In essence, your body is a machine like any other. It needs the right fuel to function properly. It also needs rest and adequate movement. And it’s the only one you have, so it’s important to care for it. At the heart of it all is your metabolism. The word metabolism is thrown around a lot, but not many people actually know just how much metabolism is responsible for. Hint: it’s a lot. This guide explains the importance of this process in your body, what factors help determine metabolic rate, and what that can mean for how you live your life.

The Little Engine That Could
If your body really is like a machine, then it needs something to keep it running optimally, right? Similar to gas in a car or coal in a stove, your metabolism is the process that creates energy for your body to use, allowing you to perform basic everyday tasks like walking, thinking, and, most important of all, breathing. Without the ability to produce energy, you would not be able to survive, and that makes your metabolic function hugely important.

The metabolism process is actually broken into two different processes: anabolism and catabolism. Anabolism needs energy (usually through food consumption) to occur, and it helps your body rebuild cells. Catabolism breaks down molecules in the body into smaller parts, typically releasing energy in the process. In layperson’s terms, building muscle mass is an example of an anabolic process, and the transformation of food into energy is catabolic. Both processes are regulated mostly by hormones, many of which you are probably already familiar with. Estrogen, testosterone, and insulin, for example, help maintain the anabolic process. Adrenaline and cortisol help with the catabolic process.

Contrary to popular belief, you cannot just speed up or slow down your metabolic rate—the rate at which you use energy. It is something inherent to you, but it can be affected by a few specific factors such as overall muscle mass or weight fluctuations, diet, sleeping habits, and certain disorders like hyperthyroidism.

Food is Fuel
You wouldn’t pour regular gas into a Formula 1 race car and expect it to perform at optimal levels. The same goes for your body. Your body has to find a way to process every ounce of food you put into it, good or bad. When you consume foods low in nutritional value, your body metabolizes that food in different ways, and it isn’t able to fuel your body the way it should. That is why you may feel sluggish after eating just a small amount of fast food but full of energy after eating a larger, albeit more nutritious, breakfast. Eating foods low in nutritional value every now and again will not throw your body into chaos.

But it is important to limit these foods and instead feed your system with foods that are more easily translated into viable energy. The volume of food you eat is also important, as it is equally possible to eat too little in a day as it is to eat too much.

Per USDA guidelines, some examples of foods you should consume (and in what quantities per serving) to fuel your metabolism are:

Vegetables: 1–3 cups per day.

  • 2 cups raw spinach/1 cup cooked
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 small bell pepper
  • 1 medium potato

Fruits: 1–2 cups per day.

  • One small apple
  • About 16 grapes
  • About 8 strawberries

Grains: 3–8 ounces per day.

  • 1 slice of bread
  • ½ cup cooked oatmeal
  • ½ cup cooked rice

Protein: 2–6.5 ounces per day.

  • 1 small chicken breast
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tablespoon nut butter
  • ¼ cup cooked beans/tofu

Building Blocks of Energy
Food is perhaps the most important element to keep metabolic processes running properly. However, maintaining energy levels through daily exercise
and movement is also key. Individuals with a higher daily energy expenditure will generally burn more calories than those who do not get adequate exercise. Everyone burns calories while at rest, but this doesn’t vary much from person to person. The best way to ensure that your body does not store more calories than it needs is through performing aerobic exercises, such as walking or running, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), or cycling, at least five days a week.

Building muscle has also proven to be a great way to maintain a healthy metabolic rate, due to the fact that muscle burns more energy than fat. Strength training a few days a week can help you start to grow your muscle mass and reduce the amount of fat stored on your body, in turn helping your body to burn more calories while active and at rest. Keep in mind that if you are new to weight training, you should consider consulting a trainer before starting any new exercise program. That way, you can ensure you are conducting movements safely and effectively.

The final piece of the puzzle for an optimally performing metabolism is, perhaps not surprisingly, sufficient sleep. An irregular sleep schedule can
spur a whole host of problems for your body, but it is enormously important for cell regeneration and muscle repair—both of which are necessary metabolic processes. Too little sleep can cause your metabolism to work overtime, reducing the effectiveness of the process. When you are in REM (rapid eye movement) or deep sleep, your metabolism is at its most inactive, allowing it time to recharge. Conversely, if you don’t sleep for long enough each night to enter a true REM cycle, your metabolism remains in a state of activity and can damage cellular processes.

The number of hours you actually need to sleep depends on a range of factors, including your level of activity throughout the day, your age, and your overall health. However, a good way to tell if you are getting a proper amount of sleep is to monitor how you feel when you wake up in the morning. As long as you are eating properly and resting adequately, you should not feel overly tired or groggy after a full night’s rest. If you don’t typically feel well-rested, try gradually increasing your sleeping hours by fifteen-minute increments until you begin to feel more alert when you wake.

Running Clean
Your body is full of processes that are constantly at work, many of which you can control or, at the very least, improve. Although you cannot rewrite your genetic code or regenerate your cells with a snap of your fingers, you can control the foods you choose as fuel, the energy you exert on a regular basis, and the amount of rest you get. All of this has a profound impact on your metabolism, and, as a result, your quality of life.

Be sure to consult your physician for more information on improving your metabolism through diet and exercise.