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Your Size Doesn’t Dictate Your Metabolic Health

four people who have different sizes
four people who have different sizes

Can you be healthy at any size? Does your inability to lose weight mean that you're unhealthy or simply that you have a slow metabolism? And why does any of this matter? If you're the sort of person who wants to make healthy changes to your lifestyle, you've probably wondered about your metabolic health. But even if you haven't, you may want to start thinking about it. Whether you’re exercising in an attempt to lose body fat, attempting to make better food choices to optimize your health, or trying to learn more about what Health at Every Size means, read on! 

You've probably heard about how high-fat diets, excess weight, and unhealthy lifestyles are risk factors for things like high blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin resistance in some people. So the food choices you make and the level of physical activity you engage in daily can have significant implications for your health. For example, diets high in processed fats and refined sugar can disrupt insulin response and lead to inflammation, obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

But you ever wondered if your body size has anything to do with how your metabolism works? While being overweight isn't healthy, unhealthy weight loss can have harmful side effects on your overall health too. Your size and weight are not always a good way to gauge metabolic health, which you may want to pay more attention to! 

What is Metabolic Health, and How Does Your Metabolism Work?

dices that showing words "Metabolism", a picture of person and a digesting system

Here's something you should know: the human body functions thanks to energy, and this energy comes from three primary nutrients: lipids (fats), carbohydrates, and proteins. These three macronutrients travel from your digestive system into your blood and from your blood to your organs. Here, they're then oxidized into ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a molecule that is used to store and transfer energy in your cells. All these chemical processes require energy as fuel to keep your body functioning correctly. A well-known unit of measurement for the quantity of this energy is—calories!

If any of this is confusing, it's helpful to think of your body as a miracle worker, transforming the food you eat into energy. This energy then slowly turns into heat, through a process more commonly known as—you guessed it—burning calories. It's usually calculated using the basal metabolic rate (BMR), depending on your age, weight, and lifestyle. This BMR may account for up to 75 percent of your body's daily energy requirements, and the remaining 25 percent will depend on the level of physical activity you engage in.

Besides the main factors that influence your BMR levels (age, weight, gender, and lifestyle), BMR may also rise if the meals you consume are rich in protein. Other factors to consider are whether the intensity of the physical activity you engage in is high and whether your exercise focuses on muscle contraction.

Do Some People Have a Faster or Slower Metabolism Than Others?

a person running

Now that you understand how metabolism works, you've probably already guessed that there are differences in how metabolism works for different people. Age, gender, genetics, and body size all play an essential role in how fast or slow your metabolism is. Still, this doesn't mean that skinny people always have a quicker metabolism or that overweight people are destined to have a slow metabolism. 

Muscle mass may be a better way to talk about this. The cells in your muscle tissue require a lot of energy, while fat cells require less energy. So people with a higher muscle mass tend to have a faster metabolism. At the same time, larger bodies need more energy to carry out basic bodily functions, which means that their metabolism may often be quicker than metabolism among thinner people. Of course, it's never one-size-fits-all, so all of this can vary from person to person.  

An important takeaway here is that metabolism isn't always in the driver's seat. For example, people who have a hard time losing weight often blame their weight woes on a slow metabolism, but this may not always be the case. You've probably heard before that losing weight with the help of crash diets will slow down your metabolism, and that's often true. This is because your body is forced to break down proteins for energy over a short period. So if your muscle mass is low, it can lead to a slower metabolism.

Studies show that things like overeating often factor into the causes of weight gain, which likely comes as no surprise to you. But remember that this happens less because you're just eating 'too much' and more because you're eating and drinking more calories than you're burning off. While keeping track of calories can seem like the most convenient way to keep track of your weight, there are many other factors in play. It can help to use a CGM to track and monitor what you're eating instead, so you can focus on overall metabolic health.   

How to Maintain Metabolic Health

So, what's the secret to a healthy metabolism? Again, it's important to remember that there's no one-size-fits-all. But something that may help is to focus on balance. Remember that the nutrients you put into your body turn into energy, so the quality of your diet is just as important as the amount you eat and the level of physical activity that you use to burn calories. 

It's also essential to keep in mind that a good diet can positively influence every aspect of your health. A diet that's high in nutrients, vitamins, and minerals has an impact on your physical and mental health. In a nutshell: what you choose as fuel daily will impact how you feel, how you move, and your overall life. While not all processed foods are harmful, a diet full of primarily processed foods and added sugars can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, and other chronic diseases.

And while you can't always control how fast or slow your metabolism is, you can control the quality of food you ingest and how much of it you burn through physical activity. So, it's a good idea to prioritize whole foods and consume nutrient-rich foods that will keep you full for longer to prevent overeating.  

Also, the more active you are, the more calories you'll burn, leading to a higher BMR. The best way to do this is often the simplest. Try around 30 minutes of activity a day, five days a week. This can include anything from walking and cycling to dancing or aerobic exercises at the gym. If your goal is to improve your metabolic rate, you can also consider trying a metabolic diet

Whatever you choose to do, make sure you're not eliminating foods entirely or making drastic changes without a bit of help. Cutting out carbohydrates and dietary fat may seem like a good idea, but there's no one-size-fits-all for good metabolic health. Consider joining a Nutrition Coaching Program to see what works best for you.  

So, Does Size Influence Your Health at All?

two people who have different sizes measuring their waists

While your size doesn't dictate your metabolic health, it doesn't mean it has no effect on your health at all. It simply means it's not the only factor to consider, and that just like being overweight doesn't always mean you're unhealthy, being thin won't necessarily mean you're healthy.

And where does your BMI (body mass index) fit into all this? For some, it's still the most recognizable indicator of unhealthy or healthy weight. But since your body size is not the best way to assess your health, the BMI may not be either. Instead, you should focus on body composition, overall health, and health indicators like blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood glucose, and hormone levels.

These indicators are more important than the number on your BMI scale as they're the main risk factors for chronic health issues. While obesity can be a leading factor for all these issues, it doesn't immediately point to any health issues if your weight slightly exceeds the 'standard' limit. Ask yourself instead if you're full of energy or whether you can do everyday things like climbing the stairs, walking, and cycling without running out of breath. If so, you're probably in decent shape regardless of your waistline.

And remember when we said being thin doesn't necessarily mean you're healthy either? An interesting thing to think about here is the term "metabolically obese." It describes someone who is lean but not healthy. This means they can fall within normal body weight limits but have things like high cholesterol and unhealthy fluctuations in blood glucose levels. 

Your weight should not be your main focus, and while you can aim for a healthy target weight, simply losing weight at any cost shouldn't be what you focus on. Uncontrolled weight gain can lead to metabolic syndrome, but losing weight in an unhealthy way can do just as much harm. 

How to Stay Healthy at Every Size

veggies, fruits, a bottle of water, tape measure and dumbbells

A well-balanced diet, proper hydration, exercise, and restful sleep can be the key to physical and mental wellness. Whatever your body size, it's the lifestyle choices you make that influence your health, and as long as you are healthy, you'll look your best! So even if your goal is weight loss, remember to target healthy weight loss to ensure good metabolic health. 

Try to create a daily routine where you incorporate exercise and eat whole foods that give your body the nutrition it needs. Your food intake should consist of fiber, protein like fish, meat, beans, lentils, whole grains, and healthy fats such as avocado, olive oil, and nuts. At the end of the day, understanding how your metabolism works and how it could influence your health is the best way to start making the right choices for overall health and wellness. 

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Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Reviewed by: Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.

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