10 fast facts about metabolism to impress your friends and family during Thanksgiving

Looking for a conversation starter for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner? We’re here to help! Check out these 10 fast facts about metabolism to help make you the toast of the table this Thursday.

1) First thing’s first — what is metabolism? In short, metabolism refers to the chemical reactions that take place in the body. Energy and molecules produced by these reactions are distributed throughout the body, powering every facet of life, from digesting a big meal to ensuring your heart continues to beat. For a more detailed answer, check out this explainer:

2) Food is a major, but not the only, player in metabolism. During digestion, the body breaks food down into its most basic components — sugars, amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Some of these nutrients will be used right away to fuel everyday function, while others will be stored for later use.

3) A calorie is a unit of energy that is used to measure the amount of energy produced by the breakdown of food or expended through physical activity. In technical terms, one calorie is equal to the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. Put another way, there is enough energy stored in 1 pound of body fat to power a 40-watt light bulb for more than six minutes!

4) To use an old cliché, metabolism is more than the sum of its parts. Each of the 37 trillion cells that comprise a human body is constantly experiencing metabolic reactions, and works in concert to keep our systems up and running. Which brings us to …

5) … the immune system, the body’s natural defense against bacteria, viruses and disease. Just like every other facet of the body, the immune system is powered by metabolism.

6) Problems with metabolism can result in illness. One of the most common metabolic diseases is diabetes, which occurs when the body cannot process sugars properly.

7) Metabolic processes also have been linked to many other diseases. For example, cancer cells have a voracious appetite that helps them replicate and spread. This adaptation also may be a weakness — scientists are searching for ways to starve cancer cells of energy and, in doing so, treating the disease.

8) Certain types of cancers, such as those in the pancreas, produce special carbohydrates called glycans that one day could be used for earlier and more definitive diagnoses. Think of them like molecular fingerprints that scientists can use to differentiate a sick cell from a healthy cell. Read more here.

9) Parkinson’s disease also might be linked to disruptions in metabolism. Recent evidence has shown that problems with the mitochondria, more commonly known as the powerhouses of cells, may allow debris such as abnormal proteins to build up, eventually killing cells and leading to the disease’s hallmark symptoms. Read more here.

10) Where there are problems, there are also solutions. Scientists are hard at work figuring out ways to fix the metabolic issues that contribute to disease in order to help people live longer, healthier lives (read more about the efforts underway at the Institute here).

From all of us at Van Andel Institute, we wish you a happy Thanksgiving!

Looking for more light reading? Check out this post for the real deal about turkey and tryptophan. You can also learn more about our new metabolism and nutrition research program here.