The Most Effective Metabolism Boosting Food Behaviors - Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC

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The Most Effective Metabolism Boosting Food Behaviors

Defining metabolism and how certain foods and lifestyle habits can impact it.

Key Takeaways:

  • Eating two to three larger meals per day has been shown to improve metabolic health more than eating 5 smaller meals per day.
  • Intermittent fasting may help boost your metabolism.
  • Exercise, especially resistance training at least a medium intensity, has been shown to boost metabolism and improve gut health.
  • Metabolism boosting foods include high-protein meals, whole-food ingredients, and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
  • Gut health improvements may improve metabolism, but more research is needed before we can make specific recommendations.
  • Supporting muscle mass through dietary protein and resistance training will help boost your metabolism.

Metabolism is all about energy. What do I mean by that? How your body digests and processes nutrients—even at a cellular level—will determine how much energy you have to face the day and how long it will last. Metabolism refers to the whole sum of reactions that occur through the body within each cell, and those reactions provide the body with energy [1]. That being said, metabolism also requires energy. It both creates energy and requires energy, and the energy it requires comes in the form of food.

You’ve likely made associations between a fast metabolism and weight loss, leanness, and fitness, and a slow metabolism with higher body fat, and possibly sluggishness and fatigue. These associations are by and large true, but you can certainly shift some behaviors and dietary habits to achieve a fitness goal—whether it’s fat loss or weight gain.

You’re not powerless to change how efficiently your metabolism runs in your body or your resulting physical fitness. On the contrary, there are a few lifestyle factors that can help boost your metabolism, which you can start implementing at your very next meal.



Metabolism-boosting foods include things like a higher protein diet, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), and whole foods rather than processed ones. There are also lifestyle factors that can affect the way your body incorporates nutrients, such as the size and frequency of your meals and mindful eating. Let’s take a deep dive into metabolism-boosting foods, how to burn fat, and the health benefits of boosting your metabolism.

Exercise

In addition to using metabolism-boosting foods, adding in exercise is another great way to kick-start your metabolism. A balanced diet is a fundamental part of the equation, but as I mentioned above in the protein section, more muscle means more fat burn and a faster metabolism.

Starting an exercise routine can sometimes feel overwhelming, but if you start small, you will begin building a new habit in no time. Starting small means going on a five-to-ten-minute walk first thing in the morning or doing squats in your kitchen while you’re making your coffee. Just getting your blood flowing is helpful across all metrics of health.

But if you’re already a seasoned gym-goer or someone who wants to maximize your fitness routine for metabolic benefit, it’s time to add in some resistance training. Resistance training improves your resting metabolic rate by increasing muscle mass, and it also improves cardiovascular health and heart rate variability [2].

Resistance training can include bodyweight resistance if you’ve never used weights before. That looks like:

  • Bodyweight squats
  • Pushups
  • Assisted pull-ups (with bands)
  • Step-ups
  • Planks

You can also use resistance bands or TRX straps at home if you’d like a bigger challenge but don’t want to invest in free weights or a gym membership. Or, if you’re curious about using weights, you could ask an experienced friend or invest in a handful of physical training sessions or group fitness classes to learn more about weight training.

Medium-intensity exercise also improves gut health, which is another key factor in a healthy metabolism. I had a talk with Dr. Lucy Mailing about exactly how exercise impacts gut health. She explained that exercise increases butyrate levels, strengthens the gut lining, and reduces proinflammatory bacteria that may be living in the gut [3].

Best Metabolism Boosting Foods

You’ve likely heard it your whole life: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But what’s for breakfast? If your answer was cereal and milk or pancakes and maple syrup, let’s regroup. The best way to boost your metabolism is to focus on whole foods with an emphasis on protein, especially first thing in the morning, but throughout your whole day as well.

Protein-Rich Foods

Starting your day with a protein-rich meal is the first thing you can do to start shifting your metabolism into high gear. Protein is the most important food group for building muscle mass, and we know that increasing lean muscle mass helps boost metabolism throughout the day [4, 5, 6]. Meals rich in protein also help stabilize blood sugar levels and support weight loss and fat loss [7, 8, 9, 10].

Some examples of a high-protein breakfast include:

  • Two-egg scramble with broccoli and unprocessed cheese
  • Rice and pea protein shake with almond butter, spinach, and blueberries, using either water or unsweetened almond milk as the liquid
  • Organic Greek yogurt with nuts, seeds, and berries

These options are high in protein, moderate in healthy fats, moderate or low in carbohydrates, and high in antioxidants. Starting your day this way will not only provide a feeling of fullness all morning, but also appears to increase resting metabolic rate (RMR) and promote muscle growth instead of fat building [11, 12].

In fact, aiming for every meal of the day to consist of around 15–25% of calories from protein will continue to increase your RMR all day long [11, 12]. Protein-rich foods you can start adding to your daily diet right now include:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes (lentils, chickpeas, beans, peas, etc.)
  • Soy products (tofu, edamame, tempeh, etc.)
  • Evolution Protein Bars

Certain vegetables like mushrooms, water spinach, brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and bok choy), leeks, and snow peas, are also good sources of protein to help boost the list above with even more whole food nutrition. Superfoods like spirulina are also very high in protein. Spirulina, in particular, is very dense in protein and tons of other antioxidants and nutrients, but the flavor can be a deterrent in large quantities. Add a teaspoon or less to your smoothie to try it out.

Whole Foods

It’s not news that fruits, veggies, protein, healthy fats, and unprocessed carbs (like whole grains and winter squash) are the best way to stay healthy and maintain a nutrient-rich diet. But specifically regarding metabolism, it’s also true that foods like these significantly increase the calories burned during digestion when compared to processed foods like white bread and processed cheese [13].

By not only increasing your healthy protein intake but also boosting your veggie intake, you can increase satiety, increase energy expenditure while digesting (more calorie burning), and be that much closer to a well-functioning, healthy metabolism.

Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)

Evidence suggests that medium-chain triglycerides may significantly increase calories burned during the digestion of a meal (technically called diet-induced thermogenesis), compared to long-chain triglycerides [11, 13]. So what are MCTs, and how can you incorporate them into your daily diet?

MCTs usually come in the form of a concentrated oil or powder made from saturated fats: coconut oil and palm kernel oil. It’s a dietary supplement that you can add to smoothies or the protein shake I mentioned above or to salad dressings (you don’t really want to cook with it or heat it higher than 302°F [14].

You’ve likely also heard of “fatty coffee” or “Bulletproof coffee,” which generally includes MCT oil and butter. The oil doesn’t have a strong flavor, so it shouldn’t change the flavor profile of what you’re eating, but if you do put it in coffee, blend it up or use a hand-held frother to mix it in so you don’t have an unpleasant slick of oil on top of your coffee.

MCTs have been shown to:

  • Help manage metabolic and digestive disorders, such as pancreatic insufficiency, fat malabsorption, and issues with fatty acid transport [15]
  • Reduce blood sugar fluctuations by 45% while eating, but not while fasting [16]
  • Boost metabolism of glucose by 30%, nearly as much as prescription treatments for diabetes [16, 17]
  • Moderately reduce insulin resistance in mice and humans (diets high in long-chain fatty acids may increase insulin resistance) [17, 18]
  • Improve cholesterol status (increase HDL) [19
  • Promote modest fat loss (about a pound over three weeks) and fat burning without negatively impacting cholesterol [13, 20, 21, 22]
  • Moderately improve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients [23, 24] and to a larger degree in diabetics and hypoglycemics [25]

MCTs do come with potential digestive side effects, so start slowly to try to avoid those. You might imagine that adding a whole lot of oil to your diet all at once could lead to loose stool or diarrhea, and you would be right. Start by adding half a tablespoon to your coffee, smoothie, or salad dressing, and see how your digestion is affected. Slowly add more to meals throughout the day, half-tablespoon or one tablespoon at a time, not to exceed seven total tablespoons in one day.

Best Practices for Boosting Metabolism

It’s not just about what you eat, but also how and when you eat. Contrary to what blogger nutritionists may say, eating five small meals a day isn’t better for your metabolism than fewer larger meals. On the contrary, a 2016 meta-analysis of 27 randomized crossover trials found that eating fewer, larger meals may increase the calories burned during digestion [13].

This doesn’t mean you have carte blanche for overeating. Reasonable portions are still the right move—eat to satiety, not to over-fullness. But it does mean that the conventional wisdom of 5 small meals or snacks per day rather than 2 or 3 larger meals more spaced out doesn’t quite bear out with the science. In fact, results from a systematic review of 110 clinical trials suggest that eating small, frequent meals (snacking) could contribute to obesity and fat around the belly and in the liver more than eating fewer, larger meals [11].

Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a practice of shortening the window of time that you eat every day. The word “breakfast” literally comes from “breaking a fast” that your body performs when you’re sleeping every night. Your morning meal breaks your fast. One way to do intermittent fasting is to extend that fast into the afternoon, eat in a small window, and stop well before bedtime—fasting for 16 hours (including the hours you’re sleeping) and having an eight-hour eating window in the middle of the day. You may also try eating normally for five days and then fasting for two non-consecutive days each week.

Either way, IF is another example of the how and when to eat that could dramatically change your body’s fat metabolism. It’s often recommended for those who want to:

  • Lose weight/body fat [26, 27, 28, 29]
  • Improve metabolic health [30]
  • Improve cardiovascular and heart health [30, 31, 32]
  • Decrease insulin resistance/improve insulin sensitivity [33, 34]
  • Treat diabetes and lower blood glucose levels [33, 35]
  • Improve gut health [36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41]

When you pair IF with a whole foods, protein-rich diet (like the paleo diet), you are likely to turn your body into a metabolic powerhouse.

Metabolism Boosting Food

A well-functioning digestive tract is also key to a healthy metabolism. Many articles on this topic can be found on my online blog, or you can get more in-depth help from my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You.

Improve Your Gut Health

The jury is still out on whether and how improved gut health may explicitly lead to improved metabolism, however, there are breadcrumbs leading in that direction that are worth mentioning here. It’s also true that improved gut health impacts just about every health measure that matters when it comes to chronic disease prevention, including metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes.

According to a 2023 literature review, the gut microbiome can influence how our bodies use energy, but there’s no clear and consistent way to specifically modify it for better energy metabolism [42].

Some studies have shown connections between specific gut bacteria and how we process energy from food, but the results vary, and we need more research with specialized technology to learn more [42]. 

That said, a 1998 observational study of 50 HIV patients found that those with malabsorption were more likely to have lower RMRs than those without malabsorption, suggesting that malabsorption might play a role in reducing RMR [43]. While we can’t conclude from this observational study that malabsorption led to a lower RMR, we can speculate that if malabsorption can reduce the resting metabolic rate — perhaps by preventing the use of nutrients in the body, like amino acids in protein — then it follows that improving gut absorption could indirectly contribute to faster metabolism in both healthy individuals and those studied in this particular case, with HIV.

Based on what we know about maintaining a healthy microbiota and healthy gut lining in general, we can guess that improving gut health will likely improve your ability to break down food (thereby aiding metabolism). However, according to a 2023 literature review, there’s no evidence yet that interventions for improving the gut microbiome affect human energy metabolism [42].

Researchers have tried different methods to change the gut microbiome to improve energy metabolism, but they haven’t found a consistent solution yet. So, there are no specific science-backed recommendations for how to adjust your gut microbiome to boost your metabolic rate [42]. 

Best Foods and Best Practices

Whether your goal is to trim up, maintain a healthy weight, gain muscle mass, or improve your energy levels, metabolism-boosting foods are a great place to start. Start your day with a high-protein meal and keep each subsequent meal at about 15–25% of calories as protein. Focus on nutritious, whole foods like meat, poultry, fish, nuts, seeds, and legumes, as well as lots of vegetables, berries, and unprocessed carbohydrates like winter squash and whole grains.

MCT oil or powder is a metabolism-boosting supplement made from tropical oils that you can add to your smoothies, coffee, or salad dressing.

Consider shifting your meals to a smaller window of time if you’d like to reap the benefits of intermittent fasting, but if not, start eating 2 or 3 larger meals per day rather than snacking throughout.

Exercising and improving gut health will also help boost your metabolism and improve your overall well-being.

We’d love to help you get started on your journey to improving your metabolism and health.

Work with us at the Ruscio Institute for Functional Medicine, or check out my book, Healthy Gut, Healthy You.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

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