The word “metabolism” appears in many weight-loss ads without any sort of definition or explanation. The m-word is bandied around frequently with few caveats, including by manufacturers of pills and potions that claim to “boost” or “speed up” the metabolism, as well as by manufacturers of apparently “natural” herbal remedies that claim to “rev up” a person’s metabolic rate. And how does one’s metabolism affect their ability to put on or take off weight, or to keep their current weight stable?

A Person's Metabolism Remains Constant Throughout Life.

Exactly What is Metabolism, And how does it Function, if at all?

Your metabolism is the set of internal chemical reactions that turn the calories in the food and drink you consume into usable energy. This vitality is what allows you to keep breathing, digesting food, and more. What is known as one’s “basal metabolic rate” (BMR) is the absolute minimum caloric intake required for one’s body to function normally.

The common misconception that one’s metabolism (and thus their weight) is just a function of their caloric intake and expenditure is an oversimplification of a process so complex that not even professionals have a complete understanding of it. Experts agree that your body uses oxygen and calories to generate energy for cellular reproduction, blood flow, and other bodily processes.

One Medical doctor in San Diego, David Eisner, explains that metabolism is the process through which the body creates energy from the food we eat. To put it another way: “Most people attribute their weight to the speed or slowness of their metabolism. “But it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

How Do Different Things Affect Your Metabolism?

Eisner is correct in his assessment that metabolism is a complex topic with many unknowns, even to professionals. To paraphrase what Will Wong, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Metabolism and Obesity Research, said Vox in 2018 about the metabolism: “We don’t understand the process that controls a person’s metabolism.” Although some factors can be used to make educated guesses about an individual’s metabolic rate and their propensity for gaining weight, there is no one surefire way to do so.

Your metabolic rate depends on several variables, including your genes, level of physical activity, smoking habits, age, and more. To quote Eisner: Up to the age of 60, your metabolism remains quite steady. It doesn’t rise during adolescence or fall in your forties or after menopause. Muscle mass, however, is a major adjustable aspect of your basal metabolic rate (how many calories you burn when doing nothing).

When you’re at full rest, your body’s basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the fewest calories it requires to keep going. Because BMR varies from person to person and the most precise assessment requires the use of costly technology (such as a metabolic chamber), it is difficult to obtain this information.

Can you Really Speed Up Your Metabolism?

Experts advise against overdosing on any one food, drink, herb, supplement, etc. in the hopes of witnessing a big metabolic shift, even though calorie consumption and some forms of exercise may have some affect on your metabolism.

Eisne says, “I hope someone informs me about it if there is a product out there that can safely ‘increase your metabolism’ in a meaningful way.” For example, “caffeine, spicy foods, green tea, and several other chemicals may have some marginal impact on metabolism.” The word “marginal” is the key to understanding Eisner’s comment. Although coffee and spicy foods have been said to speed up your metabolism, Mayo Clinic researcher Michael Jensen told Vox that “the shift is so tiny and short-lived, it would never have an influence on your waistline.”

Last Words

In the same way that a “faster” metabolism is no guarantee of increased wellness, weight loss is not always synonymous with health for every individual. If you want to get in shape without obsessing over your weight or your metabolism, your best chance is to team up with a primary care physician who can tailor a health regimen to your specific needs.