If you’ve ever struggled with your body composition, either having a hard time losing fat or even just staying at a lean and healthy weight, you might blame it on a slow metabolism.
It’s true that metabolic rate varies by individual. In fact, many factors including body size, genetics, hormones, physical activity, diet, sleep, stress, age, and body composition all influence metabolic rate. Even something like once being obese and then losing weight makes you more likely to have a slower metabolism than someone who was never obese and has been lean their whole life.
The happy news is that there are a number of effective actions you can take to give your metabolism a jump start. One thing you need to know is that the bump in metabolism from each one is small to moderate. Simply downing green tea probably isn’t going to have much cumulative effect on your metabolic rate.
Rather, you want to incorporate as many of these actions as possible into your life and do them on a daily basis—that is, make them a habit. The end result will be the fast metabolism you’ve always wanted. Of course, if you’re completely new to these habits, you probably need some guidance for how to get started—we’ve included that too under each step.
Step #1: Plan Meals That Fire Up Your Metabolism
You’ve probably got a skinny friend or two who can eat whatever they want and never gain a pound. Pizza, wine, and ice cream are their food staples and the only vegetable that ever graces their lips is the tomatoes in their pizza sauce. If this is what you’re hoping for, sorry to disappoint you.
You’ve got to play by a few key nutrition rules in order to get the metabolic advantage you’re going for and junk food isn’t part of the program. On the upside, certain foods have a large thermic effect, which means that they raise your metabolic rate significantly. In addition, many of these foods are delicious and once you get used to planning meals around them, cravings for junk food pretty much become a thing of the past.
Design Meals Around High-Protein Foods
We live in a high-carb culture where people plan meals around grain-based foods—often refined grains. You miss out big with this approach because carbohydrate foods tend not be very satisfying. In addition, they negatively impact your metabolic hormones like insulin, leaving you hungry and desiring more soon after a meal.
High-protein foods, on the other hand, are very filling. One study found that by increasing protein intake from 15 to 30 percent of the diet, participants voluntarily ate 441 fewer calories every day. By the end of the study they had lost 8 pounds of body fat.
Protein foods also cost the body more calories to digest than carbohydrates, which is referred to as the thermic effect. Protein quality is important here: When you eat meat, you increase energy expenditure by as much as 20 percent more than when you eat protein from beans and plant sources.
Get Started: Protein should be the first thing you think about when deciding what to eat, even for breakfast, which is a traditionally high-carb meal. Eggs, yogurt, fish, chicken, beef, and turkey are all top quality high-protein foods to start your meal with.
Eat High Thermogenic Fats: Omega-3 Fats, Nuts, Avocado & Olive Oil
Certain kinds of fat stimulate energy expenditure just as protein does, but these fats do it in a unique way. Studies show that compared to saturated fats, which come from animal products, poly- and monounsaturated fats enhance the activity of certain genes, which raises body temperature and leads to excess calories being burned.
For example, one study found that men who increased their intake of the omega-3 fats that come from fish oil to 3 grams a day, they burned a whopping 920 calories during the 6-hour period after eating when metabolism was elevated.
In a second trial, post-meal energy expenditure was 28 percent higher after a meal of walnuts, and 23 percent higher after a meal that favored monounsaturated fats from olive oil compared to a saturated fat-rich dairy meal.
Get Started: Every meal should include a little bit of healthy fat: A few slices of avocado, a handful of nuts, or a drizzle of olive oil on your salad.
What about saturated fats? They can be included in your diet in small quantities, but they aren’t going to give you the same metabolic boost as thermogenic fats. Therefore, if you’re eating whole fat yogurt, add some walnuts, or choose leaner cuts of pasture-raised meats that will be higher in omega-3 fats and lower in saturated fat. Fatty fish like salmon, halibut, and sardines are also a great choice.
Say No To Processed Foods In Favor of Whole Foods
Eating meals made from whole foods, such as fish, meat, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruit, is a powerful way to increase the thermic effect so that your body burns more calories during digestion and absorption. In one study, when participants ate a “whole food” cheddar cheese sandwich from bread made with whole grain kernels and sunflower seeds, they burned double the number of calories compared to when they ate a processed cheese sandwich of Velveeta and white bread.
Of course, the ingredients used for the whole food meal did require some food refinement and processing to produce, but not nearly as much as for the processed food ingredients. Eating the majority of foods in their most natural state, such as steak or salmon, sweet potatoes or boiled millet, and a mixed green salad would likely increase the thermic effect even more. Eating a diet of “whole foods” can also help shift the diet to include more protein and toward a healthier make up of carbohydrates.
Get Started: By planning meals around high-quality protein and healthy fat, you’re well on your way to favoring whole foods, but it’s also important to identify when highly processed foods sneak into your diet.
For example, are you having cereal at breakfast? Is bread a staple? Are chips your go-to afternoon snack? Do cookies fulfill your sweet tooth? Even foods like protein bars, granola, or fruit juice, which are typically thought of as healthy, are highly processed and usually high in sugar but low in fiber, making them a bad choice if a peppy metabolism is one of your goals.
Step #2: Incorporate Smart Training & Regular Activity
A good rule of thumb is that the more physically active you are, the higher your metabolic rate will be. However, studies show that when it comes to certain types of exercise it’s possible to overdo it.
In one trial, overweight young men were asked to perform either 30 or 60 minutes daily of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (what you’d normally call “cardio”). After 3 months, the group that did the smaller 30-minute dose of exercise lost slightly more body fat than the group that did the larger 60-minute daily workout. Despite burning half the calories during workouts, the 30-minute group lost 8.8 pounds of fat compared to the 60-minute group, which lost 8.6 pounds of fat.
Sports scientists explain the difference with a theory called “compensation,” whereby people will reduce something called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), which is a fancy way of referring to the amount of movement they do when they aren’t exercising. A classic example is when people drive more, walk less, take the elevator instead of the stairs, hang out on the couch, and just engage in less fidgeting and fewer random movements during the day. This reduction adds up, translating into a slower metabolic rate.
A second factor in compensation is when people inadvertently increase how much they eat. Although dietary compensation doesn’t negatively impact metabolism, it can offset the calories burned during exercise, eradicating any energy deficit, so you want to watch out for it if your intention is to reduce body fat.
The bottom line is that if a fast metabolism is your goal, you need to shoot for variety when it comes to your physical activity and take actions so as to avoid compensation.
Train With Weights
Training with weights has a powerful effect on metabolic rate because it builds lean muscle, which raises your daily resting energy expenditure. It also improves the sensitivity of your muscle cells to insulin and helps to reset the HPA axis, which governs hormonal release and overall metabolism.
Get Started: Design your workouts around multi-joint exercises that use big muscle groups such as squats, bench and overhead press, pulls (pull ups, rows, or high pulls), and deadlifts. Train four sets per exercise with moderately heavy weights for 8 to 12 reps, reaching near failure by the last rep.
Do Intervals For Conditioning
Interval exercise, which intersperses intense efforts with brief rest periods has been found to significantly increase post-workout metabolic rate. For example, when athletes did interval training with weights, they burned an extra 452 calories during the 24-hour recovery period compared to if they hadn’t done any exercise at all.
Factors that contribute to the increased calorie burn after interval-style exercise include an increase in both fat burning and oxygen use, which require greater enzyme activity and a higher metabolic rate.
Get Started: Running or bike intervals are a great way incorporate intervals into your routine. Use work bouts of 1 minute of intense effort, followed by 60 seconds of active rest where you walk easily or pedal at a comfortable speed. Repeat, starting with 5 intervals and working up to 10 repeats.
Walk For 10 Minutes After Every Meal
If you’re like most people, you like to sack out on the couch after dinner. This is not a good approach. A new study found that when people with diabetes walked for 10 minutes after each main meal, they had better blood sugar levels than people who took one long 30 minute walk a day. By improving blood sugar management, you can achieve better balance of metabolic hormones, while increasing your body’s demand for energy.
Get Started: Most of us are running out the door after breakfast, which makes after lunch and dinner key times to establish a walking protocol. Nowadays everyone seems to be working or running errands during lunch, but the reality is that if you schedule in ten minutes for a walk around your office building, it will probably increase your productivity.
An after dinner walk can be hard: Research shows people are particularly sedentary after the evening meal, either due to habit or the fact that it’s pitch black outside during the winter. Nevertheless, subjects who signed up for the walking protocol in the study, got outside and got in their 10 minutes and it made a difference: Think of it as part of your evening routine—that thing that comes after cleaning up the dishes and before time to hit the couch.
Step #3: Account For Lifestyle Factors That Raise Metabolic Rate
There are a number of different dietary and lifestyle factors that can affect metabolic rate. Here are a few to focus on if you want to give your calorie burning a boost.
Avoid Stress & Lack of Sleep
You might think that a stressful lifestyle and lack of sleep would lead you to burn more calories. After all if you’re sleeping less, you’re presumably more active and spending less time lying in bed. If you’re stressed, you’re also probably more agitated, which you might think would mean you’re burning energy.
Unfortunately, both couldn’t be further from the truth. In one study, researchers found that women who reported feeling stressed or depressed had slower metabolisms and burned an average of 104 fewer calories following a meal than those who felt more mellow.
Stress also increases the drive for high-carbohydrate foods in an effort to lower cortisol. If improved body composition is your goal, this can backfire since, high-carb foods are also high in calories, while being low on the satiation scale, meaning they are easy to overeat.
When it comes to lack of sleep, you experience a similarly negative impact on hormones linked to metabolic rate. Cortisol goes up and glycemic control goes down. Gene signaling is also affected and this combination is thought to result in a downregulation in our desire to be active. In simple terms, we get lazy when we’re tired and our energy expenditure goes down because we move less.
Get Started: Something as simple as deep breathing when things get a little crazy can help lower cortisol and be in the moment. When it comes to improving your sleep, have a set bedtime and do the little things that have a big impact on sleep: put away your phone, sleep in darkness, and have a relaxing bedtime ritual.
Avoid Low Calorie Diets & Fasting
You already know that what you eat has a huge impact on metabolic rate. Same goes for how much and when you eat. Low calorie diets and fasting for long periods lead to an automatic downregulation in metabolic rate as the body fights back in an effort to preserve fuel stores. This is the dreaded starvation mode that everyone talks about and it occurs fairly quickly when you eat less in an effort to lose fat.
Of course, it is necessary to create a calorie deficit in order to reduce body fat, which makes it a little tricky to determine how much you should eat. Typically, low calorie diets are anything less than 1,600 calories, which is the average resting metabolic rate (the amount of calories you burn at rest without accounting for physical activity or the thermic effect of food). Therefore, you should never go below 1,600 calories and if you are exercising or trying to put on muscle, you’ll need substantially more energy.
Get Started: Generally, if you eat a high-protein diet that includes whole foods in the form of high-fiber veggies and plenty of healthy fats you won’t need to restrict calories at all. As long as you are training according to the guidelines mentioned above, you will have a peppy metabolism and will naturally be able to create a calorie deficit without slashing calories.
Do The Little Things
You’ve probably heard that drinking more water can increase your metabolism and wondered if it’s true. Good news is that drinking water leads to a substantial increase in the number of calories burned, an effect that is amplified when the water is cold because it requires energy for the body to warm the water. Studies show that drinking 16 ounces of cold water can increase metabolic rate by as much as 30 percent, which may pay off in long-term reductions in body fat. When overweight girls drank 16 ounces of water 30 minutes before meals for 8 weeks, they lost 3 pounds, which scientists considered a highly significant change.
Get Started: Drink 16 ounces of cold water before every meal. If you find plain water a drag, add lemon or lime to give it a kick.
Other easy actions that can give your metabolism a boost include the following:
Drink Tea – Green tea and yerba mate have extremely high level of a kind of antioxidants called catechins that raise energy expenditure and can promote fat loss. One study found that taking green tea extract that contained 90 mg of catechins along with 50 mg of caffeine raised energy expenditure by 4 percent over a 24-hour period.
Get Started: Most tea bags offer between 20 and 90 mg of green tea catechins, suggesting that you could benefit from up to 4 to 6 cups a day. This would also provide a large amount of caffeine so use caution if you are sensitive.
Cook With Ginger & Hot Peppers – Both ginger and hot peppers raise body temperature and increase energy expenditure. They can also reduce appetite and are antioxidant rich.
Get Started: There’s an abundance of recipes containing peppers and ginger: Sauté ginger with leafy greens, cook eggs with peppers for a spicy flavor, or puree ginger in your favorite post-workout protein drink.