What exactly is metabolism? How does it factor into your bodily functions and diets? Do supplements aid in maintaining a healthy metabolism? What can you do to keep your metabolic rate in check?
Dr Benjamin Bikman, metabolic scientist and author of Why We Get Sick, in a recent conversation with me tackled all these pressing questions to give a clearer picture of what metabolism is and does.
Simply speaking, metabolism is the balance of two processes: anabolism and catabolism, he explains. “An anabolic process is when the cell is taking in building blocks and then using it to create something bigger. This could be, for example, taking in individual fatty acids and using it to create stored fat. That is balanced with the catabolic reactions, which are the times when the cell wants to break things down. It’s taking the stored fats and breaking it down.”
“The rate at which the cell is doing both of these things — building things up or breaking things down — that is the metabolic rate or the energy expenditure within the cell.” The metabolic rate varies from individual to individual and works differently across age groups. Teens, who are using energy to grow up as opposed to adults who are using it to grow out, have higher metabolic rates. Also, endo, ecto, meso – terms commonly used to define ‘types’ of metabolism – aren’t related to metabolism but describe body types.
Contrary to popular belief, the metabolic rate does not predict who gains or loses more weight. In fact, the metabolic rate isn’t what we should be chasing at all. Our focus, instead, should be on the two primary fuels our bodies burn: fat and glucose. We are aiming to be fat burners.
Is there scope to change your metabolism then? Dr Bikman says that to do that, we must tweak the fuel our body burns, not the rate at which it burns the fuel. And behind-the-scenes, there’s one hormone that dictates the fuel’s actions: insulin.
“If insulin is high, the body is in sugar-burning mode. Those are the people who gain the most weight over 10 years. If insulin is low, the body is in fat burning mode. Those are the people who gain the least weight over 10 years,” Dr Bikman explains.
Good news: you can regulate your insulin levels, starting now, by making necessary changes to your diet!
Begin by controlling carbs and refined starches in particular – which means keeping an eye on the amount of sugars, breads, chips (and other savoury delights people so love) you’re putting into your mouth. Opting for whole oatmeal over wheat choices is another starting point, metabolically speaking. Keep your insulin levels low with consumption of healthier fruit and vegetable options.
What about very specific circumstances – say, for instance, can a post-menopausal cancer survivor (who can’t take HRT) lose weight? It is harder, says Dr Bikman, but definitely not impossible. “Estrogens tell the body where to burn fat but not how much fat to store. That is insulin’s purview.” So the idea is to control insulin post menopause, and be cautious about sugar and carbs. Don’t complicate it!
The maintenance of insulin levels is simultaneously tied to the concept of metabolic flexibility. Dr Bikman elaborates that it’s a state wherein the body is conveniently able to switch between sugar burning and fat burning modes. It’s a sign that your insulin works well. The alternate is metabolic inflexibility, wherein insulin levels remain elevated for hours on end. This condition, insulin resistance, is among the most common disorders in the world. Read more here.
Do fat burning supplements boost metabolism? In Dr Bikman’s words, they’re a “waste of money.” He suggests keeping it simple, highlighting that diet staples like caffeine already act like good fat burning supplements. (Regulation is key though, of course!) Ashwagandha, whose anti-stress effects have been explored in Ayurvedic knowledge, is another supplement that you can avoid spending money on.
As far as food supplements are concerned, Dr Bikman has added cod liver oil (one a day) and creatine phosphate (2 gms, for cognitive health not muscle building) to his routine. He notes that the role of vitamin D in immunity building too has been much emphasised through research. What lacks evidence, meanwhile, is adrenal fatigue being a real phenomenon.
There are other supplements out there – like berberine and magnesium threonate – that are also popular in how they link to healthy insulin maintenance. As for collagen supplements, which get enriched into the skin, one can take them if they are not getting collagen naturally though meats.
How far does protein powder help in building muscle? Along with intense workout and a diet comprising animal protein, it is important to consume fat to build muscle. Per Dr Bikman, studies show that fat and protein together enhance muscle-building more than just protein alone. A meal replacement shake created by Dr Bikman is a personal favourite!
All that considered, the single standard suggestion vis-a-vis supplements that Dr Bikman gives is this: “They will not make up for a bad diet.”
So are legumes and beans as bad for health as grains and sugar? “Grains will have very high starch and relatively lower lectins. That’s a problem with insulin because the starch converts into glucose. In contrast, legumes will have relatively lower digestible starch but relatively much higher levels of lectins,” Dr Bikman explains.
Lectins are proteins largely associated with plant-based foods, consumption of which has been linked to the leaky gut syndrome and greater incidence of autoimmune diseases. Research on this, however, is divided in the scientific world. Some low-lectin foods include asparagus, mushrooms, Brussels sprout, and garlic.
When it comes to dairy, Dr Bikman recommends it as the perfect food for growth. Full fat dairy is healthy, as are fermented dairies like cheeses and yogurt. In the latter dairy group, the bacteria does its magic by eating away at the carbs, and leaving behind fat and protein nutrients. And if your taste buds are into it, the tarty flavours are an added perk!