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Burn It: Make Your Metabolism Work for You

By L.K. Regan

To burn as many calories as possible, and maximize the profits from your diet and workouts, you want to gun the engine on your metabolism. And, if you're smart, you want to do this without resorting to illegal drugs or dubious supplements. Luckily, with a little restructuring of your day, and some attention to your eating habits, you can make the most of your body's need to consume fuel—and burn more calories even while you're just sitting still. To tell us how you can change your diet to make your metabolism work for you, we spoke to Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You.

Metabolism: An Overview
So how does the body's metabolism work and affect weight gain and loss? First, the basics: Weight loss is a matter of calories taken in versus calories expended—or, as the cliché goes, "calories in, calories out." Your daily calorie expenditure is made up of three factors: the amount of exercise you do; your lifestyle (for instance, whether you work at a desk or as a bike messenger); and your resting metabolic rate. While most of us think of the first and second of these when we think of weight loss, the third—resting metabolic rate—plays a huge role as well. "The body is burning calories all the time," Villacorta says. "Your resting metabolic rate is the amount of calories your body needs to consume just to survive—to make your lungs breathe, your heart beat, your blood circulate, your immune system function, your brain work." In the end, you want to raise your resting metabolic rate, and persuade your body to burn more calories—basically, fuel—when you're not exercising. So it's crucial not only to provide your body with the right fuel, but to time your fueling correctly to maximize your resting metabolic rate.

Start Early: Break That Fast
The first and one of the best ways to increase your resting metabolic rate is something your parents told you anyway—eat your breakfast. More specifically, Villacorta says, "Always eat breakfast within one hour of waking up. This jump-starts the metabolic rate for the day." During the night, your body is in a slowed metabolic state. While you sleep, you're obviously not taking on new fuel—but your body is still working on making the heart pump, the lungs breathe, and so on. To fuel these metabolic needs, your body becomes what Villacorta calls "energy efficient". And, as he says, "While energy efficiency is great for your electric bill, it's not so good for your weight loss goals." This energy-efficient mode is key for survival—but you don't want to extend this slowed metabolic state into your waking hours. In this mode you will store fat very easily because your body is conserving calories, so you want to break your fast as soon as possible, and get your body started burning more fuel. So, as soon as you get up, get to work on putting together a good breakfast.

Have a Nooner... and a 3 O'clocker...
After breakfast, you should plan to eat roughly every three hours, give or take 30 minutes. As Villacorta puts it, "Every time you eat and you digest you are actually burning calories—this is the thermic effect of food—and that raises your metabolism. So, to eat more often maximizes your metabolism."

It matters what you eat as well. The best results will come from eating all types of food mixed together, rather than eating any one type in isolation. Try to mix protein, fat, and carbohydrates every time you eat. "For example," says Villacorta, "for a snack eat an apple with some almonds and a low-fat cheese." This will actually be better than just the apple by itself.

The key is not to delay meals—and Villacorta emphasizes this point heavily. The reason, he says, is ghrelin. This is not a little furry creature that lives in a cave—ghrelin is a hormone produced in the stomach that makes you experience the sensation of hunger. Beginning 30 minutes after you eat (that is, once the stomach is empty), you produce ghrelin to tell you to eat again. By three to four hours after your last meal, you've produced a whole lot of ghrelin, and it's starting to tell you you're hungry.

The problem, Villacorta says, is that most people ignore the first ghrelin warnings, and wait to eat. But by five to six hours after a meal, your ghrelin levels have tripled. Now, you're too hungry to think straight. All your sensible tips about eating a light snack and waiting 20 minutes before eating again, or balancing fat, carbs, and protein—these fly out the window. Instead, you overeat. Worse yet, Villacorta says, "Any meal you eat in that state won't be enough to knock the ghrelin back down. You have to eat enough to get rid of all the ghrelin—but if it's built up over many hours, a sane meal won't do it. You'll overeat."

To add insult to injury, your body, deprived for many hours of food, is now back in energy conservation mode. With your metabolism slowed, you'll put that (probably excessively large) meal on as fat. And all of this could have been avoided if you'd eaten sooner. "Will-power won't get you through the costs of delaying meals," Villacorta warns. Set yourself up for success by really watching the clock, and packing small, balanced meals to keep you going and your ghrelin levels in check.

Eat Right at Night
Night is a time of mystery and shadow. So let's turn the lights on by knocking down a couple of cherished myths about evening hours and metabolism. First, Villacorta says, no matter what Oprah told you, it is not true that you must get all of your eating done before 7 pm—as long as you're smart throughout the rest of the day. The problem with nighttime eating only occurs when you eat the bulk of your day's food at dinner. "As a rule of thumb," Villacorta tells us, "try to eat 70 percent of your daily calories before dinner. That way, you won't do most of your eating right before bed, when your metabolism slows down for the night." If you follow the every-three-hours eating schedule, your metabolism will stay elevated until bed-time, and you won't have ghrelin driving you to overeat at night. Now you can have a reasonable dinner at 8 pm or thereafter, and you won't store those calories as fat. It's only when you gorge yourself before bed that there's a problem—and preventing that scenario begins at breakfast and carries on all day.

Boost It with Exercise
Get ready for another myth: Everyone has heard that you should exercise in the morning to speed up your metabolism for the day. Turns out, this just isn't true. "Exercise increases your metabolism, period," Villacorta says. Regardless of when you do it, you'll get a metabolic benefit. And, Villacorta says, because muscle burns more calories at rest than fat, "Muscle drives your metabolic rate. So you should definitely strength train." When you do it is up to you—if you aren't a morning type, workout at noon or in the evening, and you will get the same metabolic boost as the early morning crowd. This is particularly true if exercising in the morning would lead you to delay or skip breakfast.

With these simple tips, and a little bit of foresight, you can over time persuade your body to help you in the weight loss battle, rather than fighting you. Wouldn't that be a nice change?

Metabolism Quick Links

  1. Get a Metabolic Meal Plan: These healthy weight-loss meal plans will boost your metabolism.
  2. Talk to a Nutritionist: Get a free personalized nutrition consultation from Nutrition for You.
  3. Burn It Up: Try the 12-week Strong and Lean Workout program.