The metabolism is a fascinating thing. Our bodies have evolved to do all kinds of cool things in order to guarantee our survival. Look after the body optimally, the way its supposed to be nurtured and chances are it will be behave as it should in return. But in this crazy world we live in, with more stress, more food, less movement, more technology and less nature than ever before…. things can get a little confusing.
Metabolism is a very complex concept, but let’s focus on 2 terms only for this blog. These are ‘metabolic flexibility’ and ‘lipolysis.’ These are two terms we speak with our clients about quite regularly so we thought we’d share them on the blog today. Let’s start with ‘metabolic flexibility.’
Our bodies utilize two different forms of fuel for energy and survival and ideally, switch between both as required. The first fuel source is glucose and the second is fatty acids – essentially stored fat. Metabolic flexibility is essentially a fancy way of saying that the body can efficiently and comfortably switch between both as required. Consider that shortly after you eat a meal, carbohydrates will be more readily available thus the body will utilize glucose for energy. However, many hours later or say overnight, provided that meal was not too large, the body may switch into a fat burning mode instead. If we consider the evolution of human life, metabolic flexibility makes a lot of sense. Thousands of years ago, food availability varied with the seasons. There were times of feast and famine. The ability of the body to switch between these two mechanisms would have been a must for survival of the species.
Now a days, things aren’t so. Consume a diet of wholefoods, not in excess and you can loosely recreate a similar pattern – switching the body between fat and carbohydrate burning. However, overeating, the over consumption of highly processed carbohydrates, high cortisol, little or no movement, consistent snacking…. well all of these factors may mean the body is rarely forced into a fat burning state because instead, it has a steady supply of carbohydrates to keep it fueled.
Here at the Balanced Nutritionist, we are ‘pro’ metabolic flexibility. We think it makes sense on many levels – particularly when we consider human evolution. Many engage in debate over whether carbohydrate burning has any validity and instead believe our fat burning pathways should be constantly ‘on’ but we take a more balanced view on this. However, that debate is not the main purpose of this article.
Instead, let’s focus on our second concept, ‘lipolysis.’ Lipolysis is the fancy term to describe the mobilisation and break down of fatty acid cells for energy. Put simply, some degree of lipolysis is important for healthy weight management and certainly for fat loss. Yet, some find it difficult, even when they drastically reduce their food intake, to activate lipolysis, which essentially means they can’t seem to shift body fat.
This brings us to the crux of today’s article. You see there are two main conditions that need to be met in order for lipolysis to take place:
- Blood sugar, or glucose levels need to be relatively low. If blood sugar levels are high, the body will continue to use this as a fuel source instead and fat burning will not take place. So if someone has higher than normal blood sugar levels, say because they are prediabetic or insulin resistant, their capacity to burn fat for fuel will be low.
- Insulin levels must also be low. Insulin is one smart hormone. It is actually capable of blocking the enzymes responsible for making fat burning happen. Once again, prediabetes or poorly controlled diabetes or anyone with insulin resistance is likely to have high insulin levels fairly consistently, thus posing another challenge to fat burning. (note: fasting blood sugar levels can appear well controlled on blood tests, but corresponding insulin levels may still be elevated. It is possible and sometimes indicated, to have both fasting blood sugar levels and insulin levels tested to obtain a full picture).
Now, these hormones can be elevated for obvious reasons. Overeating, the consumption of junk food, consistent snacking between meals etc. will all drive both blood sugar and therefore insulin levels up as well. But, for those with insulin resistant conditions, these two hormones can be triggered extremely easily, even by seemingly healthy meal choices. Crux of the story? Lipolysis can be incredibly challenging for anyone with blood sugar and insulin regulation issues. You may even consume a seemingly perfect diet and not overeat, but still have difficulty achieving lipolysis and metabolic flexibility.
We wrote this blog because many of our clients find that understanding this concept really helps them understand fat loss better. We hope it brings some clarity to you as well. If you are concerned about your perceived ‘lack of’ metabolic flexibility, here are some tips that we’ll close on:
- Make sure your meals contain protein. That they aren’t purely carbohydrates on a plate. E.g. a sandwich with vegemite? Note going to cut it for lunch.
- Make sure you eat proper meals, with a break in between of at least 4 hours to allow time to digest and time for blood sugar and insulin levels to decrease.
- ensure that breaks are actual breaks; remember anything with flavour (including tea and coffee) has the ability to trigger a hormonal response in the body i.e. stimulate blood sugar levels.
- Move more. Exercise does stimulate lipolysis. But its also natural for us to move. We are designed to eat and move not eat and be sedentary.
- Don’t eat a really large meal at night especially one with dessert. The overnight ‘fast’ we naturally attain when we sleep is a good opportunity for fat burning.
- Drink water. Not sugary crap. Plus, being hydrated increases the efficiency of the body on all levels.
- Finally, if you are still struggling with weight management or fat loss to a healthy range, consult a professional as insulin resistant conditions require tailored advice.