Though we may pray for most things in life to slow down, there’s one thing we always want to keep moving as fast as possible: our metabolism. And while we might think exercise is our best bet for keeping our metabolism humming, our diet also has a big impact.
Why Your Metabolism Matters
Often referred to as our ‘inner engine,’ our metabolism really encompasses all of the processes our body performs to keep us alive and functioning—from breaking down food for energy, to building muscle and other tissues, to ridding our body of waste products.
In everyday terms, we think of our metabolism as all of the calories we burn throughout the day. Our body requires a certain number of calories just to keep our heart beating and lungs breathing—and extra energy so we can move around, work out, and, well, do pretty much anything else.
So if we want to work, move, and live at our best, we need all of the processes involved in our metabolism to be as healthy—and efficient—as possible.
The Diet-Metabolism Connection
Though exercise (notably strength training) can boost our metabolic health, our diet also plays a key role. “Think about your body as a car,” says dietitian Joelle Mazo, R.D., C.D.E., C.D.N. “When you put gas in a car, it uses that fuel in order to move. Your body functions similarly using calories from food to move, breathe, and function properly.”
Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted
Also like a car, the quality of your fuel profoundly affects your performance. To keep your metabolism healthy, avoid these common diet mistakes.
1. You Skip Meals
When you’re rushing out the front door in the morning or stuck in a midday meeting, it’s easy to skip a meal here and there. Thing is, while going long periods of time without eating may seem like a good move for your waistline, that may not be the case.
“I often compare it to money,” says dietitian Kathryn Riner, R.D., M.S., L.D., owner of Healthy Kids Nutrition, LLC. “If you don’t know when you’ll get paid again, you spend money more slowly and cautiously. If our body doesn’t know when it is going to be fed again, it conserves energy.” And that means a slower metabolism.
In fact, one Ohio State University study linked skipping meals to abdominal weight gain. Why? According to German research, breakfast skippers may experience higher glucose concentrations, markers of inflammation, and insulin resistance later on in the day. In the long run, these contribute to “metabolic impairment,” which may raise risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.
The fix: Seek out a breakfast include a source of protein and fiber, to provide lasting energy, suggests Riner. Consider a quick egg with whole wheat toast or a glass of milk and piece of fresh fruit.
2. You Don’t Eat Enough Calories
Regardless of what you eat and when you eat it, if you don’t eat enough, you leave your body without ample supply of the nutrients it needs to keep your metabolism humming.
As a result, your body may turn to unusual sources for fuel. While it considers some fat necessary to insulate your organs, the body sees muscle as dispensable during periods of starvation, and may break down muscle tissue to use its proteins for fuel.
Over time, you may lose muscle mass—a major problem if having a fast metabolism is a priority for you. You see, muscle burns more calories than fat (even at rest). So, the more muscle you have, the faster your metabolism is. When you lose muscle, though, your body needs fewer calories, so your metabolism—and any desired weight loss—slows down, says Mazo.
The fix: If you’re dieting or watching your calories, work with a dietitian to prevent any guesswork. With a little expert help, you’ll be able to lose fat rather than muscle.
3. You Don’t Drink Enough Water
Though water may not contain calories, it’s involved in almost every biological function in the body. Should you fail to drink enough or become dehydrated, your metabolism can’t run as efficiently.
Take your muscles, for example: “Over 70 percent of your muscle is water, so when muscles are not fully hydrated their ability to generate energy is severely inhibited,” says Mazo.
The fix: Ideally, thirst will guide how much water you drink during the day, but drinking enough that your pee is consistently very pale is another good guideline. If necessary, jazz up your regular sips by adding sliced fruit, mint, or other herbs. You’re more likely to stay hydrated if you genuinely enjoy what’s in your glass.
4. You Go Overboard On Refined Sugar
When it comes to what we eat and the impact that food has on our metabolism, one major enemy stands out: sugar. In fact, research shows that consuming added sugars ultimately destroys our body’s ability to process that sugar and increases risk of obesity and metabolic disease.
Issue is, even if we’re not eating chocolate chip pancakes topped with high-fructose corn syrup every day, many of the foods in our regular rotations, like yogurts and sauces, include more sugar than we think.
The fix: Stick to a diet made up of whole, unprocessed foods as much as possible, advises Mazo. “Think lean meats, healthy fats, whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, and legumes like lentils” she says. Avoid sweetened beverages and opt for tea or black coffee, instead. Eating this way provides the body with the macronutrients and micronutrients (like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) it needs to function properly—metabolism included.
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