Metabolism and weight loss: How you burn calories
Find out how metabolism affects weight, the truth behind slow metabolism and how to burn more calories.By Mayo Clinic Staff
You've probably heard people blame their weight on a slow metabolism, but what does that mean? Is metabolism really the culprit? And if so, is it possible to rev up your metabolism to burn more calories?
It's true that metabolism is linked to weight. But contrary to common belief, a slow metabolism is rarely the cause of excess weight gain. Although your metabolism influences your body's basic energy needs, how much you eat and drink along with how much physical activity you get are the things that ultimately determine your weight.
Metabolism: Converting food into energy
Metabolism is the process by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex biochemical process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function.
Even when you're at rest, your body needs energy for all its "hidden" functions, such as breathing, circulating blood, adjusting hormone levels, and growing and repairing cells. The number of calories your body uses to carry out these basic functions is known as your basal metabolic rate — what you might call metabolism.
Several factors determine your individual basal metabolism, including:
- Your body size and composition. People who are larger or have more muscle burn more calories, even at rest.
- Your sex. Men usually have less body fat and more muscle than do women of the same age and weight, which means men burn more calories.
- Your age. As you get older, the amount of muscle tends to decrease and fat accounts for more of your weight, slowing down calorie burning.
Energy needs for your body's basic functions stay fairly consistent and aren't easily changed.
In addition to your basal metabolic rate, two other factors determine how many calories your body burns each day:
- Food processing (thermogenesis). Digesting, absorbing, transporting and storing the food you consume also takes calories. About 10 percent of the calories from the carbohydrates and protein you eat are used during the digestion and absorption of the food and nutrients.
Physical activity. Physical activity and exercise — such as playing tennis, walking to the store, chasing after the dog and any other movement — account for the rest of the calories your body burns up each day. Physical activity is by far the most variable of the factors that determine how many calories you burn each day.
Scientists call the activity you do all day that isn't deliberate exercise nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). This activity includes walking from room to room, activities such as gardening and even fidgeting. NEAT accounts for about 100 to 800 calories used daily.
Metabolism and weight
It may be tempting to blame your metabolism for weight gain. But because metabolism is a natural process, your body has many mechanisms that regulate it to meet your individual needs. Only in rare cases do you get excessive weight gain from a medical problem that slows metabolism, such as Cushing's syndrome or having an underactive thyroid gland (hypothyroidism).
Unfortunately, weight gain is a complicated process. It's likely a combination of genetic makeup, hormonal controls, diet composition and the impact of environment on your lifestyle, including sleep, physical activity and stress.
All of these factors result in an imbalance in the energy equation. You gain weight when you eat more calories than you burn — or burn fewer calories than you eat.
While it is true that some people seem to be able to lose weight more quickly and more easily than others, everyone loses weight when they burn up more calories than they eat. To lose weight, you need to create an energy deficit by eating fewer calories or increasing the number of calories you burn through physical activity or both.
Aug. 30, 2017
See more In-depth
- Anthanont P, et al. Does basal metabolic rate predict weight gain? The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2016;104:959.
- Goldman L, et al., eds. Obesity. In: Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2016. https://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Aug. 3, 2017.
- Losing weight. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/losing_weight/index.html. Accessed June 7, 2017.
- Lam YY, et al. Indirect calorimetry: An indispensable tool to understand and predict obesity. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2017;71:318.
- Bray GA. Etiology and natural history of obesity. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Aug. 7, 2017.
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines. Accessed June 7, 2017.
- 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/paguidelines/guidelines/. Accessed Aug. 8, 2017.
- Understanding adult overweight and obesity. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/weight-management/adult-overweight-obesity. Accessed Aug. 8, 2017.
- Bray GA. Obesity in adults: Role of physical activity and exercise. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/search. Accessed Aug. 7, 2017.
- Obesity for Adults, Prevention and Management of. Bloomington, Minn.: Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement. https://www.icsi.org/guidelines__more/catalog_guidelines_and_more/catalog_guidelines/catalog_endocrine_guidelines/obesity__adults/. Accessed June 7, 2017.
- Beware of products promoting miracle weight loss. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm246742.htm. Accessed Aug. 7, 2017.
- Litin SC (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Aug. 9, 2017.