Tried everything and couldn't lose weight?
You may suffer from slow metabolism.

This guide includes 5 strategies to help you lose weight
...even if you have slow metabolism.

The most commonly cited reason why people struggle with weight loss, and consequently gain weight fast, is due to a slow metabolism. Most would tell you they’ve cut back on food and increased exercise activity yet have no weight loss to show for it.

Do you think you have a slow metabolism? If so, read on.

Image of an obese belly.

Our body is sabotaging our weight loss efforts

Losing weight is such a ubiquitous subject, you’d have more luck finding treasure in a random beach somewhere far from civilization than to have one day where no one talks about weight loss. Because it’s such a popular topic, many websites, media outlets, and gurus try to cash in on the ever-growing and undying trend, usually to attract followers or to sell a miracle supplement or hardcore weight loss program.

Despite the rampant information dissemination and overload of weight loss topics, why is it that we, as a global population, continue to struggle with shedding off the excess fat? How come with all the supplements, workout programs, fitness videos, and even health podcasts available within just a few clicks of your phone or mouse, obesity rates are still climbing?

The answer might not be about what food we eat or how much we exercise, but about whether our body is aligned with our weight loss goals. What I’m trying to say is, maybe it’s not us per se, but our body that’s at fault for keeping the weight instead of losing it, and it does so by purposely maintaining a slow metabolism.

More often than not, a slow metabolism is the main culprit behind weight loss struggles. If so, then the key to solving all our weight loss woes lies in making our body run our metabolism on overdrive.

Before we go over some of the ways to speed up metabolism, let’s first go over what metabolism is and what it actually does.

What is metabolism?

You hear the word metabolism every day. It’s almost as normal as breathing at this point. You won’t be able to go a mile without hearing or reading the word metabolism, yet it wouldn’t be a surprise if you didn’t really understand this term.

Metabolism is described as all the chemical processes occurring continuously inside our body to keep us alive and your organs functioning normally. Metabolism is behind everyday chemical and physical processes such as breathing, repairing cells and digesting food. These processes all require energy, and the body gets energy largely from fat stores (1).

Now, the amount of energy the body gets from fat for maintenance is dependent on a lot of factors such as body composition, physical activity, and overall health. If you have more muscle, if you move a lot, and if you’re a healthy individual the body will draw more energy from fat over time. The amount of energy drawn from fat over time is defined as basal metabolic rate or simply BMR.

Our BMR accounts for anything between 40% and 70% of our body's daily energy requirements, depending on our age and lifestyle (2). From this context, you can say a "slow metabolism" is more accurately defined as a low BMR. You can actually calculate your BMR, but your best bet is using an app that incorporates the Harris-Benedict Equation (3).

Illustration of metabolism level meter on low.

Why do some people have a fast metabolism?

How fast your metabolism is highly dependent on multiple factors. Body size, age, gender, genes, and upbringing all play a role in the speed of your metabolism.

  • Body size. Bigger people naturally have a faster metabolism if only because of the sheer size of their body and internal organs. The bigger the body part, the more energy it uses to function normally. Bigger people also have bigger muscles, and the higher your muscle:fat ratio is, the faster your metabolism.
  • Muscle ratio. As mentioned, the leaner you are the faster your metabolism gets. This is because muscles require a lot of energy. Research says a pound of muscle burns much more energy than a pound of fat, and a person who has a higher muscle ratio is likely to have a higher BMR (4). And it definitely sounds about right, since muscles do a lot of work and are more complex than fat.
  • Age. Research shows people tend to reach peak BMR levels during their 20’s all the way to their mid-30’s (5) and it gradually slows down from there. This means losing weight in college is easier than losing weight in a nursing home. It has to do with muscle:fat ratio and physical activity as older people tend to have low levels of both.
  • Gender. Men naturally have higher BMRs than women. Men often have bigger muscles and a woman’s breasts also count as fat (6). Then we also have the whole thing with hormones, especially testosterone. Higher levels of testosterone are linked to elevated fat burning, and men naturally have more testosterone than women.
  • Genes. Some research points out to how our family tree, or at least our parents and their parents, determine a person’s BMR. They say if your family comes from a line of hardworking fieldworkers, or any profession that requires a bucket of elbow grease, you could have inherited their fast metabolism. Likewise, if you come from a group of people who barely move at all...well, it’s not so favorable.
  • Upbringing. Here’s the kicker: More often than not, children who have obese or overweight parents or who grow up around obese or overweight relatives are likely to grow up with the same body type (7). Children, after all, emulate what they perceive is the norm and if they view sitting on the couch and watching TV for hours while eating a box of pizza with soda on the side as normal, they are then likely to have slower BMRs.

How do I speed up my metabolism?

Barring an actual doctor’s diagnosis, there really is no sure fire way to tell if your metabolism is slow or not. You can take the hints your body throws at you - putting on weight easily, you feel slow and tired, and your eating habits are sometimes good, sometimes not there at all - and work from there, but if you have an underlying condition that has slow metabolism as a symptom, it would be better to get professional help.

With all that said, if your last doctor’s appointment went pleasant other than the advice to lose a bit of fat, there are a variety of ways to naturally boost your body’s ability to burn fat.

An image of some sushi formed in a clock shape.

1. Limit eating frequency. You see, there are people who think the body is like a furnace, and that eating multiple small meals a day can somehow keep the “fire” going in your belly. Unfortunately, the actual way your body works is a bit opposite to what that myth wants you to believe.

The body secretes insulin when you eat to facilitate the whole metabolic process, converting the food you eat to energy, managing blood sugar, and storing the rest as fat. Insulin is only secreted when you actually eat, and recent studies show the more insulin you secrete, the more you’re actually storing fat (8).

This is also made much more complicated when you have insulin resistance, a condition where your body needs to overproduce insulin to metabolize food. This explains why diabetics are almost always overweight, as they often need to inject insulin because the amount their body makes is just not enough to maintain their blood sugar levels.

What you want to do is when you eat, eat as few times as possible. This means you’re going to have to eat foods that are filling and healthy, but also just right. You want vegetables, protein, fat, and carbs in that order and only eating them not more than three times a day. It should also be noted that it’s better for your metabolism if you stop eating 2-3 hours before you sleep. After all, you’re going to lie down and rest for 6-8 hours give or take, what are you going to need that much food for?

2. Drink more water. The next time you feel hungry, drink a liter of water first. If you’re still hungry, then eat. Much like the first tip, you want not just to limit caloric intake, but also eating frequency by understanding what your body really needs. That stubborn hunger pang could just be you being thirsty and water has zero calories and additives, so it’s a pretty healthy drink. Not to mention the more water you drink, the less likely you are to overeat during meal time which also results to a faster metabolic rate (9).

  • A quick tip: Drink your coffee black. Studies have shown brewed coffee, without anything else other than “brewed” water, elevates metabolic levels. But, make sure you drink two glasses of water first so you don’t end up getting shocked at the energy spike.
Image of a happy man sleeping.

3. Sleep better. As it turns out, the quality of sleep you get is related to how good your metabolism is. If you’re sleep deprived often, chances are your metabolism is slow. This is because your body thinks you need more energy to function, and so it slows down the fat burning process and goes to energy saving aka fat storage mode (10).

Sleep also does more than making us feel better when we wake up. It regulates our hormones, one of them being insulin. You remember that thing we talked about regarding insulin and fat storage? If your sleep is bad (like less-than-6-hours-and-feel-tired-when-you-wake-up bad), your body will try to compensate by overproducing insulin so it could, again store more energy than it expends (10).

4. Move more often. Needless to say, exercise does increase metabolism so you have the energy to finish whatever workout program you have in mind. However, what most people don’t know is that they can “exercise” outside the gym.

  • Walk more. The simple act of walking more than you already are is actually a really great way to burn the extra fat without paying for a gym membership. Walking for thirty minutes a day (as in the whole 24 hours) actually helps stimulate hormones that promote fat burning (11). As a quick tip at work, whenever you want to use the restroom, use the one up or down one level from your office. This should significantly increase your walking time.
  • Do house chores. Seriously, when was the last time you actually swept, wiped, or polished the house or apartment you live in? If you can’t remember, then it’s time you take it upon yourself to do some good old fashioned cleaning. It’s a great way to sweat and burn fat too. Think about it: By the end of the day (or week, depending on how nasty your place is), you would have burned a lot of fat AND you get a clean house too. Win-Win!
  • Resist the urge to sit down. You know that study that says sitting down is bad for you? It’s all true. Being immobile for long periods of time does a lot of unhealthy things to the body, one of them slowing your metabolism down to abysmal rates (12). At work, try to limit the amount of yout time on a chair. If you can do things while standing - listening to a coworker, eating and drinking, or even actual work - the more active your metabolism will be.
Image of an alarm clock on a plate.

5. Try fasting. It may sound like we’re promoting some sort of diet, but we’re not. You know that thing with eating frequency? You can pair that with fasting which is essentially a prolonged period of time without food.

  • Fasting, not to be confused with starvation which is a state of energy deprivation, promotes fat burning since your body literally has nothing to get energy from than its own fat stores. Fasting shouldn’t make you hungry; in fact, it shouldn’t make you feel anything at all other than a state of “lightness” since your body is literally just burning fat, the opposite of what digesting makes you feel.

References:

  • Metallo CM, Vander Heiden MG. Understanding metabolic regulation and its influence on cell physiology. Mol Cell. 2013;49(3):388-98.
  • Loureiro LL, Fonseca S, Castro NG, Dos Passos RB, Porto CP, Pierucci AP. Basal Metabolic Rate of Adolescent Modern Pentathlon Athletes: Agreement between Indirect Calorimetry and Predictive Equations and the Correlation with Body Parameters. PLoS One. 2015;10(11):e0142859. Published 2015 Nov 16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0142859
  • Douglas CC, Lawrence JC, Bush NC, Oster RA, Gower BA, Darnell BE. Ability of the Harris Benedict formula to predict energy requirements differs with weight history and ethnicity. Nutr Res. 2007;27(4):194-199.
  • Zurlo F, Larson K, Bogardus C, Ravussin E. Skeletal muscle metabolism is a major determinant of resting energy expenditure. J Clin Invest. 1990;86(5):1423-7.
  • Van pelt RE, Jones PP, Davy KP, et al. Regular exercise and the age-related decline in resting metabolic rate in women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1997;82(10):3208-12.
  • Blaak E. Gender differences in fat metabolism. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2001;4(6):499-502.
  • Birch L, Savage JS, Ventura A. Influences on the Development of Children's Eating Behaviours: From Infancy to Adolescence. Can J Diet Pract Res. 2007;68(1):s1-s56.
  • Velasquez-Mieyer PA, Cowan PA, Arheart KL, et al. Suppression of insulin secretion is associated with weight loss and altered macronutrient intake and preference in a subset of obese adults. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003;27(2):219-26.
  • Increased Hydration Can Be Associated with Weight Loss. Front Nutr. 2016;3:18. Published 2016 Jun 10. doi:10.3389/fnut.2016.00018
  • St-Onge MP, Shechter A. Sleep disturbances, body fat distribution, food intake and/or energy expenditure: pathophysiological aspects. Horm Mol Biol Clin Investig. 2014;17(1):29-37.
  • Bond brill J, Perry AC, Parker L, Robinson A, Burnett K. Dose-response effect of walking exercise on weight loss. How much is enough?. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2002;26(11):1484-93.
  • Fountaine CJ, Johann J, Skalko C, Liguori GA. Metabolic and Energy Cost of Sitting, Standing, and a Novel Sitting/Stepping Protocol in Recreationally Active College Students. Int J Exerc Sci. 2016;9(2):223-229. Published 2016 Apr 1.
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