Even if you generally understand that the foods you eat directly affect your well-being, have you ever wondered why that is? It comes down to metabolism, which refers to all of the chemical reactions that occur in your body, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. These reactions, which take place within your cells, are necessary to produce energy. The term "metabolic health" refers to how well your body generates this energy, says Casey Kelley, MD, ABoIM, founder and medical director of Case Integrative Health. Meanwhile, the term "metabolic rate" describes how many calories (i.e., energy) your body needs to perform life-sustaining functions like breathing, she adds.
And while "healthy metabolism" is often discussed in terms of weight, it's not just about the number on the scale. Having a healthy metabolism is critical for your well-being, and ultimately, longevity. If someone has a healthy metabolism, it means they can digest food and absorb nutrients without experiencing issues like inflammation or high blood pressure, Dr. Kelley explains, which is vital for staving off metabolic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, she says.
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There are many factors that affect your metabolic health. This includes family history and genetics, which you can't do anything about. But other aspects—including lifestyle and environmental factors—can be modified, making it possible to influence your metabolic health and keep long-term health issues at bay. And this absolutely includes your diet. What you eat plays a leading role in your metabolic health. There are tons of healthy, beneficial foods that boost metabolism, as well as options that can be detrimental to metabolism when eaten in excess.
Simply put, food is powerful, with a direct impact on short- and long-term health and overall lifespan, says Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For example, she says, "certain foods have the ability to reduce inflammation because they're rich in omega-3 fats." Meanwhile, other foods are rich in antioxidants, which minimize oxidative stress and cell damage.
If you want to eat to optimize metabolism, prioritizing plant foods is one of best things you can do. Below, check out some foods that boost metabolism and delicious recipe ideas for each.
Healthy Foods That Boost Metabolism
Dark Leafy Greens
If you're still not sold on kale chips or spinach smoothies, the following fact might change your mind: According to Dr. Kelley, dark, leafy greens are crucial for maintaining a healthy metabolism. This is due to their high content of magnesium and iron, two very important minerals. "Magnesium is essential for [every] energy-producing chemical reaction in the body," Dr. Kelley says. On the other hand, iron helps carry oxygen to all your cells, she says. Your cells utilize this oxygen to produce energy and support the function of various organs, including your brain and heart. To get the most out of your leafy greens, pair them with foods rich in vitamin C—tomatoes, lemon, or potatoes, for example—which helps optimize iron absorption, Dr. Kelley adds.
Fruit (Especially Those High in Vitamin C)
Fruits are some of the best foods for metabolic health because they're teeming with antioxidants, the beneficial molecules that neutralize free radicals. An antioxidant-rich diet is key because free radicals are harmful compounds that—when present in high levels—cause oxidative stress, increase the risk of chronic disease, and shorten overall longevity. Most notably, "certain fruits like oranges, grapefruits, kiwis, strawberries, pineapple, mango, guava, and papaya are rich in [the] powerful antioxidant vitamin C," Ehsani says. And, as mentioned above, vitamin C aids in the absorption of iron that's important for healthy metabolism.
Here's the tea: Whether you prefer earthy matcha, earl grey, or spiced chai, drinking tea is an excellent way to aid your metabolism. According to Dr. Kelley, teas contain antioxidants called catechins. In addition to quelling oxidative stress and cellular damage, catechins, she says, help regulate blood pressure, boost your metabolism, and break down fats. "Additionally, the caffeine in many teas will boost your energy, enabling you to burn more calories throughout the day. Green tea, in particular, is a great metabolism-boosting option," she adds.
If you love spice, your metabolism is in luck. Chili peppers—which are widely used to add heat to recipes—contain a compound called capsaicin that gives them their fiery taste and makes them quite good for you, too, Ehsani says. According to a 2019 study, capsaicin boasts beneficial effects for heart function and overall inflammation. In fact, the same study found that eating chili peppers at least four times a week can help protect against disease and heart-related death.
We already mentioned fruits that boost metabolism, but other high-fiber picks in the veggie, bean, and nut families are also beneficial. According to Dr. Kelley, increasing your overall intake of fiber can bolster metabolic health. "High-fiber foods such as broccoli, apples, and nuts take longer to chew and keep you full for longer," she says. This helps prevent overeating, which can stress out the system, cause inflammation, and make it hard to maintain a healthy weight for your body. Similarly, fiber takes a long time to digest, meaning your body needs to work harder to break it down, says Dr. Kelley. But that's not all: Fiber is also essential for managing inflammation, cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and gut health—all of which can support your metabolism.
Not sure where to start? Here are 10 high-fiber foods to eat regularly.
Call it cheating, but yes, water is absolutely on this list. As it turns out, you don't need pricey specialty drinks or grocery items to jumpstart your metabolism. Simply drinking enough water can do wonders, and for good reason. The body is composed of 60 percent water, Ehsani says, and H2O is essential for myriad functions, including carrying oxygen to cells, removing waste, regulating body temperature, and more. Thus, the body needs proper hydration every day in order to function optimally and aid healthy metabolism. Aim for eight eight-ounce glasses a day or try infused water recipes to keep things interesting.
Foods That Slow Metabolism
While all foods have their rightful place in a balanced diet, some foods can slow your metabolism when eaten in excess. According to Dr. Kelley, this includes ultra-processed foods, which are loaded with sugar and "bad" fats (think: saturated and trans fats). Not only do these items typically hold little nutritional value, but they tend to cause blood sugar spikes and unwanted fat accumulation, which can have a detrimental effect on your metabolism, says Dr. Kelley.
According to Ehsani and Dr. Kelley, the foods that tend to slow down your metabolism include:
Chips and snacks
Cookies and desserts
Refined grains, like white bread and white pasta
Sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda and juice
Fried and greasy foods
Life without cookies and pasta would be pretty dull, so no one's asking you to completely cut out any one food; but overindulgence is a risk to your metabolic health, so just remember to snack and shop mindfully! "Typically, you'll find these items in the center of the grocery store," notes Dr. Kelley. As a general rule of thumb, she recommends shopping around the perimeter of the store instead. Here, you'll find more whole, unprocessed foods, such as fresh produce, nuts, seeds, legumes, and eggs.