How to Optimize Your Metabolism and Become a Fat-Burning Machine
A major reason that so many of us struggle to maintain a healthy weight, have sustainable energy throughout the day and feel our best, is that our bodies have become sugar-burning machines instead of fat-burning machines.
There is a colossal myth floating around that our bodies require carbohydrates and sugars–both converted to glucose once inside the body–for energy. From a biological perspective, the body's requirement for dietary derived glucose–which is in fact only needed by the brain–is absolutely zero because our livers can actually manufacture glucose. The body is able to gain all of the energy that it needs by metabolizing fats–and to a lesser extent proteins–into energy.
These different processes of energy conversion between carbs, fats and proteins are called metabolic pathways. Over time when we consume a diet primarily composed of sugars and carbs we can begin to rely on glucose metabolism for energy. This can lead to a number of problems including becoming resistant to important hormones that regulate blood sugar and hunger levels, and possibly even losing our ability to burn excess body fat at all.
Our diet dictates how our body will predominantly manufacture energy and most of us have probably chosen glucose metabolism. By switching to foods that are high in healthy fats–and potentially incorporating eating strategies such as intermittent fasting–we can actually retrain our bodies to be fat burning powerhouses, giving us longer lasting, more predictable energy levels and allowing us to shed unwanted pounds effortlessly.
Why Fats Don’t Make us Fat.
The bottom line on weight gain is that if we are consuming more energy than we are using–no matter which of the macronutrients (fats, proteins or carbohydrates) that energy is coming from –the excess will be stored as body fat. So the “fats make us fat” myth is just that–a myth–because any of the macronutrients can be converted into body fat. Fats can make us fat–if we're eating lots of trans fats for example (more on the different types of fats later)–but carbs and proteins could contribute to weight gain as well.
The only difference between how the body stores excess nutrients as fat is in terms of efficiency. It is far more efficient for the body to store excess dietary fats as body fat than it is for the body to store excess dietary carbs and protein as body fat. This makes logical sense because converting a protein or carbohydrate into a fat through a complex biological mechanism “costs” more energy.
At first glance this may seem like a bad thing. If fats are more readily stored, then wouldn’t consuming a high fat diet make it easier for us to put on weight? This is true in a way, but remember that the body only stores food as fat when there is an excess amount coming from the diet. The reason a diet high in healthy fats is actually less likely to make us gain weight has do with hormones, which I address later on in this article.
So if we are efficiently utilizing the potential energy we’re getting from food throughout the day–by exercising for example–we’re not going to put on weight. In the case of people who are active and still unable to lose weight this problem is more likely caused by not being able to burn body fat effectively (keep reading for more on this), a problem not usually associated with a high fat diet.
The fact that dietary fat is more easily stored is a bonus, not a drawback. No matter what we’re eating it is inevitable that some of that food is going to be stored in fat cells. The body needs fat cells to properly function because these cells protect vital organs, insulate the body and even produce fundamental hormones. If we’re consuming a high carbohydrate diet for example, we are wasting crucial energy on converting dietary carbs into body fat, and why waste energy?
Case and point, all macronutrients can be used for energy, all macronutrients can be stored as fats and most importantly all macronutrients can come in healthy or unhealthy forms.
There are Healthy Fats and Unhealthy Fats and Knowing the Difference is key.
This big misconception that dietary fats are the primary cause of excess body fat comes in part from lumping all fats together into one big category. In fact there are many different kinds of fats and some of them are incredibly beneficial to our bodies.
Many people have probably heard of saturated fats and these have been demonized to a certain extent, having even been placed in the “bad fat” category by some. There seems to be a “debate” about whether or not we need them in our diets. Interestingly there is a growing body of evidence renaming these fats as healthy when consumed at proper levels.
The typical rhetoric is that these fats raise cholesterol levels, which contributes to heart disease. It is true that saturated fats raise cholesterol, however what some people might not be aware of is that there are two types of cholesterol called LDL (“bad cholesterol’) and HDL (“good cholesterol”). Saturated fats have been shown to raise both good and bad cholesterol and the net effect is basically a wash, which is why the latest research finds no links between saturated fats and heart disease.
Mainly of our vital organs are surrounded by saturated fats including our brain–which is made of 60% fat–and our heart. Good sources of saturated fats include most animal products–as long as they’re grass fed–and coconut oil. If we’re eating fatty foods we are going to get a mix of all of the different types of essential fats. For example avocados are an excellent source of healthy fats–there is absolutely no debate about this–and avocados are comprised of 10 to 15 percent saturated fats. Saturated fats also play a key role in absorbing the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K). It is unclear if getting too much saturated fats may have a negative effect on the body, but the point is that labeling saturated fats as “bad fats” is ridiculous.
There are two types of unsaturated fats being monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Fat molecules are primarily comprised of the elements carbon and hydrogen. “Unsaturated” is simply referring to the number of unbonded hydrogen atoms in the fat molecule itself (mono=1 and poly=many). Unsaturated fats tend to be “more reactive” because unbonded atoms want to make bonds, just like unbonded humans! This is why polyunsaturated vegetable oils for example are more likely to go rancid–meaning they change chemically into trans fats–when exposed to high heat.
Omega 3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fats that have received a lot of media attention recently. Omega 3’s are very important because the body cannot manufacture them itself. These healthy fats have been linked to a tally of health benefits–longer than a small child’s Christmas list–including raising good cholesterol (HDL) and reducing chronic inflammation. Some great sources of Omega 3 fatty acids include fatty fish like salmon or cod, egg yolks and walnuts.
The danger with polyunsaturates is that some of them–coming from things like vegetable and canola oils–contain high amounts of Omega 6 fatty acids. These are needed by the body as well, however we want our ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids to be low, somewhere close to 1:1. This means we want to reduce foods high in Omega 6 and increase our intake of foods with high Omega 3 fatty acid. A low ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids has been proven to reduce diseases including cardiovascular disease, various cancers and autoimmune conditions.
One distinguishing factor between healthy and unhealthy fats is whether or not those fats are in their raw form. For example when fatty oils–even incredibly healthy ones like olive oil–are heated to a certain temperature they undergo a chemical change turning them into trans fats. Many people have probably heard of trans fats and these have been linked to coronary heart disease among other negative effects. These are the fats that can make us fat and unhealthy!
Trans fats can be found in any oil that has been heated such as oils used for frying food. Any vegetable oil or canola oil has likely been subject to heavy industrial processing–also being exposed to high heat–and can be highly toxic. If we choose to cook with oil it’s best to use olive oil or coconut oil–always in moderation–because these oils are more “stable” and are less likely to be degraded into trans fats. I personally prefer to use other cooking methods like baking or steaming to avoid this issue altogether.
We need both unsaturated fats and saturated fats in our diet to become effective fat burning machines. By consuming whole foods containing healthy fats (a long list of suggestions is given at the end of this article) and eliminating trans fats, we will easily accomplish this.
The Difference Between Glucose Metabolism and Fat Metabolism.
The three macronutrients called carbohydrates, proteins and fats can all be turned into energy by the body. Our cells are able to convert all of these into ATP (energy) through what are called metabolic pathways. Most people primarily derive their energy from the metabolic pathway called glucose metabolism and there are a number of problems associated with using this pathway as our primary means of energy creation. The empowering thing about this is that we actually have a choice about which metabolic pathway we choose as our primary energy source and this is mostly related to our diet.
One issue with glucose metabolism is that the body is only able to store a very limited amount of glucose in the liver. After just 24 hours of fasting–and usually less–the body's glucose stores are depleted meaning that we need to eat more sugar and carbs if we want to keep burning glucose. This is one reason why some people feel that they need to eat something as soon as they wake up like a bagel (carbs) or a muffin (carbs and sugar!). In contrast to burning glucose we can go on burning fat for days or even weeks at a time and gram for gram, burning fat yields more energy than burning glucose. The slow burning energy that fats provide is why bears can survive when hibernating for an entire winter.
Think of energy metabolism like making a fire. Using glucose is like igniting a bunch of fast burning cardboard boxes and using fat is like lighting slow burning logs. In order to keep the glucose fire burning we have to be constantly adding more cardboard boxes in the form of sugar and carbs. This is why we might feel really tired, then eat something containing carbs or sugars, and feel better. Another reason we feel better after eating these types of foods is that glucose sends a signal to our brain to release dopamine, the "happiness hormone". So we’re actually chemically rewarded for giving in to our sugar or carb cravings, which is why sugar can be so addicting!
Turning protein into energy is possible although the primary purpose of protein in typically not for energy conversion. The body breaks proteins down into amino acids and can use these “building blocks” to repair tissue and maintain cellular function, among other things. It is unlikely, although possible, that protein metabolism is our primary metabolic pathway at any given time.
Overuse of Glucose Metabolism can Create Insulin Resistance.
Whenever we eat something containing sugar and carbs, the body breaks those substances down into glucose, which is then released into the bloodstream. The release of glucose into our bloodstream triggers a hormone called insulin to be released by the pancreas into the bloodstream as well. Most people probably think of insulin as the hormone that regulates blood sugar and this is true in a way.
Insulin tells cells to absorb glucose and to convert that glucose into energy. Insulin also sends a signal for excess glucose to be removed from the blood and for that glucose to be stored as fat. The simple fact that the body stores excess energy as fat is a clue that the body's preferred energy source is indeed fat. Fat storage is also more efficient and in fact one gram of stored fat contains six times more energy than one gram of stored glucose.
One big problem with relying on glucose as an energy source is that we are doomed to releasing insulin every time glucose is in the bloodstream. Over time cells may become insulin resistant and this is a really bad thing for our health. Here’s how it works. Imagine trying to sleep and there’s a bunch of noise going on outside. Most people would try to cover their ears because they don’t want to hear the noise. Cells react to insulin in the same way by “covering their ears”. They begin to deactivate insulin receptors on their cellular membranes because for the cell, too much of one specific hormone is like loud noise.
Insulin resistance creates a vicious biological cycle and also makes us more susceptible to inflammation. The pancreas begins releasing more insulin because the insulin resistant cells don’t seem to be listening to it’s signals. Insulin also tells the body to stop burning fat–and to burn glucose–so people who are highly insulin resistant can actually lose their ability to burn fat over time. This is the single biggest downfall of glucose metabolism because its overuse can cause us to “forgot” how to burn fat altogether. No wonder it’s so hard for some people to lose weight!
Insulin Resistance Suppresses the “Fat-burning” Hormone.
Another hormone called glucagon–which is also secreted by the pancreas–works in tandem with insulin. Glucagon helps regulate blood sugar levels and is usually released in between meals. Glucagon tells the liver to release stored glucose if blood sugar is too low, but more importantly it tells the body to burn fat for energy. If glucagon is not being released, which is highly typical of people who are insulin resistant–because high insulin levels suppress glucagon–the body never gets the signal to start burning stored fat for energy.
This is another reason people on a high sugar and carb diet can actually lose their ability to burn fat because glucagon–the “fat-burning hormone”–becomes so suppressed. In this case the old saying, “If you don’t use it, you lose” is actually true. Of course it is possible to restore one’s ability to burn fat by supplying the body with ample rations consisting of fatty foods.
Eating a high carb and sugar diet over a long period of time basically tells the body, “Stop burning fat for energy, burn glucose for energy, store the excess glucose as body fat–if there is any– but don’t burn it.” This is not the message we want to be sending to our bodies!
Glucose Metabolism can Cause us to Become Resistant to the “I’m Full” Hormone.
Our body also produces a hormone called Leptin and this hormone tells our brain that we are full and satisfied. Interestingly leptin is produced in our fat cells. When we have a lot of fat cells–which can result from the body needing to store extra glucose–there is more leptin released into the system to tell the brain to stop being hungry. The body is saying, “Okay we have plenty of stored energy here, stop eating!” The problem is that when too much leptin is in the system for extended periods of time–which is very typical for an overweight person or anyone eating a high carb diet–cells become resistant to leptin in the same way that cells become resistant to insulin.
This can lead to overeating and food cravings because the “I’m full and satisfied” signal never gets through to the brain. This continues the vicious cycle of eating, leading to more insulin resistance as well and all of the negative effects that go along with it. High leptin levels have also been linked to inflammation, which is the precursor to all disease.
It’s something of a catch 22. In order to rebalance our hormones so that our body knows when we’re truly full, we have to get rid of the very fat cells that are over-producing leptin in the first place! It is unlikely that someone eating a diet high in healthy fats would encounter this in the long term because food cravings are simply eradicated on such a diet, meaning excess body fat is unlikely.
There is Absolutely no Requirement for Dietary Carbohydrates and Sugars.
There is a major myth floating around that many people are believing saying that the body needs carbohydrates to properly function. In fact the body's need for carbs or sugars from the diet is absolutely zero. The body actually runs better and more efficiently on fats than glucose. The body–and specifically the brain–does need glucose, but it doesn’t need it from the diet. All of this glucose can be produced by fat metabolism–glucose is a byproduct–and by gluconeogenesis in the liver. Gluconeogenesis is a big fancy word for the liver’s ability to manufacture glucose. Of course we will get some sugar and carbs in our diet pretty much no matter what, but the point is that we would be fine without it.
Some people may have heard of athletes eating high carb meals the night before a game or event and this actually makes sense. The body will store these carbs as glycogen–which is just a bunch of glucose molecules stuck together–in the liver. High intensity athletes use stored glycogen for quick bursts of energy and sprinters are a great example of this. So the logic seems to be to eat a high carb meal the night before to “fill up” glucose stores in the liver. It is unlikely that a high carb diet would be the most effective choice for an athlete on a daily basis, although anything is possible.
Intermittent Fasting Puts the Body Into Fat-burning Mode.
Intermittent fasting is something that has been increasing in popularity recently. It involves limiting eating to a smaller than normal window of six to eight hours per day. I have personally been doing this for over a year and a half and would highly recommend it because there are a number of health benefits that can be achieved.
Intermittent fasting helps the body to switch over to using fats as a primary energy source. This happens because after the body uses up all of its stored glucose–and the liver can’t store much more than a 24 hour supply (and usually less)–the body starts burning fat for energy. In this way we are training the body to switch back to fat metabolism.
When practicing this we will not be getting food cravings like we might on a high sugar or carb diet, at least not after we have been doing it for a few weeks. People crave sugar or carbs because when glucose is our primary energy source we need to constantly supply ourselves with it from our food. When we train our body to look to fats first, cravings disappear because we almost always have ample fat stores available.
Intermittent fasting also gives our digestive systems a break. Digestion requires a lot of energy and if we are eating from the moment we wake up, right up until bedtime, then the body is constantly wasting energy on digestion. The digestive system and the immune system are also tightly linked and when the body is digesting food, the immune system is not operating at peak performance. Intermittent fasting allows the immune system to fight off bacteria and viruses and even allows us to devote more energy to pulling toxins out from our tissues so that they can be eliminated. Intermittent fasting also promotes secretion of glucagon, the “fat-burning” hormone.
There are other variations of this including fasting for 24 hours once per week and even going to extremes such as eating every other day.
Foods High in Healthy Fats That Help us Become Fat-burning Machines.
If we want to become fat burners then we need to give the body an ample supply of fats. In my experience, by allowing these foods to make up the majority (50%+) of my diet–and foods similar to them–I have experienced having more energy throughout the day, needing to eat much less and hardly ever getting hunger cravings.
Raw Nuts (Preferably soaked and dehydrated)
Raw Seeds (Preferably soaked and dehydrated)
Flax seed oil
Evening Primrose oil (also good for relieving symptoms of PMS)
Fatty Fish–Must be wild caught.
Must be raw (Unpasteurized) and sourced from grass fed animals. This can be really hard to find in The United States, however if you visit RealMilk.com you can easily find a source in your area. Dairy gets a bad rap because so much of the dairy out there is made in a factory from grain-fed animals.
Must be grass fed (and more importantly grass-finished), free-range and sustainably raised.
By creating a diet coming in large part from these types of foods we are sending a major signal to our bodies to become fat-burning machines. When we become fat-burning machines we will have more energy, we will need to eat less and we won’t crave food any longer. With this type diet there is really no need to worry about getting enough protein because most of these foods are high in protein as well. I also want to mention that getting enough fiber is incredibly important–fruits, vegetables and legumes are all excellent sources–and these foods should make up a significant portion of a healthy diet.
It is important to note that people who don’t have a weight problem are not necessarily burning fat effectively. For certain people the case may be that most of their energy is coming from glucose metabolism and they are just effectively utilizing that energy. However, these type of people are not off the hook for all of the issues associated with choosing glucose as the primary metabolic pathway.
There seems to be a belief in our society that weight should be the primary measurement of our health. This is nonsense because skinny people can get cancers, autoimmune conditions and even suffer from heart disease as well. Instead of using weight as the primary metric for our health we should be focusing on how we feel. Do we wake up feeling strong and energized? Are we able to function throughout the day without constantly needed to eat or use stimulants like caffeine? By tuning in with our bodies it becomes very clear how well our diet–and more importantly our whole lifestyle–is working for us. Everyone's body is different–there is no "cookie cutter" diet out there–and we need to choose a diet and lifestyle that works best for us. When we increase our awareness in this way we can enjoy the long lasting health and vitality that we all deserve.