Be Well: Can Your Body Be a Fat-Burning Engine?

Having the ability to “reset” our metabolism is a promise made by special diets, supplements, and exercise routines—but is there any merit to these claims? Or is it just all clever marketing? A Twin Cities dietitian weighs in.

By Mpls. St. Paul Magazine

Can you really reset your metabolism? If you’ve seen such promises in the past and are curious about whether or not there’s any truth to them, you’re not alone. We’re all looking for the next best (and most convenient) thing in wellness, and the idea of taking a fat-burning supplement (“burn capsules”) or eating spicier food (say, ingredients like capsaicin) to burn more calories seems too good to be true. But is it?

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist ​​Paige Prestigiacomo knows a thing or two about the science on how we burn calories. As a sports nutrition resident at Northwestern Health Sciences University, Prestigiacomo helps her clients develop healthy, sustainable habits and diet plans that fuel them to live their best lives.

So many supplements, hacks, and diet tips promise to help you “reset” your metabolism. But is our metabolism even resettable?  

Always be skeptical of supplements or diets that promise large benefits. If something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is. There is really no research saying that we need to “reset” our metabolism. Certain supplements or foods in a diet may claim to detox the body, flush out toxins, and reset the body to a healthier state. In reality, the body has a liver and kidneys to do this for us.

For example, spicy food has been discussed in boosting the metabolism. Research showed it burned an additional 10 calories—that’s hardly anything and it would take so long to see any impact, if any. Be cautious as a reader, as some articles may take real research and exaggerate it to seem more desirable.

“Metabolism does slow as we age, but not as drastically as people once thought. According to research, the metabolism doesn’t really change from the 20s to 60s, and slows gradually from 60 years and on.” Paige Prestigiacomo, registered dietician nutritionist at Northwestern Health Sciences University

How does your metabolism actually work?

The definition of metabolism is the chemical process of converting food to energy in the body. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the amount of energy or calories your body needs to sustain its functions such as breathing, thinking, and the heart pumping. Your BMR makes up the majority of calories needed in a day, and is determined by factors like genetics, gender, age, lean mass, fat mass, hormones, and medications.

There are other factors that contribute to metabolism: non-exercise activity thermogenesis is the energy needed for daily activities like walking and talking; exercise thermogenesis is the energy needed for intentional workouts; and the thermic effect of food is energy needed to break down and digest the food we eat.

What is a “fast” metabolism vs. a slow one? What would cause someone’s body to burn more fat than another’s?

Due to all the factors that impact metabolism, everyone is going to be different. Metabolism does slow as we age, but not as drastically as people once thought. According to research, the metabolism doesn’t really change from the 20s to 60s, and slows gradually from 60 years and on.

There is no scientific definition or parameters of “slow” or “fast” metabolism. The more calories the body burns, the greater their metabolism. Muscle technically burns more calories than fat — only by a small amount, but it adds up. Protein has a slightly higher thermal effect (which means it burns more calories) when being digested compared to carbohydrates and fats. However, all macronutrients are important for a balanced diet.

A large impact of metabolism is genetics, so I always stress on focusing on the aspects of one’s life they can control. Paying attention to lifestyle factors and how those have changed over the years are key.

Are there small ways you can burn more fat and boost your metabolism during the day?

A big factor is movement. We drive to work, sit at a desk, get home from work, and sit on the couch. Focus on the aspects we can control: how we nourish and move our bodies.

I encourage every patient I work with to focus on a balanced, sustainable diet pattern they can follow through life. Increasing lean body mass will increase one’s metabolism. Establishing a regular workout routine that you enjoy and works best for your schedule, in addition to a healthy eating pattern that you can sustain, is the best formula to “boost” your metabolism.

[If you’re just beginning], start by cooking more meals at home instead of ordering take-out. Build plates with protein, fiber-rich carbs, and plenty of vegetables. Set a goal of doing a workout on a certain number of days. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing! Movement like walking more or taking the stairs adds up.

Eat foods you actually enjoy, not just because they have claims of boosting metabolism. Eating foods you don’t enjoy will only make you continue to crave foods you do, eat more, and potentially gain fat. If you like pasta, add a protein and a veggie to balance the meal.

Make sure you’re eating enough food. Going on restrictive diets that don’t provide enough calories can impact one’s metabolism; the body will start working to conserve energy due to limited intake. I see this so often: people want to lose weight so they overly restrict, then it’s not sustainable, and that creates the yo-yo cycle that is worse for your metabolism.

The answer is sometimes the most simple one. There are no quick fixes!