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What would you be willing to give up in exchange for a fast metabolism? 

Or, to be able to consume all the ice cream you want and not gain a pound? To rely on tacos to help you fit into your favorite jeans? Or, to get washboard abs from an easy, one-hour treatment? It seems that every time we turn around, another fad diet, infomercial, or weight loss gimmick promises us easy results and a swift metabolic boost. 

The truth is, “metabolism” is a word that encompasses the literally thousands of chemical reactions needed for us to be functioning human beings. It’s incredibly complex — so much so that not even scientists claim to understand every detail. And unfortunately, the deafening amount of weight loss quackery out there chronically over-simplifies this process and continually feeds us fantasy fixes.

Ready for some truth and clarity on the subject? Read on to help sift through six metabolic myths and to learn what you really can do about your metabolic functioning. 

Myth No. 1: You should eat every two hours to speed up your metabolism. 

How many Monday resolutions started with you diligently and obediently dividing all your food for the day into six to eight portion-controlling containers? How many times did Friday roll around with you still riding that train? 

It’s unlikely most of us can maintain that routine past a week or two, if even for a full week — and let alone keep at it for the long haul. Aside from the impracticality in most cases (pulling out chicken breast and broccoli during a 10 a.m. board meeting might be frowned upon), do you really think your ancestors stopped what they were doing to eat every two hours? 

Ideal meal timing is different for everyone. Those with blood sugar imbalances tend to fare better with more regularly timed, protein-containing meals (every three to five hours in most cases), while others thrive on only two to three solid meals per day. Intermittent fasting might even prove to be of great benefit for others. 

If you’re focused on eating mostly whole, unprocessed, and nutrient-dense foods — intuitively and in sync with hunger cues — it’s doubtful your metabolism is depending on food for fuel every 120 minutes.

Myth No. 2: Whatever metabolism you’re born with, you’re stuck with. 

Most of us tend to think that our genetic makeup will always have the last say in determining our pant size. If mom, dad, grandpa, and auntie are all overweight, why bother with the hassle of trying to stay lean and fit?

The good news is, there’s an entire fascinating area of study called nutrigenomics that exists to explore the powerful relationship between nutrition and genes. While it’s true we can be prone to certain tendencies as a result of genetics, we can also have a massive influence on the expression of our genes and the impact they have on our body composition. 

You can find great success in mastering your uniquely personal metabolism by assessing your physiology regularly with a comprehensive lab test. From there, you can take a more targeted, individualized approach to your lifestyle factors, nutrition, and exercise. Different methods work for different people, and the most effective programs start with testing. It’s truly empowering in a way no generic advice (let alone bogus product) can be.

It’s important to understand that it’s not always possible (or even healthy) to have the physique of a typical magazine cover model. However, you absolutely can become the most optimal, fit, healthy version of you that you’re designed to be. 

When it comes to our DNA, this often-repeated phrase rings true: “Genetics loads the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.” Use your power wisely. 

Myth No 3: If your metabolism is “slow,” you’re doomed to a lifetime of hunger and deprivation in order to be fit. 

This misconception deserves an especially emphasized answer: FALSE. 

“Hungry and deprived” is not a way to live. And neither is “tired, overweight, and out of breath.” You are not destined to be confined to one of those two options. It’s easy to wrongly assume that the former is required to climb our way out of the latter. 

Rest assured that most, if not all, of my clients who have a slower than expected metabolic rate actually require more of the right foods to see results. Yes, really! 

You might find it tempting to just cut your calorie intake, but as far as long term results go, that choice might be ineffective at best — and harmful at worst. A lower than expected metabolic rate has a root cause that might require blood or saliva assessments to discern, but it doesn’t have to be permanent

Start first with a mindset of nourishment. Is your metabolism armed with the raw materials it needs to serve you well? Think through your week: Are you getting protein at every meal? Is the majority of your food intake by volume from colorful veggies and fruits? Do your meals include healthy fat? Are your carbohydrate choices mostly from whole foods and full of fiber? How consistent and complete is your supplement regime? Is your intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants enough to optimize how you’re functioning? Do you have enough nutrient-dense fuel going in to build lean muscle tissue?

I have seen clients significantly boost their metabolic rate in a matter of eight to 12 weeks when focused on these non-negotiables and when armed with the right assessments. Additional, objective lab testing can provide personal certainty and targeted direction that their nutrition and exercise programming deserves. Start with the basics, then customize your approach from there. 

Myth No. 4: There’s a secret miracle berry you’ve never heard of that will fix your metabolism. 

Wouldn’t life be so much easier if this were true? I cringe when I hear self-proclaimed health “experts” trying to sell the latest sketchy so-called miracle extract to reveal six-pack abs. 

Here’s the thing: real, unprocessed foods eaten in the right amount and in balance are metabolism-boosting. Why? They provide the micronutrients and support needed for the hormonal responses required to help shed fat, gain energy, and build muscle. (Lean muscle is what gives us a lean, toned look.)

With today’s nutrient-challenged food supply and higher levels of lifestyle stress, certain foundational supplements may be necessary to maximize your metabolic functioning. 

While a specific berry or exotic food sounds like a fun and mysterious solution, most of us are just walking around with suboptimal levels of vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, B-vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as chronic inflammation or disrupted digestive health. All of these can contribute to your metabolic engine sputtering out until the issues are adequately addressed. 

Myth No. 5: Anything you eat after 7 p.m. turns to fat.

Your metabolism ebbs and flows throughout the day and night, but there is no official closing time. Again, meal timing is different for everyone — but this commonly repeated blanket statement simply isn’t true. 

Now don’t get me wrong, that bag of chips while binge-watching Netflix or the ice cream and prosecco habit during “The Bachelor” isn’t helping your weight loss efforts. Having a mindful approach to eating is critical. However, I’ve seen people get home from work a little later than anticipated and be fearful of eating an otherwise healthy, balanced dinner just because of the clock. 

Eat the (healthy) food. The “why” behind your eating is often so much more important than the timing. Are you eating because you’re stressed? Out of habit? Because a package of something is calling your name from the cupboard? Eat healthily when you’re hungry — even if it’s after 7 p.m. 

Myth No. 6: Always eat carbs first thing in the morning to burn them up, and avoid them at night. 

Cereal, toast, pancakes, and other common breakfast foods are full of carbohydrate fuel to get you through the day, right? Wrong. 

First, make sure the carbs you’re eating are unprocessed and nutrient-dense as often as possible (think lentils, sweet potato, squash, quinoa, beans). Most of us are aware that carbohydrates raise blood sugar and insulin. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad. However, when it comes to carbs, you have to be cognizant of the amount, source, and timing. The most optimal time to consume carbohydrates, along with protein of course, is post-workout. 

Another player in this game is cortisol, commonly referred to as the “stress” hormone. One of its many roles is to raise blood sugar in a process called gluconeogenesis (new formation of glucose, or sugar).  

Cortisol follows something called a diurnal pattern, meaning that optimal levels fluctuate throughout the day. When cortisol is following a normal, healthy curve, it is highest in the morning, when it helps us wake up, then tapers off throughout the day and reaches its lowest point at night.

If your body is making glucose first thing in the morning, it probably isn’t necessary to consume dietary carbohydrates at breakfast. (This is the case for most people.) Toward the end of the day, if cortisol is following a normal pattern, carbohydrates might support serotonin production and the ability to fall asleep more readily. Be sure to work with a nutrition coach to determine the best timing and amount for you. 

5 Metabolism Truths

With all these myths put to rest, know that there are a few sound themes for optimizing your metabolism:

  1. Focus on a diet full of non-starchy vegetables, quality proteins, and healthy unprocessed fats.
  2. Be smart about carbohydrate consumption (amount, type, and timing).
  3. Take high-quality supplements that address your foundational and individual needs.
  4. Train consistently and build muscle — ideally with the individualized guidance a trainer can offer.
  5. Get regular assessments of your unique physiology to obtain the necessary guidance and structure for an individualized, efficient plan of attack. 

With the above approach, you can achieve a healthy, balanced, and realistic plan. It can (and should) even include the occasional bowl of ice cream or participation in Taco Tuesday if desired. It’s what you do and do not do most of the time that either drives results or hinders them. 

Most of all, remember that a shortcut, quick fix, or magic pill is unlikely to be a long-term solution, and there are rarely “always or never” rules to metabolism. Every day, science uncovers more about the complex workings of human functioning. Arm yourself with the right knowledge of general health and your personal physiology. The more you know, the more you can master. 

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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