Making the Most of Your Metabolism

I very much enjoy the look on the faces of my clients and nutrition students when they learn about metabolism.

Sure, everyone has heard ‘calories in’ and ‘calories out’. Most people even know that an excess of calories (a ‘positive energy balance’) results in weight gain and consuming fewer calories than we burn (a ‘negative energy balance’) results in weight loss.

However, rarely does anyone focus on the fact that the vast majority of the calories we burn each day are burned just to maintain basic body functions. Not knowing this vital piece of information results in people deluding themselves that starving to lose weight will be effective long-term… it’s not! When you don’t give your body enough calories for basic metabolic functions, you lose muscle weight. To add insult to injury, you also send signals to your body that there is not enough food in the environment for basic survival. The result: the terrible cycle of starving on punitive, low-calorie inadequate diets. This leads to weight re-gain over and over throughout one’s lifetime.

Another common delusion people hold is that they think they are able exercise off all the excess calories they consume. Yes, to some extent, an appropriate amount of exercise does help create the negative energy balance everyone is seeking. However, the real issue is that most people have no idea how many calories they are taking in each day. If someone burns 300 calories in exercise in a day, but is still eating 300 calories more than they burn in that same day, the result is breaking even. In other words: no weight loss. You maintain your current weight. Study after study shows that people underestimate how many calories they eat and consistently overestimate their physical activity.

So, here it is, plain and simple: Your body expends energy three (3) ways:

  1. BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate): Calories burned at rest. This is 60-70% of your calorie needs! The more you weigh, the higher your BMR.
  2. Physical activity [25-30%]: Walking, biking, hiking, weight training, cleaning, sports, etc.
  3. Eating food [5-10%]: Yes, that’s right! Your body burns calories in digesting, absorbing, moving, utilizing and storing the six (6) nutrients: vitamins, minerals, water, carbohydrates, fats and proteins. This is referred to as the thermic effect of food (TEF). The total effect of TEF does depend on the percent of fat, carbohydrate, and protein consumed in a meal. However, The TEF is only good for up to 10% of the calories you eat. So, if you eat 650 calories, only 65 calories are used in the process of digestion.

Take a moment and look at those numbers again and focus on the percentages below:


  • 25-30% Physical Activity
  • 5-10% Thermic Effect of Food (TEF)
  • 60- 70% BMR (at rest)

The powerful, life-changing meaning of these percentages: most of your calorie needs are just to stay alive, to maintain basic body functions such as breathing, the creation of new cells, circulating blood, hormone production, and brain function!

So, the best way in to boost your metabolism is to add muscle weight through strength training (i.e. weight training)!

Muscle is more metabolically active and you need more calories to sustain muscle weight than pounds of fat. This is why men usually lose weight so much faster than women. In addition to other metabolic factors such as having more of the fat burning, muscle-building hormone testosterone (10 times more than women do), men also have more total muscle weight overall. This means their BMR (resting metabolism) is higher. The point of this article is that 60-70% of your calorie needs are at rest.

Cardio (aerobic) activity is still important, but do not neglect strength training if your goal is a faster, more efficient metabolism. When you strength train, you likely will gain weight on the scale, even if you are losing body fat. Please do not despair; there is a way to tell if it is muscle weight: forego the scale and instead do measurements of your body, first thing in the morning, before you eat or drink. Measure 1-2 times a week, making sure to measure at least three (3) areas in the abdominal area, and several other areas you store body fat.

In conclusion, to make your resting metabolic rate higher, increase your lean mass (fat-free mass) and decrease your pounds of body fat. If your calories are dialed-in for your goal weight, you will lose inches (body fat) and soon find yourself buying a smaller clothes size, or two… or three…

About Romy Nelson
Owner and operator of Essential Fitness, Inc., Romy is a nutritionist, media consultant and author. Her main goal is to teach individuals how to make long-term lifestyle changes, and break free from unhealthy eating patterns and the cycle of yo-yo dieting

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