How to become a fat burning machine, lessons from athletes
Why become a fat burner?
In a previous post, Why some people stay skinny and others get fat I talked about how high carb foods lead to high insulin levels which effectively turn down, or off, your ability to burn fat. There is a longer downward spiral from years of this. But that was that post.
In this post, I want to look at exactly what you can do to turn yourself into a fat burning machine. This is not only about turning the fat burning on and creating a situation where you can drive a homeostasis for a steady and healthy weight, but is also about well-being and energy. My experience, as well as the overwhelming blogashpere and research itself, shows that an important benefit of fat adaptation is a much more stable energy level and well-being/mood.
We’ll look specifically at endurance athletes first. They want the same things that those who have problems with metabolic dysfunction want. They want to burn fat, not carbs, because humans have such a limited supply of carbs but much much bigger supplies of fat to draw upon. When athletes going long distances run out of carbs they are said “to hit the wall” or “bonk” (French for the noise your head makes when it hits the road?) So we’ll look at some of our lab results with an athlete later.
It’s not about treating carbs as evil and trying to run your body without carbs. In some ways it’s the exact opposite – it’s about sparing the glucose you do have. It’s about getting your body to do what it is designed to do under usual evolutionary conditions – burn fat and have enough energy to move all day and/or make short intense bursts. Becoming an efficient fat burner allows you to do just this.
Carb burners v Fat burners
If your metabolism is set up to predominately burn carbs, then you’ll most likely have many more highs and lows throughout the day energy wise. I call the lows “falling off the glucose cliff”. That’s when your glucose dependent brain cries out for more fuel – in the form of simple carbs usually. The cycle continues. If that’s you, then this blog could change your life for the better!
There are many plausible or proven health benefits here to. There is the obvious one of easily being able to control your weight. But far beyond that is reducing the damage high sugar, and high insulin, and sugar burning (glycolysis) do in your body. All of these are inflammatory and cause oxidative stress. These are the causative mechanisms behind chronic disease development including heart disease and stroke, diabetes, cancer, and brain (dys)function.
Fat burning in endurance exercise
One lab-based method we use to measure fat burning vs carb burning is the respiratory exchange ration (RER), also known as the respiratory quotient. This is the ratio between the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled and oxygen inhaled, which provides an indication of which substrate (fat, carbohydrate or a mix) is being used for fuel. We do this using our breath by breath gas analysis system in our Metabolic and Exercise Science Clinic at the Human Potential Centre at AUT Millennium Campus.
The RER varies between 0.7 (100% fat burning) through to ≥1.0 (100% Carb burning). A ratio of 0.85 has been labelled the metabolic efficiency point, when the body burns half of each. We try to determine what exercise output can be maintained for half and half. Bear in mind that everyone will eventually burn 100% carbs if the exercise is intense enough, but the higher the intensity at which fat is still the predominant energy source the better. However, what we are most concerned with is the ability to burn fat at rest and at lower to moderate intensities of exercise. This is great for weight loss. It’s great for health. But it’s also great if you are an athlete trying to do longer distance events like the Ironman triathlon.
We recently had a high level triathlete in our lab. We measured his RER before and after a 10 week training block going into this year’s Ironman NZ. We also transferred him to a low carb high fat (LCHF) diet for the period of that training. He was training about 20 hours a week and came in to the 10 week block relatively fit, albeit slightly heavier than he wished.
- Start weight 86 kg, post weight 78 kg. Good weight loss while reporting eating until full. No deprivation of food or calories if needed. Reduced calorie consumption on long training sessions. Few if any gels or sports drinks.
- Pre RER @ 270 W bike = 0.93, post RER @300 W = 0.82. This translates to a change in fat utilization from 23% of fuel to 60% of fuel at the same power output, for a lighter overall weight (power per kilo was also increased).
- Metabolic efficiency point (50/50 fuel use) improved from 180 W to 300 W. This shows the massive increase in efficiency we saw with a switch to a LCHF diet.
If you know anything about endurance training and racing then you’ll know that these results are outstanding. To the point of being spectacular. The limiting factor in longer races is not maximal output, but how fast you can go while conserving muscle and liver glycogen (carbs). You need to maximize your fat burning and preserve your very limited supply of carbs as much as possible.
Most athletes try to get around this problem by eating extra carbs during training and racing. This can work to an extent, but perversely raises insulin and shuts down your body’s ability to burn fat. It’s almost impossible to eat and digest enough carbohydrate to actually race these events well. You need a good degree of fat burning.
Anyway, this illustrates what can be achieved with a LCHF diet; good, effortless weight loss and spectacular performance gains.
If you’re not an athlete, and I’m assuming most of you are not, then the same principles still apply. We can hook you up to the gas analysis system and determine your “metabolic efficiency” at rest. We can assess just how much of a carb burner you are and we can track your progress if you decide to become a fat burning machine through a LCHF diet.
Fat adaptation v ketosis
There’s a special type of low carbohydrate diet called a ketotic diet. I want to explore that in the next post. Stay tuned.