Weight loss

What is metabolism? Everything you need to know

Looking for answers about your metabolism? Read on for a deep dive into what metabolism really means for your weight and wellness journey.
Published 30 July 2019

Key points:

  • To date, research hasn’t turned up any quick “hacks” that can noticeably turn up the dial on your body’s ability to burn calories (a.k.a. kilojoules).
  • Metabolism is largely determined by our genetics, as well as sex-based factors, body size, age, and physical activity.
  • Though many people associate metabolism with just weight, metabolism is actually a collective term for the many processes that take place within our cells to provide energy for our bodies.

You’ve probably heard the mantra: Weight loss is a matter of calories in vs. calories out. Most of us have a decent grasp of the “calories in” part—it’s all about what you eat! When it comes to “calories out,” however, many of us are downright mystified. How much energy do our bodies actually need and use in a given day? Is that what metabolism means? And if so, is it possible to make metabolism faster so the body burns more calories?

Whether or not you’re trying to lose weight, gaining a fuller understanding of metabolism can be insightful. Since it's a bit complicated, we asked experts to walk us through what metabolism actually is, how it plays out in the body, and whether it’s really adjustable for weight management. Read on to find out everything you need to know about metabolism.

What is metabolism?

Many people think of metabolism as a simple measure of how quickly our bodies burn through calories. There’s a bit more to it than that, says Scott Summers, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Nutrition and Integrative Physiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, United States. Metabolism is actually a collective term for the many processes that convert food and nutrients into energy and building blocks the body needs, he explains.

Metabolic processes fall into two main categories. Those that contribute to growth are described as anabolic (think: the creation of new cells). On the flip side are catabolic processes, which break down complex substances for the body to use in other ways. Both types of processes require energy.

Though metabolic functions are a big determinant of your daily calorie needs, metabolism isn’t just about weight, Summers emphasises. It’s really about how the body captures and utilises energy to carry out the tasks that keep us alive.

Anabolism vs. catabolism

As noted, metabolism is actually made up of two “isms”: anabolism and catabolism. Anabolism is constructive, taking simple molecules and building them into more complex materials for the body’s use. Catabolism works in the opposite way: It breaks down substances into simpler parts. Catabolism fuels anabolism; both types of processes are important to human physiology.


Your body is pretty much a factory that’s always cranking. Day and night, it produces important raw materials, including cells, tissues, hormones, and enzymes, to name a few. Called anabolism, this family of processes is your body’s growth and building mode, says registered dietitian nutritionist Kathleen Zelman. Anabolism also occurs with the muscle development that results from strength training, she notes.


“Catabolism is the opposite of anabolism,” Zelman says. “It’s the process of breaking down substances within the body.” An example of a catabolic process is glycolysis, the 10-step series of reactions in which enzymes extract energy from dietary glucose. Most catabolic processes in the body release energy.

Basal metabolic rate

Whether you’re bike riding or reading calmly at a desk, your body needs fuel. The minimum amount of energy your body needs—i.e., while you’re doing absolutely nothing—is known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR). “That’s the energy it takes to be alive,” says Douglas White, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at Auburn University, United States. BMR, usually expressed as calories per day, covers the vital functions of the heart, lungs, digestive system, and more, he explains.

In general, BMR likely accounts for 60% to 70% of all calories you metabolise. Figuring out your exact BMR, however, would require some fairly involved measurements. The clinical process generally requires a lab visit and following strict conditions including a 12-hour fast beforehand. First thing in the morning, a lab specialist would have to measure your internal heat production by analysing the gases you breathe in and out (a technique known as indirect calorimetry), then use those findings to arrive at the baseline number of calories your body needs per day. Most people do not know their actual BMR—nor do they need to in the absence of a metabolic issue or related health concern, White says.

You may have also heard of a similar measurement called resting metabolic rate (RMR), or resting energy expenditure. In clinical settings, specialists calculate RMR using the same calorimetry technique used for BMR but under less restrictive conditions—no fasting required, for example. An RMR value is generally a bit higher than a BMR value because it may include heat generated from, say, digestion. Among metabolic specialists, BMR is considered the preferred standard over RMR, White says.

If you’ve ever done a Google search for metabolism, you may have come across quick formulas aimed at calculating your BMR or RMR based on factors such as your age, weight, height, and sex. Just note that these tools, while seemingly convenient for estimating baseline calorie needs, vary in the results they produce and may not align with what a lab test would tell you.

What bodily functions does metabolism include?

Metabolism affects every process in the body that uses or converts energy, including:

  • Muscle contraction
  • Brain function
  • Temperature regulation
  • Breathing
  • Blood circulation
  • Digestion
  • Waste elimination

As mentioned earlier, the functions that are essential for life, such as brain function and blood circulation, account for the lion’s share of calories you burn each day.

Metabolic rate and body weight

All other things being equal, a higher body weight generally means a higher metabolic rate. That may seem counterintuitive, but the simple fact is that more kilos require more energy for the body to carry and maintain, White explains. In this sense, a “faster” or “higher” metabolism doesn’t always translate to a smaller number on the scale.

Metabolic rate actually tends to dip in people who have lost weight, says Dr. Lawrence Cheskin, M.D., professor of nutrition and food studies at George Mason University, United States. This underscores the importance of a healthy maintenance plan for those hoping to stay at a reduced weight. Because a smaller body requires fewer calories per day to function, returning to former dietary habits could result in quickly regaining weight that was lost, Dr. Cheskin cautions.

What else determines my metabolic rate?

Metabolism is essentially the body’s engine, Zelman says, and some people’s engines just run faster than others. Apart from weight—which is modifiable—much of a person’s metabolic rate is hardwired by the following factors:

  • Body composition: The percentage of fat, bone, and muscle in your body is your body composition. There are two types of fat—fat mass and fat-free mass (muscle). Two people can weigh the same but have different amounts of body fat. The person with more body fat is at greater risk of getting cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other problems.
  • Biological sex-related factors: The hormone testosterone supports muscle growth, and muscle mass is one factor that stokes BMR, White says. That may be one of several reasons cisgender men have been shown to have higher energy requirements than cisgender women.
  • Age: Somewhere around age 30, our bodies naturally start to lose muscle mass (about 1% per year)—a loss that can ultimately drop our metabolic rate , White says. Strength training may be helpful for maintaining muscle mass and minimising age-related declines in BMR, he says.
  • Height: Similar to the way a higher weight increases the body’s daily energy needs, tall people tend to have higher BMRs than folks of smaller stature.

How does food and nutrition affect my metabolic rate?

Maybe you’ve heard that certain foods and drinks—such as coffee, spicy chilli, or green tea—can speed up your metabolism. While some studies have looked at whether such additions to your diet could impart a boost, there’s no evidence they make a meaningful difference in how quickly your body burns calories, according to the American National Library of Medicine.

Some research suggests that a high-protein diet could slightly raise metabolic rate by producing a greater thermic effect. In other words, burning protein may require more calories during digestion than carbs and dietary fat do. A small 2020 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that a diet of 30% protein may help keep people from regaining weight after they lose it—again, in part by increasing RMR.

How does exercise affect my metabolism?

Regular physical activity that includes strength training could boost your daily energy expenditure beyond the calories you burn during the activity itself. Some of the credit goes to lean muscle mass. “Adding muscle can increase metabolism and help you burn calories at a higher rate,” Zelman says. That's not to say you need to be pumping iron every day. Several studies report that people who regularly engage in almost any form of exercise—whether swimming, running, or tennis—may burn more calories independent of those activities than people whose lifestyles are sedentary.

Are there tips for boosting your metabolism?

To date, research hasn’t uncovered any quick “hacks” that can noticeably turn up the dial on your body’s rate of calorie burn. While a few small studies suggest that lifestyle measures such as getting better sleep, or drinking more water may boost metabolism, the findings aren’t consistent and most effects observed are marginal. (Adequate sleep and hydration are good for other reasons, though!) Experts say metabolism is determined by factors like biological sex, body size, age, and level of physical activity. Becoming more physically active and increasing muscle mass through strength training may increase the body’s rate of calorie burn.

The upshot: What does metabolism mean?

Though many people associate metabolism with just weight, metabolism is actually a collective term for the many processes that take place within our cells to provide energy for life processes (such as blood circulation) and for creating materials the body needs (such as bone tissue). Metabolism includes anabolic processes, which synthesise new materials from simpler parts, and catabolic processes, which break down complex substances to free up energy and more.

Much of our metabolic rate—the amount of energy we expend per day—goes toward supporting vital life functions. Metabolism is largely shaped by immutable factors such as age. In terms of weight management, there’s scant evidence that particular foods or drinks can “speed up” metabolism and increase the body’s overall rate of calorie burn. That said, physical activity that builds lean muscle mass may help in that regard. Whatever your personal metabolic rate, long-term weight management is possible with a lifestyle that includes a healthy pattern of eating and regular physical activity.