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What is Metabolism? The Only Word You Need to Lose Weight

We all throw this word around when were talking about losing weight or talking about working out. “I really need to start exercising again and speed up my metabolism.” “My metabolism is so slow right now!! I’m gaining weight eating vegetables!!!” But what exactly does this word mean and why does it need to be fast? And most importantly, why is it the only word you need to lose weight? Dieting, eating differently, exercising more or less, all rely on one, single word, metabolism.

Metabolism is a term or a word used describe the sum of catabolic and anabolic reactions occurring in your body. Said differently, metabolism means that you add up everything in your body breaking down and everything in your body building back together. Imagine that you have a brick wall and the brick wall represents metabolism (everything building up and breaking down), at first nothing happens to the brick wall, it’s static (static means it doesn’t change). If nothing happens to the brick wall (or metabolism) then nothing would be breaking down and nothing would be building up, catabolism and anabolism would be 0 and therefore you’re metabolism would be 0. Obviously, this doesn’t exist, you would die.

Instead, let’s say the brick wall is dynamic (dynamic means that its constantly changing), someone takes a sledge hammer to it and breaks apart a few pieces, and another person takes a sledge hammer to it and breaks apart a few pieces while someone on the other side has mortar ready to stick back together the pieces that broke apart, this person has to glue the individual pieces back together to make a full piece of brick and he has to glue them back on to the wall if he wants to get the wall back to where it was.

The people destroying the wall or breaking apart the wall are participating in catabolism, the break down of molecules in your body (simple examples are carbohydrates or sugars, basically from big clumps of sugars to smaller usable clumps of sugars; and fats, same thing, bigger clumps of fats to smaller clumps of fat). They’re taking the full, complete wall and taking a chunk out of the wall. The people who are gluing the pieces back together to get them back on to the wall are participating in anabolism, the building up of molecules in the body (this would be the opposite of the last one, smaller clumps of sugars would form bigger clumps of sugars and smaller clumps of fat would form bigger clumps of fat). They’re taking smaller pieces of the wall or smaller pieces of brick, putting them together in one spot, and putting them back onto the wall.

What happens when the person destroying the wall uses the sledge hammer against the wall? They’re using energy. And if they’re having a bad day, they’re using a lot of energy to blow off some steam. So, now you’re probably thinking well damn, let’s just break down the whole wall and we can be skinny the rest of our lives; but that would be comparable to saying we’re not going to eat again and we’re going to work continuously, what’s going to happen? You’re body will use up all the energy that it has to function or stay alive and it will cease to exist. So, the other variable that we have to add in or the other thing we need to mention is that the wall likes being complete or finished or whole. So, as you’re breaking down the wall it wants to be built back up again.

So, what happens when you go work out? You’re burning calories right? In a simple sense, calories are a term used describe energy, particularly metabolic energy. This means when you work out you’re burning calories or to say it differently, you’re using energy for catabolic reactions in your body. What was catabolic again? Breaking down of things in your body. That was the guy who would take a sledgehammer to the brick wall. When you eat and / or when you’re resting after the work out, you’re building up the wall again, you’re using energy for anabolic reactions in your body. Anabolic being the build up of things in your body. This concept of energy is the same as your cell phone. If you keep your phone on the energy in the phone goes down and if you charge your phone the energy in your phone goes back up.

You have a few concepts now, the wall wants to be whole and you use energy to break or build the wall. Since you can’t eat a brick wall, imagine that you have a sugar cube. Daily activity and small or light work outs would be like taking a few grains here and there from the cube. And later you would put the grains back onto the cube. Harder, intense workouts would be like breaking the cube in half and using half a cube; or if you want to use the brick wall example, it would be analogous to running a truck through it. If you run a truck through a brick wall, what’s going to happen? It’s going to take more energy and time to build the wall back up. Same thing for the cube, it would take a lot more to put that half of the cube back together.

This is essentially what your body is doing. Since it’s hard to picture molecular sugars and carbohydrates and fats, let’s use the sugar cube example again and let’s use a real muscle this time. Your bicep is a muscle that allows for arm movement and your bicep like all the other muscles has glycogen stores that when broken down release glucose that can be used by the cell for energy. What? So imagine glycogen stores as sugar stores, imagine there’s a sugar cube (glycogen) on your bicep. And when you work out your muscle will take bits and grains of this sugar cube so it will have energy to do the workout that you’re doing. If this is getting complicated remember this is the same thing as charging your phone and the battery on your phone using energy to work or function or stay on, you’re phone is using energy to turn on. The same thing is happening in your body, your body is using energy from the sugar cube (battery) to power the muscle with fuel (phone) so it will work. What happens when you run an app on your phone that takes a lot of memory? You use up a lot of battery. The same thing happens when you do a big / hard / intense workout, your body is going to use a lot of that sugar cube (glycogen / glucose) to fuel your body. That’s going to leave the sugar cube very depleted and the cube likes to be a whole cube. So, you’re going to replenish with other stored up sugar in your body or you’re going to eventually eat and that will replenish the sugar cube in your muscle (or the glycogen stores in your muscle).

In essence, this is what metabolism is. This is why the biggest indicator for losing weight (or gaining weight but most of us don’t want to do that) is calories in – calories out. What does that mean? The energy you’re putting in your body minus the energy your body is using (metabolism = catabolism + anabolism; metabolism = break down of energy + the build up of energy). Therefore, gaining weight is basically anabolism overpowering catabolism, you’re building up a lot more energy in the body than you are breaking down. Losing weight would be the exact opposite, catabolism would overpower anabolism, you’re breaking down more energy than you’re building up.

Now let’s get to the fun stuff. There are only two things in your body that are used for energy (to make it simple). Fats and sugars. Protein is used, in the simplest way, to build muscles back up; another way to say this is that protein is the brick and fats and sugars are the energy used to put the brick wall back together. Despite what we all think fats are incredibly good for you, without fats we would all inevitably die. The thing that we don’t like in modern society is an excess of fat or to put it differently, an excess of stored energy for the body to use.

Fats have this great ability to store energy. For most of us, this ability is too great and we begin to loathe it and some of us can go so far as to abhor it. Fats if they’re not used will be stored in fat cells as we all have heard and we all know too well. Since fats have such a great ability to be stored and store energy, the best fats that you can get are fats that don’t store well. Again, the best fats that you can get are fats that are not stored well. Another way to say this is fats that are broken down easily. What fats are these? Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats don’t store well in the body (if you want to know more about this, it’s because of the double / triple bond character in the molecule that doesn’t allow it to clump together well). And the deviled trans fats and saturated fats store all too well in the body. So, if you’re eating a lot of trans and saturated fats, what’s going to happen in your body? You’re going to have a lot of fat around that stores well, i.e. a gut. If you’re eating a lot more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats what’s going to happen? You’re less likely to store these fats and less likely to have a gut.

The dreaded sugars. Again, despite what we all think, sugars are extremely vital to every single cell in your body, especially your brain. Sugars break down quickly in the body, what happens when you put a sugar cube in water? So, the best way to get sugars is sugars that don’t break down easily. These are your complex sugars, they’re structure is complex and harder to break down. Simple sugars as you can imagine are simple, they are easier to break down. We all have a pretty good grasp of sugars; the difference between eating an apple or a carrot vs. a candy bar.

And what happens when you eat too much sugar? It either gets converted to glycogen stores, it’s used, or it gets stored in the form of fat. So, if you don’t use the sugar that you ate for the day, what happens to it? It will go to fat cells and be stored as fat. What happens if you eat fat and the fat is not used? It will get stored as fat in fat cells, this is why they don’t recommend eating that much fat for daily consumption. To tie this back into the original discussion, if you’re eating too much sugar or you’re eating too much energy for the day it will store the energy for later use (it stores it in the form of glycogen or fat to be used again when you need it), if you’re not using enough then it will use the stores of fat / glycogen that you have for energy to fuel the body or fuel your muscles / cells for the work they need to do (i.e. give your body energy for a workout).

One more thing to end the post: why do people always go on these 1,200 calorie diets? Your basal metabolic rate which is the metabolism your body normally does just for posture, walking around a little bit, digestion, etc is at least 1,000 calories if not more. It can speed up depending on how much muscle / fat you have. When you’re sitting around doing nothing muscle burns 8 cal/hr and fat burns 3 cal / hr so you can see that it pays off more to have more muscle, it takes a lot more to keep muscle going. So, if you’re working out and burning about 500 cal / day and you’re only eating about 1,200 cal / day you can have a loss of roughly 500 cal / day which is 3,500 cal / week which means you’re burning off a pound per week ( 1 lb / week). Which is healthy. And now that you know what metabolism is, if you speed up your metabolism or you burn more cal / hr which translates to burning more cal / day then you’re going to break down what you eat faster or quicker; in short, you’re going to lose weight faster. If your metabolism slows down you won’t break down food (or energy) as fast and you’re going to store more of it for later use.

Metabolism is the only word you need to lose weight. Dieting, exercising, diet supplements, different vitamins, minerals, etc, all act on certain things in your body to change the rate of your metabolism (the building up and breaking down of fats / sugars in your body). Your body has a great ability to adapt to these changes which is why the one thing recommended and everyone hates to do is changing your lifestyle to incorporate a continuous and long-term work out and eating plan. Anything you don’t keep long-term your body will re-adapt to which will change the the speed of your metabolism (for most people means slowing down their metabolism and putting on more weight).

[Hope this helps everyone! Quick disclaimer, I am not a clinician or practicing, I do not have a license and I am not a registered dietician but I do know a few things about metabolism from my biology courses (not everything of course, there are entire college courses on metabolic regulation). Also, this post is meant to be a breif, simple description of metabolism so people get a better grasp of what it is, it does not go in to detail about building muscle while burning fat, metabolic diseases, etc]

Categories: Helpful
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  1. February 5, 2012 at 11:40 pm

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