Metabolism: Some Life Hacks for Making it More Awesome
Over the last two weeks we’ve been talking about metabolism. What is it? What does it do? How does it help support the Ultimate Life Goal (i.e. Not Dying). If you haven’t had the chance to read the preceding article, you might want to go back and have a look.
Now, lets get away from the hardcore “How Does It Work” and get into the everyday goodness:
Metabolism Life Hacks
You might not know – or believe – this, but I used to be a big ol’ fat guy. From sometime in Elementary school until just a couple years ago (approx. 17 years), my body fat hovered somewhere between 30-40% consistently. I was Active Fat, meaning I tried to do athletic stuff but I maintained the heavy weight anyway. It was really, really, really frustrating and disheartening. I used all the “common sense” approaches I could find, changing up my exercise over and over again, trying fad diets/supplements, and nothing worked. It wasn’t until I did my homework for real – went off the beaten path, read approaches that the media considered weird or stupid, and started recording my progress – that I really saw results. Great success comes with education, hard work, and tracking your progress. Remember that as you read through the Life Hacks below, because just reading them isn’t going to be enough to see real results: you have to work for it.
I have two sections for you: Stuff I’ve Tried and Stuff I’ve Heard About. That should be pretty self-explanatory when it comes to whether or not I can – or will – endorse a given Life Hack. If I’ve tried it, I’ll give you my professional opinion and personal experience with it. If I haven’t tried it, I’ll give you my professional opinion only.
Stuff I’ve Tried
Drink more water
What: Basically, drink water instead of just about anything else. Replace all drinks with calories in them, with water, and don’t look back. This means skipping the juice and sodas whenever possible (which, if you’re being honest, is just about ALL the time).
Opinion: This is simple mathematics, really. If you consume less calories from liquids, that means you’re raking in fewer calories overall. Fewer overall calories means less you need to burn to maintain or lose weight. Additionally, water in the system promotes good health by having it available when your body needs it, and your body needs water for just about everything it does.
Experience: When I cut out sugared sodas, I lost 10 lbs in my first month of making the switch. I lost another 2-3 lbs every month after that for about 6 months, at which point the calorie excess from caloried drinks had been worked off over time, and what remained was excess from diet. Based on my friends and clients, men see benefit more quickly than women, and the science supports this fact (hormones for the win!).
Move More, Rest Less
What: If you have a desk job, you need to work more small movement into your day, which will burn more calories as those small movements add up. Things like taking the stairs, stretching or getting up from your desk to walk around a bit every hour, or even doing calisthenics at work can all be good ideas.
Opinion: If you move more, you burn more calories. This is a pretty well-established scientific fact, so anything that gets you moving more often is a good thing. It has also been shown that beaking up your “exercise” times throughout the day can have just as much benefit as lumping it all together at the gym in one go. If your goal is to “move athletically” at least 30 minutes per day (and it should be) then breaking it up into 10-minute mini-sessions is as acceptable as just doing one 30-minute session.
Experience: I decided to start taking the stairs every day instead of the elevator, and my office was on the 9th floor. It took a couple weeks before I got used to the climb, but I was still winded every time. After about two months I could the stairs at a normal pace without heavy breathing at the end…so I started running them. After about 6 months I felt better in general, my cardio had improved in the gym, my squats got stronger, and I had lost another 5-6 lbs. I also started stretching every hour for about 4-5 minutes in my cubicle, and it makes my muscles feel less sore and stiff throughout the day.
Muscle Burns Calories
What: You have two types of body mass which take up calories to maintain, that you can also control: muscle and fat. Science shows us that muscle requires a higher amount of maintenance calories than fat, so body composition affects how many calories you burn at baseline. If you take, as example, two otherwise completely equal people where the only different is body mass distribution, the one with less fat/more muscle will burn more calories simply to stay alive than the one with more fat/less muscle.
Opinion: I have never seen research contradicting this, and have seen tons supporting it. In addition, clients with more muscle mass report eating far more calories per day than those of similar weight but more fat, in order to maintain their current weight.
Experience: At 30% body fat, I ate around 2000 calories per day and exercised 5 times per week, losing about 2 lbs per month. Now at 15% body fat with about the same eating and workout schedule, I have either maintained weight or gained about 1 lb each month since hitting that percentage. I have to eat more to maintain a lower weight, because more of my body is muscle now than it was before.
Intermittent Fasting (I.F.)
What: Simply put, I.F. is restricting your “eating window” to a smaller portion of your day than is traditionally done. Most people have an eating window of about 16 hours – meaning they eat shortly after waking up and then have their last meal shortly before going to bed. This leaves a “fasting window” of about 8 hours. This is where the term “breakfast” or “breaking the fast” comes from, by the way. With I.F. you reverse those windows, creating a longer fasting window and shortening the eating window. The major benefit is that your body spends more time burning stored fuel (i.e. blood sugar and body fat) instead of using fuel taken in via diet. Exercising while in a fasting state compounds this by burning even more stored calories from the exercise.
Opinion: The science seems to play out correctly with this theory, though how I.F. affects each person tends to vary widely. Some clients have great success while others cannot operate very well using this method. If you try I.F., you should experiment with different fasting regimens for 10-14 days at a time to see what works for you and what doesn’t. Keep in mind that your hunger response will feel really exacerbated for the first 3-6 days, because you’re used to eating earlier and for a longer window than what I.F. is intended to allow. After the first few day, however you will start to get a better handle on what was “I’m actually hungry, hunger” and what was “I’m bored/it’s time to eat, hunger”.
Experience: I love I.F. and do it to this day. I only eat from 1:00 PM to 9:00 PM, which shortens my eating window to 8 hours each day. At least two days per week I exercise in my fasted state (morning workouts), and I exercise in my non-fasted state another 3-4 days (evening workouts). I find this helps me control my portions because it reduces the amount of time I have to eat and it makes me more aware of real hunger versus bored/scheduled hunger. I have tried eating windows everywhere from 3 hours (extreme daily fasting) to 16 hours (normal eating), and find the 8 hour eating window to be my sweet spot. Note that you cannot break up the eating window into smaller sessions and do multiple fast/eat sections to your day. To start, I recommend a 6 week test to figure out where your sweet spot is: do a 12 hour eating window the first 2 weeks (eat later after waking and earlier before sleeping by about 2 hours each way), in the second 2 weeks shorten to an 8 hour eating window (I recommend overlapping about 30-50% of your eating window into your normal work day), and finally shorten the eating window to 4 hours for the last two weeks (at whatever time works for you).
Extreme Calorie Restriction is Bad, mmm’kay?
What: Calorie restriction can lead to fat loss as long as you do it correctly. Cutting an extreme amount can actually lead to retaining body fat, because your system panics and thinks it’s starving. This is one reason why some people with eating disorders have unusual pockets of body fat, even though they take in very little nutrition: their bodies are trying desperately Not to Die. Here we’ll define Extreme Caloric Restriction as cutting more than 25% of the calories you need per day, including those needed to support exercise. Example: Jane needs 1500 calories baseline to live, and another 350 to make up for the exercise she does, totally a caloric need of 1850 per day. She can safely cut between 0 and 500 calories per day before her body will probably go a little crazy.
Opinion: The example above is actually from a client who was experiencing malnutrition from severe calorie restriction. Before we adjusted her eating to allow more calories per day, she was gaining fat, losing muscle, getting sick often, and feeling like crap all the time. Once we adjusted to only cut 20-25% of her needs per day, her body got back on track and she started seeing healthy gains in muscle paired with healthy losses in fat.
Experience: Before I learned enough to not get in trouble, for one month I restricted my calories to about 60% of what I needed per day. It was awful. I lost no weight at all, but my exercise suffered significantly. By the end of the month every weight lifting movement had lost 10-20% of my working weights, I felt as weak as a newborn kitten, I hated everyone, and I stared longingly at trees thinking what good snacks they would make. At the end of the month I binged on about 8000 calories in one day, spent the rest of that day being sick, and effectively had a calorie hangover for the next two days. Never again, folks, never again.
Count Your Calories
What: This is tracking your calories in and calories out as closely as possible to make sure you’re eating/working out to the caloric load you need to support your goals. In the case of wanting weight loss, you eat/work to a deficit. In the case of wanting muscle gain, you eat/work to an excess.
Opinion: If you have a history of struggling with eating and weight, calorie counting is a good way to make yourself aware of what you’re doing wrong. You need to be organized and dedicated in order to make this work. The process involves writing down everything you take in and all the exercise you do in a given day, valuating them based on food contents (represented as positive numbers) and exercise duration/intensity (represented as negative numbers), and then finding the difference. Remember: Your body will keep an accurate record, regardless of what you write down in your journal each day.
Experience: This is what got me into watching what I eat and keeping myself accountable. Once you start seeing the numbers adding up – good or bad – and what you are putting into your body every day, you will quickly realize where the problem areas lie. From there, you can make changes on your own, or seek professional guidance from a good trainer or nutritionist. Either way, if you have an eating/weight problem, diet is where you should start, and calorie tracking is a great tool.
You Don’t Need Grains In Your Diet
What: The theory is that the classic “Food Pyramid” is wrong and Pasta/Grains should not make up the largest part of your diet. In fact, they don’t need to be in your diet at all. You can have a healthy diet that supports your body without eating a single grain, for the rest of your life.
Opinion: Recent research suggests that this is true, and this is an article all by itself. For once I’ve going to defer to someone else who has written so much – and so vehemently – on the subject that I feel he bears mentioning: Mark Sisson over at Mark’s Daily Apple wrote an awesome article about this with tons of details. Read it later; it’s awesome.
Experience: When I cut out grains from my diet the first time, going completely Paleo and eating only meat, fruit, and vegetables I felt great. I lost more body fat than on other diet plans and was very happy with the results. When combined with I.F. it has produced amazing results, to the tune of losing 10% body fat in one month last year. I have kept most processed carbohydrates out of my diet, but have added back in some grains because, honestly, I really like rice. I eat far fewer than previously, and still watch my intake heavily. I have maintained the fat loss since, and I give partial credit to a grain-lite diet.
Stuff I’ve Heard About
Cinnamon, Spice, and Everything Nice?
What: The claim is that cinnamon can help reduce blood sugar, lower bad cholesterol (LDL), and aid in weight loss. The recommendations are either as a tea (with honey) or as a dietary supplement. One recommended tea recipe is: 1 cup hot water + 1 teaspoon (5 grams) honey + 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 grams) cinnamon [scale up: 1 gallon water + 8 tsp (40g) cinnamon + 16 tsp (80g) honey]. You’re supposed to drink two cups per day, at waking and before bed.
Opinion: Here’s an article about how supplementing with cinnamon reduces blood sugar in diabetics and regular folk, apparently by up to 20% in just a few weeks. This is compelling and was actually found during a legitimate study, which gives it some scientific credibility (or, “Sci Cred” as I like to say) . I’d say it’s worth a shot, so I’m going to try it and record how it goes. Yay, Science!
Lemon Juice is Magic (and so is Grapefruit Juice, Tomato Juice, etc)
What: The claim is that drinking water with lemon juice (approx. 1 cup of warm water + 1/2 lemon of juice) in the morning will help cleanse/stimulate your digestive track, burn body fat, aid mineral absorption, and prevent cancer. Similar claims have also been heard about Grapefruit juice and Tomato juice…honestly basically any kind of juice. The idea seems to be you “cleanse” with a given juice and it solves all your problems in life, burns fat, fixes your digestion, makes you immortal, and gets you a big promotion. Okay, some of that was hyperbole…but not by much.
Opinion: There is not enough actual, scientific research to support any of these claims, but what you will find is a ton of holistic examples in the community where someone (or their friend, family, spouse, dog, pastor, etc.) started drinking *FRUIT* water every day and lost 15 lbs. This may seem contradictory, but I think that such a report may be legitimate, to a certain extent. The problem seems to be that the actual reasoning/mechanism behind the benefit is misunderstood, so it is misreported, and people come by the information with false expectations. It makes sense that drinking a fresh fruit juice with no added sugar and low inherent calories would lead to weight loss. Why? Because the person is probably replacing another, more sugar-laden drink with that “lemon water”, thus consuming fewer calories. Also, taking in certain things that are found in fresh squeezed juices – such as pectin – have been shown to promote the “fullness” feeling you get when eating to satiation, thus you consume less calories that way. It isn’t because it’s lemon juice, it’s because you made a good diet choice that leads to fewer calories in!