We all know those lucky people who eat whatever they want without putting on any weight, while the rest of us have only to glance at a chocolate éclair and the kilograms jump straight on to our hips or thighs. It’s just metabolism, we say. It’s either slow or fast and there’s nothing much to be done about it.
But is that actually true?
Metabolism is a collection of chemical reactions in the cells of the body, converting the fuel in the food we eat into the energy needed to power everything we do, from moving to thinking to growing. Thousands of metabolic reactions, regulated by the body itself, happen simultaneously to keep our cells healthy and functioning; the process begins at conception and ends with death.
In the simplest sense, metabolism does influence how easily we gain or lose weight, and there are variations in its ‘speed’.
If we eat more kilojoules than our bodies use, the overflow is stored as excess fat. The Basic Metabolic Rate (BMR) is a measure of the rate at which the body ‘burns’ energy (in the form of kilojoules) while at rest, and is an indication of the number of kilojoules an individual needs daily. A higher BMR means the body processes food faster and more efficiently. BMR is influenced by genetic and environmental factors, tending to be faster in men than in women and to slow down with age, irrespective of gender. People whose bodies have a high percentage of lean muscle tissue generally have a higher BMR than those with more fat tissue.
So some of the factors affecting metabolic rate are beyond our control. However, there are lifestyle changes that can help kick-start a sluggish metabolism and turn your body into a more efficient fat-burning machine:
1. A regular exercise programme uses more kilojoules immediately and also builds muscle mass which will boost your long-term resting metabolic rate so that your body has to burn more kilojoules just to sustain you.
2. A balanced eating plan incorporating regular small meals of natural unprocessed foods will keep your metabolism in high gear – skipping meals has the opposite effect, sending your body into ‘starvation mode’ and causing it to retain more fat.
3. Drinking plenty of water is vital – a dehydrated body maintains temperature by storing fat, while water helps mobilise existing fat stores.
And beware – there are no magic metabolism-boosting pills. Any product claiming to rev the metabolism up should be avoided; there is a real risk of overstressing the thyroid, raising blood pressure and increasing heart rate. If you feel you want to help your metabolism along, a multivitamin and mineral supplement containing magnesium is a sensible choice.
So it seems I won’t be able to turn myself into one of those fortunate folk who can eat whatever they want and stay as slim as a reed – but at least I can make sure my own particular metabolic engine is firing on all possible cylinders, and maybe I’ll even be able to give those chocolate éclairs more than a passing glance.