Spry editor Lisa Delaney is one of the rare souls who know what it’s like to be an “after.” This journalist and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl shed 70 pounds—and six dress sizes–and has kept it off for 20 years. She answers your questions here each week.
DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: I’ve heard conflicting things about metabolism—what raises it, what lowers it, etc. Can you help clear up the confusion?–Alma
DEAR ALMA: As with just about everything in the world of weight loss, there’s a lot of BS floating around about metabolism.
1. Having a good metabolism is only important if you want to lose weight or keep it off. On the contrary—according to registered dietitian Rachel Berman, author of Boosting Your Metabolism for Dummies, a good metabolism has all kinds of benefits beyond getting you in shape for swimsuit season. They include:
- More energy
- Better sleep
- Improved mood and focus
- Stronger muscles and better mobility
- Improved blood sugar control (especially crucial for diabetics)
- Improved blood pressure and heart health
2. You can’t change your metabolism. While experts agree that there is a hereditary component to metabolism, your lifestyle—what you eat and how active you are, in particular, but even things like how you handle stress—can have a powerful effect on your metabolism. In fact, your metabolism changes on its own over time, to depressing results. After age 20, your metabolic rate drops by between 5 and 10 percent each decade, due to the fact that you’re naturally losing muscle and gaining fat as you age. The flip side? You can build that muscle back with smart weight training and a balanced diet full of lean proteins, fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
3. Caffeine boosts your metabolism. OK, so this one is partly legit. Yes, caffeine does raise your metabolism temporarily. But too much caffeine—whether in weight loss supplements or via your Starbucks or Diet Coke habit—can raise cortisol, says Berman, a stress hormone that triggers the release of glucose available for your body to use as energy. Too much cortisol means too much circulating glucose which, unless you burn it through activity, is stored as fat. Berman suggests limiting caffeine to one cup per day and avoiding caffeine-containing supplements.
4. When you lose weight, you’re automatically losing body fat and therefore improving metabolism. Not so, not so. Super-restrictive diets and dieting without exercise can cause you to lose both muscle mass and fat. Pound for pound, fat tissue burns 2 calories a day; muscle burns 35 calories a day. To maintain—or (even better) increase—muscle mass while you’re trying to lose weight, make sure regular exercise is part of your plan, and include in your regimen resistance training as well as calorie-burning cardio.
5. The heavier you are, the slower your metabolism. Not so! The heavier you are, the harder your body has to work to do the basics—breathe, keep your heart pumping, your hair growing, etc. That’s why, experts say, even small cuts in the amount of calories you eat can pay off on the scale, as your body’s primed to burn.
6. When you lose weight, your metabolism speeds up. Wrong again! It naturally follows that as you lose weight and basic functions are easier for your body to handle, your metabolism starts to power down. That’s partly why it’s so easy to gain the weight back, unless you continue to really pay attention to how much you’re eating and how active you are.
7. You can usually blame a slow metabolism on your thyroid. While it’s true that thyroid problems can affect your metabolism, experts say that issue is relatively rare. More often than not, a slow metabolism results from factors that are within your control—and even when thyroid or genetics are involved, you can (and should) damper their effects with exercise and eating well. If you think you have a thyroid problem, there’s an easy way to find out—ask your doctor for a blood test to measure your thyroid hormones.
8. To lose weight, eat spicy foods to speed up your metabolism. Spicy foods do bump metabolism up a smidge—but only a smidge, and only for a limited amount of time. Experts think it’s unlikely that a diet doused in hot sauce or coated in cayenne results in any significant weight loss.
9. Eating late at night slows down your metabolism. What you eat—and how much—is much more important to your metabolism than when you eat it. There’s no evidence that calories consumed after 7 p.m. are metabolized differently than calories eaten during other parts of the day. It’s more likely that you’ve fallen into a habit of snacking after dark so that you’re taking in extra, mindless calories, or that you are overeating at night to make up for eating too little during the day.
10. Cardio exercise is better for long-term weight loss than any other type of exercise. This is a tricky one. While cardio is great for quick calorie-burning, building muscle through resistance training is going to increase your metabolism long-term, so your body becomes more efficient at burning calories.
11. Skipping meals has no effect on metabolism. On the contrary—going long periods without eating can fool your metabolism into thinking you’re literally starving and needs every calorie to survive. In response, it dials down to save those precious calories just in case. Research indicates that eating three reasonable meals plus three small snacks—containing a healthy mix of lean protein, good fats, fruits and veggies and whole grains—is best for keeping your metabolism stoked.
Lisa Delaney is editor of Spry magazine and Spryliving.com. Ask her your question here.