Metabolic Efficiency, Part 1

Metabolic efficiency refers to the body’s efficiency in utilizing its internal stores of carbohydrates and body fat at various intensities of exercise and at rest. Our bodies constantly burn a mix of carbohydrates and fat to fuel us through our daily activities and exercise.  As intensity of exercise increases, the body naturally starts to burn a higher percentage of carbohydrate and a lower percentage of fat for energy; this is simply how the human body works.  After as little as 2 hours of moderate to intense exercise, the body’s internal glycogen (carbohydrate) stores may be depleted, causing a noticeable dip in energy levels or what endurance athletes commonly refer to as “bonking”.

But, did you know that with strategic nutrition and exercise adaptations, the body can actually learn to burn more fat at higher intensities of exercise, thus preserving our limited supply of glycogen and preventing or delaying onset of “the bonk”?  Eating a metabolically efficient diet can bring about other benefits such as decreasing the risk of gastrointestinal (GI) distress during exercise, improving body weight and composition, and improving health markers.

The standard American diet is very carbohydrate-centric, and many people are accustomed to over-consumption of breakfast cereals, bagels, muffins, bread, pasta, refined grains and starches, snack crackers, cookies, candy, and soda.  But, what most people don’t realize is how much added sugar is lurking in other foods, including foods often perceived as “healthy”:  flavored yogurt, salad dressings, marinades, soups, sauces, those fancy flavored coffee drinks, granola bars, energy bars, and bottled iced tea and fruit juice beverages, to name a few.

Over-consumption of sugar and carbohydrates is the basis of metabolic inefficiency; that is, a body that always, or almost always, burns more carbohydrates than fat as its fuel source.  Simply put, eating carbohydrates teaches the body to burn carbohydrates as its predominant form of fuel.  This in turn leads to poor utilization of the body’s fat stores; an increased need for supplemental carbohydrates during exercise; increased risk of GI distress during exercise; and higher body weight and body fat (which we know are linked to increased risk of various chronic diseases).

If you are interested in becoming more metabolically efficient, you can start now by decreasing the quantity of added (refined) sugars you’re consuming.  Become a thorough label reader: scan the ingredients and try to avoid savory products (ie, soups, sauces, marinades) that contain a form of sugar in the ingredient list.  Here are some easy swaps you can do now to decrease the added sugar in your diet:

  • Replace flavored yogurt with plain yogurt topped with fresh berries or fruit slices
  • Swap out your mid-afternoon granola bar for a handful of raw almonds, or celery sticks with peanut butter or almond butter
  • Replace soda and sweetened beverages with water (add a spritz of lime or lemon juice for some flavor) or unsweetened tea
  • Opt for plain rolled or steel-cut oatmeal topped with cinnamon, butter, berries and/or chopped nuts or nut butter instead of the flavored single-serving varieties
  • Make your own salad dressing by mixing equal parts of olive oil and balsamic, apple cider, or red wine vinegar; or olive oil and lemon juice (add salt/pepper to taste), and you’ve got yourself an easy, homemade option that is not only free of added sugars, but also free of icky preservatives/stabilizers.

More to come!  If you’re interested in doing a walk-through of your diet and learning how you can become more metabolically efficient, drop me a line!