Article written by Joe Nissim
R-U Rah Rah!
R-U Rah Rah!
Upstream, Red Team!
Red Team; upstream!
(Men) Rah! (Women) Woo! (Men) Rah! (Women) Woo! (All) Rutgers, Rah!
I can’t tell you the amount of times I was slobbering down wings and chasing them with a beer, while screaming the Rutgers fight chant during my college years on the banks of the ole’ Raritan at Rutgers University.
In those days, I was a competitive weightlifter. My diet consisted of something like ⅓ dining hall food, ⅓ pizza, and ⅓ booze. Somehow, no matter how many slices I downed at 2AM, I never put on any pounds. It was awesome.
Then I graduated and started my career in finance. My weightlifting career crashed and burned after 3 wrist surgeries in my first postgraduate year. So that meant I was spending 8-12 hours per day at a desk. A combination of sitting on my ass and binge drinking almost every weekend led to me starting to pack on the pounds by age 28. 50 pounds to be exact.
My immediate reaction was to blame my Mom and her side of the family for the turtle speed metabolism. (Of course, not my lifestyle or my spare tire.)
Then I started seeing stuff online that claimed that the Paleo diet could reset and boost your metabolism. Hmmm… I was intrigued.
The basic logic was by eating foods that were only available during the paleolithic era (aka caveman times) that the body’s metabolism would adjust in a very positive way and begin burning fat in no time.
So I decided to explore this to see if it was true.
First things First: What is Metabolism?
Metabolism is a word thrown around the internet way too recklessly by the nutrition industry. If you read the thousands of articles online, it will make you believe everyone has a slow metabolism, but some super juice will make it faster.
So let’s start by understanding what metabolism actually is: Metabolism is the amount of calories your body burns in order to stay alive. This includes both the amount of energy our organs and brain needs, as well as the amount of calories needed to PR your squat. Metabolism is broken into two distinct processes: Catabolism and Anabolism.
Catabolism is breaking down food into nutrients that our body can actually use. For example, when we eat chicken, our body breaks it down into its building blocks, known as amino acids. Those amino acids can be used as energy.
Anabolism, on the other hand, is where our body takes those nutrients, protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and uses them to rebuild our body. Remember that piece of chicken? Those amino acids that it breaks down into can also be used to help rebuild our muscles after a long run or lifting sesh.
These two things together make up metabolism.
How does my body burn calories?
There are three main ways that our bodies burn calories.
#1 – RMR – Resting Metabolic Rate
RMR is the amount of energy you need to keep your blood pumping, your brain functioning, and muscle moving. RMR is the biggest component of your daily calorie requirements. 60-75% to be exact.
Side note: RMR is commonly referred to as BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate). Even though they refer to essentially the same thing, BMR is primarily used in labs and is really strict. For our purposes, RMR is easier to use and way more useful.
#2 – Activity (aka Activity induced thermogenesis)
This is the energy you need to do anything like get up, move around, be on your feet, and most obviously, exercise. This is the most important to us because:
- It is the most variable
- It is the easiest to change
- It is the most controllable
Here’s the kicker. Unless you are an elite athlete or a psycho exerciser, this will never be where most of your calories are burned. For most people, the amount of calories burned through activity will increase when:
- We start exercising
- We increase the amount of time we spend exercising
- We increase the intensity of exercise
But exercise is not the entire story when it comes to activity induced thermogenesis. The amount of calories needed for activity is determined by what you do all day, not just by the one hour of exercise.
Therefore, if we take two people whose exercise regiments are exactly the same, but one of those people is a school teacher who is on their feet for 6-8 hours per day, and the other is someone who sits at a desk, the school teacher will require and burn more calories than the desk jockey.
In total, activity accounts for roughly 15-30% of calories burned per day.
#3 – Digesting Food (aka Diet induced thermogenesis)
This one is the simplest. It is the energy you need to break down and absorb nutrients from the food you eat.
This accounts for roughly 10% of calories burned per day.
So far so good?
So let’s put it together
RMR, as we learned above, is what our organs, tissues, and muscles need to work. Well, how is this amount determined? I made a little chart:
|Heart/Lungs/Kidneys||~ 440 cals per day|
|Brain||~ 240 cals per day|
|Fat Tissue||4.5 cals per kilogram of fat body mass|
|Muscle Tissue||15 calories per kilogram of lean muscle mass|
When our body has more muscle, we tend to burn more calories naturally. Each kilogram of muscle burns 3.3x more calories than a kilogram of fat.
So listen closely: that means the #1 determining factor of metabolism is…. body composition. Remember RMR is 60-75% of calories needed. The biggest part of RMR is the amount of muscle tissue on our body. This then means that body composition, or the amount of lean muscle mass vs fat mass, is the #1 contributing factor of metabolism.
Now, this does not mean that RMR is the only contributing factor, nor does it mean that if you are a well-muscled dude or chick that your metabolism can’t be slow. There are other contributing factors such as:
- Eating too little
It is still unclear the amount that each of these contributes, but science has concluded that they do make a contribution. The answer to metabolism is not cut and dr,y and there is still a ton of research that is going into it each year.
So let’s circle back to the original question: Does Paleo “reset” your metabolism?
Before saying “yes” or “no,” let’s understand the argument.
Paleo purists believe the following:
|Eat||Do Not Eat|
|● Grass-fed meats.
● Fresh fruits.
● Fresh vegetables.
● Healthy oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)
|● Cereal grains
● Legumes (including peanuts)
● Refined sugar
● Processed foods
● Overly salty foods
● Refined vegetable oils
● Candy/junk/processed food
Further, they believe your plate should look something like this:
Photo credit: Wodnut Paleo, http://www.wodnut.com/what-is-paleo/
The main argument is as follows: By eating foods free of hormones, genetic mutation, and rich in micronutrients, the body’s hormones will function properly and therefore regulate metabolism.
Here’s where I think things got confused: a better quality, low-hormone, naturally grown and raised diet is better for your body.
I agree that such a diet is better for overall wellness, health markers, and skin, but not for metabolism. As we discovered, in a very short and simplified version of the science behind metabolism, the answer is not that simple.
Metabolism has many moving parts with many contributing factors. Unfortunately, the quality of the food is not one of them. Body composition, quantity of food, and activity are biggest contributing factors.
Taking it a step further
We all want a fast metabolism. We all want to have 4 slices of pizza without worrying that it will go straight to our belly or ass. We all also want to believe that metabolism is more linked to genetics than it is. You have more control over your metabolism than you think. BUT, here the most important part, it does not come from a magic pill.
There is not a Himalayan berry, cleanse, combination of vegetable juices, or cayenne pepper that will speed your metabolism. If you are feeling sluggish, that is your body’s natural reaction to buy time to another meal (AKA save your life). So instead of contemplating, blaming your poor parents, or accepting it as a part of getting older, focus on two things:
- Move more often every day.
- 60 minutes in the gym should not be your only activity. Walk, take the stairs, and get outside and play. This is not new advice, but most of us rarely do it.
- Make sure you are eating the right amount of food
- Eating too little is just as bad as eating too much. Most of the clients I work with come into our program eating too little. This puts their body in constant starvation mode.
- In order to lose weight, you have to eat. In order to feel healthy, you have to eat. In order to perform at the gym or at work, you have to eat. Invest the time to learn how to eat properly for your body, not someone else’s.
What’s Really Important
Nutrition is one of the hottest topics on the internet. Yet, 90% of the information is meant to scare you into buying a product that will solve your woes: everything from your spare tire to cleansing your liver.
And deep down, we all know it’s BS. Listen closely, there are not magic pills. Nothing can substitute putting in the work. Be obsessed with the process instead of with the result. Once you become obsessed with a result, shortcuts are inevitable and you can get roped into some wizardry.
If you want to lose weight, or if you are concerned about your metabolism, you need to do the following first:
- Improve your relationship with food
- Get active (this doesn’t mean exercise for 3 hours per day)
- Eat right for your body
There is no substitute for the hard stuff. In any aspect of life, you must face the issue in order to change it. You can change what you do day to day and change your result. Don’t get caught up pointing fingers at genetics. My genetics pointed to me having the shape of watermelon. I changed it. And you can too.
About the Author
Joe Nissim is the founder and CEO of Strengthlete. After leaving a lucrative career on Wall St, Joe spent three years creating and developing the Strengthlete Nutribuild system and flagship products Repair and Complete. If you’re interested in leaving dieting behind for good, join Joe at www.strengthlete.com.