Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What is Metabolism?

Some people think that the metabolism is a kind of organ, or a body part, that influences digestion.  

Actually, the metabolism isn’t any particular body part.  

It’s the process by which the body converts food into energy.  

Hence, you’ve likely heard of the phrase metabolic process used synonymously with the term metabolism, because they both mean the same thing. 

The Medical Myths 

This isn’t a complicated medical text (which should be great news to most of you!), and so we don’t need to spend an unnecessary amount of time and space focusing on the layered complexity of the human body and its extraordinary intelligence.  

Yet without drilling deeply into medical details -- which are not relevant for our general understanding purposes -- it’s helpful to briefly look at the biological mechanisms behind metabolism. 

Metabolism, as mentioned above, is the process of transforming food (e.g. nutrients) into fuel (e.g. energy).  The body uses this energy to conduct a vast array of essential functions.  

In fact, your ability to read this page - literally - is driven by your metabolism.  

If you had no metabolism - that is, if you had no metabolic process that was converting food into energy – then you wouldn’t be able to move.  

In fact, long before you realized that you couldn’t move a finger or lift your foot, your internal processes would have stopped; because the basic building blocks of life - circulating blood, transforming oxygen into carbon dioxide, expelling potentially lethal wastes through the kidneys and so on - all of these depend on metabolism.  

Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone say that they have a slow metabolism.  

While they may struggle with unwanted weight gain due to metabolic factors, they certainly have a functioning metabolism. 

If they didn’t, they wouldn’t even be able to speak (because that, too, requires energy that comes from, you guessed it: metabolism!).

It’s also interesting to note that, while we conveniently refer to the metabolic process as if it were a single function, it’s really a catch - all term for countless functions that are taking place inside the body. Every second of every minute of every day of your life - even, of course, when you sleep - numerous chemical conversions are taking place through metabolism, or metabolic functioning.  

In a certain light, the metabolism has been referred to as a harmonizing process that manages to achieve two critical bodily functions that, in a sense, seem to be at odds with each other.   

Anabolism and Catabolism 

jojopig.comThe first function is creating tissue and cells.  Each moment, our bodies are creating more cells to replace dead or dysfunctional cells.  

For example, if you cut your finger, your body (if it’s functioning properly) will begin – without even wasting a moment or asking your permission –the process of creating skin cells to clot the blood and start the healing process.  This creation process is indeed a metabolic response, and is called anabolism.

On the other hand, there is the exact opposite activity taking place in other parts of the body.  Instead of building cells and tissue through metabolism, the body is breaking down energy so that the body can do what it’s supposed to do.  

For example, as you aerobically exercise, your body temperature rises as your heart beat increases and remains with a certain range.  

As this happens, your body requires more oxygen; and as such, your breathing increases as you intake more HO.  All of this, as you can imagine, requires additional energy.  

After all, if your body couldn’t adjust to this enhanced requirement for oxygen (both taking it in and getting rid of it in the form of carbon dioxide), you would collapse!   

Presuming, of course, that you aren’t overdoing it, your body will instead begin converting food (e.g. calories) into energy.  And this process, as you know, is a metabolic process, and is called catabolism.

So as you can see, the metabolism is a constant process that takes care of two seemingly opposite function: anabolism that uses energy to create cells, and catabolism that breaks down cells to create energy.  

Indeed, it’s in this way that the metabolism earns its reputation as a harmonizer. It brings together these apparently conflicting functions, and does so in an optimal way that enables the body to create cells as needed, and break them down, again as needed. 

Metabolism and Weight Loss 

By now, you already have a sense of how metabolism relates to  weight loss (catabolic metabolism, or breaking cells down and transforming them into energy).  

To understand this process even more clearly, we can introduce a very important player in the weight loss game - the calorie. 


Calories are simply units of measure.  They aren’t actually things in and of themselves; they are labels for other things, just like how an inch really isn’t anything, but it measures the distance between two points.  

So what do calories measure?  

Easy: they measure energy.

Yup, the evil calorie - the bane of the dieter’s existence - is really just a 3-syllable label for energy.  

And it’s important to highlight this, because the body itself, despite its vast intelligence (much of which medical science cannot yet understand, only appreciate in awe) does not really do a very intelligent job of distinguishing good energy from bad.  

Actually, to be blunt, the body doesn’t care about where the energy comes from.  Let’s explore this a little more, because it’s very important to the overall understanding of how to boost your metabolism, particularly when we look at food choices.

In our choice-laden grocery stores, with dozens of varieties of foods - hundreds, perhaps - there seems to be a fairly clear awareness of what’s good food, and what’s bad or junk food.  

For example, we don’t need a book to remind us that, all else being equal, a plum is a good food, whereas a tub of thick and creamy double-fudge ice cream is a bad food.  

Not bad tasting, of course; but, really, you won’t find many fit people eating a vat of ice cream a day, for obvious reasons. So what does this have to do with calories and energy?  

It’s this: while you and I can evaluate our food choices and say that something (like a plum) is a healthy source of energy, and something else (like a tub of ice cream) is an unhealthy source of energy, the body doesn’t evaluate.  Really.  

It sounds strange and amazing, but the body really doesn’t care. To the body, energy is energy. It takes whatever it gets, and doesn’t really know that some foods are healthier than others.  It’s kind of like a garbage disposal: it takes what you put down it, whether it should go down or not.

So let’s apply this to the body, and to weight gain.  When the body receives a calorie - which, as we know, is merely a label for energy - it must do something with that energy.  

In other words, putting all other nutrients and minerals aside, if a plum delivers 100 calories to the body, it has to accept those 100 calories.  The same goes for 500 calories from a (small) tub of ice cream: those 500 calories have to be dealt with.  

Now, the body does two things to that energy: it either metabolizes it via anabolism, or it metabolizes it via catabolism.  That is, it will either convert the energy (calories) into cells/tissue, or it will use that energy (calories) to break down cells.

Now the link between calories/energy, metabolism, and weight loss becomes rather clear and direct.  

When there is an excess of energy, and the body can’t use this energy to deal with any needs at the time, it will be forced to create cells with that extra energy. It has to.  

It doesn’t necessarily want to, but after figuring out that the energy can’t be used to do anything (such as help you exercise or digest some food), it has to turn it into cells through anabolism.  

And those extra cells?  Yup, you guessed it: added weight!  

In a nutshell (and nuts have lots of calories by the way, so watch out and  eat them in small portions…), the whole calorie/metabolism/weight gain thing is really just about excess energy.   

When there are too many calories in the body – that is, when there’s too much energy from food - then the body transforms those calories into stuff.  

And that stuff, most of the time, is fat.  Sometimes, of course, those extra calories are transformed into muscle; and this is usually a good thing for those watching their weight or trying to maintain an optimal body fat ratio.  

In fact, because muscles require calories to maintain, people with strong muscle tone burn calories without actually doing anything; their metabolism burns it for them.  

This is the primary reason why exercising and building lean muscle is part of an overall program to boost your metabolism; because the more lean muscle you have, the more places excess calories can go before they’re turned into fat.

Check out the Video about Metabolism 


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