You know the drill: Eat less and exercise more to lose weight. But when the scale seems stuck a few pounds away from your goal weight, your metabolism may need a boost. Little lifestyle tweaks (like not dieting!) may be the ticket. Here are simple suggestions to jumpstart calorie burning from the latest studies and top experts.
It sounds counterintuitive, but eating fewer than 1,200 calories a day can actually slow weight loss, says Keri Gans, RD, a nutrition consultant in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet. "When you eat much less than your body needs, it may go into starvation mode and store fat," says Gans. A 5'5" woman who's moderately active needs approximately 1,400 to 1,700 calories per day, says Gans. And those calories should come from a variety of nutrients consisting of high-fiber carbohydrates (100% whole grains, fruits and veggies), lean protein (fish, skinless poultry and sirloin) and healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado and olive oil).
Not only does green tea contain enough antioxidants to keep colds and the flu at bay, but it also does wonders for your metabolism, according to a study published in the journal Phytomedicine. Researchers found that people who drank the equivalent of three to five cups daily for three months shaved 5 percent off their body weight. Green tea contains ECGC, a plant compound that stimulates your metabolism, says Rania Batayneh, MPH, a nutritionist in private practice in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, and founder of Essential Nutrition consulting.
Your body maintains muscle through protein synthesis, an intense calorie-burning process, says Brad Schoenfeld, CSCS, Director of the Human Performance Lab at CUNY Lehman College, in Bronx, NY, and author of Sculpting Her Body Perfect. Researchers believe just having muscle burns 10 to 20 calories per pound per day versus burning one to two calories per pound of fat, says Schoenfeld. "If you diet without lifting, about 25% of your weight loss will come from muscle tissue. That suppresses metabolism because you miss the additional calories that having muscle burns." So incorporate weight training into your workouts two to three times a week, and include all major muscle groups. And try to pick up heavier weights: By using heavy weights at a very slow rate—twice as slow as would feel natural—you break down your muscles (you'll know the weights are heavy enough and the workout slow enough if you start to shake after just a few lifts or squats). Researchers at Wayne State University found that when your body repairs those overworked muscles, it causes your metabolism to increase for up to three days after the workout.
Staying in motion throughout the day, including run-of-the-mill fidgeting, speeds metabolism substantially, according to studies. "People who engage in non-exercise activity thermogenesis, a fancy term for any daily physical activity, gain less weight than those who sit still," says James DeLaney, PhD, endocrinologist at the University of Pittsburgh. That's why you should climb stairs instead of taking the elevator and get up out of your chair at least every hour, suggests Dr. DeLaney. "These little things add up."
While green tea's fat-burning effect is well-known, you may not realize that another emerald-hued plant works similarly. Fucoxanthin, which gives seaweed its green-brown color, has been shown to have an anti-obesity effect in animal studies. See if your doctor recommends fucoxanthin in supplement form. "Patients with a low metabolic rate who cannot tolerate medications can use fucoxanthin in combination with green tea," says Caroline J. Cederquist, MD, Medical Director of bistroMD and Cederquist Medical Wellness Center in Naples, FL.
Vinegar's acetic acid flips on genes that stimulate fat burning, says Ann Kulze, MD, author of the Eat Right for Life series. In fact, a 2009 study showed lower body weight, body fat and triglyceride levels in obese subjects who included vinegar in their diets. When you eat salad, toss it with olive oil and 1 Tbsp of any vinegar-based dressing, suggests Dr. Kulze. In addition to the fat-reducing effect of the vinegar, the healthy fat in the olive oil helps you feel full longer and its "oleic acid triggers the release of the appetite suppressive hormone CCK," says Dr. Kulze.
Omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) found in fish oil, do wonders for your metabolism. "Fish oil cranks up fat burning by increasing thyroid hormones' efficiency within your liver cells," says Jonny Bowden, PhD, nutritionist and co-author of The Great Cholesterol Myth. Fill up on oily fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, lake trout) regularly, suggests Dr. Kulze. "Wild salmon is best because it's super-high in PUFAs, and you can always find it frozen or canned." On days you don't eat oily fish, take a high-quality fish oil supplement with your doctor's OK.
If you consistently consume the same amount of calories, your body may adapt by decreasing its metabolic rate, says Dr. Cederquist. Try a low-fat diet for four weeks followed by two weeks of slightly more protein, fat and carbs. "When you return to the lower calorie plan, weight loss takes off instead of plateauing," says Dr. Cederquist. Just make sure your higher calorie weeks aren't all-out feasts, Dr. Cederquist warns. Add up to two extra ounces of protein at meals and up to two extra servings of fruit and grains per day.
Nicotinamide riboside (NR) in milk and all other dairy burns fat, says Shawn Talbott, PhD, Research Director of SupplementWatch, Inc. and author of The Metabolic Method. "Having more NR around enables mitochondria, the energy-producing units in cells, to more efficiently metabolize fat into energy." In animal studies, NR supplements reduced obesity rates in rats, even those on high-fat diets. Try adding milk to smoothies or snacking on Greek yogurt with fruit.
Arginine, an amino acid in this summertime favorite, not only burns fat but also prevents fat storage, says Dr. Talbott. "A recent Texas A&M study found that fat gain was 30% lower in rats supplemented with arginine over 12 weeks." More benefits discovered in that study: better-controlled blood sugar, higher muscle mass, significantly more brown fat, the type that burns calories, and nutrient partitioning, which promotes muscle gain over fat gain. Work watermelon into fruit salads and drinks or cook up these delicious entrees with watermelon (yes, really!).
Chemical food preservatives known as obesogens may have contributed to the rise in obesity rates in recent years, studies suggest. Research has yet to reveal exactly how they work, but scientists believe obesogens affect appetite or metabolism or cause cells to change into fat cells. So eat organic whenever possible, making special effort to avoid the "dirty dozen," the fruits and vegetables believed to have the most pesticides.
Mi in fast-paced intervals raises your metabolic rate higher than doing a steady cardio workout, and will continue to do so up to an hour after you're done, says Kristin McGee, a trainer and Pilates instructor whose client list includes Tina Fey and Bethenny Frankel. An Australian study also found that women who did intervals while they were biking lost three times as much fat as those who worked out at a steady pace. If you're a walker, simply walk at your normal pace for 1 to 2 minutes, then speed-walk for 30 to 60 seconds. Repeat the sequence 10 to 15 times.
It's time to hit Starbucks. A study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior shows that coffee drinkers have a 16 percent higher metabolic rate than those who abstain or drink decaf joe, because caffeine increases your heart rate and stimulates your central nervous system. Spread out the cups over your entire day to keep your metabolism running at a boosted rate—just be sure to have your last cup by early afternoon so you can hit the pillow with no problems later on.
Though the increase is modest, there is some evidence that drinking cold water can cause a slight surge in metabolic rate. Since your body maintains a core temperature around 98.6°F, cold water will be brought to that temperature after being consumed and calories are burned during the warming process. Discovery Health deduced that you can burn up to 70 extra calories a day if you follow the common rule of drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of cold water per day. Need another reason to up your water intake? Researchers at the University of Utah found that participants who drank half of the recommended amount of water per day (four 8-ounce glasses), not only showed signs of dehydration, they also experienced a 2% decrease in calories burned per day.
It's time to nix the oatmeal with skim milk. Instead, start your day with a fatty breakfast, including eggs and even a piece of bacon, suggests Molly Bray, PhD, lead author of a recent study showing that a fat-filled morning meal will jumpstart your metabolism for the day faster than a lowfat, low-calorie breakfast. Another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that people who eat 22 to 55 percent of their total calories at breakfast gain 1.7 pounds over four years. That's not bad considering those who eat 0 to 11 percent of their calories in the morning gain nearly 3 pounds.