For years we were told that metabolism slows down with age and it wasn’t until recently that we learned that metabolism only slows when we reach about 60 years old. Even then, the degradation of our metabolism is minimal (1% a year).
This leaves us with the question, “so what’s wrong with my metabolism if it’s not slowing because of age? Because it’s not what it used to be.”
In the book Burn by Herman Pontzer, he proposes that your metabolism is forced to make sacrifices and I think he’s onto something.
What Controls Our Metabolism
Our metabolism, which turns food into energy, is primarily controlled by our thyroid hormone which is then controlled by the hypothalamus in our brain. In a healthy person, the brain signals to the body that everything is great and all calorie-burning systems should be running at full speed.
The calorie-burning systems can include basic things like the beating of your heart, the pumping of your lungs, and the energy it takes to digest food. The production of our hormones requires energy, and our muscles also need energy from food. Our body creates the energy to fuel all of these metabolic systems which leads to these systems burning the fuel to help us live a great life and keep our weight managed.
How Stress Impacts Our Metabolism
If our body is under stress then our brain will signal to our body to keep some energy in reserve. It’s like keeping some extra money in your savings account if you thought you were going to quit your job without having another job already lined up. The brain does the same thing when it comes to pulling from and adding to our energy account or fat reserves. The main mission of our brain and body is to survive, so our body needs to know it’s safe. Things like work stress, overtraining, relationship stress, and many more put your body in an unsafe position. The brain then counters this stress with its preferred safety measures like slowing down certain metabolic systems in favor of preserving energy. When you're not feeling those same stressors, the body releases its stronghold on the energy reserves.
There's Only So Much To Go Around
Our brain responds largely the same regardless of our dieting situation. If we're in a leaning phase (calorie deficit), maintenance, or building phase (calorie surplus), our body will default to storing energy in times of stress. This can be an extremely frustrating situation to deal with when going through your health journey.
In a leaning phase, a person purposely eats fewer calories than their body requires. This process in theory would result in lower body weight and lower body fat percentage...
...but for so many people the desired result doesn't seem to come to fruition.
It's because you're not burning as many calories as you think.
Remember, we noted that our brain will signal to store calories in times of stress. Well, this may not be news to anyone, but diets are sometimes stressful. Our bodies sense this stress and redistribute the incoming calories toward our energy reserves. With a limited number of calories coming in, normal systems like hormone production and muscle development may suffer. Our rate of hormone production goes down, we lose muscle mass and strength when we put ourselves in these high-stress environments. These systems are big calorie burners; if they're not adequately fueled, they're not burning as many calories as you think. This is why it seems like you're eating less, but the body fat doesn't seem to come off. Your body is still in stress mode and not functioning at 100%.
The same thing happens when we overeat. Our body senses a larger-than-normal amount of food coming in, our stress levels increase, our movement typically is reduced, and so the body responds appropriately by storing food instead of fueling energy-burning systems.
Regardless of the calorie deficit/surplus situation, our brain will sacrifice energy-burning systems to protect itself when confronted with high-stress situations.
Keys to Low-Stress Weight Management
The key is to keep the brain happily allocating the calories to the appropriate systems and reduce the stress-induced times the brain feels like it needs to add to our fat storage. We can do this by adhering to a few basic principles.
1. Follow a Diet of Nutrient-Dense Foods
This is top of the list because we want our bodies to run as efficiently as possible. A calorie is a calorie because it’s a unit of measurement, but nutrient density within each calorie is not equal across all foods. The more nutrient-dense our foods, the more enriching each calorie will be to those systems we need to keep us alive.
2. Maintain a Healthy Caloric Intake
Too much food and the brain will store the excess in our fat storage and too little food will rob the critical systems which help us thrive. Staying in a healthy caloric range of 200-300 above your maintenance if you’re looking to gain muscle, and 200-300 below if you’re looking to lose weight is a good rule of thumb to follow. I know this small deficit or surplus will require patience, but it’s what is preferred by your body. Repeatedly going out of these ranges will force your brain to make some hard choices at the expense of your long-term results.
3. Stay Active
Exercise doesn’t do that much for caloric burn in the long run, but it keeps the body happy and healthy. It's also a great way to deal with stress. Exercise stimulates our heart and lungs and keeps the signals to the brain that our muscles are critical for our health. Resistance training with some cardio mixed in occasionally will provide the feedback the brain needs to keep the nutrients coming.
4. Manage Stress
All stress isn’t bad, but unmanaged stress usually is. Have a stress reduction practice that flexes with your life. Those practices need to be balanced in times of chaos with your other habits. More work stress usually doesn’t mix well with more exercise stress. However, more work stress shouldn’t result in no exercise. Find ways to keep stress at bay, while still practicing all of the principles that are key to a healthy life. Meditation, journaling, or quiet long walks work really well to add to your daily routine in times of high stress and tuning into your stress levels.
5. Take Diet Breaks
No one should be in a calorie deficit or surplus all year. That causes too much stress on the body and results in poor energy burn production. Usually, three to four months in each phase are the limits one should stick to. This goes for tracking your food as well. If you're the type of person who likes to track your food or even your workouts, take some time off every once in a while and just go off feel. This gives you time to really tune into your body and let it guide you to what it truly wants.
We are all still learning so much about how our body functions and how it counteracts the world around us. The decisions we make every day have an impact on our weight and body composition. The program we built goes deep into how to apply these principles to your life. Check it out today.