We all want to have the most efficient, zippy metabolism possible. More calories burned every day? Yes, please!
Formally known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR), your metabolism is a measure of exactly how much energy (i.e., calories) your body requires in a day to accomplish basic functions like keeping your heart beating and your gut digesting. Depending on your age and lifestyle, your BMR accounts for 40 to 70 percent of all the calories you use in an average day, according to nutritionist Jess Cording, R.D.
Muscle burns more calories than fat, so your muscle mass has a big impact on your metabolism, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). How much muscle we have is determined partially by our genes—but since men naturally tend to have more lean mass than women, they usually have a higher BMR (a.k.a. a ‘faster’ metabolism.) As we tend to lose muscle and gain fat in our 40s and beyond, though, our BMR decreases, says Cording. Womp womp.
That said, there are a number of things you can do—and avoid doing—to keep your metabolism running at top speed. Make sure you’re not making any of these metabolism-slowing mistakes:
1. You’re Not Eating Enough
When you don’t take in enough nutrients, your body essentially thinks you’re starving, says Cording. “Your metabolism slows down to compensate for the lower caloric intake in order to save up energy for later on,” she explains. So if you’re cutting back on calories, feeling exhausted, and not seeing any change on the scale, chances are, you’re not eating enough.
The solution: First of all, a weight-loss diet should never dip below 1,200 calories per day, says Cording. And your baseline may be much higher, depending on your age, gender, and activity level. Cording suggests bumping up your daily caloric intake by 200 calories and monitoring how you feel—and look. If you still feel drained and don’t see results on the scale or in the mirror after a couple of weeks, you may need to check in with a dietitian who can help reevaluate your diet.
Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted
2. You’re Skimping On Sleep
Your cells need nightly rest in order to function as efficiently as possible during the day—so when your cells are tired, it takes a lot more for them to keep up with day-to-day processes, says Cording. While it might seem like this would up your calorie burn, your body actually burns calories less efficiently, she explains. Plus, lack of sleep also throws your hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, out of whack. “That means you’re less in-tune you’re your hunger and fullness cues, which primes you to overeat and seek calorie-dense foods,” she says.
The solution: Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night, on as many nights as possible, Cording says. (Prime yourself for a great snooze with this evening routine.)
3. You’re Not Drinking Enough Water
Just like your cells struggle when you don’t get much sleep, they also have a hard time functioning properly when they aren’t getting the water they need, says Cording.
The solution: Take a look at the color of your urine: It should look like lemonade, not apple juice or iced tea, says Cording. If you’re seeing cider-y hues, go grab a glass of water, stat. For most people, eight glasses per day is a good baseline, but if you work out a lot or if it’s super hot outside, you may need more. And while there’s no conclusive evidence that gulping down a glass first thing in the morning actually kick-starts your metabolism, it does help your digestion function at peak capacity, according to Cording.
4. You’re Stressed Out
High stress levels boost certain hormones in your body—most notably cortisol—that can wreak havoc on your metabolic rate. With that, stress can affect inflammation and even the amount of fat you store around your mid-section, according to Cording. Plus, since stress can often leave you tossing and turning at night, it can contribute to the whacked out appetite and cravings associated with poor snoozing, she says. You know your body best, but consider consistent crummy sleep and feelings of irritability, exhaustion, or spaciness good indicators that your stress levels are too high and hurting your health.
The solution: Get a handle on your stress—that can help you get a handle on other areas of life. If you’re logging long hours at the office, try to find ways to cut back—or find a stress-relief outlet like a spin class, yoga, meditation, massage, or another natural stress-buster. Cording suggests that setting a regular sleep schedule—and making it priority, even on the weekends—may help your body cope.
5. You Use Sea Salt Instead Of Table Salt
Low levels of iodine, which is added to table salt but not found in sea salt, can impact your thyroid function, says Cording. (And many Americans don’t get enough iodine.) Since your thyroid controls hormones throughout your body, like those that regulate metabolism and hunger, you can expect a wonky metabolic rate if it’s not functioning properly.
The solution: Split your seasoning between sea salt and regular table salt, and try to eat two servings of fish (a natural iodine source) per week, suggests Cording. And if you’ve experienced sudden, unexplained weight gain, check in with your doctor about having your thyroid checked.
6. You’re Not Eating Enough Protein
Your body needs protein to do everything from fueling cells to building muscle. “When you’re not getting enough protein, you feel sluggish and have a lower metabolic rate because the body doesn’t have the fuel it needs to do its job,” says Cording. And without ample protein, you won’t be able to gain muscle mass—no matter how much weight you lift, she says. (That’s because the amino acids that protein is made of are crucial for your muscles.)
The solution: Cording recommends most healthy people start with 0.8 to one gram of protein per kilogram (that’s 2.2 pounds) of body weight. For a 140-pound person, that’s about 50 to 60 grams of protein per day. But if you’re very active and trying to build muscle, shoot for at least half your body weight (in pounds) in grams of protein per day—that’s 70 grams of protein per day for that same 140-pound person. Because your body can only utilize so much protein at a time, Cording recommends spacing it evenly throughout the day—yes, including breakfast.
7. You’re Low In Calcium Or Vitamin D
These key nutrients have an impact on much more than your bones! Calcium helps nerves and cells function, while vitamin D helps hormones function, says Cording. These factors are essential for tons of body processes—including your metabolism, she says.
The solution: Calcium can be found in dairy, tofu, fish, and leafy greens like bok choy and kale. If you’re noshing on these foods regularly, you’re probably good to go on calcium, says Cording. It’s vitamin D that’s the tricky one. It’s not easy to get from food, so unless you eat fish frequently or bank lots of time in the sun, your levels may be low. Your doc can test your levels and recommend a vitamin D supplement, if needed, she says.
8. You’re Still On The Low-Fat Train
The low-fat diet trend seems to finally be over, but for many of us the idea that eating fat makes you fat is tough to shake. Fat is actually crucial for your body to function at its best, because it gives you energy, helps your body absorb certain vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and offers your body essential fatty acids that you need for brain development, blood clotting, and to control inflammation, according to the National Institutes of Health. So if you don’t get enough fat in your diet, your body may slow your metabolism to conserve the energy and nutrients it is getting, explains Cording.
The solution: Cording recommends getting about 30 percent of your daily calories from healthy fats. Go mostly for plant-based monounsaturated fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, which provide essential fatty acids and help to lower blood cholesterol and decrease inflammation, among other important benefits, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. (But some whole eggs and full-fat dairy are okay, too!) That might look like avocado toast with an egg for breakfast, some nut butter with an apple as a snack, and veggies tossed in olive oil and roasted with dinner.
9. You’re Working Out Too Hard
If you’re doing intense workouts daily, your body could be susceptible to what’s known as ‘adrenal fatigue’, explains personal trainer Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. When you exercise, levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which is made by your adrenal gland) rise. (They return to baseline after you’ve finished and recovered.) When your body doesn’t get enough recovery between workouts, though, it remains in a constant state of stress, she says. Chronically higher cortisol levels can derail your metabolism, leaving you feeling fatigued and grumpy—all without seeing the results you want from your workouts.
Feeling wiped out on your way into the gym is a tell-tale sign that you need to scale back the intensity or schedule in more frequent rest days, says Suter.
The solution: Seeing maximal results from your workouts requires balance. That means splitting your week between a few days of high-intensity workouts and a few days of more relaxing exercise, like yoga, hiking, or walking, says Suter. That way, your body has the opportunity to recover and respond positively to your more challenging workout days, she explains.
10. You Don’t Hit The Weights
Yes, research does show that cardio burns fat and and helps with recovery and weight loss—but only doing cardio won’t boost your metabolism. Weight training, on the other hand, will, says Suter. Your body uses more calories to maintain muscle than it does to maintain fat—so the more muscle you have, the higher your baseline metabolic rate!
The solution: Make sure to fit at least two or three strength-training sessions into your weekly workout routine, says Suter. (Not sure how heavy you should lift to build muscle? Find out here.)
11. You’ve Sworn Off Carbs
Low-carb diets might be everywhere, but cutting carbohydrates out of your life won’t boost your metabolism—and might actually undercut it instead. “Carbs are our muscles’ main source of energy,” explains Suter. When we eat carbs, our bodies store them as glycogen, which is used throughout the day, especially when we exercise. “Once our glycogen is used up—like after a HIIT workout, strength-training, or long bout of cardio—our muscles struggle for energy,” she says. This can spike our cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which is a no-no for your metabolism and weight in the long-term, she adds. Plus, because carbs play a role in protein synthesis, the process in which our muscles rebuild and grow, ample carbs are necessary for maintaining and building muscle.
The solution: The average person needs at least 100 grams of carbs daily, says Suter. If you’re physically active or go hard at the gym, though, you may need quite a bit more, especially before and after your workouts. Pay attention to your energy levels and mental sharpness during your workouts and throughout the day, Suter says. If you feel sluggish, you probably need to fuel up with more carbs. Go for whole-food sources like oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes, fruits, veggies, and beans.