weight doesn’t require restrictive food rules, a calorie-deficit, and/or excessive exercise to maintain. Though much is still unknown about our individual set-point weight, we do know that it’s primarily genetically pre-determined. However, yo-yo dieting can affect it.
Alongside the unknowns of our set-point weight, we also don’t fully know why one dancer’s metabolism might be genetically “fast” and another dancer’s metabolism might be genetically “slow.” But despite the metabolic deck of cards that you’ve been dealt with, you can nurture an environment within your body that promotes a well-functioning metabolism. This is especially true when we examine some of those controllable variables mentioned earlier, like yo-yo dieting, body composition, and activity levels.
I’ve heard that low-calorie diets can damage my metabolism. Is this true?
When we reduce the number of calories that we eat per day, our body metabolically adapts by reducing the number of calories it burns per day. Biologically, this is a survival mechanism that protects humans from starvation and is likely the reason why 90% of dieters regain their weight.
Oh no… I’ve restricted my calorie intake for a while… did I permanently damage my metabolism?
Don’t worry, you probably haven’t done permanent damage… yet. You’ll want to implement several lifestyle changes ASAP in order to improve it, though. We’ll get to those tips soon. First, I want you to reassess what your goals are for your calorie restriction. Is it to reach a different weight or change the way your body looks? If so, then you’ll need to assess what your “ideal body weight” actually is. Also, you might need to reassess your relationship with calories. To do this, check out these helpful articles:
I’ve heard that exercise will increase my metabolic rate. Is this true?
This is true; especially for strength-training activities like dancing and Pilates, which increase lean body mass. Muscle is technically a more metabolically-active tissue than fat (meaning it burns more calories and thus, increases your metabolic rate). But before you add those extra strengthening classes to your already-packed dance schedule, realize that excessive exercise will cause hormonal imbalances that can work against your so-called “increased metabolism.” Here’s why:
First, over-exercising can put you in a calorie deficit. As mentioned earlier, getting in too few calories for your body’s physical and metabolic needs knocks your hormones out of whack. Also, to compensate for the deficit, your body will biologically reduce your metabolic rate. Second, body fat plays a vital role in controlling our appetite. In other words, your body fat regulates how much you eat throughout the day.
Let’s back up…
Hormonal regulation of our appetite begins in the brain’s hypothalamus, where feeding behaviors are communicated between the brain and other parts of the body, including our stomach, small intestine, and even our stored fat tissue. Leptin, a hormone that is created primarily by and stored in our body’s fat cells, is released in response to eating. This release of leptin communicates to our brain that we’re satisfying our hunger. The result? Leptin, along with other hormones, tells our brain when we’re feeling full.
If you’ve ever tried following a calorie-restricted and/or low-fat diet, then you probably recall battling a feeling of chronic (and gnawing) hunger. This is a direct result of a leptin deficiency. Why? Another benefit of this “feel-full hormone” is that it keeps us feeling satisfied between our meals and snacks. Since our body’s fat cells contribute to our body’s leptin levels, a low percentage of body fat (from a low-calorie diet, low-fat diet, and/or excessive exercise) means low levels of circulating leptin.
So while your insane amounts of exercise might be increasing your metabolically-active muscle tissue, your restrictive diet AND low body fat are outweighing this. Furthermore, you’re risking the development of RED-S, a syndrome that will NOT support your health and dance goals. Bottom line? You’ll end up lowering your metabolic rate AND increasing your appetite in the long term… #hangry!
Okay, I get it… but how can fix my metabolism and speed it up?
Though it sounds silly, start by taking the focus off of your “metabolism” and rather on to your appetite. Improve how your body regulates your appetite using the following tips:
- Eat consistent meals and snacks throughout your day. Resources are available to help you with this.
- Avoid long stretches of time between your meals and snacks, which can set you up for a drop in blood sugar and a surge in appetite-regulating hormones, imbalances that make you feel hangry!
- Include a source of carbohydrate, protein, AND fat each time you eat. This combo promotes satiety and satisfaction.
- Utilize principles of gentle nutrition to choose foods for the purpose of both your physical health and your mental health.
- While a moderate amount of exercise is excellent for functioning metabolism, avoid excessive amounts.
- I know this is easier said than done, but let go of your fear of body fat. Body acceptance is tough, but we can start the journey together. Read more about it here. Body acceptance might just be the first step to take towards a well-functioning metabolism.