You’ve probably heard that your metabolism slows down as your age. Turns out, that isn’t entirely true. A new study revealed that your metabolism actually remains steady throughout most of your adult life.
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Every minute of every day, your body is converting food or stored fat into energy to keep itself going—pumping blood, expanding and contracting your lungs, plus all kinds of stuff on a cellular level, like making new cells and getting rid of old ones. That’s your basal metabolic rate. On top of that, there’s the energy you expend to move around and do the physical activity of your day… plus the energy it takes to process your food into energy in the first place. The exact amount of energy it takes to do all this varies from person to person. If someone burns through a lot of energy in a given amount of time, we say they have a fast metabolism. Those who burn less energy in the same amount of time have a ‘slow’ metabolism.
There are so many crash diets and ‘quick fixes’ that promise to speed up your metabolism to help you achieve weight loss, but the truth is that the speed of your metabolism is determined almost entirely by your genes. And research is telling us that metabolism actually plays a relatively small role in weight management anyway—the biggest factors for this are good ol’ diet and activity levels.
So how about that “our metabolism gets slower as we age?” factoid? Well, for years it was widely accepted by the scientific community, but a 2021 study has given us a much-needed update. A team of 80 co-authors analyzed metabolic rate data collected by different labs over the course of 40 years. This data comes from more than 6,400 people ranging from 8 days old to 95 years old. Turns out, there are metabolic shifts in our lives, but probably not when you think. Our calorie-burning peak is actually when we’re infants, when from birth to 15 months we’re using crazy amounts of energy to grow our brains and our bodies. Infants actually burn calories 50% faster than adults! After these early days, our metabolism slows down throughout childhood and adolescence before it settles around age 20 into our adult rate. Then at 60 years old, our metabolic rate drops again, and keeps declining until the end of our lives. But between 20 and 60, that biiiiig span of time in the middle? Our metabolism stays pretty much the same, even through big changes like pregnancy or menopause.
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Daily energy expenditure through the human life course
Pontzer et al. report that energy expenditure (adjusted for weight) in neonates was like that of adults but increased substantially in the first year of life (see the Perspective by Rhoads and Anderson). It then gradually declined until young individuals reached adult characteristics, which were maintained from age 20 to 60 years.
What We Think We Know About Metabolism May Be Wrong
There are more than 80 co-authors on the study. By combining efforts from a half dozen labs collected over 40 years, they had sufficient information to ask general questions about changes in metabolism over a lifetime.
What I learned about weight loss from spending a day inside a metabolic chamber
There are only about 30 metabolic chambers in the world, and the NIH is home to three. These highly sensitive, multimillion-dollar scientific instruments are considered the gold standard for measuring metabolism.
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