You’ve probably noticed that almost every shopping mall has a kiosk selling “metabolic enhancers” of one kind or another. What are metabolic enhancers and what do they do?
A metabolic enhancer is classified as a thermogenic agent. A thermogenic agent is one that produces heat — in everyday common terms, it “speeds up” your body’s metabolism.
The most common ingredient in metabolic enhancers is ephedra. Ephedra is generally known as legal “speed” except that it is now illegal in most states and has been replaced by pseudo ephedra. Currently, there is a trend by most manufacturers to remove ephedra from their products due to health problems created in some individuals who take such products. While ephedra is not as dangerous as crack cocaine, a small dose is approximately equal to a few cups of strong coffee. The same is true of ma huang, another common ingredient in metabolic enhancers.
If you have certain health conditions such as high blood pressure, these products can be very dangerous. They can, and usually do, make you jittery, nervous and speedy, and can raise blood pressure and heart rate.
This does indeed temporarily “speed up” the metabolic rate, but how much that transfers to actual weight loss is anyone’s guess. Almost all manufacturers make wild claims that support their products, but at the same time, you must realize that these products do not have to conform to FDA standards and unless there are complaints against the manufacturer, they can say anything they wish about there product, true or imagined. Long-term experience with both athletes and average fitness enthusiasts suggests that these products work primarily by suppressing your appetite, NOT by adding appreciably to the number of calories burned during the day, though they probably do slightly increase the number of calories burned while “under the influence.” Ask yourself, “is feeling jittery with shaking hands worth it for a few extra calories burned?”
Understanding your metabolism
What is metabolism anyway? Metabolism is, briefly, the sum of everything that happens in the body, the building up of various substances (muscle, proteins, RNA, hair, nails, enzymes, storage fat, bones) and the breaking down of others (food, storage fat, etc.).
Both “building up” processes (called anabolic) and “breaking down” processes (catabolic) happen simultaneously, i.e., all the time. And the raw material, the stuff the body uses for this myriad of tasks, is food. Or, more properly, the nutrients contained in food.
In one sense, then, the metabolic rate could be defined as the speed at which our internal engines run.
Four primary factors contribute to your metabolic rate.
1. The largest contributor is your “basal” or resting metabolic rate (They’re not exactly the same, but for our purposes they’re interchangeable). This is essentially the number of calories you burn at rest, just sitting in a chair or otherwise lounging about.
2. The second major component of your metabolic rate is your level of activity and exercise or rather, is determined by it. The more you exercise, the higher your metabolic rate will be.
3. The third component is often called the “thermic effect of food,” and is defined as the amount of calories (or energy) it takes to actually digest and process the food you eat (“Thermic,” by the way, means “heat”, and “thermogenic” means “heat producing”). Remember that energy production is going on in the body at all times and one of the byproducts of energy production is heat. Do you know which food type has the highest thermic effect? Protein!
4. The last and smallest contributor to the metabolic rate is something with the intimidating name of “facultative thermogenesis,” which means the heat-producing effect of things like fidgeting, reaction to cold and stress, and other similar factors.
What do we mean by saying, “I have a slow (or sluggish) metabolism?” What we mean is, “How do we get this whole process to move faster? How do we speed up the engines or run the whole system at a higher temperature?”
By far the primary regulator of resting metabolic rate is how much muscle you have. Muscle is where the action is. Muscle cells are loaded with tiny little power centers called mitochondria, which are where calories get “burned.” More descriptively, the mitochondria is where the breakdown products of food like fatty acids and glucose get “oxidized,” but let’s not get too technical. Thus, the more muscle you have, the more powerhouses you have to break down fat. And, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn, even while sleeping.
The conclusion is obvious: The number one metabolic enhancer is muscle and the best way to build muscle is to exercise and the best exercise for this is lifting weights.
When you understand clearly what metabolism is, you recognize immediately that the amount of difference that metabolic enhancers can have in increasing your metabolism is negligible. Such products will increase your engines idle speed somewhat, but without a lot of exercise to burn your consumed calories, you’re just producing a few extra calories as heat while doing some potential damage to the rest of your system.
Except for the decreased appetite effect, which would make you eat less, the effect these products have on calorie expenditure and fat loss pales when compared to exercise. Both muscle building and a diet designed to keep blood insulin levels from soaring into the stratosphere are the key methods to enhancing metabolism.
Other ingredients often contained in these products (besides the stimulants) are carnitine and chromium. I’ve written about these elsewhere, and believe that both of them play an important part in supporting different aspects of metabolic function (blood sugar in the case of chromium, and fat metabolism in the case of carnitine. But, the amounts contained in metabolic enhancers are usually much less than what’s needed. If you want them, you can do much better getting them as separate products from supplements made in a reputable, FDA certified laboratory. These companies guarantee their ingredients and are reliable. Also, the best supplements in this area will be geared to consumption of the best biochemical method to achieve the best result when taking such products in conjunction with necessary vitamins and other RDA required nutrients.