Science 101

Can You Boost Metabolism?

Yes, but it’s not exactly the way you might think.


Conventional thinking about metabolism fits nicely into a box: you have a fast or slow metabolism, it slows as you age, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And conventional thinking is, unsurprisingly, wrong. Or at the least, very incomplete. So to answer the question of how to boost the metabolism — which, actually, is possible — we need to get a bit more nuanced.

Let’s start here: metabolism is more than just one process associated with digestion. There are many metabolic circuits, and these pathways are a fundamental and ancient part of life. “We can imagine that the way life started on the planet was through metabolic cycles above anything else,” notes Paolo Sassone-Corsi, PhD, director of the Center for Epigenetics and Metabolism at the University of California, Irvine. “Metabolic circuits are present from bacteria to unicellular organisms, such as yeast, and all the way to us, mammals — highly evolved human beings.”

It’s more accurate to consider the metabolism as descriptive, rather than prescriptive.

Metabolism is core to who we are and how our body functions and it evolved alongside and intertwined with other ancient processes like circadian rhythms. Sassone-Corsi also adds that our metabolisms oscillate constantly. “And all those modifications are directly linked to the circadian machinery,” he says.

So change is constant, and your metabolism is not predestined for life. It’s more accurate to consider the metabolism as descriptive, rather than prescriptive. It will vary by diet and exercise more than genetic predisposition and, as with most things circadian, there are best practices to work with, not against, the body.

Eating Right at the Right Time

We all know the simple diet equation: eat food, burn calories, don’t store fat. But Sassone-Corsi likes to add a wrinkle — “there are some foods, and thereby metabolites, that are utilized by cells faster than others.”

He makes the analogy of a hybrid car. First, it uses the electric engine to power itself. Then, when needed, it taps into the gasoline engine. Surpluses of either will be stored for later use. Our body works the same way. It will burn sugars and simple carbs first. Then, if needed, it’ll dive into proteins and complex carbs. Once it burns the energy it needs, it will store the excess energy for later. Translation: fat.

What the body burns and how much it burns is also closely related to timing. A cheeseburger at noon is not the same as a cheeseburger at midnight. For the late-night meal, Sassone-Corsi likens the experience to explosives: “It's basically destroying your metabolism.” 

When the body is preparing for the “rest phase” in the evening, it doesn’t want a whole slew of calories to process, which kickstarts the digestive process all over again. “A cheeseburger at midnight is very bad,” Sassone-Corsi says. “If it’s midday your body can actually cope with it.”

Exercise with the Clock

The other primary way to keep the metabolism optimized is to burn calories through exercise. And this works very similarly to eating. First, the type of exercise you do matters in what kind of fuel you burn and how the body responds. Quick bursts will burn different energy than slower endurance efforts. And the body will adapt to exercise over time, conserving energy. So it’s best to change exercise intensity periodically.

When you exercise also plays a key role. “The beneficial effects of exercise are heightened by the time you do it,” Sassone-Corsi explains. In a perfect metabolic world, exercise would occur mid-morning — a few hours after waking, during the “active phase” of the day. Of course, schedules and responsibilities often dictate when we exercise, so remember: any exercise is better than no exercise.

So yes, you can boost your metabolism by letting your body work on its own rhythms. “Allow your metabolic cycles to work by eating responsible meals, not eating too much and especially not eating at the wrong time of day,” Sassone-Corsi says. “And then on top of that, burn those calories by exercise.”

“Life quality is based on those very simple principles,” he adds. “Then, we just need to do as much as we can to follow them.”

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