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Metabolism and weight loss: the ties that bind

Published:Saturday | March 13, 2010 | 12:00 AM

Heather Little-White, Contributor

You may be on a mission to lose weight but realise that you face great difficulty in shedding unwanted pounds fast. This is because your metabolic rate is sluggish and you are not burning calories that quickly. Out of your frustration, you may want to make drastic changes in your diet.

While weight-loss programmes offer strategies to boost metabolism, these are merely dieters' gimmicks, and may actually backfire, causing more weight gain. One of the myths associated with metabolism is that there are certain foods that magically increase the ability to burn calories.

Chemical activity

What is metabolism, anyway? Simply put, it is the life-sustaining chemical activity, through a series of processes, by which food is converted into the energy and products needed to stay alive. According to WebMD, your metabolism involves a complex network of hormones and enzymes that not only convert food into fuel but also affect how efficiently you burn that fuel. It is the process of metabolism that establishes the rate at which you burn calories and so be able to lose or gain weight.

Of course, you cannot compare your weight management with your friend's or your neighbour's, since not everyone burns calories at the same rate. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR), or resting metabolic rate, is the amount of energy that's needed to take care of all the body's functions while you are resting or in a neutral, non-stressful environment. The BMR is the amount of calories you need per day to stay alive and carry out essential functions like breathing, movement of blood around the body, and producing heat.

Influences on metabolism

Why is one person's metabolic rate different from another's? WebMD posits that your metabolic rate is influenced by:

Age - metabolism naturally slows about five per cent per decade after age 40.

Sex - men generally burn more calories at rest than women.

Proportion of lean body mass - the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolic rate tends to be.

Heredity - genetic factors influence the speed of one's metabolism.

Thyroid gland defect slows metabolism.

Weight - the more weight you carry, the faster your metabolism is likely to be.

Diet - starvation, eating disorders or dramatic caloric intake such as in low-calorie diets which can cause a person's BMR to drop by as much as 20 per cent.

Exercise - burns calories and influences body weight and raises BMR by building extra lean tissue.

Medication - can slow BMR dramatically.

Health conditions.

Plateau

Since calories influence your BMR, one sure way to lose weight is to create a calorie deficit by consuming fewer calories than you use. When your caloric intake dips too low, as in low-calorie diets, your body could go into starvation mode and your body starts storing fat as a reserve. As a result, your metabolism draws close to a standstill, burning calories slowly. The body reaches a plateau, and you stop losing weight. A vicious cycle then develops. Because of your frustration, you start to overeat for comfort and ultimately gain weight.

Dangers of starvation diets

Be careful of fad diets which encourage you to drastically cut calories and create health challenges for you. Undoubtedly, your body is at increased risk of ill health when your body goes into starvation. Conditions include

Very low blood pressure and slow heart rate.

Abnormal heart rhythm.

Imbalance of electrolytes, especially potassium.

Gallstones

Hair loss

Loss of menstrual periods

Dizziness

Anaemia

Swelling in the joints

Depression


Sensible eating

Calories are important to good health and an energetic life. It is important to maintain a reasonable and sensible eating plan which should allow you to lose one-half to two pounds per week. This is a safe and more permanent way to lose weight, having made better nutrition choices, eating smaller portions and exercising.

Mini-meals

While you may have a sensible diet to follow, you may find yourself in moments of weakness. Apart from deciding what to eat, the time you eat is also important to weight loss.Four or five mini-meals, including snacks, and a healthy breakfast are more likely to contribute to weight loss compared to persons who skip breakfast and have fewer, larger meals during the day.

Mini-meals constantly fuel the body with calories, warding off feelings of starvation as well as regulating blood sugar and metabolism. Skipping meals, including breakfast, increases your feelings of hunger and leads to temptation of overeating (American Council on Exercise).

FACT AND FICTION ABOUT METABOLISM

When you carry excess pounds, there is no one food that will magically burn up those excess pounds. Metabolism-boosting theories abound, but you should know which ones are factual and workable and which ones only offer hope.

1. Eating close to bedtime slows down metabolism at night, causing you to lose less weight.

Fiction: Calories are calories, whether eaten in the morning or at night. Nocturnal eating, however, may lead to weight gain because of types of foods which have denser calories, e.g. pizzas and chocolates, which form part of social fare for comfort.

2. Drinking water speeds up metabolism. Fiction: Water does not burn calories. However, water is healthy and will make you feel full and stave off some cravings for foods which could lead to weight gain.

3. Eating at the same time every day burns calories. Fiction:Timing may help you stick to a diet plan but it will not help you burn more calories, especially if you make no significant changes in your lifestyle, such as eating smaller portions and exercising more.

4. Eating breakfast boosts metabolism. Fact: When breakfast becomes a routine, it is a metabolism booster, as it helps you to stay on track with your caloric intake for the rest of the day, preventing hunger pangs and binge eating.

5. Building muscle. Fact: When more muscle is built, metabolism is enhanced. Physical activity, including cardio and weight training, should be an important component to increase muscle mass, which burns calories. Weight-loss programmes without weight training and exercise are not the best choices for weight loss.


HEALTHY EATING TIPS

Adding more produce, water, and variety to your diet is a good idea.

Moderation and smart choices are key when eating fast food and other favourites.

Make sure fibre, fish, and breakfast are part of your regular routine.

Eat fresher, steamed, lightly cooked vegetables and drink vegetable juices.

Eat different-coloured vegetables and boost antioxidant intake.

Eat larger amounts of vegetables each day.

Eat two to four servings of fruit each day and three to five servings of vegetables a day.

Increase the intake of natural foods, vitamin supplements, minerals and essential nutrients that your body needs.

Eat calcium-rich foods for strong teeth and bones.

Six to 11 servings of grains should be consumed each day.

Eat lean and small servings of fish, poultry, pork, eggs, beef, beans, nuts and tofu two to three times a day.

Include healthy vegetable oils such as flaxseed oil, olive oil, omega-3, omega-6 and fish oils.

Avoid sugars, baked goods and refined flour.

A balanced diet and exercise should be introduced in the early stages of life. This helps you stay healthy - physically and psychologically - and you will feel more confident about managing your weight.

Heather Little-White, PhD, is a nutrition and lifestyle consultant in Kingston. Send comments to saturdaylife@gleanerjm.com or fax 922-6223.