Did you know that one of the most common mistakes that individuals make when trying to lose weight is not eating enough? Consuming too few of calories is a sure-fire way to burn out your metabolism—basically disarm your body’s ability to burn calories effectively throughout the day. In fact, I can usually tell within the first five minutes of a patient’s assessment if they have a properly working metabolism or not.
Characteristics of a person with a malfunctioning metabolism can include:
- Frequent meal-skipping habits
- Not snacking when appropriate
- Low energy levels
- Poor sleeping habits
- Over-exercising without adequate nutrition compensation
- Weight gain over a very short period of time (example: gaining 5 lbs over a weekend)
- Weight loss plateau despite good exercise and healthy eating habits
Dealing with a burnt out metabolism can be one of the most frustrating experiences. In fact, I have had several patients tell me, “I don’t understand why I can’t lose weight. I hardly eat anything at all.” Again, “hardly eat anything” is the red flag here and is quickly the focal point of our conversation. Patients are quite surprised to find that I actually recommend them to eat more in order to lose more. This can be a difficult phenomenon to grasp but I’ll try to illustrate it here.
Imagine your metabolism as a big, glowing fire. Like any fire, you must continuously feed the fire wood or fuel in order for it to keep burning. The wood represents the food and snacks you consume throughout the day and the fire represents how efficiently your body is burning calories. Now, envision you skip your lunch meal. This is symbolic to throwing a bucket of water on your fire. Once the fire goes out, your body now enters “fuel-storage” mode rather than being in a “fuel-burning” mode. Unfortunately, once the fire is burned out, it doesn’t necessarily restart right away. So, even if you choose a super nutritious dinner of grilled chicken, salad and broccoli, your body is going to store all those calories vs burn them up for fuel. This is why my number one rule is: Don’t Skip Meals!
Also, you don’t want to go too long without eating either. A healthy metabolism needs to be fed as often as every 2-5 hours (depending on activity level). Frequent eating also helps one establish better portion control throughout the day. For example, when I have a protein-rich afternoon snack, I notice that I don’t take nearly as big of portion sizes at my dinner meal. A popular trend in weight loss today is the practice of intermittent fasting. While this practice has shown slight positive effects in small study populations, we still have no idea how well it works in diseased or severely obese populations. I also understand how tempting it is to read articles that highlight, “eating breakfast doesn’t matter” or “you can skip meals and lose weight.” Most of the time, these study designs are severely flawed and do not apply to the general population.
If you feel this article speaks to you, consider switching up your eating routine. You may just need to start with eating three meals per day, and try to consume those meals 4-6 hours apart. Focus on including good protein sources with both meals and snacks such as chicken, turkey, eggs, cheese, tuna, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts, peanut butter or protein bars. Aim for a minimum of 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day with a long-term goal of consuming 7-9 servings a day. Don’t be afraid of fat. The right kinds of fats from avocados, nuts, seeds, eggs, olive oil and coconut oil can actually help your body more efficiently burn its own fat! Just like the wise Bruce Springsteen once said, “you can’t start a fire…you can’t start a fire without a spark.” I am a firm believer that that “spark” is frequently nourishing your body with meals and healthy snacks!