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paleo diet - CrossFit London

Burn Fat When You Want?! The Magic of Metabolic Flexibility

We love flexibility, and we humans are particularly good at it. Noah el Harari (he wrote Sapiens), credits flexibility and adaptability as the reason we’re still here, and you speak to anyone in the current day and there’s a serious desire to have a flexible life, without rigidity or structure.

It’s defined as the ability to be easily modified, or the willingness to change or compromise – don’t we all want these. But what about flexibility in the body? No, I’m not talking about being able to do a back bend, I’m talking about the ability to shift between fuel sources depending on the situation – this is the modern phenomenon of metabolic flexibility. Yes, this does means that you can burn fat when you want!

So what is it?

Cell defines metabolic flexibility as “the ability of an organism to respond or adapt according to changes in metabolic or energy demand as well as the prevailing conditions or activity.” Goodpaster (2017).

Though the sexier definition comes from Dr Mike T Nelson, who states that “Metabolic Flexibility enables you to (1) transition between fats and carbohydrates so you can burn more fat when you’re not exercising; and (2) use carbohydrates when you are exercising to fuel that activity and perform at a higher level.”

Forget bulletproof coffee, this sounds like the ultimate “biohack.”

Not only does Metabolic Flexibility have huge effects on looking better naked, but it can drastically improve one’s overall heath and quality of life. In fact, our ability to be metabolically flexible has strong links with mitochondrial function, insulin sensitivity and oxygen utilisation (Goodpaster, 2017). It’s not a new concept either, metabolic flexibility has played a crucial role in our survival, as we would have frequent periods of fasting and indulging, forcing the body to go through physiological change to create a more robust human – you could easily argue that we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have metabolic flexibility.

Kelley et al. (2002) sums it up well:
“Due to possible discontinuities in both the supply and demand for energy, humans need a clear capacity to use lipid and carbohydrate fuels and transition between them.(1)” 

So let’s look at someone who’s metabolically flexible. These guys are more likely to be lean, active and can go long periods without food. Part of this is being used to using fat as a fuel source and not having huge peaks and troughs in energy that’s dictated by how log ago their last top up of sugar was. There have been correlations with those who undergo intermittent fasting and a ketogenic diet being more metabolically flexible, but then there is solid research on hunter – gatherer communities who live mostly on carbohydrates demonstrating a good level of metabolic flexibility as well. So this topic goes beyond macros and into about lifestyle, genetics and the microbiome.

On the other hand, let’s look at someone who is “metabolically inflexible.” This person is probably overweight, inactive and might kill someone if they don’t have access to a bagel. Why? Well, their energy peaks and slumps throughout the day as they move from each sweet treat to the next…. These folk are “sugar burners” Many of these folk are victims to the modern food system that’s littered with refined carbohydrates, and are supported by it as well (it’s like an abusive relationship). “A little Hungry? Great! Have this delicious cheap sweet thing then come back in two hours for another.”

As we know, this leads to huge blood sugar fluctuations, overconsumption of nutrient poor and calorie rich food, obesity and dietary related disease. These guys have a really tough time burning fat and getting lean, as they’re running on sugar. Once sugar depletes, there’s a serious craving for more sugar.

Okay Steve, I’m sold, how do I become more metabolically flexible?!

How to get more metabolically flexible.

  1. Exercise:

Shocker I know, but if we move our bodies, we become healthier. Which exercises make me more metabolically flexible you ask? Well, it seems that constant movement (not being a desk jockey) with high intense resistance training is a great combo. So go for that morning walk and follow it up with a weights session, and throw SOME higher intensity stuff in there….

 

2. Cut down on refined carbs:

Breads, bagels, pastas, sweets, they’re all going to halt your ability to become a “fat burner.” Why? Well the body is likely going to be using these as fuel first, kind of like paper on a fire, but we’re continuing to top up on paper (or bagels) then your body doesn’t have an opportunity to access fat stores for energy.

3. Sleep:

The most important one on the list, a bad night of sleep is the best way to become sugar dependent – Noticed how good all that junk food looks after a night of bad sleep? The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that ONE night of shortened sleep led to insulin levels that looked like that of a type 2 diabetic in healthy people. Good luck saying “no” to cake at the office in this situation.

 

4. Follow time restricted eating:

The whole intermittent fasting phenomenon follows similar principles of metabolic flexibility. Giving your guts some time between meals and eating in a window (8 hours seems to be opimum) has shown to improve hunger swings, fat burning capacity and metabolic flexibility (Obesity Society). An easy way to do this is having your first meal at 10am and your last meal at 6pm.

5. Chill out

Most of the points above are redundant if we don’t consider the impact of stress on the system. The father of this topic, Dr. Robert Sapolsky has studied the impact of stress and it’s impact on homeostasis at length. His findings show that chronic, prolonged stress alters insulin levels, blood sugar levels, frontal lobe function (responsible for decision making), and has a direct impact on our ability to burn fat.

 

Concluding, the phenomenon of metabolic flexibility is a key health marker and has a significant impact on our ability to not only look better naked, but to build a more resilient body that’s resistant to dietary related diseases. As always, it takes a holistic approach to achieve this level of health, taking into account fitness, nutrition and lifestyle factors.

Want to get more metabolically flexible? Book your free consult today. 

 

*Disclaimer: This post is for information purposes only, and is not designed to diagnose or treat any disease. Always seek help from a medical professional whenever you undergo any dietary change.

 

References:

Donga et al. (2010) A single night of partial sleep deprivation induces insulin resistance in healthy subjects. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 95, Issue 6, 1 June 2010, Pages 2963–2968

Freese et al. (2017) The sedentary revolution: Have we lost our metabolic flexibility. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5710317/

Goodpaster, B., & Sparks, L (2017) Metabolic Flexibility in Health and Disease. Cell Metabolism. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2017.04.015

Kelley, D.E., He, J.,  Menshikova, E.V., Ritov, V.B. (2002) Dysfunction of mitochondria in human skeletal muscle in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes. 51(10).

Moro. (2016) Effects of eight weeks of time – restricted feeding (16/8) on basal metabolism, maximal strength, body composition, inflammation and cardiovascular risk factors in resistance trained males. Journal of Translational Medicine 

How Many Carbs Should I Be Having? First Let’s Look in the Mirror

In a world of keto, low carb, high fat, low carb high fat, paleo, primal, vegan and carnivarian (actually a thing now) there’s no wonder there’s so much mass confusion about what the best diet is. Amongst these doctrines, there is very little room for context – the low carb keto folk will say that carbs are the devil, without considering someone’s level of exercise or hormone status, while some vegan folk think that plants will change the world and meat causes diabetes – an actual claim from the recent propaganda film: What the Health.

And I get it, tribes are cool and extremes are easy, but in order to work out what YOU should be eating, the solution goes beyond tribalism and into your personal framework. We learnt this in my previous post on carbs making you fat where I made the claim that carb intake should be dependent on your activity level and goals (weight loss, mass gain, performance). In this post we go deeper and look at different bodytypes and their ability to turn carbs into energy or store as bodyfat…. Yes, there’s solid evidence to say that your carb intake should be determined by your bodytype!

Let’s look at the three main bodytypes or somatotypes made popular by William Sheldon in 1940 (you might remember them from high school health class):

  1. Ectomorph
  2. Mesomorph
  3. Endomorph

Two important footnotes:

  1. You’re not one strict bodytype. It’s important to know that you don’t fall strictly into one category – categorisation always sucks! Rather, we’re a mix of all, and have one dominant bodytype, much like the vata, pitta and kapha doshas in ayurvedic medicine.
  2. You can move between bodytypes. It’s also possible that an endo can become a meso or a meso to become an ecto. Diet, activity and lifestyle play a strong role in where we sit and where we can go – GREAT NEWS!

Ectomorph:
These folk are usually long, lean and wirey. They are known as “hard gainers” as they will have a tough time putting on mass. They use strength from their nervous system rather than muscle mass, making recovery extra important.
On Carbs: These guys shouldn’t worry too much about how many carbs they’re taking in. They’re usually sensitive to insulin (good thing), making them efficient carb burners. They’re usually sympathetic nervous system dominant, have a high metabolic rate, and can annoy many of their friends by eating whatever they want and remain thin.

Nutrition recommendations: Ensure you’re getting a good amount of carbs throughout the day, particularly around exercise. Also make sure you’re getting protein at every meal. Your body wants to stay lean, so make sure you keep your muscle mass high by eating enough protein. And don’t use your ecto status to eat whatever you want! You must take care of your gut, liver and nervous system (all seem to be more sensitive with ectomorphs) by eating quality foods.

Exercise recommendations: You may like your cardio because you’re good at it, but don’t ignore weight training as it’s probably going to be more important for you. Do compound exercises (squat, bench press, pullup, deadlift) at a heavy weight and make sure your nervous system is well recovered between sessions.

I hate celebrity comparisons but Beiber is all Ecto

Mesomorph
These guys are characterised by having higher levels of testosterone and growth hormone, and  having a high potential to gain muscle mass. Like their ectomorph friends, they’re usually more insulin sensitive, making it easy to process carbs, especially if they’re active. Ectomorphs usually hate these guys as they can spend a few months at the gym and be looking like the hulk.  Mesomorphs guys should still watch what they eat if they want to stay lean, as a big off season can mean storing of bodyfat. Carbs should still be eaten at every meal, and should be prioritised around training.

Nutrition Recommendations: Eat a mixed diet of proteins, carbs and fats, getting a solid serving of carbs in around workouts. If you’re more sedentary, watch your carb consumption if you want to keep lean and mean.

Exercise Recommendations: Ensure you keep up a regular training regime. Don’t let it slide and rely on your natural athleticism! Embrace variation and get into both strength and conditioning.

Serena Williams: The ultimate Meso.

Endomorph
Our more grounded, heavy set friends, these folk are known to be less active, and often curse themselves for their uncanny ability to put on weight… They’re usually weapons in the weight room, and have a natural ability to lift BIG.
Carbs for these folk should be taken in with caution, as too many can easily be stored as bodyfat. Getting the bulk of them in around exercise is a good idea, and monitoring their intake at our times in the day is also recommended.

Nutrition Recommendations: Prioritise fat and protein, and get the bulk of your carbs around your workouts. A low carb diet might work well for you, particularly if you’re sedentary. Also, chew your food for improved satiety signalling and watch for portion sizes! If you’re new this, you might want to track your calories via an app like myfitnesspal to get an idea of where you’re at.

Exercise Recommendations: Move! It may not always feel easy but trust me it’s worth it. Cardio might feel tough, but it’s going to do you the world of good and give you energy! And cardio doesn’t always mean running! If you can’t make it to the gym, then a long walk is nearly as good.

If anyone knows this lady, I’m currently taking on new clients.

So what to take away from this? Work out where you’re at, where you want to go, then put together the right plan to get you there. If you need some help getting yourself there, that’s where coaches come into play!

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*Disclaimer: This post is for information purposes only, and is not designed to diagnose or treat any disease. Always seek help from a medical professional whenever you undergo any dietary change.

 

References:

Effect of Low-Fat vs Low-Carbohydrate Diet on 12-Month Weight Loss in Overweight Adults and the Association With Genotype Pattern or Insulin SecretionThe DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2673150

The role of carbohydrates in insulin resistance. The Journal of Nutrition. DOI: https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/131/10/2782S/4686473

Main characteristics of metabolically obese normal weight and metabolically healthy obese phenotypes. Nutrition Reviews. DOI: https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article-abstract/73/3/175/1837133?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Somatotype, Nutrition and Obesity. Reviews on Environmental Health. DOI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11199249

Somatotype and disease prevalence in adults. Reviews on Environmental Health. DOI: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12088094

Paleo and CrossFit… Can They Coexist?

CrossFit and paleo, two concepts that have grown side by side for the past fifteen years. Two market driven movements that promote health, minimalism, community, and two movements that are as controversial as they effective.
Having high stakes in both of these (I coach crossfit and use a paleo template in my nutrition coaching), I have seen first hand just how effective, and also how damaging these approaches can be.
First, we should look at both movements in their rawest form.
CrossFit: A method of exercise that practices functional movement at high intensity.
Paleo: A way of eating that promotes eating fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, nuts and seeds. In other words, eating as minimally processed foods as possible.
paleo-foods
USUALLY, a standard paleo diet will be slimmer on the carbs and larger on the protein. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t consciously smash your sweet potato and go “high carb paleo,” but most of us who go paleo will be leaning to the lower side of carb consumption (<150g per day) – that’s about 3 sweet potatoes.
Now, questions of doing paleo and crossfit; “is it optimal? Will it help me lose weight? Will it help me gain muscle? Will it save my life?” The answers to these are like so many in nutrition… “it depends.”
So it’s hard to give a definitive answer as to whether it’s right for you, but in an effort to reach a conclusion, I’ll give you three real life examples of people I’ve come across and you can make up your mind where you sit from there.

  1. “The Athlete.”

pexels-photo-348487 (2)
This girl is training 2 hours per day, 5+ times per week. She lifts heavy, goes fast, and is completely dedicated to making the sport. Her goals are to to put on muscle to lift heavy, but not too much that it interrupts her conditioning.

2. ‘The Superdad.’
What-Gift-Buy-Fit-Dad
He’s recently taken up crossfit and trains 3 times per week. He has a busy schedule with two kids and a full time job, but fitness still holds an important part in his life. His goals are to lose weight and stay strong to keep up with his kids.

3. ‘The Office Jockey.’
keith from the office
This guy has recently taken up crossfit as the doctor suggested it. He’s overweight, has insulin resistance, and has high blood pressure. This guy is also extremely sedentary, and hasn’t had regular movement or sunlight since school. He’s started training 2 times per week and goals are to lose weight, feel more energy and build some muscle mass.

Now, the verdicts.
1. Should the “Athlete” eat paleo?
No! Why? Let’s look at her schedule… She’s training around 2 hours a day and spends the rest of the time recovering and thinking about training… Glamorous?! She’s using her anaerobic system consistently, and this system runs on glucose (carbs), not fat or ketones. Fran doesn’t run well on fat.
Carbs such as potato, sweet potato, beets, pumpkin, as well as non – paleo foods in rice, quinoa, oats (gasp) and other whole grains should be a staple for these guys, whereas our first two friends should be more diligent with them. Protein should obviously be a priority as maintaining muscle mass is important, and fat should be adequate.
Nutrient timing is also important. Post workout carbs will help funnelling nutrients to the muscles so adding some dextrose to her a shake would be helpful.
But won’t all those carbs store as bodyfat? Carbs, insulin, fat storage right?! Not quite. When we’re doing this type of anaerobic training, we mostly store these carbs as glycogen, not body fat. A whole different set of rules applies to our “Superdad” or “Office Jockey”, so don’t do a Michael Phelps and eat 12 wheat bix for breakfast just yet.

2. Should the “Superdad” eat paleo?
Yes! Greg Glassman’s initial mantra of “eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar” is a perfect fit for this guy. In addition to this, a little tinkering with carb timing and quantity is required here to make sure he’s keeping the belly fat off.  He should ensure he’s getting carbs post workout, and enough to support his activity – around 150g per day seems to be a good area to stick to. His plan also has some wiggle room… Since he’s pretty active, sleeps well, and has good community, sticking to a plan of 80/20 paleo/non paleo will work well and be sustainable and give enough room for a glass of wine over his grass – fed steak.

3. Should the ‘Office Jockey’ eat paleo?
Yes! Absolutely. It might just save his life. Most carbohydrates will not be friends with this man, and his diet should be centred around healthy fats, protein and veggies.  Why? Well he’s one of 2 million Australians with pre diabetes, and a continuation of his current lifestyle will land him will land him in a very dangerous state. Having extremely low glucose tolerance means eating things like cereals and wholegrain bread is lethal, as it’s jacking up our blood sugar, and we don’t have the necessary insulin function to maintain homeostasis. (cereal and wholegrain bread are both recommended from our chief authority on diabetes – shocked face).
Now, should this fella get into the gym, and I hope he would, he might want to add some post workout carbs in the form of sweet potato or pumpkin, but I’d recommend going between 50-100g of carbs in the short term to restore some baseline of health.

Wrapping Up
So the point here is to accept that we’re all the same but different animals with different nutrition requirements for optimal health. At a baseline we can all agree that a diet with heaps of veggies, enough protein and healthy fats is good for all. But digging deeper, we need to consider our genetics, activity level, activity type, hormonal profile and GI status when deciding what the optimal diet is.

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