A few months ago, after being on my 1,700-calorie diet for a while and hitting a weight-loss plateau, my boyfriend said, "You really don't eat that much. Have you ever had your metabolism checked?"
Google "slow metabolism" and you get language like, "There is such a thing as slow metabolism...but it's rare." (Code for: "Not you, couch potato!") And this was what I've always assumed. I never thought to have my metabolism checked. It's too taboo. If you say you have a slow metabolism, you'd better be joking, or expect people around you to roll their eyes.
Most people—even some health professionals who are charged with providing care to overweight and obese people—assume dieters blaming slow metabolism or some other genetic problem just want to have an excuse.
However, I decided to follow through with my boyfriend's suggestion. I learned I could have my metabolism checked using an indirect calorimeter for $90 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham's (UAB) EatRight Weight Management Services. (Around the country, a similar test will cost anywhere from $40 to $100. Some fitness clubs now offer it as part of the package when you join.) Taking the test is simple: You relax for about 10–15 minutes, then you clip your nose and breathe through a tube, still relaxed, for another 10 minutes.
I didn't expect the test to tell me anything other than "normal." But in the weeks leading up to my appointment, my boyfriend's suggestion started to work on my mind. It brought up a question I've had for a long time, a question I've conditioned myself to sweep to the dusty corners of my mind: Why have I been so seriously overweight since age 6? Is there something else going on?
After my 10-minute test was over, the registered dietitian brought a printout and sat across from me to explain the results: My resting metabolic rate is 33% slower than normal for a woman my age, height, and weight.
So here's how that translates in calories: A woman my age, height, and weight with a normal metabolism has a predicted resting metabolic rate of about 1,812 calories. Add in regular daily activities and exercise, and that woman would burn about 2,100 to 2,400 calories a day (depending on what exercise she does and how active she is).
My resting metabolic rate is 1,224 calories. Add in activity and assume a half hour of moderately paced exercise, and I burn about 1,717 calories a day. No wonder I wasn't seeing results with my 1,700 calorie diet—that's what my body needs to maintain. And if I followed U.S. dietary guidelines for a weight-maintenance diet (and ate between 2,000 and 2,300 calories a day), I'd gain as much as a pound a week! According to the results from my test, my weight-loss zone is 1,000 to 1,224 calories a day.
My journalism brain clicked on and questions zoomed through my head (that is, after I got over the initial shock of the test results). First question: We always hear a slow metabolism is rare, but how rare? Is there a percentage? I started looking, researching, and contacting weight-loss professionals.
"It's just sort of common thought that slow metabolism is rare. I look out there and say, 'Based on what?' Because among the people I see, about half have a slower metabolism than what you would predict based on age, height, weight, and gender," says Shawn Talbott, PhD, a nutritional biochemist in Salt Lake City. Talbott is author of The Cortisol Connection, in which he writes about how stress can slow your metabolism, and he has a long list of degrees in exercise science, fitness management, and sports medicine. He's also taught nutrition at the University of Utah.
Talbott often recommends metabolic testing and uses it to give people valuable information and a personalized plan to reach their goals. His advice: If you feel like you eat the same food as your friends and you gain weight while they don't, or you feel like you aren't getting results with your own diet plan, get your metabolism checked.
"It shows you how many calories your body needs, establishes some boundaries, and gives people some daily goals. For about half the people [I test], it's a revelation, especially for women. They look at it and go, 'Are you kidding me? I can only eat that much?' But if you don't get that measurement, you have no idea, and you'll continually struggle all the time."
And here's Dr. Talbott's prescription for a slow metabolism:
- Weight train two or three times a week. Increase your metabolism by adding muscle, and prevent muscle loss as you lose weight. (Otherwise, your metabolism can actually drop as you lose weight.)
- Interval train. Instead of low-intensity, fat-burning workouts, walk, run, or cycle at an easier pace for a minute or two, then go at an intense pace for a minute or two, and continue alternating. "It burns more calories and keeps your metabolic rate higher than if you exercised at a lower intensity," Talbott says.
- Take a multivitamin. "For patients who eat less than 1,500 calories a day, even if you make good food choices, you're still right on the cusp of not being able to get enough vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients because there's just not enough stuff in your diet," he says.
- Use the "helping hand" method of portion control:
- Open your hand and stretch your fingers out as wide as possible. That's how many fruit and vegetables you should have at a meal.
- Make a tight fist. That's a serving of concentrated carbs like pasta, oatmeal, or bread.
- Look at the size of your palm. That's your protein—a hamburger patty, chicken breast, eggs, fish, etc.
- Make an "OK" sign with your index finger and thumb. That's a serving of fat, like olive oil and salad dressing.
- For most people with small hands, if you do one of each of these measures at every meal, you'll eat about 400 calories. For those with big hands, about 600 calories.
As for me, I am returning to UAB for more help. Even though I'm a diet editor, I know that it's hard to get all the nutrition I need—and feel satisfied—without a very carefully tuned diet and a bit of support to get me started. UAB's Eat Right program is in such demand, though, that it will be March before I return. Then I'll work with a physician, a registered dietitian, an exercise physiologist, and a behavioral psychologist.
Until then, I'm enjoying BodyPump classes at my gym, and stealing ideas from some of the 1,250-calorie diets published in Health—like our "Eat What You Crave" plan. (Our diets are developed by registered dietitians, one of whom is also a trained chef—mmm! Who says diets have to be bland?)