Defining Terms: What is a Metabolic Diet?
A metabolic diet is a style or pattern of eating where the goal is to increase your metabolism or metabolic rate. Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the baseline amount of energy or calories needed to keep the body functioning if it were at rest. This can differ from person to person based on body composition. The common formula to calculate this figure is based on height, weight, and age—still, other factors to consider include muscle-to-fat ratio, physical activity levels, and hormone function. The BMR gives you a baseline caloric intake, but each individual is different, and the additional calories needed to meet our own needs each day will be different.
How a Metabolic Diet Works: Increasing Your Metabolism
If you have a baseline metabolic rate giving you a certain amount of calories needed per day, plus some extra to help you do your daily activities, then what if you could speed up that rate and use your caloric intake more efficiently? We could then burn through all those stored calories in our fat deposits. Doctors, scientists, and many others have studied this for years, hoping to find a way to help increase an individual’s metabolic rate through different foods, supplements, exercise. From this, several diets have emerged over the decades. Their premise is that if you follow their rules or guidelines, you can increase your metabolism and convert the food you eat into energy instead of storing it as fat.
Famous Metabolic Diets You Might be Familiar With
The Metabolic Typing Diet
Also known as the Metabolic Typing Technique, this diet was created by William Donald Kelley in the 1960s and then was further developed by Harold J. Kristal and William Wolcott. Metabolism is classified in 3 ways: fast oxidizer, slow oxidizer, and mixed oxidizer (Dominant Protein type, Dominant Carb type, and mixed protein-carb type). It is determined by your autonomic nervous system and your rate of oxidation. The book gives readers a test to assess their Metabolic Type and then follow the plan that fits them the best. This is a major red flag as this diet is supposed to be based on the autonomic nervous system and a BMR rate test that are not valuations you can make through a test written in a book.
The actual plan includes five smaller meals throughout the day that are no more than 4 hours apart, supposedly to avoid blood sugar spikes and cravings. All refined and processed carbohydrates should be eliminated. Dairy, soy, alcohol, and caffeine intake should be limited as well.
There are differing studies that show benefits for OR harm to weight loss goals by frequent meals. The idea of small regular meals can go against the new research coming out about the benefits of intermittent fasting for weight loss and burning fat. Studies showed no difference in weight loss by the number of meals eaten per day.
Indeed with more frequent eating, it stands to reason that the body has to release more insulin throughout the day to handle the incoming meals. Therefore it cannot fully recover back to baseline until the end of the day, which is generally the most significant meal. Some reviews state that the evidence is inconclusive for the optimal meal frequency for weight loss and that a reduced meal frequency can lead to improved lipid panels. The Metabolic Typing Diet has a host of issues starting from a vague categorization of Metabolic Type leading to a prescribed way of eating that has no scientific basis for weight loss.
The Zone Diet
Dr. Barry Sears developed the Zone Diet, and he published his bestselling book “The Zone” in 1995. The Zone Diet’s basic premise is to follow a specific ratio of macronutrients to reduce inflammation in the body.
40% carbohydrates + 30% protein + 30% fat
The benefit of the Zone Diet is that you can follow this formula in any setting, at any restaurant, or any takeaway meal. You can cook this way and batch prepare foods that fit into the buckets, and essentially, you can follow this for the rest of your life. The categories are broad enough that you won’t feel bored or boxed in by the same chicken + brown rice + broccoli meal day in and day out.
Lean proteins can be anything from turkey, chicken, pork, fish, shellfish, tofu, and egg whites. Low glycemic carbs can be fruits like berries, apples, oranges; veggies like asparagus, broccoli, cucumber, tomatoes, zucchini; and beans, chickpeas, lentils, wild rice. Examples of monounsaturated fats are found in oils like olive oil, as well as avocados and most nuts.
The other benefit of the Zone Diet is that there is no caloric limit, only the macro allocation per meal. Some people find this more flexible and liberating than constantly tracking points or calories like other popular diets.
The Atkins Diet
The Atkins Diet is a trendy diet created and promoted by Dr. Robert Atkins in his 1972 book. It was vilified for a while due to its reliance on a large amount of fat in the diet, but subsequent research has shown that not all fat is bad, and in fact, it can be pretty essential to a healthy diet.
There are 4 phases to the Atkins Diet, and the first phase is very similar to a ketogenic diet:
- Phase 1 or Induction
- < 20 grams of carbs per day for two weeks. Focus on fat and protein, with some low glycemic veggies on the side. This phase is designed to promote weight loss.
- Phase 2 or Balancing
- Gradually adding in nuts and other lower glycemic carbs like veggies and fruits.
- Phase 3 or Fine-tuning
- Approach your goal weight and continue to add carbs to your diet until weight loss slows down.
- Phase 4 or Maintenance = this is the “lifestyle” part of the diet where you can eat as many low glycemic carbs as your body can handle without increasing weight.
Again, similar to the Zone Diet, this diet does not rely on counting calories and promotes the kinds of foods that many people find to be satiating because they are high in fat and protein.
Are these diets safe for everyone?
These diets are meant to be guidelines for a lifestyle and are designed to help people change their nutrition choices for the better and the rest of their lives. These are dietary guidelines that work well for those willing to invest and put the work in to follow these rules over a significant time.
As mentioned above, these diets or dietary patterns promote foods higher in protein and fats, which are naturally satiating. Therefore, people tend to feel full with smaller portions or feel full overall, something they may have lost while following a higher carbohydrate diet. That feeling of fullness can help curb sweets cravings and snacking between meals, leading to excess caloric intake and weight gain.
However, while there are no significant inherent risks with these diets on a short-term basis (<6 months), there may be risks associated with following any of these restrictive diets on a long-term basis. The more restrictive a diet is, the greater the possibility for nutrient deficiencies. This does not mean restrictive diets cannot be done properly and healthily, but more attention to detail is required for long-term success. Finally, for some people long-term restriction can lead to increased feelings of cravings and subsequent binge eating.
Therefore the people who will have the most success following one of these diets, are those who are willing to make sure that they are supplementing where needed and keeping an eye on those micro or macronutrients where they might be under or overdoing it.
Always consult your doctor before starting a metabolic-related diet or any other diet, especially if you have pre-existing conditions like diabetes.
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Kara Collier is the co-founder and VP of Health at Nutrisense, one of America’s fastest-growing wellness-tech startups, where she leads the health team. She is a Forbes 30 under 30 recipient, frequent podcast guest & conference speaker.