After my last post about when low calorie density diets don’t work, I got a few email questions asking what foods are best for increasing your metabolism. I have to admit, this is something I am still in the process of figuring out as I went way off in the wrong direction during the first years of my recover. This field of pro-metabolic nutrition was NOT something I was taught in my nutrition degree and in fact, often goes against public health advice. I am not saying this is the way that everyone should eat, but myself and many other people have had success with improving metabolism and eradicating some of the signs of a poor functioning thyroid (e.g. insomnia, fatigue, cold hands and feet, dry hair and skin, constipation) by following this somewhat controversial nutrition advice. If you have been struggling with these symptoms and want to try something new then read on.
I first discovered the research of Ray Peat and Broda Barnes whilst trying to recover my period 5 years ago. After many years of restrictive dieting, I definitely was showing signs of a reduced metabolic rate and my main goal was to balance my hormones and get my period back after 8 years of Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. However, at the time I had decided to become vegan for environmental and “health” reasons so much of the dietary advice was so outside of my nutrition paradigm that I discarded it. I did take on some of the principles though which included:
- Eating more food overall and listening to my true hunger cues
- Cutting down on intense exercise and only walking and practicing yoga
- Drinking less water and adding more salt to my diet
- Including more root vegetables in my diet e.g. potatoes, carrots, parsnips
- Adding in saturated fat in the form of coconut oil and dark chocolate
- Consuming natural sugars e.g. ripe fruits and honey
These things definitely helped me to improve my energy levels and some of the symptoms I was experiencing, as well as to recover my period and have a regular menstrual cycle. But in truth, it wasn’t till I added animal products back into my diet that the real healing began. I will write another post at some point on my experience shifting from a vegan diet back to a omnivorous diet and how I dealt with the transition both mentally and physically. For today I will share my current top foods for increasing metabolism and restoring hormones.
Ripe, sweet fruit is rich in natural sugars which will support a healthy metabolism and energy output. If you have been stuck in the mindset that carbs are bad and will make you fat, think again. Every cell in your body runs on carbs and prefers glucose as an energy source, especially your brain. Yes, we are adaptable beings and we have mechanisms to enable us to convert fat to energy (via ketosis) when carbs are not available. However this is a stressful process for the body and is not sustainable in the long term. The best fruits are the more dense, sweet fruits such as banana, mango, pineapple, dried fruits, figs, papaya etc.
2. Orange juice
I know oranges are a fruit but OJ is so amazing that it deserves it’s own category. I made a post on Instagram the other day about how OJ is life and it is so true! Drinking a glass of freshly squeezed OJ is like pouring life directly into your body, it makes you happy and floods your body with energy. As you are trying to improve your metabolism, replacing your water intake with juice or other metabolism supporting fluids is a great technique. If you are really struggling, adding a pinch of salt to your juice is even better and though it might sound counter-intuitive it will help with hydration as it helps you to better absorb the liquids rather than having them pass straight through you.
OK so here we go with the non-vegan foods. I used to be so afraid of cheese. I thought it would mess up my hormones, give me acne and digestive upsets, not to mention it’s high environmental impact. Now I take a more pragmatic view. Cheese is a nutritionally dense food which provides high quality minerals and proteins and is extremely supportive for metabolic health. I’m not saying to go and eat a block of cheese every day but including a small amount of cheese as part of a balanced diet is a very healthy thing. Try to source organic cheese if possible with little additives. Cheese with fruit or OJ is a perfect, pro-metabolic snack and melted cheese on toast is the perfect warming meal.
4. Coconut oil
The keto community got one thing right and that is that the medium-chain triglycerides (MCT oils) in coconut oil are great for supporting the metabolism and providing your body with easily accessible fuel. Even the bulletproof coffee as a concept is not bad, although I would argue that in order to prevent a stress response from your body, a big spoon of honey or a splash of milk is needed and it’s always better to consume coffee with food rather than on an empty stomach. Coconut oil is a great option for cooking, it has a strong taste but goes well in asian style dishes like curries and stir fries or my personal favourite coconut oil roasted sweet potatoes – yum!
5. Root vegetables
Potatoes and starchy vegetables such as parsnips, beetroot and carrots are a great option to provide carbohydrate fuel for your body. The pro-metabolic community advise against grains and I am still on the fence with this one as personally, I had a lot of success with keeping oats and bread in my diet. Nonetheless, potatoes and sweet potatoes are perfect metabolism boosting foods and very versatile. For the best results try baking to bring out the natural sweetness and adding salt to taste. If you struggle with feeling cold, try eating a bowl of salty mashed or potatoes or home-fries and notice the warmth spreading to your fingers and toes.
Yes I said liver.. this is definitely not a food for every day but it really is a “super food” and eating liver either with onions or as pate once every 10-14 days will do wonders for your overall and metabolic health. I know it’s extreme to go from eating a vegan diet to including organ meats but it is something that our ancestors have eaten for many years, knowing about the health benefits and I personally think it is better than eating chicken breast on the daily or only eating prime muscle meats. Liver contains the highest and most absorbable amount of iron, vitamin A and B12 as well as many other vitamins and minerals. Since eating liver regularly my eyesight has improved to the point that I no longer wear glasses to watch TV or use the computer.
Eating chocolate or cacao is great for improving the metabolism and something I craved daily when healing from Hypothalamic Amenorrhea. Chocolate is a dense source of calories which is exactly what your body needs to dig it’s way out of a metabolic hole. I personally prefer dark chocolate but actually chocolate with milk and sugar (or smoothies made with cacao, ripe bananas, milk and honey) is optimal for boosting your metabolism. Chocolate contains some caffeine and theobromine which give you a natural energy and mood boost. Eating chocolate mindfully and truly savouring every bite is a way to send your body that signal that it is safe and the “famine” is over which is necessary to move out of the stress response and into a relaxed, high metabolic state.
These were one of the first animal proteins I added back into my diet as I think many ex-vegans do. Of all of the animal products, it was actually boiled eggs with a runny yolk that I started to crave. Eggs are another great source of vitamin A and a complete protein so they are great to include as part of a vegetarian meal or snack. If you are trying to heal your hormones after restrictive dieting, you need cholesterol as it is a building block for your reproductive hormones and including eggs in your diet is actually a very healthy thing. Eggs may not be the best protein for improving metabolism (some red meat is most likely better) but for restoring hormone health or recovering your menstrual cycle, eggs are a great food to include.
9. Ice cream
My current favourite! I am in a phase of eating ice cream a few times a week because here in Greece there are so many amazing quality ice cream shops and with the hot weather it is the perfect snack. Unfortunately many of the ice creams in the supermarkets these days are heavily processed with additives and fillers which are not designed to be consumed by humans and are not healthy for us. However, ice cream in its natural form with simple ingredients (mainly milk, sugar, cream, eggs) is actually a great pro-metabolic food and a delicious way to boost your calories without feeling bloated or over-stuffed which is often one of the main hurdles for women trying to recover and raise their metabolic rate. A small bowl of ice cream is a great after dinner dessert or bedtime snack to keep your blood sugar up during the night and avoid those 2-4am wake ups that can occur with a low metabolism.
Both excellent sources of carbohydrates with the added benefits of nutrients and anti-oxidants. The pro-metabolic community often recommend eating white sugar as a way to boost the metabolism and although I am not against including sugar in the diet (I don’t think that any food should be completely restricted), I don’t consider it a health food and prefer natural sweeteners such as honey to use on a daily basis e.g. adding to tea, coffee or smoothies. Molasses has the added benefits of a great mineral profile, providing iron and calcium in particular. Drinking 1-2tbsp of molasses in hot water with lemon was a strategy that helped me to boost my iron levels and recover from iron deficiency.
As well as these top foods for boosting your metabolism, some foods to reduce during the initial phases of metabolic recovery include:
- Raw vegetables and large salads
- Low sugar fruits (unless consumed along with other higher calorie fruits or foods)
- Cruciferous vegetables e.g. broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower
- Vegetable oils e.g. sunflower, rapeseed, sesame oil
- Nuts and seeds (including tahini and nut butters)
I am not saying these foods are unhealthy, far from it. But if your goal is to boost your metabolism, repair your hormones or get your period back, then these foods won’t be the most supportive to your goals and consuming them in large quantities will only prolong your recovery process. Once things are more balanced you can of course add them back into your diet in balance with some of the more pro-metabolic foods. As you become more acquainted with your body and the signs of a strong healthy metabolism (e.g. warm hands and feet, good energy, regular menstrual cycle), you will be able to adjust your diet as you go to keep you feeling your best.
Over to you
I hope you enjoyed these tips on how to increase your metabolism and balance your hormones. Let me know in the comments below if you have already discovered the work of Ray Peat and other researchers in this field and what you think of this pro-metabolic way of eating. I have to say, for me it has done nothing but good although everyone will have their own unique experience.
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