The Skinny on Metabolism

March 31, 2007

Unless you’re a chemistry junkie, the transformation food undergoes to fuel your body may be something of a mystery. But no more! This peculiar and ingenious process is called metabolism, and the word gets thrown around by manufacturers selling metabolism-boosting supplements—and by fellow dancers who blame it for their weight gain or credit it for their skinny bodies. Read on to get the scoop on metabolism, so you can you can tell facts from fiction.

How It Works

The food that you consume is transformed into one of two substances after digestion: glucose—which fuels your brain, organs and muscles—or fat, which your body stores for future use. Which form that turkey sandwich you ate at lunch will take in your body depends largely on your metabolism’s speed, or metabolic rate—how quickly or slowly your body breaks down food.

If your body’s average demand for energy is high—like when you’re dancing several days a week—a second piece of whole wheat bread with your salad will help you kick higher in jazz class; but if most of your days are spent on the couch, you may not want (or need) an extra helping. “A person’s resting metabolic rate is a large percentage of total energy daily expenditure,” says Alice Bender, MSRD, licensed dietitian and nutritionist at the University Health Center at the University of Georgia. “So if your rate is low and you’re not active, you would need to eat significantly fewer calories than someone who has a faster energy metabolism and is very active.”

Your metabolic rate is affected by two factors: heredity and body composition (so don’t go blaming it all on Mom and Dad!). Because muscles do so much of your body’s work for you, they need (and use up) the most energy. This means that the more muscle mass you have, the faster your body utilizes foods and vice versa. “A higher metabolism will likely be a result of more muscle mass,” Bender says. “And with a higher metabolism, you can eat more food to help fuel your activity and have a more varied, nutritious diet.”

Some people think that metabolism changes with age, but Seattle-based nutritionist and author, Susan Kleiner, PhD, explains that diminished muscle mass—not age—is to blame. “Average Americans are most fit in our late teens and 20s. When we get sedentary, we gain fat, driving down the metabolic rate,” she says. If your activity level stays consistent throughout your lifetime, your metabolism might stay high into your 80s.

Another way to slow down your MR is by crash dieting—so don’t do it! “If very active people eat too little, they can actually lower their metabolic rate. The body is reading the energy restriction as a famine and will become more energy efficient,” says Bender. In other words, your body thinks you’re starving, so it starts using as little energy as possible to store most of the food as fat for the long term. (That’s why you feel tired when you aren’t eating properly.) Once you resume eating regularly, it may take some time for your metabolism to speed up again. That means the starvation plan was not only unhealthy, but also counterproductive because you set yourself up for more weight gain in the future.

One word of caution: If your metabolism changes radically and your weight plummets or soars in a very short time without a change in diet or exercise, you should see a doctor, says Stacey Horton, a professional dance artist and nutritionist in British Columbia, Canada. This may indicate a problem with your thyroid gland.

Eating for Energy

In order to maximize your metabolism, eat six small meals a day to stoke your body’s furnace. “It’s not easy to speed up your metabolism, but it’s really easy to slow it down,” warns Kleiner. “It’s important to feed your brain regularly, with a meal or snack that provides 200-250 calories and a ratio of three carbohydrates to one protein.” Four sample snacks that follow Kleiner’s recommendations are: a piece of fruit and a serving of nuts; a bagel and turkey; a hard-boiled egg and whole-wheat crackers; and hummus and carrots.

Kleiner also says that certain combinations of food can provide more energy for an active body. “I love it when dancers carry smoothies and chocolate milk in their gym bag, and have it right after they’ve been dancing,” she says. This combination of carbohydrates, fat and protein is ideal for your warm muscles. At this stage, “muscles are absolute sponges and food goes to the muscles,” adds Kleiner, preventing soreness and helping you keep up with a demanding class and rehearsal schedule.

Horton explains that your body needs fats to function. “A lot of vitamins, such as Vitamins A and E, are fat-soluble, so you won’t absorb any vitamins if you’re not getting enough fat.” Horton recommends that dancers get a tablespoon worth of healthy oils or fats per day in the form of nuts, seeds, avocados or flaxseed. Plain old water is also key: It helps keep your body’s systems, including digestion, circulation and waste removal, running at full capacity. “Every biochemical reaction in the body happens in water,” Kleiner says, “so if you’re not drinking enough water, your metabolism will slow down.”

Boost or Bust

Your local pharmacy may carry shelves full of products that promise to improve our metabolism and melt away the pounds—don’t believe them! “The only products that boost metabolism, such as ephedrine, are drugs (or act like drugs) and can be very dangerous,” cautions Priscilla M. Clarkson, a professor of exercise science and associate dean for the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The only thing that can consistently maximize your metabolism is increasing your muscle mass, which can be achieved through weight training. “Some foods—like caffeine, hot peppers, hot spices and green tea—may increase metabolism slightly for short periods of time,” says Bender—but “slightly” is the key word. The effects of these foods on your overall MR are fleeting, so don’t expect to lose weight from a spicy burrito. As with all things dance-related, you can’t take a shortcut to a fast metabolism. A healthy and varied diet should give you the energy to shine.

Katia Bachko is a senior editor at
Dance Teacher.