Metabolism and the Meaning of Life

In a physiological context homeostasis refers to the body’s desire to maintain equilibrium at all costs.

Why is it that some people can seemingly eat everything and not gain weight. While others diligently eating their weight-watcher salads gains weight if they so much as look at a donut?

Well, it’s complicated, and there’s a lot of variables at play. But perhaps the biggest of these is homeostasis and your bodies desire to maintain equilibrium at all costs.

Now homeostasis might not be a term you’ve heard all that often, but I’m sure you’ve all heard of metabolism. Usually around terms like slow, fast and even broken.

But here’s the thing about your metabolism – it’s neither fast or slow. In fact, it’s not a system you want to attempt to measure by “speed” at all.

If anything, your metabolism is more like a thermostat than anything else, upregulating and down-regulating a myriad of physiological systems in the body in response to environmental factors.

A concrete example of this regulation in action, is young female athletes stopping menstruating during times of heavy training load.

It’s a great example of the body simply shutting down non-essential systems in the face of an extreme threat to survival – in this case, prolonged and taxing physical stress.

Basal metabolic rate and adaptive thermogenesis

You basal metabolic rate or BMR represents the number of calories (energy) needed to sustain you at complete rest, akin to sleeping or comatose state.

But here’s the thing, your BMR is constantly changing in response to your energy intake (food) and energy demands (movement).

This up/down regulating of your metabolism and BMR is referred to as metabolic adaptation, and it explains a lot about the differing energy needs of individuals, and our own bodies over time.

What this can look like…

If you are overweight and have been consistently eating too few calories, it is entirely plausible that your body has experienced metabolic adaptation (i.e. homeostasis at work) with your BMR reduced to meet the reduced-energy environment of a caloric deficit.

Furthermore, this adaptation is even more poignant as your body will also try to reduce energy expenditure by lowering your energy levels and desire to move. It simply doesn’t want you moving more or expending more energy than is necessary while energy (calories) are scarce.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, competitive athletes and serious hobbyists that are training hard see metabolic adaptation working against them in the other direction. In these scenarios, BMR is elevated by the body in response to the abundance of energy (calories), and the individual finds themselves having to eat more and more to continue seeing body weight increase.

At this extreme, energy expenditure has to be carefully managed in order to manage and slow the escalating calorie demands.

What does this mean for me?

The answer, as always, is that it depends.

  • It depends on where you are right now with your body composition and set point weight – i.e. where your body has its thermostat set.
  • It also comes down to your lifestyle and eating habits, including your day-to-day activity levels and calorie intake.
  • How long you’ve been under/over feeding and under/over moving.
  • Overall hormone health (thyroid levels, insulin sensitivity etc.)
  • Medications.
  • Acute and chronic conditions of stress.

The list is long…

But what it means is that you could indeed be caught in the whitewater at one end of the other of these extremes.

It also means that you can’t fight your metabolism by continuing to drive down calories or adding endless rounds of cardio to reduce body weight.

It means you have to take a whole-life approach to addressing the issue, looking deeply at factors like lifestyle, values and habits, in addition to the headline items of diet and exercise.

That’s not an answer!

Well, it might not be the answer you wanted, but the work is going to be different for everyone, and the details DO matter greatly in this context.

But if I were to generalize an answer for most of you, it would look something like this:

  • Systematically improve the composition and timing of your meals.
  • Systematically improve the variety and quality of the foods you consume.
  • Eat slowly and stop when no longer hungry (vs “full”).
  • Get at least 5-7 hours of exercise per week.
  • Look to increase your daily non-exercise activity.

Now this sounds and looks like good Uncommon Sense, and that’s because it is.

And of course, the answers to most diet, nutrition and body composition challenges are seldom sexy.

But even here, the Devil is in the details.

For example, how does one systematically improve meal composition and timing?

Same question with food variety and quality.

Go back even further…

Often, before we can begin the work of systematically improving our health and nutrition habits, we have to find and tap into our WHY.

Your WHY is a lot of things, but in essence comes down to the core values and beliefs that help you navigate the world in which you live.

Living in congruence with these values will make you feel good, fulfilled, happy and at peace, while living outside or at odds with these values can leave us feeling unhappy, stressed and directionless.

But I am getting way off track now…

We’ve come from homeostasis, energy balance and metabolic adaptation to the meaning of life and why you are here!

But in truth, it’s hard to escape the reality that you are not food or exercise. You are not diet. You are not nutrition or macros. You are not activity or exercise.

You are a whole person living a full life on a planet with nearly eight billion other people!

So trying to unpick what you eat and why you eat it from your core beliefs and values is not only hard, it might actually be a fool’s errand.

So if you want to do the real work:

  1. Draft a list of your values and beliefs. All the things that speak to you on a visceral level.
  2. From that list, identify your core values – the 3-5 core values that speak to you the most and [will] guide your day decision making and behaviors.
  3. Take a thorough audit of your current behaviors and habits through a lens of “health”.
  4. Identify negative behaviors and habits that do not reflect or support your core values.
  5. Draft new habits and behaviors that move you toward congruence with your values and beliefs.
  6. Set long and short-term goals or milestones for the replacement and improvement of said habits and behaviors.

And I appreciate how limited and shallow this summary is, perhaps even to the point where it adds no value.

But it is hard for me to escape my Co-Active coaching training where we take a whole-person approach to solving life’s problems!

As always, if you want to talk more about your diet, health and nutrition, get in touch. You can also learn more about my coaching services or read my personal story and how Uncommon Sense Physique came to be.

To your health!

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