Science-backed tips to boost metabolism

By Connie Capone
Published September 8, 2020

Key Takeaways

When it comes to weight loss, everyone loves to talk about metabolism. Many point to metabolism as the culprit for their weight gain or their healthy-weight guardian angel, but it’s usually not that simple. People talk of having a “fast” or “slow” metabolism, but what they’re really referring to is the basal metabolic rate (BMR)—the amount of energy expended to keep the body functioning while at rest. While an individual’s BMR and metabolism are both largely determined by genetics, there are simple habits that can be incorporated into one’s day-to-day life that can have an effect. 

Here are six small changes—backed by science—that can help rev up your metabolism.

Eat breakfast

Consuming a substantial meal each morning can increase the body’s ability to burn fat, research has found. A study published in the Journal of Physiology split 49 participants into two groups: one that ate breakfast every morning and another that fasted until mid-day.

Before the study, researchers measured the participants’ metabolisms, body compositions, and cardiovascular health. After 6 weeks, the researchers found that at least one gene associated with fat burning was more active in obese people who ate breakfast vs those who fasted. Eating breakfast also decreased the activity of genes related to insulin resistance and increased the amount of sugar the cells absorbed. Breakfast brings a few benefits beyond a boosted metabolism, too. Such effects could potentially help protect against diabetes and other chronic illnesses over time.

Sleep more

In addition to evidence showing that sleep deprivation is associated with an increased risk of cognitive problems, obesity, and diabetes, lack of sleep can also alter glucose metabolism. A trial conducted at the University of Chicago found that cutting back from the standard 8 hours to 4 hours of sleep produced changes in glucose tolerance and endocrine function.

Specifically, sleep-deprived individuals took 40% longer than normal to regulate their blood sugar levels following a high-carbohydrate meal. Getting too little sleep can impact the hormones involved in regulating the metabolism, and shorter sleep durations have been linked to elevated ghrelin (that’s the hunger hormone) levels and lowered leptin (the appetite-suppressing hormone) levels.   

Use coconut oil

Swapping other cooking oils for coconut oil may have a modest impact on energy expenditure.

Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which have a shorter chemical structure than other fats, allowing them to be quickly digested and converted into energy. (Palm kernel oil is the other major source of MCTs.) One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that meals with MCTs increased metabolism by 12%, compared with only 4% in meals that used long-chain triglycerides, such as olive oil.

Do a HIIT workout

Incorporating some high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions into your exercise regimen will supplement it with extra energy-boosting benefits. A HIIT workout combines short bursts of all-out exercise with longer periods of rest.

“Studies show that the post-exercise metabolic rate is higher after HIIT,” according to David Hryvniak, MD, a doctor with University of Virginia sports teams, in an interview with The Washington Post. One such study, published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, compared participants engaging in 6 weeks of sprint-interval training (SIT) and continuous endurance training (CET).

Researchers observed that oxygen uptake during CET was 150% greater than SIT, but the total oxygen uptake during the next 24 hours was similar between both groups, despite SIT being completed in a much shorter period of time.

To explain how a lower training volume involved in SIT could result in significant body-fat losses, study authors concluded that an increase in post-exercise metabolism was responsible. Other studies have also proven that HIIT workouts produce an “afterburn” effect. In other words, your body continues to burn calories at a higher rate even when the workout is complete and your body is at rest.

Drink more water

Replacing any kind of high-calorie or sugary drink with water is a known way to reduce your caloric intake, but water alone is also associated with positive metabolic effects. A study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research evaluated 50 overweight participants during an 8-week regimen.

Participants were instructed to consume 500 mL of water over the course of one day. After the trial, and even after no further diet intervention, each participant lost an average of 3 lb, supporting the hypothesis that water produced a thermogenic response in the body.

In similar studies, researchers found that drinking 500 mL of water each day increased metabolic rate by 30%.

Eat a high-protein diet

Packing your meals with protein is a smart way to elevate your metabolism. Consuming food of any kind produces a thermic effect—called diet-induced thermogenesis—because the body expends energy just from processing food through digestion, absorption, storage, conversion, and excretion. Of all foods, diet-induced thermogenesis is highest for protein, with an increase of 15% to 30%, compared with carbohydrates (5% to 10%) and fats (0% to 3%). 

Dietary protein is also considered the most satiating macronutrient. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people whose diets were made up of 30% protein were more likely to consume roughly 500 fewer calories per day.

Though these practices can help give your metabolism an extra boost, they won’t outweigh poor lifestyle and unhealthy dietary habits.

“You can manipulate your metabolism to a degree,” said Chih-Hao Lee, PhD, a professor of genetics and complex diseases, in an interview with Harvard Health Blog. “It is often a small change that may help you burn more calories. That, along with adopting a healthier diet and making sure you get enough exercise, may give people the extra push they need to lose and maintain weight.”

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