In spite of all the information and all the prescriptions offered by modern diets, American people just keep getting fatter. In my mind, this suggests that our knowledge about metabolism is missing something — perhaps some of the old wisdom that kept hundreds of generations of people slender and strong. Of course, having access to modern scientific knowledge is enormously helpful too. The key lies in integrating these two bodies of wisdom, and then applying them to get a better understanding of our entire physiological landscape.
Diet and Nutrition
Food supplies us with nutrients that are critical for healthy metabolism, and for health in general. Vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids and probiotics are all essential nutrients, many of which cannot be produced by the body and must therefore be ingested from an outside source. Missing even one essential nutrient from your diet could have a devastating effect on your metabolism and overall health, so it’s important to understand how they work.
Minerals (such as calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc) are critical for all tissue structures, including bones, skin and hair. They also play vital roles as electrolytes, which regulate the body’s electrical charge. That electrical charge is necessary for all cellular metabolic functions, but especially for the assimilation of nutrients and the elimination of toxins.
Proper mineral balance helps moderate our body’s sodium levels, preventing water-retention, inflammations and bloating. It also maintains our body’s proper acid/alkaline balance (overacidity leads to sluggish metabolism and makes the body more vulnerable to infection and disease). Minerals even help protect the body from radioactive toxins.
Because mineral deficiencies are related to serious metabolic problems (with symptoms such as indigestion, headaches, nervousness, depression, exhaustion and impotence), it is wise to eat plenty of mineral-rich foods, including fruits and vegetables grown in mineral-rich soil, as well as seafood and especially sea vegetables.
Proteins — and the essential amino acids they contain — are the body’s chief building material. Adequate protein is absolutely necessary for healthy metabolism. However, to be useful, it must be properly digested and assimilated by the body (we’ll address this point in more detail later).
Good sources of complete protein (protein that includes all nine essential amino acids) are animal foods such as chicken, beef, eggs, cheese, fish and seafood. Soy is an alternative for those who wish to minimize their meat and dairy intake, but carefully combining foods is an equally good alternative. In times of short meat supply, ancient people traditionally used the combination of grain and legumes (such as rice and beans) to produce a complete-protein meal. All through the Roman Empire, in fact, beans were considered to be the “poor man’s meat” and were also the gladiators’ main food.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFA’s)
Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) are vital for all bodily functions, and particularly important as building blocks for prostaglandins (hormones that regulate blood pressure, control inflammation and pain and support energy production, including fat burning).
EFA deficiency may cause insulin insensitivity, which negatively affects the conversion of carbohydrates into energy. Many nutritionists recommend eating fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna and mackerel) as a natural source of EFAs. However, that recommendation tends to ignore the fact that most cooking methods (including frying, poaching and baking) destroy most or all of the fish’s sensitive oils.
Taking supplemental EFA oils (such as flaxseed and primrose) is therefore highly recommended.
Probiotics, such as lactobacilli, are the friendly flora (i.e., bacteria) that live in your intestines. They assist with digestion and, at the same time, inhibit all sorts of dangerous, unfriendly organisms that would otherwise take over your digestive tract.
Probiotics help digest proteins. They also neutralize toxins in the colon. When protein isn’t fully digested, it may reach the colon and bloodstream in a toxic form. When that happens, metabolism is compromised. Allergic reactions, irritable bowel symptoms and other pathological complications can result.
Naturally fermented foods (such as yogurts with acidophilus) are a good source of friendly bacteria. Probiotic supplements are another option.
Enzymes are involved in all metabolic processes. These protein compounds work as catalysts to break down foods into nutrients that can then be assimilated or converted into energy. They also work systematically as mediators and catalysts to other hormonal, glandular and sexual functions.
In the presence of adequate and balanced nutrition, the body produces its own enzymes. However, enzyme deficiencies often occur, most often as a result of too much processed and cooked food and too little live, raw food present in the diet.
Some enzyme deficiencies are also related to aging. The older you get, the fewer enzymes your body produces. Conversely, there is some evidence that supporting your body with enzymes may actually help slow the aging process.
In the blood, enzymes work as antioxidants and also as anti-inflammatory agents. Some believe that protease enzymes (enzymes that digest protein) have anti-cancerous properties. Studies show that lipase (an enzyme that breaks down fat) may help accelerate fat burning.
There is a rule of nature that raw foods contain all enzymes necessary for their own digestion. Therefore, natural sources of the fat-burning enzyme lipase can be found in high-fat raw foods such as avocados, nuts and seeds. Those who want to maximize their enzyme intake can also take plant-enzyme supplements.
“Vita,” in Latin, means life. Vitamins, as the root word implies, are life carriers. They are involved in all metabolic processes, including energy production and assimilation of nutrients for the regeneration of tissues. One of the main functions of vitamins is to protect the body from harmful free radicals and toxins that are the natural byproducts of metabolism.
Vitamins and minerals work together synergistically in a precise biological balance. Vitamin deficiencies or imbalances may force the body to compromise all metabolic processes. Vitamin deficiencies also leave the body vulnerable to the damage of free radicals, which can in turn lead to tissue breakdown, disease and aging.
Phytonutrients, including chlorophyll, polysaccharides, sterols, saponins and lactones, are part of a huge variety of plant compounds that actively support certain metabolic processes. There are thousands of known phytochemicals, and a great deal of current research on the potential uses of these natural substances for medical purposes.
Herbs, a rich source of phytonutrients, have been used for thousands of years as metabolic enhancers and as tonics to help people recover from disease. While it would take pages to even begin to address the different functions of common herbs, let me briefly mention just a few things. Certain herbs, such as panax or Siberian ginseng, may help balance metabolic disorders and help alleviate stress-related and sexual problems. Other herbs, such as ephedra, have traditionally served as energy enhancers and fat burners.
Before using any herbs, do your own research on processing, potency, standardization and possible side effects.
Fiber plays a critical role in digestion, elimination and energy production. Besides helping detoxify the body through elimination of waste and toxins, fiber influences certain metabolic processes, including the conversion of carbohydrates and fats to energy. In short, fiber slows the absorption of simple sugars, thereby helping to stabilize blood sugar, regulate insulin activity and supply a steady stream of energy to the body. Certain fibers (such as mucilage and pectin) work like sponges, pulling toxins and fat away from the body so they can be more quickly eliminated as waste. For people who don’t know when to stop eating, fibrous foods can also be helpful in triggering a full, satiated feeling.
Although fiber cereals and supplements are a good way to enhance your fiber intake, consider whole foods your first line of defense. Our bodies are built to metabolize whole foods, which are naturally rich in fiber and essential nutrients. Serious metabolic problems, including excessive fat gain, are often the result of chronic consumption of over-processed, refined food. Diets deficient in fiber and minerals make people crave for the missing nutrients, which leads to a near-constant sense of hunger, and sometimes to compulsive binging.
Exercise is the most effective method for instantly boosting metabolism. Combining exercise and proper diet naturally leads to maximum metabolic efficiency.
Both are absolutely essential. That said, I believe that diet should be your No. 1 priority. Here’s why: Both your ability to exercise and your exercise results will naturally accelerate in the presence of proper nutrition. Without proper diet, you won’t be able to effectively access energy stores, nor will you be able replace nutrients lost during exercise. When that happens, metabolism declines.
Naturally, genetics are a key factor. But so is metabolism, and metabolism is inherently dependent on how you treat your body. If you attempt to exercise intensively without supporting your body’s nutritional needs, you won’t get very far.
If you want to live in a young, vigorous, lean body, just give your body what it needs in order to reach a peak metabolic state: Eat well, exercise intensely, get enough rest. Most importantly, get to know your body from the inside out. Enjoy its power, respect its complexity, and it will repay you richly.