The Case Against Metabolic Rate

By November 11, 2017Blog

POST SUMMARY: What this means for you…

Don’t waste time worrying or talking about metabolic rate—it’s misunderstood and not very important. Rather, focus on how the foods you eat are fueling your body and, importantly, how they affect insulin. Low-carb, high-fat eating puts you in the perfect place to use fat for fuel.

We are culturally enamored with the idea that metabolic rate is the unavoidable variable concerning body fat. Culturally, we’re wrong; and we don’t really understand “metabolism.”

One of the most misunderstood ideas about why we get fat is the concept of “metabolism” or “metabolic rate”. Too many people assume that they get fat (or are fat) because their metabolism slowed down (or is just slow). To get this out of the way up front, let’s get a clear definition of what the word “metabolism” means.

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What Does Metabolism Mean?

Your body’s metabolism is the total of all chemical reactions/processes going on in your body. In other words, your metabolism, or metabolic rate, is the energy needed for the countless little things your body is doing to keep you alive and healthy. This is generally measured as calories per minute—or the amount of calories (energy) required by the body over a minute. Because our bodies constantly change (e.g., healthy vs. sick, young vs. old, growing up vs. already grown, etc.), our metabolic rate changes as well.

Inasmuch as our metabolic rate is a function of what our bodies do, they have to ‘do’ more when they’re bigger. In other words, the bigger the body is, the harder it works to maintain normal function, which leads to a higher the metabolic rate. That’s right—bigger bodies tend to have higher metabolic rates than smaller bodies [1, 2].

This is important enough to explain again. A person who is bigger, even if it’s because of more body fat (as in the referenced study), invariably has a higher metabolic rate than a smaller, leaner person. Even more interesting—this fact is so consistent that when bodies become smaller (e.g., lose weight), their metabolic rate decreases [3, 4]!

It Isn’t About Moving More Mass Around

Lest you think it’s all a result of having to move the larger mass around (after all, if I had 50 lbs. more fat on me, I’d have to work quite a bit harder to get around), the same study above found that only 8% of the difference in metabolic between the obese and lean subjects was a result of the increased metabolic cost of moving the extra weight.

But can metabolic rate predict who will gain more or less fat over time? In other words, if you determined your metabolic rate, could you predict or anticipate how likely you are to gain fat or stay lean?

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Is Metabolic Rate an Obesity Predictor?

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging, the nation’s longest running study on human aging, explored this very question. Tracking almost 800 men over a 10-year period, they found that metabolic rate was a terrible predictor of who gained weight [5]. In other words, a person with a high metabolic rate at the beginning of the study period was just as likely to be obese as a person with a lower metabolic rate. Or, stated differently, a person with a low metabolic rate had every chance to be or become lean over time as a person with a higher metabolic rate.

Are You Glucose-Fueled Or Fat-Fueled?

This study found another gem though—while metabolic rate wasn’t relevant to future weight gain, the respiratory exchange ratio (RER) was [5]. The RER is a number that tells us what our fuel preference is; in other words, is glucose or fat the predominant fuel for our bodies. People that had higher RER values, indicative of a “glucose-fueled” body, were significantly more likely to gain weight over this 10-year period when compared with people who were “fat-fueled”.

So, how do you become fat-fueled? It’s simple—eat more fat! One study found that just four weeks of eating a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet was enough to shift the body into “fat-fueled” mode, as evidenced by a significant shift in the RER value [6].


  1. Ravussin E, Burnand B, Schutz Y, Jequier E: Twenty-four- hour energy expenditure and resting metabolic rate in obese, moderately obese, and control subjects. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 1982, 35:566-573.
  2. Scharf RJ, Demmer RT, DeBoer MD: Longitudinal evaluation of milk type consumed and weight status in preschoolers. Archives of disease in childhood 2013, 98:335-340.
  3. Amatruda JM, Statt MC, Welle SL: Total and resting energy expenditure in obese women reduced to ideal body weight. The Journal of clinical investigation 1993, 92:1236-1242.
  4. Kratz M, Baars T, Guyenet S: The relationship between high-fat dairy consumption and obesity, cardiovascular, and metabolic disease. Eur J Nutr 2013, 52:1-24.
  5. Seidell JC, Muller DC, Sorkin JD, Andres R: Fasting respiratory exchange ratio and resting metabolic rate as predictors of weight gain: the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging. International journal of obesity and related metabolic disorders : journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 1992, 16:667-674.
  6. Ebbeling CB, Swain JF, Feldman HA, Wong WW, Hachey DL, Garcia-Lago E, Ludwig DS: Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight-loss maintenance. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association 2012, 307:2627-2634.

About Benjamin Bikman, Ph.D. – Ben earned his Ph.D. in Bioenergetics and was a postdoctoral fellow with the Duke-National University of Singapore in metabolic disorders. Currently, his professional focus as a scientist and professor (Brigham Young University) is to better understand chronic modern-day diseases, with special emphasis on the origins and consequences of obesity and diabetes. He frequently publishes his research in peer-reviewed journals and presents at international science meetings.

The information on this website is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.


  • Kuoni Juerg says:

    Do bigger bodies really have a higher metabolic rate?
    I learned that small bodies (mice e.g.) need proportionally more food than elephants because elephants are metabolically more efficient. And that this phenomenon might depend on the surface:volume quotient.
    What is the point I am missing?

  • Ben Bikman says:

    Yes, the bigger the human, the higher the metabolic rate. Your analogy of the mouse and elephant is accurate, yet not very applicable in this instance. Mice indeed have higher metabolic rates per unit mass than elephants, but you can appreciate that this is an extreme example. Nevertheless, the absolute metabolic rate between the two is orders of magnitude different–the elephant has a massively higher metabolic rate than the mouse.
    I’m not sure you’re missing any point, but perhaps this: A person who is larger (i.e. more fat) than another would be incorrect in blaming that greater fat mass on a lower metabolic rate.

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