METABOLISM 101: WHAT IT IS AND HOW TO KEEP IT RUNNING

The complexity of metabolism is often overlooked. Get to know how it impacts every cell within your body, and why nourishing foods and happiness will keep it going.


BY: EMILY FONNESBECK, RD, CD, CLT

Metabolism has been dumbed down to calories in vs. calories out, which may lead you to believe that metabolism is only your propensity toward weight loss, weight maintenance or weight gain.  However, a truer, more accurate definition of metabolism is “every chemical process that keeps your body alive and thriving”.  

You can think of metabolism as an umbrella term for every metabolic process your body performs, even down to the cellular level: cell turnover, energy production and energy metabolism, producing hormones and maintaining their balance, making neurotransmitters and other neurochemicals that function in the brain, digestion – digestive enzymes, motility, structure and function, sleep cycles and rhythms…I could go on and on but I’m sure you get the point.  

EVERYTHING your body does, even those things it does without you ever knowing, IS your metabolism.

These metabolic pathways can only do their job with required nutrients – vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, etc.  While metabolic output can be measured through calories, metabolism is fed with nutrients, not calories. So calorie restriction usually means inadequate nutrient intake leading to a lower metabolic output.

Translation: not eating enough just lowers your metabolism while eating adequately can normalize it.

Your body is wired for survival and it adapts to dieting, especially after multiple dieting attempts.  The good news is that metabolism is flexible and can be restored with adequate energy and nutrient intake.  You’ll have to understand that your body is confused, so it may take patience and consistency for your body to adapt to a new well-nourished, satisfied state. Here’s a quick lesson to help you better understand how metabolism works, and what you can do to keep it running efficiently.

Metabolism is the engine, nutrients are the fuel.

Think of metabolism as pathways that link in a chain with a domino effect; one leads into another leads into another.  If a metabolic pathway doesn’t have the materials it needs to perform, every pathway that’s downstream or connected to it will not be able to properly perform its function, thus decreasing your metabolic output.  Your body is always talking to you, so if your metabolism is not functioning at it’s full potential, you will likely notice.

These signs show up as fatigue, poor sleep quality, poor exercise tolerance, headaches, digestive issues, hormone imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, blood sugar fluctuations, and more.

A common response to those concerns is to be more restrictive with food, cutting out whole food groups or certain food substances.  I assure you that this will likely create more issues than it solves when you don’t have a full understanding of what’s going on.  Eating a wide variety of fresh, wholesome foods, and taking a flexible approach to meal patterns that honor your intuitive signals of hunger and fullness is the best way to support a healthy body and mind.

A pill cannot replace real food.

Now, some of you may be wondering if you can simply take a multivitamin.  It is important to remember that a satiated state CANNOT be achieved in a pill.  The physical and psychological response to eating FOOD is absolutely irreplaceable, and eating a variety of nourishing and satisfying foods is encouraged, recommended, and necessary.  And as a relatively new field of research in the last century, it’s important to note that we have isolated and named only a handful of different vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals involved in nutrition.  We simply don’t know every single nutrient that is found in the food we eat that may have a beneficial effect.  

Of course, you don’t really NEED to know if you just simply eat the food.  Mother nature, in a very broad sense, has us covered as long as we eat foods containing a variety of nutrients that it can process and use.

Stress slows down the engine.

There are other factors that can influence metabolic function, primarily stress.  When in the “fight or flight” state, the last thing your body is worried about is digestion or sleep or making enzymes…its only concern is survival.  It has to outrun a tiger, metaphorically speaking, so all available energy is moved into the bloodstream, and metabolic processes which aren’t absolutely vital are halted.  Essentially, the two ways to upkeep your metabolism are eating adequate amounts of nutritious foods and relaxation.  They are often directly related – running on adrenaline usually means no time for regular, balanced meals.  Also, feeling stressed and anxious with food is now obviously counterproductive. This is a much different way to think about health than the “eat as little as possible and exercise a lot” mentality.  

Ultimately, just remember that you don’t need to worry about screwing up your metabolism.  Your body is fully aware of what it needs to function, so be assured that your body can and will heal with consistent and positive self-care practices.  

Eating consistently and regularly, moving your body, and keeping your joints loose and fully mobile while finding ways to manage stress and decompress will be the best way to support a healthy metabolism.  While your metabolism will be unique to you, it isn’t broken. It isn’t slow and you can maintain its full potential by avoiding calorie restriction and letting your stress get the best of you.  

Adapted from the original article.
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Emily Fonnesbeck, RD, CD, CLT is a private practice Registered Dietitian based in Saint George, Utah. Instead of creating unnecessary restrictions, Emily focuses on helping individuals become confident and in charge of their own well-being through Intuitive Eating and Mindful Living. She is a strong believer and advocate for helping people become capable individuals who are confident in taking care of themselves.  Make a visit and read more from Emily.

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