Metabolism, as most people think about it, comes down to the rate at which your body burns calories. Or, for the more scientific definition, it’s the process of converting food and drink into energy, according to the Mayo Clinic. Genetics play a big part in how fast your body does this. However, if you’re trying to speed up or slow down your metabolism, a few everyday habits can also play a role.
You probably won’t ruin your metabolism or slow it down for good. But, it’s important to know the factors that can stall your energy expenditure. To find out which habits would do just that, we turned to Jennifer Hsieh, Ph.D., a board-certified endocrinologist in private practice in Long Beach, California. She specializes in diabetes, weight management, and metabolism. Here she gives the rundown on how your lifestyle can affect your metabolic rate.
Everyday Habits That Slow Down Metabolism
“A lot of people think they’re doing themselves a favor by fasting or going on starvation diets,” Hsieh says. “But think of your body as a machine or a car. If you don’t give it fuel, it’ll stop running. In other words, if you don’t eat, the body goes into a survival mode. It thinks it’s starving, so it conserves energy.” This can cause a drop in metabolic rate and leave you feeling extra tired.
What’s worse is that if you do lose weight by fasting, it could easily come more from muscle than fat. This also leads to a slower metabolism. “Muscle is more efficient at burning calories than fat,” Hsieh says. The solution: Aim to eat every two to three hours, with a protein snack when you need it, she suggests. Grab nuts, string cheese, or hard-boiled eggs.
Poor Food Choices
The reason you want more protein in your snack than fat or carbs comes down to what’s known as the thermogenic effect, Hsieh explains. “When we eat protein, our body burns a certain number of calories to process that protein,” she says. “You spend more calories by having protein than carbs or fat.” If you’re constantly reaching for chips or cookies, you could slow down your metabolism. Because you digest them quickly, you’re not utilizing your full thermogenic potential.
Switch up some of your snacks for the ones mentioned above, and aim to get protein in every meal. That could, of course, mean meat, fish, or poultry, but beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds work, too.
Eating Late in the Day
A 2017 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that waiting to eat until later in the day could negatively affect fat metabolism. Though a small study, the researchers compared a group that ate between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. to those who ate between noon and 11 p.m. The later-eating subjects gained more weight over an eight-week period, and they burned through fewer fats than carbs. Overall, the study showed that late-night munching can lead to a poor metabolism (at least in terms of lipids) and eventually weight gain, even when controlled for sleep. Translation: Skip the midnight snacks when you can.
Lack of Sleep
Tons of research points out poor sleep and its effects on metabolism. One study found that although energy expenditure decreases during the first half of sleep, it actually increases during the second half. This is why you need to get those eight hours.
One of the biggest problems with not getting enough shut-eye, though? Stress eating, Hsieh says. “When you don’t sleep well, there’s a reduction in certain hormones, like leptin, which controls metabolic rate and hunger,” she explains. It could also increase cortisol levels. This can cause you to reach for more (and likely not-so-good) food to help you de-stress.
You know this to be true, but it’s important to note. If you want to rev up your metabolism, you have to move—and move often. “The more sedentary you are, the lower your metabolic rate,” Hsieh says. Plus, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest. So, incorporating strength training into your routine could benefit your energy expenditure by building lean muscles.
The Bottom Line
A few other factors may play a role in slowing down metabolisms, such as medications (including antidepressants and some blood pressure pills), age, menopause (the lack of estrogen can slow down metabolism), and chronic disease such as thyroid problems, Hsieh says. That’s when it’s time to talk to your doctor about the side effects of these conditions and how to address them. But by avoiding the lifestyle habits mentioned above, you can help shift your metabolic rate. As with most ways to stay fit and healthy, it all comes down to moving more, sleeping better, and eating well.