Putting the Brakes on Your Metabolism

Since we know how the body burns calories it would also make sense to understand what puts the breaks on our ability to burn calories. Or in other words what slows down our metabolism?

Now there are a number of factors that influence our metabolic rate. An older person burns fewer calories than a younger person, usually dropping by about 2% per decade. So if there were such a thing as copies of the same person in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s at the beach the oldest version at the beach would have a 6% slower metabolism than the version of themselves in their 20s. This is due simply to the fact they got older.To rev up our metabolism we need to take off all the brakes.

To rev up our metabolism we need to take off all the brakes.

Now in combination with getting older and having a slower metabolism there is also the fact that testosterone drops as we age as well. From a peak in our twenties this hormone slowly declines starting in our thirties. With less of this anabolic in our body it is more difficult to build and maintain our lean body mass. As a result a smaller frame requires fewer calories to sustain it and our metabolism slows.

And besides our age and hormones there are other things which can disrupt our metabolism including prescription drugs, our sleep patterns, our overall health and our body type. With many of these we can’t do too much to influence our metabolism. For example, we can’t go back and choose better parents to alter our genetics. And it’s tough to stop time and prevent the aging process but some people do a pretty good job of staving off the effects of aging.

So knowing that there are some aspects of our metabolism that are completely out of our control means we have to be even more careful about the aspects which we can influence. For example consider when someone is dieting and trying to lose a few pounds. The typical approach would be to eat fewer calories, create a caloric deficit and hopefully drop some weight.

Here’s the problem.

As we reduce our caloric intake our metabolism slows. We eat fewer calories which lowers our thyroid hormone output, there is less thermic effect from feeding and we reduce our muscle mass. Don’t worry too much if you’re not familiar with thyroid hormone. For now if you understand that it is involved in our metabolism you’ll get the point.

So as we restrict calories we put the brakes on our metabolism. And this confuses a lot of people as they understand that weight loss requires a caloric deficit. And it does. However too much of a deficit and the body will think starvation is imminent and do what it can to slow down the ‘assembly line’ of calorie burning which is our metabolism.

I seem to recall from my Precision Nutrition certification course that our resting metabolic rate is most severely depressed when calories are reduced to the 1000-1200 calories per day range. So if someone required 1800 calories to maintain weight and reduced this to 1000 calories they may find that their metabolism slows, weight loss stops and it becomes more difficult to fuel their workouts without enough energy.

Guess what? The opposite is true of people  looking to add lean mass. If the same individual that requires 1800 calories per day jumps their intake to 4000 calories they will see their metabolism spike. The body is overwhelmed with the overload of additional calories and ramps up metabolism in an effort to burn off the excess calories. Young skinny guys looking to add 10-20 pounds of muscle know this first hand.

So what’s the solution?

Whatever your goal make small changes and then track the results. By a small change I’m talking about a 10-20% difference in what your body requires for normal day to day activities where you maintain weight. Using the 1800 calorie example this might be 1440-1620 calories per day for weight loss. And for the person looking to gain mass this might be 1980-2160 calories per day. Monitor the changes in terms of your strength, energy levels, waist circumference, body-fat and mass then go from there making small adjustments every couple of weeks.

Chris [fb-like]

The calories v. sugar debate

So recently on the interwebs there was a bit of discussion on a social network about the importance of sugar in the diet. Actually it was more than just a discussion as some members took to mocking the other side who then responded to blocking the immature commenter from their profile.

Now what that is all about was the fact that one group was of the belief that the increased consumption of sugar is the culprit of our deteriorating health i.e. obesity, metabolic syndrome etc. And the other side was dismissing the notion of sugar being responsible and favouring the opinion that increased calories were the root cause of society’s declining health.

A couple of points on this:

1. This isn’t religion and we don’t need to get overly offended about the position of another individual or group based on what they believe with respect to nutrition.

2. The two positions aren’t mutually exclusive. Why can’t we believe both positions? In other words isn’t it possible that we are both eating more calories and eating more sugar today than we ever have in our history? It kind of seems like a silly 80s beer commercial.It doesn't have to be just one.

It doesn’t have to be just one.

So it is possible for both sides to be right. We are consuming more sugar than we have in our history and we are consuming more calories as well. The solution doesn’t have to be one or the other in terms of reducing calories or reducing sugar. The answer should be both.

And this is something we have been preaching to our clients for as long as I can remember. Actually I can remember as it was something I learned from an American colleague of mine at a conference in Colorado. You see as soon as I realized Shawn was a registered dietician I was peppering him with questions for the entire conference. And one of the things he said that stuck with me was that we have to consider our nutrition in three areas. If we meet two of the three conditions than we will have problems when it comes to meeting our weight loss, performance or health oriented goals.

And these three conditions for nutrition were:

Dose – How much we eat of something matters.

Quality – How good or bad something is for us matters.

Timing – When we eat matters.

The interesting thing is that many who believe they have everything dialed in with respect to their nutrition are addressing only two out of three. Here’s how this would look with each of the three scenarios above.

Dose/quality satisfied, timing ignored – This would be the person who eats the right amount of calories of the best quality foods but skips breakfast and lunch. This person then eats 2000 cal dinners every night, has difficulty sleeping as a result, is not hungry upon waking in the morning. In fact they may be so full from the previous night’s meal that they complain of nausea when training the following am.

Dose/timing satisfied, quality ignored – If an individual required 2000 calories to maintain body mass than this is the person that eats exactly that amount. And unlike the person in the previous example who eats all 2000 at one sitting this person eats 500 calorie meals spread out over four meals throughout the day. The problem is that the 500 calorie meals consist of ice cream, pizza, nachos and cotton candy. In other words although the timing and amount of calories is good the quality is terrible.

Quality/timing satisfied, dose ignored – This is the person that eats the best quality foods at the right times but not the right amount. And while we typically might think of this of being an issue of over-eating it can work both ways. In fact it may be more limiting for those looking to drop some weight if they cut calories too much. Using the same numbers as above for the 2000 calories required per day this might be the person that eats broccoli, chick breast, spinach, fish and many other healthy proteins, vegetables and drinks water. The problem would occur if this person only eats 1000 calories per day of these foods. On the other hand it would also be a problem if someone were to eat 4000 calories per day of the healthiest foods and then struggle to lose weight.

To summarize you can’t worry simply about sugars intake and ignore the basics thermodynamics which dictate whether weight is gained or lost. At the same time a calorie is not a calorie. There needs to be some consideration for the quality of the food we consume and not simply look to create a deficit regardless of which types of foods make up the calories.

In the next post we’ll look more closely at which factors influence weight gain or weight loss.

Chris [fb-like]