Metabolic flexibility is the capacity of your body to match what you eat to the energy it produces. It is the ability to easily switch between burning carbs when carbs are available and burning fat when fat is available or burning stored fat when no food is available. Someone with great metabolic flexibility can switch between carbohydrate metabolism and fat metabolism with relative ease. All those people who seem to be able to eat whatever they want and never gain a pound most likely have excellent metabolic flexibility.
If you are someone who finds it hard to lose weight, to get a good nights sleep, to go between meals without getting hungry. If you have poor energy levels, find it hard to concentrate or to get motivated about anything and can’t get through the morning without a little sugar boost then chances are you have poor metabolic flexibility. But, what gives us Metabolic flexibility, how we can we improve it and can your lack of it be making it hard for you to lose weight?
If your body is only burning sugar for fuel then the fat you eat cannot be used and if it cannot be used then it must be stored. this often leads to people eating less fat because they feel it is not good for them. They see high blood pressure and raised levels of LDL cholesterol as dangerous signs that they are eating to much fat when it fact it is the exact opposite, it is that they are eating to much carbohydrates and cannot use the fat they are eating properly. This reduction of good fat intake then leads to low levels of vitamins A,D, E and K all of which are fundamental to a healthy body. It also leads to low levels of good cholesterol which all your hormones are made from including testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone, which then of course can cause infertility issues. Lower levels of fat in the diet also leads to poor cell functioning due to the fact that the walls of every cell in your body are made from fats. If the stored fuel you have eaten (either from carbs of fat) cannot easily be used then then body will get hungry and look for more fuel, more food, even thought you are already overweight. So as you can see, having the flexibility to use what we eat when we eat it and to use what we have stored when we are not eating is pretty fundamental to a healthy working human body.
The two main contributors to poor metabolic flexibility are low numbers of mitochondria in the cells and insulin resistance, both of which negatively feed into each other and both of which are caused by an imbalanced diet and lack of exercise.
Your mitochondria are tiny little energy creators that live in every cell of your body. It is their job to take the fuel you eat and convert it to energy. The fewer mitochondria you have the less energy you can make and the more of the fuel you take in needs to be stored as fat. A certain amount of the available mitochondria you have are genetically determined but what you do and how you live also have a huge impact of the numbers of mitochondria you have. For example is you commute into work every day, spend the working day sitting at a computer, commute home again and then crash out in front of the TV then you don’t need whole lot of energy so your mitochondria don’t have much to do. Since the body does not keep what the does not need your mitochondria levels will drop and more of what you eat get s converted to fat because the body can’t do anything else with it.
Insulin resistance is the other key factor in poor metabolic flexibility. There are 2 competing explanations as to exactly what Insulin resistance is. One theory describes it as the cell no longer responding to the message from insulin that sugar is in the blood and needs to be removed, due to the constant over stimulation of the cell receptors. The other, is that the cells are so full already that they simple can’t let anymore glucose in so the signal from insulin to open up and let glucose in simple has to be ignored. No matter which of these theories is the most accurate the result is the same, glucose cannot get into the cell to be convert to energy so it has to be stored… and when the body runs out of storage room it has the wonderful ability of making more storage space by creating new fat cells.
So if the cells are already full or the signalling is bad or some combination of both is going on then the mitochondria can’t make energy from our fuel so we get fatter. If body is not being used and the muscle mass and mitochondria numbers go down then less fuel can be converted to energy, leading to cells filling up and insulin signalling being reduced, so we get fatter. If we are eating more and more carbohydrate and less and less fat then the vital fat vitamins are not being consumed and the cell walls are getting stiffer, causing more insulin resistance and more insulin being created by your pancreas to try and force more fuel into the cells, causing even more insulin resistance and poorer mitochondria use, so we get fatter. And so the cycle goes round and round and round.
Just as there were two key factors to lowering your metabolic flexibility there are also two key factors for improving it. Diet and and exercise.
To improve your Metabolic flexibility you need to reduce you carbohydrate intake, remove all trans fats from the diet and increase you good fats. This will increase the health of the cells in your body and will greatly lower your resistance to insulin allowing better transfer of fuel into the cells where it can be converted into energy. You need to eat lots of low carbohydrate, phytonutrient packed colourful veg and berries, like kale, peppers, Avocado, blueberries and raspberries. These foods will feed your mitochondria the nutrients they need to stay healthy and vibrant. You also need plenty of good fats. We need lots of those fatty vitamins, A,D,E and K so lots of olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and butter would be good idea. Keep starches to minimum and avoid fake food wherever possible.
Exercise is our other key factor to getting your mitochondria back on their feet and burning up your excess fuel reserves. Low level cardio like walking is very good at mobilising the mitochondria in your slow twitch (endurance) muscle fibres. But to activate the mitochondria in the rest of your muscles and to draw in satellite cells into the muscle to make more mitochondria you need to start doing some resistance training. Weight training and body weight exercises are what work best. Some exercises like squats, dead-lifts, presses and pulls are best but you should be consulting with a trainer to see what will work for you at your current fitness levels.
Decades of eating badly and getting little to no exercise has led to the current epidemic in obesity and long term ill health. It does not have to be this way for you though. The first step to getting leaner and healthier is to get your body working again and diet and exercise are the keys to doing this.
If you want to learn more about how to get your Mitochondria working for you then contact us anytime about personal health coaching or weight management or join us for one of our on line group programs.