Foods That Rev Up Your Metabolism
Can certain foods kick your body’s metabolism into a higher gear to help you lose weight? Many foods are touted as metabolism boosters, but how much and when you eat may be more effective ways to get the most impact from your workouts.
What Is Your Metabolism?
Metabolism is your body’s process of turning the foods and drinks into energy.
“Metabolism is a sum of all of the chemical reactions going on in your body in order to maintain life. This requires energy in the form of calories to be expended every day,” says Laura Kruskall, PhD, director of the Dietetic Internship and Nutrition Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Metabolism includes your total daily energy expenditure. You need fuel to rest, to digest and process nutrients from food, and to maintain physical activity, she says. “When we talk about maximizing metabolism, you’re really asking: How can I increase my total daily energy expenditure? You can choose how much energy to expend by moving your body with activities of daily living or exercise.”
Muscle-building exercise increases your basal metabolic rate, or the energy your body needs to function. That means you can take in more calories and use them up, with fewer calories left over. Regular exercise probably revs up your metabolism more than any food or eating strategy like eating at a certain time of day, so make sure you do these activities regularly, Kruskall says:
- Cardio exercises like brisk walking or swimming to burn calories
- Strength training to build more muscle mass
Instead of looking for magic foods that rev up your metabolism, focus on getting a variety of healthy, whole foods in your diet to support your workouts, says Sarah L. Ash, PhD, emerita professor of nutrition at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
“Most people have efficient reserves of calories from their diet to engage in moderate exercise. You may be looking for sparkplugs in your diet, or foods that make you feel a boost of energy.” Some people feel that boost from caffeine or sugary foods, Ash says. “Some energy bars even have caffeine in them, and that gives you a little spark. But they’re not really nutritious. People are looking for a way to help themselves because it’s hard to start exercising if you haven’t been active.”
Protein Powers Metabolism
Foods rich in protein help you build muscle, so they’re good choices if you want to support your metabolism, says Vijaya Surampudi, MD, assistant professor of medicine in the UCLA Division of Human Nutrition in Los Angeles.
“Protein shakes are a great option if you’re hungry or on the go, or foods like cottage cheese or yogurt,” Surampudi says.
Try these protein-rich snacks to keep your metabolism wired during the day:
- Small serving of nuts
- Celery topped with hummus
- Hard-boiled egg
“Smoothies are popular too, but some are high in sugar and are more like sorbet. Make your own smoothie instead of buying one. Put in no more than one cup of fruit,” along with plain yogurt, Sarampudi says. “If you add protein powder, use whey protein isolate,” which may help you build muscle mass along with strength training.
If you buy premade smoothies, check the label for healthy ingredients, says Joan Salge Blake, EdD, a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. Making your own smoothies at home gives you control over the ingredients, so you know it’s not all sugar. “Also, you don’t have to always use fresh fruit. Frozen or canned fruits in your smoothie are fine. You’ll get some fiber too, and it’s really inexpensive.”
These foods give you healthy sources of energy and nutrients to support your metabolism as you exercise:
- Salmon: Rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fats
- Beans: Plenty of fiber to stave off hunger pangs
- Hot chili peppers: Capsaicin in that fiery taste may help your body burn more calories
- Broccoli: Packed with water and fiber to help you feel full
- Lentils: Rich in protein, fiber, and iron, a mineral that supports healthy energy and weight
- Fresh berries: Low in calories, high in fiber, rich in vitamins
- Tempeh: Soy protein rich in folate, a mineral important for a healthy metabolism
What About Coffee or Chocolate?
Coffee is often touted as a way to rev up your metabolism and help you burn more calories, but research is mixed. A study published in October 2020 found that drinking coffee in the morning could impair your body’s ability to metabolize glucose, or sugars, and boost insulin, which isn’t what you want if you’re trying to burn calories effectively and lose weight.
“Some people claim that coffee works for them as an appetite suppressant,” Surampudi says. “Green tea may be another good option for some caffeine in your day because it also has antioxidants,” healthy nutrients that help prevent cell damage from aging. “The troublemaker in coffee is what you add to it, including cream, sugar, or artificial flavors. You may not realize that your coffee can rack up a lot of extra calories.”
What about dark chocolate? In one study, 30 people who ate 40 grams of dark chocolate (less than 2 ounces) daily for 14 days had modest metabolism benefits. Choose very dark chocolate that contains 70% cacao or higher, Surampudi says.
When You Eat Matters Most
To have a healthy metabolism, eat regular, small meals and snacks throughout the day, Salge Blake says.
“Don’t fast all day or skip meals, or you won’t have enough energy to exercise. Moving is what really revs up your metabolism,” she says. “Have some fuel in your tank before you go work out.” Grab a banana for a snack on the go, or start your day with a cup of oatmeal and fruit.
There may be some slight changes you can make to maximize your metabolism, but most of this process is beyond our control through food choices, Kruskall says.
“The most common strategies are eating protein at each meal or to eat smaller meals rather than one or two larger ones,” she says. “While biologically, you may see some differences from these strategies, they’re generally not clinically significant. You shouldn’t rely on them as a strategy to increase your total daily energy expenditure.”