Slaving away inside your body – right this minute – is your metabolism. It works tirelessly to help you burn kilojoules and shed fat. It’s the sum of everything your body does. Each time you eat, enzymes in your body’s cells break down the food and turn it into energy that keeps your heart beating, your mind thinking and your legs pumping during a gruelling run. The faster your metabolism, the more kilojoules you burn and the easier it is to drop kilos.
To some degree, our bodies hum along at a preset speed determined by gender and genetics, but there’s still plenty of wiggle room. “You have a huge amount of control over your metabolic rate,” says Dr John Berardi, author of The Metabolism Advantage. “You can’t affect how many kilojoules it takes to keep your heart beating, but you can burn an extra 2000 to 2500 a day by exercising and eating right.” We enlisted the help of experts to come up with a round-the-clock burn plan, complete with moves that will throw your metabolism into overdrive.
1. When you roll out of bed
Eat (a good) breakfast
Every. Single. Day. If you don’t, your body goes into starvation mode (it’s paranoid like that), so your metabolism slows to a crawl to conserve energy, says Dr Berardi. And the heartier your first meal is, the better. In one study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, volunteers who got 22 to 55 per cent of their total kilojoules at breakfast gained only 0.8 kilograms on average over four years. Those who ate zero to 11 per cent of their kilojoules in the morning gained nearly 1.4 kilos. In another study published in the same journal, volunteers who reported regularly skipping breakfast had 4.5 times the risk of obesity as those who took the time to eat.
What should you be having? Morning munchies that are slow to digest and leave you feeling fuller for longer (so you’ll have no trouble resisting that cake at morning tea). Try a mix of lean protein with complex carbohydrates and healthy fats, like this power breakfast from Dr Berardi: an omelette made from one egg and two egg whites and a half cup of chopped capsicum and onions, plus a half cup of cooked oats mixed with a quarter cup of frozen berries and a teaspoon of omega-3-loaded fish oil.Sip coffee
Latte fiends, rejoice! A study published in the US journal Physiology & Behavior found that the average metabolic rate of people who drank caffeinated coffee increased 16 per cent over that of those who drank decaf. Caffeine stimulates your central nervous system by increasing your heart rate and breathing, says Dr Robert Kenefick, a research physiologist at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Honestly, could there be a more perfect beverage?Guzzle your water cold
Chase your morning flat white with an ice-cold glass of H2O. Researchers at the University of Utah, in the US, found that volunteers who drank eight to 12, 250ml glasses of water per day had higher metabolic rates than those who quaffed only four glasses. Your body may burn a few kilojoules heating the cold water to your core temperature, says Dr Madelyn Fernstrom, founder and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center in the US. Although the extra kilojoules you burn drinking a single glass doesn’t amount to very much, making it a habit can add up to kilograms lost with essentially zero additional effort.
2. When you work out
Mix things up with intervals
You’re always looking for a way to shorten your workout, right? Well, step up your intensity and you’ll burn the same number of kilojoules or more in less time. In a study from the University of New South Wales, female volunteers either rode a stationary bike for 40 minutes at a steady pace or for 20 minutes of intervals, alternating eight seconds of sprints and 12 seconds of easy pedalling. After 15 weeks, those who incorporated the sprints into their cardio workouts had lost three times as much body fat – including thigh and core flab – compared with those who exercised at a steady pace. Bursts of speed may stimulate a fat-burning response within the muscles, says lead researcher Dr Ethlyn Gail Trapp. Whether you ride, run, row or swim, try ramping things up to rev your burn: start by doing three eight-second all-out, can’t-talk sprints with 12 seconds at an easy pace between each effort. Work your way up until you can do 10 sprints over 20 minutes.Take it slow
This isn’t easy, but when you strength train, count to three as you lower the weight back to start position. Slowing things down increases the breakdown of muscle tissue – it sounds bad, but all that damage you’re incurring is a good thing. The repair process boosts your metabolism for up to 72 hours after your session, according to researchers at Wayne State University, US. But pass on those featherweight dumbbells – you need to use weights that are heavy enough that you struggle to complete the final few reps.
3. When you’re at work
Pick protein for lunch
Cramming protein into every meal helps your body build and maintain lean muscle mass. Muscle burns more kilojoules than fat does, even at rest. Aim for about 30 grams of protein – the equivalent of about one cup of low-fat cottage cheese or a 110g boneless chicken breast – at each meal.Brew up some green tea
“It’s the closest thing to a metabolism potion,” says dietitian Tammy Lakatos Shames, co-author of Fire Up Your Metabolism: 9 Proven Principles for Burning Fat and Losing Weight Forever . The brew contains a plant compound called ECGC, which promotes fat burning. In one study, people who consumed the equivalent of three to five cups of green tea a day for 12 weeks decreased their body weight by 4.6 per cent. According to other studies, consuming two to four cups of green tea per day may torch an extra 210 kilojoules. That translates into about 2.5 kilograms a year. Not bad for a few bags of leaves, eh? For maximum effect, let your tea steep for three minutes and drink it while it’s still hot.Undo damage with dairy
Hey, it happens. There are days when no salad on earth can possibly overcome the seductive power of hot chips. But you can make up for it with a calcium-rich afternoon snack, like 250ml of milk or 170g low-fat yoghurt. Calcium helps your body metabolise fat more efficiently by increasing the rate at which it gets rid of fat as waste (yes, that kind of waste), reports a study from the University of Copenhagen. Sorry, supplements don’t have the same effect.
4. When you go food shopping
Choose organic produce
Researchers in Canada found that dieters with the most organo-chlorine compounds (chemicals found in pesticides) stored in their fat cells were the most susceptible to disruptions in mitochondrial activity and thyroid function. Translation: their metabolism stalled. Swap to organic, especially for thin-skinned fruit like peaches, apples and grapes, and vegies like celery, potatoes and corn, which pick up most pesticides.Seek heat
Capsaicin, the compound that gives chilli its heat, can also fire up your metabolism. Eating 1 tbs of chopped chilli boosts your body’s production of heat and the activity of your sympathetic nervous system, according to a study in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology. The result: a temporary metabolism spike of 23 per cent.Grab some metal
Women lose iron during their period. That can mess with your metabolism, because iron helps carry oxygen to your muscles. If your levels run low, muscles don’t get enough O2, your energy tanks, and your metabolism sputters. Stock up on iron-fortified cereals, beans and dark leafy greens like spinach, bok choy and broccoli.
5. When you get home
Fatty fish like sardines, tuna and salmon are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats that help trigger the “I’m full” signals in your brain, according to the US National Institutes of Health. Bonus: 100g of salmon nets you 90 per cent of your RDI of vitamin D, which will help preserve your kilojoule-craving, metabolism-stoking muscle tissue.Skip the second mojito
Knocking back just two alcoholic drinks stops fat burning by 73 per cent: your liver converts alcohol into acetate and uses that as fuel instead of fat.Hit the sack – early
When you sleep less than you should, you mess up the production of leptin and ghrelin – hormones that regulate energy use and appetite. Researchers at Stanford University in the US found that people who snoozed fewer than 7.5 hours per night experienced an increase in their body mass index. So make sure you get at least eight hours of rest.
So, what if the scales aren’t budging?
This health condition could be sabotaging your metabolismIf you’ve reduced your kilojoule intake and never miss a workout but still don’t see results, you may have a sluggish thyroid gland. The hormones it produces, thyroxine and triiodothyronine, help control every aspect of your metabolism, from your heart rate to the number of kilojoules you burn. Without either hormone, your metabolism is forced to slow down. Symptoms of the condition, called hypothyroidism, include lethargy and weight gain, but a definitive diagnosis needs a blood test. An estimated one in eight women will develop some form of thyroid disorder in their lifetime. Poor nutrition and lack of exercise are more common culprits in a lagging metabolism, but if you find you’re working hard and still getting nowhere, see your doc.
Race against time
Beat the downshift in metabolism that comes with ageingWith each passing decade, a woman’s metabolism slows by about five per cent. Hormones play a role, but as you age, you tend to become less active, which leads to a loss in muscle mass, a major consumer of kilojoules. At 35, you’ll burn 315 fewer kilojoules a day than you did at 25; at 65 you’ll burn 2100 fewer, says Dr Madelyn Fernstrom, director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh in the US.Here’s a timeline for your body:
20s You’re at your peak muscle and bone mass.
30s Your mitochondria – cellular powerhouses that fuel muscles to use more oxygen and burn more energy – become less effective.
40s A drop in oestrogen production slows metabolism.
50s Sharp decreases in activity reduce the levels of hormones responsible for maintaining lean muscle mass and bone density.