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What is Metabolism?

This word “metabolism” is thrown around a lot these days. Its a buzz word that has become a marketer’s dream.  On the cover of magazine ads, posters at commercial gyms with the super buff guy or tiny bikini model, and supplement stores shelves lines with bottles of magic pills claiming to increase your metabolism.

You know that if yours is too slow you might gain weight.  But what exactly does this all mean?

“Metabolism” is the word to describe all of the biochemical reactions in your body that convert fuel to energy.  It’s how you take in nutrients and oxygen and use them to fuel everything you do. From activities you can control ( e.g.Phycical activity), activities you cannot control (breathing, heart beat), and will also allow for unused energy to be stored.

Your body has an incredible ability to grow, heal, and generally stay alive.  And without this amazing biochemistry, you would not be possible.

Putting all these processes together, there are multiple factors that can cause your metabolism to work too quickly, too slowly, or just right.

Which brings us to the “metabolic rate”.

Metabolic rate

This is how fast your metabolism works and is measured in calories (yup, calories!).

The calories you eat can go to one of three places:

  • Work (i.e. exercise and other activity).
  • Heat (i.e. from all those biochemical reactions).
  • Storage (i.e. extra leftover “unburned” calories stored as fat).

The more calories you burn as work or creating heat the easier it is to lose weight and keep it off because there will be fewer “leftover” calories to store for later.

What affects your metabolic rate?

In a nutshell: a lot!

The Thyroid Gland is a major player in regulating metabolism.  This is a gland at the front of your throat that releases hormones to tell your body to “speed up” your metabolism. Every other cell depends on the thyroid to manage its metabolism.   Generally speaking, the more thyroid hormone there is the faster things will work and the more calories you’ll burn. For certain individuals’ Thyroid diseases will affect the thyroid function and metabolic rate. It is recommended to seek out the care of a Hormone specialist and Natural Health care provider if thyroid dysfunction is suspected. The suggestions that follow will work towards a healthy thyroid and improve metabolism.

Liver health is also a factor affecting metabolic rate.  The liver has over 500 functions in the human body. Of which, detoxification is arguably the most important.  If your liver is taxed from consuming medications, alcohol, processed foods, inhaling or absorbing chemicals, it cannot detoxify to the best of its ability.  As a result, toxins reside in our fat storage.  The greater the toxins, the more difficult it become to tap into our fat storage for energy.  Minimizing your intake of chemicals from food additives and medications, using natural cleaning and body care products, and eating a diet rich in dark leafy greens are some steps that can improve liver function.


But that’s not the only thing that affects your metabolic rate.

Larger people have higher metabolic rates. This is simply because it takes more energy for larger bodies to work than those with smaller frames.  However, body composition is crucial. That is the amount of Lean tissue (muscle) to body fat you have.  The greater amount of muscle in your body the higher your metabolic rate.   

Muscle is metabolically active.  It burns calories to stay alive. Fat on the other hand doesn’t.  You don’t have to feed it, you don’t have to water it, it will just sit there. So the more lean muscle mass you have the more energy your body will burn and the higher your metabolic rate will be.  Even when you’re not working out.

This is exactly why weight training is often recommended as a part of a weight loss program. You want muscles to be burning those calories for you.  Even when you are watching Netflix, you will be burning more calories if you have muscle on your frame than if you don’t.

Something to take note of is when people lose weight, their metabolic rate often slows down. This is because they now have smaller frames which requires less energy to support.  To offset this, building muscle mass is the key.

Aerobic exercise only temporarily increases your metabolic rate.  This is a common mistake people make when trying to lose weight.  They hit up the StairMaster or treadmill with the goal of shedding away body fat but soon are disappointed with the results.  Metabolic rate is only increased during the time of the activity.  It has no lasting effects on your body’s ability to burn body fat as fuel.  More so it should be cautioned that too much cardio and no strength training have the potential to start to deplete muscle tissue.  This will further slow your metabolism. So, from a metabolic standpoint, don’t become a Cardio Queen or King. Get lifting to increase your metabolic rate.


The type of food you eat also affects your metabolic rate. Your body burns calories to absorb, digest, and metabolize your food.  This is called the “Thermic Effect of Food” (TEF). You can use it to your advantage when you understand how your body metabolizes foods differently.

Fats, for example increase your TEF by 0-3%; carbs increase it by 5-10%, and protein increases it by 15-30%. It takes more work for your body to breakdown protein than any of our other macronutrients.   By trading some of your fat or carbs for lean protein you can slightly increase your metabolic rate. Notice I suggest trading in carbohydrates vs just adding in extra protein.  This is key if weight loss is your goal.  Another bonus of protein is that your muscles need it to grow.  By working them out and feeding them what they need they will help you to lose weight and keep it off.

Quality of the foods we eat is another factor that affects our metabolism.  Packaged and processed foods often come with chemical additives, preservatives and coloring.  These components will wreak havoc on our hormones and disrupt our gut flora.  Processed foods also lack in nutrients.  Understanding this, not only are you taking in food that are not offering nutrients, but our bodies also become depleted of nutrients as it tries to metabolize these non foods out of the system. This can be a very disruptive cycle that leaves the body ill-equipped to function optimally.  Especially from the perspective of metabolism.  If we do not give our bodies adequate tools (nutrients) we can not expect it to function its best.

Finally, we must not forget the mind-body connection. Chronic stress can have a negative impact on metabolism. When our bodies are stressed, cortisol is released.   Cortisol is a hormone whose primary function is to raise blood sugar and promote the metabolism of carbohydrates, protein, and fat.  In response to higher blood sugar levels, the pancreas increases insulin, which has the effect of lowering the blood sugar quickly. This, in turn, causes cravings for foods rich in carbohydrates, comfort foods. High levels of cortisol in the system encourage mid-section weight gain.  Not only that but elevated levels of insulin trigger your body to store fat. It should be noted that sleep deprivation is a form of chronic stress. Our bodies need rest. It nourishes our bodies, helps to balance hormones and regenerates tissue.  Without adequate sleep, our bodies are continuously stressed and the same series of events occur.  Practicing good sleep hygiene will help reduce the stress response and work towards improving your metabolism.  Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep a night, avoid screen time 1 hour before bed, block all light and set the temperature slightly cool to ensure good quality sleep.

As mentioned, metabolism is a sum of numerous chemical reactions in the body to convert fuel to energy.  What we choose to give our bodies for fuel, how much muscle building exercise we do, and how we manage stress all contribute to our metabolic rate.  There is no simple answer.  No magic pill to improve it. But the great thing is we can change it.  To improve your metabolic rate and decrease body fat, eat clean, do strength exercise develop strategies for stress management and some sleep. Simple.


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