Chances are, if you're looking for ways to increase or boost your metabolism, you actually want to know how to burn more calories and — more specifically — how to lose weight. In this article, we share seven ways to help you find the best method for your body.
The word metabolism is a broad term. Many people believe it means the speed at which you use energy — or burn calories.
But metabolism actually describes how you break down the food you use for energy, as well as the processes that happen inside your cells to harness that energy to power your body.
The scientific term for how quickly you burn calories is your metabolic rate. And the total amount of calories that you burn on any given day is called your energy expenditure.
In this article, you can find out why most advice about how to boost your metabolism is wrong. Generic advice to exercise more and eat less, or to only eat certain foods to speed up your metabolic rate and burn calories, doesn’t work.
In this article, you can also discover our seven tips to influence your metabolic rate and, more importantly, your metabolic control. Here, you will find the best way to burn calories and control your weight.
Why most metabolism advice is wrong
Many people believe that they will lose weight if they increase their metabolic rate and burn more calories by exercising or eating certain foods. But the story is not so straightforward.
When we look at the speed at which you burn calories, most of that energy is used to keep your body alive. And the basic rate at which this happens is hard to change.
Fear not though, there are things that you can do to find the best way to lose weight.
“If I eat exactly the same food as another person, why am I not as thin as they are?” This is a question we often hear at ZOE. The reason is that we are all unique in our responses to food.
That’s why one-size-fits-all advice, like eating more broccoli or chilli peppers to boost metabolic rate and burn more calories, doesn’t hold true and isn’t backed up by good quality science.
Unfortunately, there is no magic pill for burning calories or losing weight.
But there are seven things we believe everyone can benefit from, which will help you identify what works for you when it comes to your weight and your food choices.
1. Include good quality protein in your diet
When you eat, you burn some calories simply because your body uses energy during digestion. Scientists call this the thermic effect of food (TEF), and it makes up around 10% of your energy expenditure.
You actually burn more energy digesting protein than you do when you eat carbohydrates or fat.
Around 20-30% of the energy in protein is used up during digestion. For carbohydrates, this is between 5 and 10%, and for fat, it is up to 3%.
A handful of small clinical studies suggest that energy expenditure increases with high protein intake. However, the difference in the amount of energy burned was not very big, and the studies were only short-term.
Including high-quality protein as part of your diet might therefore increase your energy expenditure to some extent through TEF. Don’t rely on it, though, as the effect is likely going to be modest.
Protein is also very important for your overall health and should feature in a healthy diet. Most people are not deficient in protein, but it is a good idea to be aware of the dietary sources of it.
Good sources of protein for you to eat are nuts and seeds, legumes, whole grains, tofu, dairy, eggs, lean meat, and fish.
2. Nourish your gut microbiome
The microbes that live in your gut play an important role in your health and in how you process the food that you eat.
Did you know we all respond differently to food? Your body’s blood sugar and blood fat responses are unique to you, and they impact your health.
Blood sugar spikes are not good for your body. They put you at higher risk of gaining weight and developing obesity, as well as other chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes.
ZOE scientists and their collaborators have found a link between the gut microbiome and how you respond to food. They also recently showed that there are 15 microbes that are linked with having a higher risk of more fat around the belly.
In addition, they found 15 good bugs that are linked with better metabolic control. If you want to understand more about the composition of your unique gut microbiome, take this quiz to find out how ZOE can help.
Your microbiome is shaped by the food that you eat. The good news is that changing your diet can boost good bugs and reduce the amount of bad bugs in your gut.
While this may not directly change how many calories you burn, it can improve the diversity of bugs that live in your gut. Having more of the 15 good bugs is linked with a healthier heart and better control over how your body responds to food.
To keep your microbiome in good shape, check out these top 5 tips from Professor Tim Spector, one of the world’s top microbiome researchers and co-founder of ZOE.
3. Swap ultra-processed food for whole foods
Highly processed or ultra-processed foods typically contain added sugar, salt, unhealthy fats, and chemical additives, and they are often low in fiber and high-quality protein.
Little of the plant nutrients or fiber reach your gut microbes, effectively starving them.
The structure or matrix of these foods is also simpler because they have been highly processed. This means that your body can easily digest and absorb the fat and sugar they contain.
Eating a lot of ultra-processed food is linked with having a higher risk of developing overweight and obesity, and it promotes those bad bugs in your gut microbiome.
On top of that, scientists have shown that these types of foods require less energy to digest, which means that you will burn fewer calories when you eat them.
In fact, you are more likely to gain weight if you eat a lot of ultra-processed food, as a recent clinical study showed.
Look for ways of swapping ultra-processed foods for whole foods in your daily diet, including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
Aiming for a high-quality diet that reduces ultra-processed foods to the occasional treat will help you reap those TEF benefits. Your gut microbiome will also thank you for it.
4. Get your caffeine fix
The caffeine in green tea and coffee can increase your energy expenditure by a small amount. A recent analysis also found that caffeine might promote weight loss and a reduction in body fat.
It’s unlikely that you will lose a lot of weight simply by focusing on your caffeine consumption.
But drinking coffee also has other health benefits. ZOE research has shown that coffee drinkers have a more diverse gut microbiome, which lowers your risk of obesity and chronic disease.
Coffee is high in fiber and polyphenols — a type of antioxidant — which feed your gut microbes.
5. Go to bed earlier
We all know that we should sleep more, but this is clearly easier said than done.
Research from ZOE found that even if you struggle to sleep those recommended 8 hours, what time you go to sleep makes a big difference to your metabolic control.
Going to bed earlier helps prevent unhealthy blood sugar spikes after eating the following morning. This is good news for your metabolic control and means you are less likely to feel hungry again shortly after.
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You’ve probably heard that to lose weight, you need to exercise.
There are some studies that suggest resistance training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can increase your metabolic rate and help you burn more calories.
But these studies are very small. Exercise alone is unlikely to lead to significant weight loss unless you are also eating the right foods for your body.
Exercise has lots of other health benefits, however, and the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend that we all aim for 150 minutes of exercise a week.
Unpublished research by ZOE scientists also found that exercise helps control blood sugar spikes after meals.
Beyond exercise like running or gym classes, there is another way to burn more energy by moving your body. This is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) and encompasses all of the movements that your body makes outside of eating and sleeping.
This includes fidgeting, standing, and moving around. Some scientists believe that by increasing NEAT, you can increase the amount of energy that you burn. But more research is needed to study this in detail.
7. Don’t lose weight too fast
Dropping weight too fast or crash dieting is something you should avoid in order to stop your metabolic rate from dropping significantly. This makes it harder to maintain your weight, let alone lose weight.
Researchers have shown that losing weight fast leads to a greater reduction in metabolic rate than more gradual weight loss.
Furthermore, your metabolic rate can stay lower for years, meaning that even if you do lose weight, you would have to eat significantly less in the long-term to maintain that new weight.
At ZOE, we don’t believe in counting calories. Instead, we know that the way your body responds to food is unique. If you eat the right foods for your metabolism, your weight and overall health will benefit.
Unpublished research from the ZOE team shows that following our personalized nutrition program led to an average weight loss of 9.4 pounds after 3 months, and around 80% of participants didn’t feel hungry and had more energy.
Burning energy, particularly if you are looking for ways to manage your weight, is only one aspect of your metabolism.
Generic advice telling you to simply exercise more and eat less, or to eat only certain foods to speed up your metabolic rate and burn more calories, doesn’t work.
Food, exercise, and sleep all play a role — not just in your weight, but also in your overall health.
ZOE’s research shows that every person’s response to food is different. That’s why picking the best foods for you will help you keep your blood sugar and blood fat responses in check.
In today’s busy world, it’s hard to catch enough sleep. But prioritizing your bedtime ultimately impacts not just how well-rested you feel in the morning, but also how your body digests food the next day and how hungry you feel.
Exercising is not just good for weight management, but also for your heart, your sleep, and your mental health.
There is no easy answer to increasing your metabolism or burning more calories. But if you try our seven tips, you can find what works best for you.
If you want to understand more about your personal metabolic control, ZOE can help. Our at-home testing kit analyzes your blood sugar and blood fat responses, as well as your gut microbiome. Using the latest science, your personalized ZOE program helps you identify the best foods for your body.
Take our free quiz to find out what this can mean for you.
A high-protein total diet replacement increases energy expenditure and leads to negative fat balance in healthy, normal-weight adults. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2021).
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Consumption of ultra-processed foods associated with weight gain and obesity in adults: A multi-national cohort study. Clinical Nutrition. (2021)
Effects of caffeine on brown adipose tissue thermogenesis and metabolic homeostasis: A review. Frontiers in Neuroscience. (2021).
Effect of protein overfeeding on energy expenditure measured in a metabolic chamber. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2015).
Effect of resistance training on resting metabolic rate and its estimation by a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry metabolic map. EJCN. (2014).
How much physical activity do adults need? (n.d.).
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The acute effect of exercise modality and nutrition manipulations on post-exercise resting energy expenditure and respiratory exchange ratio in women: a randomized trial. Sports Medicine - Open. (2015).
The effects of caffeine intake on weight loss: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition. (2019).
Thermic effect of a meal and appetite in adults: an individual participant data meta-analysis of meal-test trials. Food and Nutrition Research. (2013).
Ultra-processed diets cause excess calorie intake and weight gain: An inpatient randomized controlled trial of ad libitum food intake. Cell Metabolism. (2019)