Metabolism Primer 3 of 3
Feeding Your Metabolism: The Truth About Food Our Health System Is Afraid to Admit
by Pat Jak, BS, CPT, USAC II, USAC Power Based Training Coach
This is detailed and I don’t want you to just skim over the intro because these tips can help you improve your metabolism, change your life, improve your health, and increase your performance… just by eating the right foods.
– Current dietary guidelines are keeping us fat
– The best thing you can do is avoid sugar and keep insulin low
– Carbohydrates and sugar promote fat storage
– Fat is okay and boosts metabolism
– You do not need whole grains
– You do not need sports drinks, bars, gels, or supplements to train better
– Eat real food
All our lives we have been told what to eat by our parents, teachers, doctors, health insurance companies, coaches, and yes even the government and the First Lady. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services even have a 112-page “pamphlet” on food, the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010.” No wonder our nation is getting more obese each year. Who has time to read 112 pages on dietary recommendations? To save you time, here is what they recommend: consume fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free and low-fat dairy, and quality protein sources, while avoiding sodium and solid fats.
How much of these foods should we be consuming? Well the new initiative ChooseMyPlate.gov suggests that roughly 25% of your plate should be vegetables, 25% should be fruits, 25% should be whole grains, and 25% should be protein. Sounds basic, right?
But what if I said this diet is no different than the recommendations we have had for decades, yet we continue to become a fatter nation and healthcare costs are skyrocketing? What if I said this recommended diet will do nothing for your metabolism other than make you more inefficient in life and sport? What if I said this diet will actually raise blood sugar and create a cascade of events that put you at risk for any number of diseases from diabetes to heart disease? And what if I said it was all because these recommendations are incorrect, misleading, incomplete, and backward?
In most cases the scientific evidence to support these recommendations are just not there because we cannot assume CAUSE based on a CORRELATION. For instance, in Ancel Keys’ famous Seven Countries Study, he claimed a CORRELATION between consuming fat and cholesterol, and heart disease. As a result, we rallied against fat and created our current fat-free mentality. However, in subsequent studies it has never been proven that cholesterol is a CAUSE of heart disease. Therefore, we cannot assume fat is evil.
Likewise an observation made by Denis Burkitt in his 1979 book “Don’t forget fibre in your diet: to help avoid many of our commonest diseases” led us to believe that African tribes were cancer free because they ate diets high in fiber. But there was no follow up controlled study and an observation does not a study make. Therefore, we cannot assume that fiber is necessary to beat cancer.
Relying on observations to assume cause is dangerous and misleading. To give an example that may be easier to follow, it is like saying our nation is getting fatter because the Cleveland Browns came back to the NFL in 1999. Well, since 1999 the obesity rates have increased and that is the same year the Cleveland Browns came back to the NFL. Well, therefore they must be related. That is obviously absurd. But that is what happens when we base nutritional guidelines on a hunch and observation that was never rigorously tested through controls and pure level one science.
What We Do Know
There is a danger in relying on observations to create our nutritional guidelines. So without the science backing these claims what are we to do? According to Peter Attia, MD, we “need to look at the best empirical evidence that exists and that is mechanistic.” Meaning, we must first understand how our body works.
Sugar and Metabolism
To keep things simple we eat three main food sources or macronutrients — carbohydrates, fats, and proteins — and should get a good balance or portion of these each day. Proteins do not contribute very much to energy metabolism, many people cannot tolerate protein in large quantities and it does not make up a large percentage of our daily diet. So for the purpose of this primer, I will not go into very much detail on proteins here. Remember we want to use our food to become metabolically efficient and to improve our ability to sustain energy for long periods of time and increase our capacity for oxygen.
When we eat carbohydrates, our body quickly breaks them down into glucose or sugar and absorbs it into the blood. And when glucose or sugar is present in our blood, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin. Now, when it comes to sugar, there has been a campaign against heavily refined and processed sugars such as high fructose corn syrup. Many individuals quickly claim they avoid it and then proudly exclaim that “real sugar” is better. Guess what? It’s the same thing and has the same insulin effect on your body. Which is a better bullet to put in your brain, one from a Colt, or one from a Smith & Wesson?
This can be a problem because insulin promotes fat storage. It basically keeps us from getting at our fat cells: our already stored energy (Sapolsky, 1994).
Unfortunately, our vitamin absorption also depends on the sugar-insulin mechanism. If you get more sugar you need more vitamin B and C because insulin inhibits absorption (Taubes, 2010).
On top of this, the more sugar present, the more insulin is released. The more it is released, the more the body fights against it. This is insulin resistance, which often leads to what we more commonly know as Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome. Creating a host of other issues, insulin resistance deprives the brain of energy and makes you fatter (Sapolsky, 1994). And Taubes (2010) found that insulin resistance has even been shown by researchers at the Salk Institute to be related to Alzheimer’s disease.
Unfortunately, we are in a catch-22. Because the medical community and government continues to rely on flawed research based on correlation and observations, we are consistently told that fat is bad for us. As a result we rely on carbohydrates for energy. In fact, we are recommended to get 65-75% of our diet from carbohydrates.
Beyond just basic health, these recommendations also impact our exercise, fitness, and performance. When we eat high carbohydrate diets we increase our reliance on carbohydrate oxidation and reduce our ability to oxidize fat. We cause our bodies to be metabolically inefficient. Essentially, it doesn’t matter if you work out with low intensity or high intensity, if you eat high amounts of carbohydrates, you train your body to not burn fat (Seebohar, 2009).
“We have demonized fat. And because it is impossible to eat less fat and less sugar as we have been recommended, essentially anything saying ‘low fat’ is simply another way of saying ‘high sugar,’” says Attia. This means by following guidelines, we reduce our fat intake and rely on the very fuel that makes us fat, sick, and metabolically inefficient: sugar.
There is a silver lining, however. That is, if we flip this logic, we make massive changes to our metabolism. In studies conducted by Volek, Quann, and Forsythe (2010), they found that when carbohydrates were restricted, the body was forced to become more efficient at utilizing fat. Basically, low-carbohydrate diets help fat loss better than low-fat diets.
Bottom line calculations:
SUGAR = INSULIN = FAT STORAGE
FAT = LONG LASTING ENERGY = METABOLIC EFFICIENCY
Okay I know About Sugar and Sweets, but Fruit is okay, Right?
The USDA recommends we eat fruits, which on the surface are okay. Again, keeping things simple, fruit contains high quantities of fructose which can lead to insulin resistance (Perez-Pozo, Nakagawa, Sanchez-Lozada, Johnson, Lillo, 2010). In addition, fructose is metabolized exclusively in the liver, which turns as much of it as possible into fat. So we cannot eat as much fructose as we want therefore cannot eat as much fruit as we want (Coello, Cabrera de Leon, Perez, Alamo, Fernandez, Gonzalez, Yanes, Hernandez, Diaz, and Aguirre-Jaime, 2010).
How Fiber Can Help Make Fruit Healthier
Fiber has been found to slow the release of insulin and avoid large spikes. Dietary fiber recommendations are 28g/day for adult women and 36 g/day for adult men (Anderson, Baird, Davis Jr., Ferreri, Knudtson, Koryam, Waters, and Williams, 2009).
Now, according to the USDA, we need to get our fiber from whole grains. However, this is not necessary and doesn’t provide near the nutrients you could get from fruits and vegetables. Just using myself as a case study, I eat 2 servings of fruits and 5 servings of vegetables every day and get over 40 grams of fiber – exceeding the recommended daily amount – all without any whole grains.
When thinking about fruits and vegetables (the biggest sources of carbohydrates) consider the amount of fiber it has in relation to sugar. This can all be found on several online calorie counters and nutritional Web sites such as http://www.calorieking.com
Consider the fruits below:
Blueberries – 1 cup = 14.7g sugar, 3.6g fiber
Strawberries – 1 cup = 6.7g sugar, 2.9g fiber
Raspberries – 1 cup = 5.4g sugar, 8g fiber
Blackberries – 1 cup = 7g sugar, 7.6g fiber
Regardless of the folks touting blueberries as a superfood, blackberries and raspberries are the much better choice to keep insulin from spiking because of lower sugar and higher fiber content.
What Can I Do to Fuel My Metabolism?
Balance your daily macronutrients to favor a mix of healthy carbohydrate, fat, and protein at every feeding. Never eat just one macronutrient at a meal. This impacts insulin and results in fat storage and metabolic inefficiency (Seebohar, 2009).
Get more vegetables than fruits and get small amounts of nuts, nut butters, and seeds. Keep vegetables low in sugar and eliminate fruit juices and desserts (Volek, Quann, and Forsythe, 2010).
Minimize whole grains such as breads, grains, pastas and cereals as much as possible (Seebohar, 2009). This benefits metabolic efficiency. Besides, we are also recommended to eat less processed foods. Whole grains, while considered “whole and more natural” are still some of the more processed foods you can find.
Avoid anything canned, juiced, or fried.
Avoid sports nutrition products, which are mostly sugar. This includes drinks, gels, bars, and chews. As an example, a popular nutrition bar has 240 calories, 5 grams of fat, 43 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of fiber, and 22 grams of sugar. Comparatively, a pre-packaged pastry has 220 calories, 10 grams of fat, 29 grams of carbohydrates, 1 gram of fiber, and 17 grams of sugar. Sure the pastry is horrible for you. But it has nearly the same amount of sugar as a bar considered “healthy.” And both do not have nearly enough fiber or fat to slow insulin from rushing into our blood stream. They are both bullets.
Wait! Does This Mean I Don’t Eat During My Workout?
Yes, you read this correctly. If your training session is less than two hours, you do not need food or drink during exercise. If you are eating good, balanced meals every three hours, you don’t need any food before your workout. Simply get your workout between meals and you will be well fueled. Water is fine and if necessary, add some electrolytes. “If you properly time your nutrient intake beforehand, there is simply no need for carbohydrate supplementation during training.” (Seebohar, 2009).
If Fat is Okay, What Fat Should I Eat?
Keep it simple. Olive oil, coconut oil, nut butters, seeds, and nuts are great sources of fats. Fats rich in omega-3 are best. Likewise, eggs and protein sources can provide good fats that will help you become more metabolically efficient. Eat fat to burn fat.
How Can I Do This While Away From Home?
It is hard in a seemingly uncontrolled environment. But you are an adult and you have control over what gets put in your body. If you were diabetic would you find a way to take control of your diet? If you had celiac disease would you make sure you were eating a diet that was best for your health? This is no different. It is important to you and you will do it. You wouldn’t take a cigarette from someone if you don’t smoke. So don’t accept a dessert if you are trying to keep your sugar low
What are the Best Supplements?
There really are no good supplements and none necessary if you are eating real food. Sorry to be so tough, but if you are not eating real food, eating breakfast every day, if you are not keeping insulin at bay, you are not disciplined enough or ready for any supplements. Put your focus on good food, avoiding sugar, and keeping insulin at healthy levels.
Now You Know – And Knowing is Half the Battle
Change your diet. Change your metabolism. You know what you need to do so no more excuses and no more waiting. This is your year. Make it happen.
Keys, A., Aravanis, C., Blackburn, H., Van Buchem, F., Buzina, R., Djordjevic, B., Fidanza, F., Karvonen, Menotti, A., Puddu, V., Taylor, H. (1972).Coronary Heart Disease: Overweight and Obesity as Risk Factors. Annals of Internal Medicine. 77, 15-27.
Burkitt, D. (1979). Don’t forget fibre in your diet: To help avoid many of our commonest diseases. London: Martin Dunitz, Ltd.
Sapolsky, R. M., (1994). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
Taubes, G. (2010). Why we get fat: And what to do about it. United States: Knopf.
Seebohar, B..(2009). Metabolic Efficiency Training: Teachng the body to burn more fat. United States: Fuel4mance.
Volek, J., Quann, E., Forsythe, C. (2010). Low-carbohydrate diets promote a more favorable body composition than low-fat diets. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 32, 42-47.
Perez-Pozo, S., Shold, J., Nakagawa, T., Sanchez-Lozada, L., Johnson, R., Lillo, J. (2010). Excessive fructose intake induces the features of metabolic syndrome in healthy adult men: Role of uric acid in the hypertensive response. International Journal of Obesity. 34 (3), 454-461. doi: 10.1038/ljo.2009.259
Coello, S., Cabrera de Leon, A., Perez, M., Alamo, C., Fernandez, L., Gonzalez, D., Yanes, J., Hernandez, A., Diaz, B., Aguirre-Jaime, A. (2010). Association between glycemic index, glycemic load, and fructose with insulin resistance: the CDC of the Canary Islands study. European Journal of Nutrition 49: 505-212. doi: 10.1007/s00394-010-0110-2
Anderson, J., Baird, P., Davis Jr., R., Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koryam, A., Waters, V., Williams, C. (2009). Health Benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition Reviews. 67(4): 188-205. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00789.x
This is the third and final part of a three part series all about metabolism, how to test it, how to train it, and how to fuel it. If you haven’t, be sure to read
Metabolic Primer 1: If You Can Measure It, You Can Manage It.
Metabolic Primer 2: Using Cardio Training to Effectively Boost Your Metabolism Or… What You Thought You Knew About Cardio Was Probably Wrong
For nearly a decade, Pat has worked with performance athletes, teams, and fitness conscious individuals from all walks of life. With one-on-one consultation and customized training plans, he coaches and trains cyclists, multi-sport, and endurance athletes including beginners, juniors, seniors, and masters, several of whom are World, National and State champions and medallists. His workouts have been featured in Bicycling Magazine and he is currently Director of Metabolic Testing at Fitness Quest 10, Team Coach for the Swami’s Pro Development Team, Head Coach of the UCSD Cycling Team, and Coach for the Challenged Athletes Foundation Million Dollar Challenge.