You might have heard of the metabolism but not be aware of the role it plays in the body’s wider ecosystem. We hear that it can be fast, slow, sluggish or particularly spritely on any given day, but how many of us actually know what impact it has on us, and how we can look after it for greater all-round health? With Google searches asking what a fast metabolism is up 90 per cent in the last few months, we spoke to the experts to learn more.
What is the metabolism?
“Metabolism refers to the hundreds of chemical processes that happen throughout the body to allow for its normal functioning,” explains Dr Federica Amati, head nutritionist at Zoe and author of Recipes for a Better Menopause. “This includes converting food into energy that our cells can use.” It’s also the system which delves into our energy stores when there’s no food available.
A healthy metabolism means our body is responding effectively to food – that is, using it and storing it as needed. “From a medical standpoint, good metabolic health is an absence of the risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes and more,” explains Rhian Stephenson, naturopath, nutritionist and founder of Artah. “These risk factors include markers of blood sugar regulation, triglycerides, blood pressure and waist circumference – or, more accurately, waist to hip ratio.”
Good metabolic health isn’t only important to ward off illnesses – making it one of our biggest allies for long-term health – but it also plays a key role in how we feel and function. As Stephenson explains, every organ system in our body – from the immune to reproductive and nervous systems – requires energy to sustain itself, and if our “energy production capabilities”, or metabolism, are impaired, so are the processes that require energy.
A slow versus fast metabolism
Having a “slow” metabolism is often associated with being an unhealthy weight, but as Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of Zoe and author of Food for Life and Spoon Fed, explains, this is a bit of a diet myth. “Some people do have genes associated with a slightly different metabolic rate, but for most of us it is closely related to our diet and lifestyle,” he says. “Maintaining a healthy metabolism means eating foods that work with our body and making sure we aren’t sedentary for most of the day.” Stephenson also notes that it’s more accurate to label our metabolisms as either “efficient” or “impaired” rather than fast or slow; after all, they are complex systems that involve trillions of chemical reactions. Nutrient status, hormone balance, gut function, stress and movement all have an impact.
Something that can slow down the metabolism? Calorie restriction, because the body adapts to use less available energy. “This is one of the reasons why yo-yo dieting – caloric restriction, a slowing of the metabolism, and then going back to baseline calorie consumption – tends to result in initial weight loss and rapid weight regain,” explains Dr Amati. “On the other hand, our metabolism speeds up during times where the body needs lots of repair and energy, for example after a serious injury or bout of illness, as well as with very intense physical exercise. This is to make sure all necessary nutrients and proteins are delivered in time to repair and protect the body.” Put simply, your metabolism’s efficiency depends on what the body is trying to achieve: “Generally speaking, maintaining a steady metabolism and knowing how to work with it is the best way to keep us healthy.”
What happens to metabolism during the menopause?
In general, our metabolic responses become less efficient as we get older. For example, our blood sugar and blood fat responses naturally take longer to return to baseline the older we get.
The menopause also has an impact. “The 2023 Zoe menopause studyalso showed that women’s metabolisms are different to pre-menopausal women of the same age, meaning that the menopause has an additional impact on metabolism than just age alone,” says Professor Spector. “Women often struggle to maintain a healthy weight during the menopause transition, despite eating the same foods.”
How to improve your metabolism
Like most elements of our health, speeding up – or improving the efficiency of – your metabolism is a multi-pronged affair. “Gut health, nutrition, stress management, muscle health and a number of other things all contribute to our overall metabolic function,” confirms Stephenson.
It has evolved to help us thrive and survive, so with the right food, sleep and movement – three simple but often overlooked lifestyle pillars – it should work efficiently to keep us healthy: “It’s not so much about improving the metabolism as it is about learning to work with it by eating foods that don’t constantly challenge it; moving our body in a way that keeps it strong and flexible; and observing sleep and lifestyle patterns that don’t put it into high alert,” says Dr Amati.
Below, five things to consider now.
Make sure your diet is working for you
“Focus on natural, whole foods, with a focus on blood sugar management,” recommends Stephenson. “Get enough protein, cut excess sugar and refined carbohydrates, and include good quality fats alongside a diverse range of fruit and vegetables.” To help with glucose regulation, you might also consider taking a good quality supplement, like Artah’s Metabolic Fix, which contains berberine, chromium, inositol and alpha lipoic acid to help lower glucose levels and improve energy metabolism.
Eat 30 plants a week
“Our research shows that the gut microbiome plays a crucial role in supporting healthy metabolism,” says Professor Spector. “So eating for our gut microbes is a good start.” One of his key rules is aiming to consume 30 plants a week – that can include herbs, spices, and grains alongside the more obvious vegetables – and increasing your overall fibre intake to help improve metabolic health. The Zoe app is the place to be for excellent and delicious recipes that incorporate lots of plants and fibre.
According to a recent study, sleep is extremely important for metabolic health, and it often gets forgotten about. “A good night’s sleep leads to better metabolic responses the following day, so it’s worth making sure we have good sleep, alongside a healthy diet and regular movement throughout the day,” says Professor Spector.
As well as prioritizing regular movement and exercise, which maintain metabolic health and regulate blood sugar levels and blood fat markers, it’s important to build a healthy foundation of muscle. “Our muscles require constant energy to sustain themselves so act as a reservoir for glucose,” explains Stephenson. “They are also a source of non-insulin dependent glucose disposal, which means that the more muscle we have, the better blood sugar control we have.” They also improve our antioxidant status and release chemicals that are important to brain health. All of which goes to say: make sure you incorporate strength training into your routine. It’s important.
Manage your stress levels
Many of us simply accept stress as a part of modern life, so we deprioritise de-stressing in our everyday lives. This is your sign to break the stress response cycle. “Whether it’s yin yoga, a bath, meditation or breathwork, do whatever works best for you, and make sure you do it regularly,” says Stephenson.
Originally published in Vogue.co.uk