Earlier this week, supermodel Naomi Campbell took to Instagram and shared a picture of herself on what appeared to be a sun-drenched holiday. She lounged on a hanging chair in a yellow bathing suit and looked more beautiful and radiant than ever.
ut the new mum was not on your typical holiday to the Costa Del Sol. No, Naomi was a guest at VIVAMAYR Maria Wörth, a luxury medical health resort and holistic wellness retreat in Austria.
In a message to her 11.1 million followers, Naomi said she attended the retreat to “reset, restore, regenerate” and added she “was in desperate need of taking time to self-care”. She claimed that the stomach is the “second brain” and, more intriguingly, that she was at the health resort to “reset my metabolism”.
In simple terms, metabolism can be described as the chemical reactions in the body’s cells that change food into energy. Over the years, however, metabolism has become a buzzword of sorts in conversations attached to weight loss and gain.
“She’s blessed with a high metabolism” or “my metabolism is slowing down” are just some of the platitudes commonly thrown about. But can you really reset the metabolism, as Naomi suggests? Is it possible to reboot a body’s system and start afresh?
Well, the answer is complicated.
For years, the general population and the medical community believed metabolism gradually slows as we age. Yet new research has turned that idea on its head. Contrary to popular belief, metabolism does not slow down as we get older — it remains stable all through adult life from 20 to 60 years old.
In a recent study published in the medical journal Science, researchers discovered that metabolism plateaus until about age 60. Then it starts to decline again by less than one per cent annually.
Speaking to ABC News, Herman Pontzer, an associate professor at Duke University and one of the study’s authors, said: “People will say, ‘Well, when I hit 30 years old, my metabolism fell apart’. We don’t see any evidence for that, actually.”
In that case, should we take Naomi’s claim as fact or fiction?
Niall Moyna, Professor of Clinical Exercise Physiology at DCU, says we have to be very sceptical when absorbing such claims.
“When people read that, they may presume she has a high metabolism, but there is no research to back that up. We don’t know her physiological elements,” he says.
“It is purely an anecdotal comment from her. Being on a retreat, she probably slept better and was taking care of herself. More than likely, she is feeling less stressed in general, which leads to more positive feelings.”
Professor Moyna stresses that the latest findings on metabolism will change how he and many other experts approach the topic and its issues.
“If we had this conversation a month ago, I would be saying something completely different,” he says. “It will change how we treat people. It’s clear now that so many other factors are involved and it’s not just metabolism.
“It’s an easy excuse and, of course, there will always be a subset of people who have metabolic issues for genetic reasons or have thyroid problems, but it is a smaller number.”
Conversely, Nigel Denby, a dietician and nutritionist with The Menopause Hub, believes the latest research is flawed and while it studied a high number of people, it failed to look at individual changes.
Nigel believes a person can reset their metabolic rate, but it doesn’t happen in two weeks at a health retreat.
“You can change it, but it is long term,” he says. “Those first changes take place after three months. There is no quick fix and that is the concern with claims such as this or short-term health plans — they are not realistic.”
To successfully increase metabolic rate, Nigel advises his clients to change their diet and engage in weight training.
“For example, the only way menopausal women can successfully address the weight gain which comes during that period is to target it with diet and weight training exercises,” he says.
“They need to build the muscle they are losing over time due to hormonal and metabolic changes.”
Many don’t understand all the facets of metabolism and nutrition, and lifestyle coach Orla Swan believes this is an issue too.
“People are confused as to what [the metabolism] is made up of,” she says. “It’s 70pc basal metabolic rate (BMR); 12pc movement, 10pc digestion and eight per cent exercise. When we talk about people having a fast metabolism, what we don’t see is that they tend to move more, while their diet contains food that requires more energy to break down, such as protein, fats and fibre.”
Stress is one of the most prevalent afflictions of the 21st century and Swan says it has a significant effect on our body’s physical reactions.
“When the body is exposed to chronic stress in the form of psychological or emotional stress, prolonged periods of a calories deficit, poor relationship with food, over- or under- exercising and poor sleep hygiene, it can cause metabolism to dampen hormonal responses.
“Think of it like a survival mode that has been activated as the nervous system remains in the fight, flight or freeze mode for too long.”
If we presume Campbell felt similarly before her retreat, Swan explains it was more a life reset than a metabolic overhaul.
“She likely gave the body nutrients, less processed food and more time to switch off from life stressors,” she says. “This gave the body a chance to switch out of fight or flight, bringing on board the parasympathetic nervous system. When this happens, it reduces hormones such as cortisol that can cause an increase in digestive issues and water retention.”
Dieting is a global business, but Professor Moyna agrees that prolonged periods of food deprivation can slow down metabolism.
“The hypothalamus in the brain regulates certain hormones that tell us if we are hungry or full,” he says. “However, with excessive dieting, the body thinks you’re on hunger strike and the first thing that happens is metabolism slows. There is clear evidence excessive dieting decreases resting metabolism.”
On the other hand, he notes that the way in which our bodies metabolise food varies and is more complicated than just calories consumed, but concludes that weight gain and loss is generally quite simple.
“It only takes a small imbalance every day to see changes,” he says. “All you need is a caloric imbalance of around 50 calories a day. That is 350 calories a week and, in 10 weeks, that is a pound of fat.
“Significant lifestyle changes also play a part and can make you believe your metabolism is slowing down. If you had an active job all your life, then retire, and suddenly are not as active but eating the same as before, your body will change. Or you start college, get married, start a family and stop playing a sport; all of these moves contribute.”
All in all, Professor Moyna wants people to listen to clinical evidence instead of anecdotal ‘resets’ from celebrities.
“There is no proof to show her metabolism has been altered,” he says. “She could be exercising, meditating, is more relaxed or could have made $1m last week. Any of those factors would make a person feel better.”