Real Talk: What Exactly Is Metabolism, and Can You Really Boost It?

Hallie Gould
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Urban Outfitters

"The term metabolism is commonly used to refer specifically to the breakdown of food and its transformation into energy," explains Paula Simpson, RNCP, co-founder of Zea Skin Solutions. She’s responding to my albeit desperate email about the familiar term—admittedly, it’s also one I don’t particularly understand. We’re always trying to “boost” metabolism or “speed it up” in some way, but what even is it? And can you actually ever change it? What slows it down? I’m a natural-born skeptic (and beauty editor, after all), so you can imagine this type of thing would keep me up at night. In search of concrete answers, I finally sent these questions over to a few experts.

“Think of your metabolism as a machine,” says nutritionist Farah Fahad of The Farah Effect. “If you give it the right fuel, it will run properly. If you don’t, it will be sluggish. Metabolism is affected by genetics, lifestyle, exercise, sleep, and of course what you eat.”

“It encompasses a whole range of biochemical processes that occur within the body—but, ultimately, your metabolism controls how quickly your body breaks down substances for energy or regenerating tissue,” Simpson adds. “To keep metabolism healthy, it is important to look at the health of the body as a whole. For example, if the digestive health is poor, metabolism can slow due to malabsorption of essential nutrients that feed a healthy metabolic rate. Or drastic, very low-calorie diets over the long term cause more lean-tissue loss, creating a sluggish metabolic rate.”

With the actual science behind the buzzword cleared up for me, I pressed each expert for more advice. Below, they detail six ways to keep your metabolism quick.

4. Make Exercise a Priority

“Muscle is metabolically more active (meaning it burns more calories) than fat, so if you have a higher muscle-to-fat ratio, you will have a higher metabolism,” explains Fahad. “Staying active in whichever way you love will boost your metabolism because exercise helps burn fat and create and maintain lean muscle mass, especially weight training.”

5. Consume Enough Protein

“Our metabolism is dependent on enzymes that facilitate chemical reactions in our bodies, and these enzymes are made of proteins. Studies have shown that increasing protein also increases muscle mass, contributing to a higher metabolism. Protein doesn’t have to mean steak; it can be added to one’s diet through foods like lentils, nuts, and eggs,” says Fahad.

6. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners and Refined Sugars

“Artificial sweeteners alter the gut microbiome, which affects metabolism. Refined sugars cause overgrowth of bad bacteria in your gut, which can affect metabolism. Stick to raw or Manuka honey and organic maple syrup,” says Fahad.

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