8 Smart Habits for a Healthier Metabolism
It feels like everybody's always talking about ways to boost or improve their metabolism, as if doing so were as simple as turning on your coffee maker. When people refer to metabolism, they're really talking about metabolic rate, which, in simplest terms, is the number of calories you burn every day. Think of those calories like money. "You can be in surplus, which means you store calories, mainly as fat, or you might be in deficit, meaning that you've used up your stores, just as you might your bank account," says Marc Hellerstein, MD, PhD, professor of human nutrition at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of endocrinology, metabolism, and nutrition at the University of California at San Francisco.
The truth is, however, that metabolism is a little bit trickier than just that. It absolutely is possible to boost your metabolism, but it's not quite as easy as flipping a switch. Here's what you need to know.
Metabolism comes from a Greek word, "metabolismo," which means change. "It's the totality of all chemical reactions in your body and ultimately refers to energy balance," says Brian Fertig, MD, F.A.C.E., endocrinologist, founder and president of the Diabetes & Osteoporosis Center, and chair of the department of endocrinology at Hackensack Meridian Health at JFK University Medical Center in Edison, N.J.
Because that energy balance impacts weight, most people lump metabolism into one of two buckets: slow or fast. "The colloquial understanding of 'having a slow metabolism' equates to the tendency to gain weight without overeating, whereas 'having a fast metabolism' equates to the ability to overeat without gaining weight," Dr. Fertig says.
But it's not just about weight—metabolic health encompasses your whole body. "Your metabolism is the set of cellular mechanisms that generate energy from your food and environment in order to power every single cell in the body," says Casey Means, MD, cofounder and chief medical officer of Levels Health in Portland, Ore. When those energy-producing pathways run smoothly, you experience optimal metabolic health, something that's foundational for overall well-being.
As a result, your body is able to use glucose or fat efficiently for energy while keeping your insulin and blood sugar levels steady, Dr. Means says. You have emotional resilience, a vitalized mood, and cognitive focus, Dr. Fertig says, adding that "your weight is stable, your strength and endurance are robust, and you have good tolerance to wide ranges of food in the absence of indigestion or bloating."
On the flip side, when you don't have good metabolic health, your cells—namely the energy-producing powerhouses inside of cells called mitochondria—can't produce the energy they need to operate properly, and dysfunction and disease can set in. Studies show that 88 percent of Americans aren't metabolically healthy, thanks to the modern Western diet and lifestyle. Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer's, dementia, fatty liver disease, depression, cancer, infertility, and erectile dysfunction are all linked to problems with metabolism.
You don't even need a doctor to determine this, as there's a wide range of symptoms that indicate less-than-ideal metabolic health, Dr. Means says. These include stubborn excess weight that's tough to lose, depression or anxiety, persistent cravings for carbohydrates or sugar, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraines, and acne.
So how do you achieve a healthy metabolism or improve metabolism for your body? "Anything you can do to improve the efficiency and quantity of your mitochondria helps you be metabolically healthy," Dr. Means says. That's right, as crazy as it sounds, you need to put your cells' mitochondria front and center because they lie at the core of a healthy metabolism. Here are some healthy lifestyle habits that support good metabolism.