7 (Anti-Diet) Ways To Promote Active Metabolism & Healthy Body Composition
Thanks to size zero models gracing the covers of magazines, billboard ads, commercials, and more, comparing our own bodies to society's "ideal" one was commonplace in the '90s and early 2000s.
As a result, popular books and magazines were filled with unhealthy and unsustainable diet tips that oversimplified the inner workings of metabolism, failed to celebrate diversity, encouraged extreme calorie counting, and demonized entire food groups.
Today, leading wellness experts understand that maintaining a healthy weight and body composition is so much more complex than just "calories in, calories out."
"Many of us were negatively impacted by the false promises of diet products of the '90s and early 2000s, grew up on the idea of calorie counting, and might even believe that all fats should be avoided," says functional medicine nutritionist Brooke Scheller, DCN, CNS.
In reality, body composition is incredibly multifaceted and genes, life stage, sex, hormones, body composition, physical activity, gut health, stressors, health care access (or lack thereof), and food security all play a part in your overall weight journey and trajectory.
And while maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of supporting your metabolic health, extreme diets and workout plans aren't a healthy, productive, or sustainable way to promote your physical health.
Unlearning myths about weight.
Let's begin by reviewing some unhealthy diet culture beliefs that you may have consciously (or unconsciously) accepted as truth over the past few decades:
Myth No. 1: We need to eat significantly less and exercise a lot more in order to lose weight and keep it off.
"If you have ever gone on a diet, then you may know that this is not true for the majority of people in the long term. Everyone's body is different and will respond differently to diet and exercise," says dietitian nutritionist Courtney Vickery, M.S., R.D., L.D.
Unsustainable patterns of calorie restriction or intense exercise for the sake of quick gains are just that—unsustainable.
Myth No. 2: We should avoid certain foods or food groups in order to be healthy.
Many modern diets cut out entire food groups. For example, vegans don't eat meat or animal products, and the paleo diet doesn't allow legumes, grains, or dairy. But just because your neighbor swears by a certain nutritional lifestyle, it doesn't mean the same eating pattern would be healthy or effective for you.
"The truth is that there's not one perfect diet for everyone. The key is to listen to your body and figure out what works best for you," Vickery explains. What's more, demonizing foods and/or entire food groups simply encourages shame, guilt, and deprivation.
Myth No. 3: Counting calories is an accurate way to measure a balanced diet.
"It's more important to focus on eating nutrient-rich foods than worrying about the number of calories you're consuming," says Vickery.
Scheller agrees, noting that the number of calories doesn't always equate to nutritional value. "For example, 500 calories of a brownie does not metabolize in the body the same as 500 calories of broccoli. These same 500 calories would affect the body very differently," she explains.
Myth No. 4: Thinness equals health.
Wellness is so much more complex than the number on a scale or fitting into a certain jean size. Body composition, physical fitness, diet, sleep habits, stress levels, community, healthcare equity, access to healthful foods, and many other factors affect your overall well-being.
"The key is to focus on what behaviors you can participate in that will benefit your health, regardless of your size," says Vickery.
The difference between weight and body composition.
While weight is a broad biomarker that certainly contributes to an individual’s overall health, the number on your scale is rather nonspecific and, in fact, not the only measurement that matters when it comes to your metabolic rate and metabolic health. What’s more, it can be misleading. Weight is a gross estimate, not a nuanced metric. Body composition is multidimensional and personalized.
With that said, weight is an incredibly practical health indicator; and one of the most accessible in terms of measuring it ourselves and tracking changes over time. “After all, nobody has a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry1 machine in their living room to measure their body composition. But a scale? Yes, that’s much more pragmatic,” explains mbg’s vice president of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN. “Clothing fit and an occasional waist circumference measurement with a tape measure are also contenders on the practical, track-it-yourself front,” she adds.
In its broadest sense, body composition components are muscle, fat, and bone. But you see, muscle is more dense and compact than fat. Meaning, muscle mass occupies less space than fat (aka adipose tissue) in the body. Therefore, someone gaining muscle could experience comparable weight gain as someone who's increasing their fat percentage, so the difference lies in body composition. Likewise, weight loss could be a positive thing (if you're making healthy, intentional lifestyle choices to lose fat, i.e., excess adipose stores) or a negative thing (if you're unintentionally losing muscle, due to inactivity, inadequate protein intake, specific health issues, etc.).
Vickery recommends her clients avoid the scale as a measure of success. "Weight can fluctuate for many reasons, such as hormones, water retention, and muscular growth," she explains.
Fellow dietitian, Ferira, concurs and divulges, “I don’t even own a scale! To each their own, but I just pay more attention to clothing fit instead of a number on a scale that appears more exacting than it really is.”
And for individuals with disordered eating history or concerns, “a scale might be downright contraindicated and deleterious,” Ferira expounds.
Other measurements—like body mass index (BMI), which calculates an individual's weight and height to roughly estimate if they're in a generally healthy weight category (versus underweight or overweight)—are extremely helpful for health care practitioners, epidemiology researchers, and public health officials on the grand scale (i.e., for population studies, public health guidelines, etc.), but they don't consider the highly unique and multifactorial nature of an individual's weight.
At mbg, we prefer to get personal and celebrate the unique individual. That includes considering body composition (i.e., the personalized matrix of fat, bone, and muscle that make up a human body) to be a more nuanced and useful metric when evaluating an individual's metabolism and metabolic health.
How metabolism affects healthy body composition.
If you've ever thought about your weight in relation to your overall health (who hasn't?), you've likely wondered how metabolism plays a part in the equation—or what metabolism even is.
Metabolism is the vital physiological process that drives our essential bodily functions, from “basic” actions (digestion, breathing, blood circulation, etc.) to complex pathways at the tissue and cellular levels and more energy-demanding actions, such as physical activity. "Metabolism isn't just about weight. It actually has more to do with how our body uses the food we eat and converts it to fuel for energy," shares Scheller.
Metabolism and metabolic rate are interlinking. A core factor of metabolic rate is basal metabolic rate (BMR); and it's unique to you. Essentially, your BMR is the amount of energy your body needs to carry out essential functions (e.g., breathing, blood circulation, hormone regulation), even when it's resting (and sleeping). In other words, the higher your BMR, the faster your metabolic rate (and metabolism).
One aspect that heavily influences BMR is your muscle content. Muscle is just one component of lean body mass, which is the weight of everything except body fat (i.e., muscle, body water, organs, skin, bones). The higher your muscle mass, the more energy, aka calories, your body burns at rest (this is known as your resting energy expenditure, or REE).
Because fat is not as metabolically active as lean muscle mass, the alternative is also true—if a body composition has a higher fat percentage, it requires less energy. As a result, individuals with a lower lean muscle mass have a lower BMR and a slower metabolism. And in the case of extra fat stores, that’s an example of too much energy storage.
As you can see, prioritizing strength (muscles), improving your metabolic rate, and increasing metabolism is the smart, sustainable approach (and it's definitely not as simple as "calories in, calories out").
7 ways to promote a healthy, active metabolism.
Thankfully, there are quite a few things we can do to help support an active metabolism. Try incorporating some (or all) of the following tips to improve your basal metabolic rate and promote a healthy body composition:
Eat a nutrient-dense, balanced diet.
What we eat throughout the day has a major impact on our metabolism, cellular energy efficiency, and energy expenditure.
"When we eat foods that support the body's normal processes, our body runs efficiently in creating fuel. However, when we consume a diet high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods, the excess sugar and carbs can convert to fat tissue and be stored in the body," Scheller explains. "Alternatively, when we eat a diet that is rich in lean protein, complex carbs, and healthy fats, the body can more effectively tap into that nutrition to be used as fuel for the body."
Scheduling meals throughout the day (and staying in tune with your innate hunger and satiety cues) is also important for promoting a healthy metabolism and blood glucose regulation. "It's important to eat regular meals and snacks throughout the day. This helps to keep your blood sugar levels stable and provides your body with the energy it needs to function properly," says Vickery.
On the other hand, leveraging the power of intermittent fasting (i.e., a break from food during a dedicated window of energy consumption) each day can help improve metabolic health and longevity. "
In contrast to an ad libitum approach to eating (whenever), intermittent fasting has been demonstrated by research to promote healthy inflammatory and metabolic pathways (e.g., blood sugar balance and cardiovascular biomarkers), reduce overall and visceral fat, and even support sleep," Ferira previously explained here.
Speaking of maintaining healthy blood sugar levels, a 2018 scientific review from 2Nutrients2 found that drinking adequate water has a direct impact on glucose regulation and overall metabolic health. “Our body is mostly water. Depending on your lifestage, I’m talking like 55 to 75 percent water3, you and me,” explains Ferira, adding that “all of those essential cellular reactions (including metabolism) require H2O. Lots of it.”
"Drinking plenty of water throughout the day helps to keep your body properly fueled and can even help to boost your metabolism," says Vickery.
(Excuse me while I fill up my Hydro Flask.)
Take a metabolism-supporting supplement.
For an easy and effective way to increase metabolic speed and efficiency, consider a premium plant-based supplement like mbg's metabolism+ with premium ingredients backed by clinical research science.*
Cayenne pepper, veld grape extract, grains of paradise, and EGCG plus caffeine from green tea leaves have been clinically shown to increase metabolic rate (e.g., resting energy expenditure) and support healthy weight and body composition.*
"These plants are firmly rooted in clinical research evidence demonstrating their multidimensional abilities to support metabolism physiology," shares Ferira. "In addition to its energizing effects, metabolism+ helps enhance and optimize metabolic rate, thermogenic calorie burn, satiety, energy balance, cardiometabolic health biomarkers, and body composition."*
Not too shabby for just two capsules a day!
Get good sleep.
In a 2022 4JAMA Internal Medicine4 randomized clinical trial4, researchers found that consistently extending sleep to recommended hours (i.e., approximately eight hours each night) helped adults with overweight reduce energy intake and lose some excess weight in just two weeks.
So yes, boosting your metabolism can be as easy as a good night's rest.
That said, getting a good night's sleep isn't always so easy. Check out our guide to improving sleep quality for tips on getting better shut-eye.
Move your body daily.
With more of us sitting at desks all day, this is arguably one of the most challenging (and important) tips on this list.
Sedentary activities (such as sitting, lying down, etc.) require very little energy. Maintaining an active lifestyle, on the other hand, helps increase metabolism and supports overall physical and mental health.
The key here is regular movement and activities that bring you joy. “In its broadest sense, this means infusing physical activity into your life in a way that’s not overwhelming and can remain sustainable over time. Whether that’s incorporating a brisk walk into your day, dancing, gardening, yoga, or whatever—you do you,” encourages Ferira.
Focus on strengthening your muscles and bones through activities like weight lifting, pilates, interval training, calisthenics, aerobic exercise, etc., to become stronger, not "smaller." As you'll recall, lean muscle mass increases basal metabolic rate, which is a key metric for metabolic health.
According to a 2016 scientific review from 5Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences5, if left unchecked over time, excess stress can lead to the accumulation of visceral fat, which is fat found in the abdominal cavity that influences hormone levels in a negative way and is associated with long-term cardiometabolic health concerns.
Start with a few deep breaths, then make a plan to integrate more zen into your life, whatever that looks like for you. If meditation and breathwork aren't your style, consider another soothing self-care activity like taking a bath, walking in nature, or picking up an artistic hobby.
This is easier said than done—especially when you're facing unique or prolonged stressors, like caregiving responsibilities or the unexpected challenges of a pandemic. If you can't cut major stressors out of your life, consider partnering with a health care partner (like a certified counselor) when possible to help you navigate situations and manage your stress levels in a healthy, productive way.
Whether you're taking a daily mindful walk or talking to a professional each week, your metabolism will thank you for taking a proactive approach to stress management!
Consider your hormones.
When it comes to hormonal health, it’s well established that thyroid hormones play a critical role in regulating metabolism, affecting everything from body composition to energy expenditure6.
Thyroid hormones help your body regulate metabolism of both lipids and carbohydrates, supplying your brain and the rest of your body with glucose and ATP as it's needed. And what’s more, your sex hormones, neuroendocrine appetite hormones, insulin, and more are all working together for optimal metabolism.
If you're doing everything you can to support your metabolism but finding your weight loss has plateaued, it may be time to talk to an endocrinologist about how your hormones are holistically and specifically impacting your body composition.
Maintaining a healthy body composition is so much more complex than just "burning more calories than you eat." Ditch the unhealthy diet fads from the '90s and adopt a holistic approach to metabolic health by eating nutrient-dense foods, hydrating, sleeping well, and practicing stress management.
For a super-simple way to help improve the efficiency of your metabolism, consider a high-quality daily supplement like mbg's metabolism+.* This completely plant-powered formula features veld grape extract, cayenne pepper, grains of paradise, and EGCG plus caffeine from green tea leaves for a fully synergistic approach to metabolism, metabolic health, and healthy body composition.*
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.