Throughout human evolution food has slowly transitioned from a means of survival to somewhat of a hobby. Whether it be a way of socializing, coping with demanding stressors or just an act of boredom, overindulgence has become habitual. This makes it easy to assume the middle-of-the day sugar crashes, fatigue and carbohydrate cravings are the evolutionary price we pay to use energy. While the common American diet would easily support this theory, it is a stark misconception.
As our food industry pushes towards faster production and addictive ingredients, it directly affects the quality and variety of the macronutrients being delivered. Therefore, large parts of the foods we consume are not allowing us to effectively use all energy mechanisms available to us. The main macronutrients our body uses to produce energy are carbohydrates and fats. Misinformation commonly leads us to believe that fats are bad and carbs are good. With this ideology in mind, it’s no wonder we ingest heavy carb diets to fuel us leading to a cycle of reinforcement: we get a spike in energy just to crash and increase the craving for more.
So why is this a problem….
The problem with high carbohydrate diets is that they lead to metabolic inflexibility. This allows our body to become accustomed to using only one energy source: sugar. The sugar, known as glucose, is broken down from carbohydrates. Glucose can then be used or stored in the form of glycogen with the help of insulin. Insulin essentially acts as the gate opener to allow glucose to enter the cells. However, when carbohydrates are constantly consumed, insulin levels rise. Over time, this causes the body to become resistant to insulin, meaning that significantly more insulin is needed to achieve the same results. As the body is pushed into overdrive by producing excess insulin, it eventually cannot keep up with the demands. This leads to a rise in blood sugar which puts our body in a particularly vulnerable position to developing varying conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Therefore, while glucose is a fast acting fuel source, it is not nearly as efficient as the energy we get from fats. Another problem that has been identified in the processes of burning sugar is the release of free radicals in the body (through complex reactions, free radicals can lead to cell damage). Therefore, while it is not as quick to form energy from fats, it is safer and more efficient for our body overall.
This makes it essential for the body to be metabolically flexible. This flexibility is identified as the ability to efficiently switch energy sources from sugars (from
carbohydrates) to fatty acids (from fats). If an individual has this ability, they can use each source as needed. For instance, in high intensity trainings or work outs it would be useful to have energy readily available. Therefore burning carbohydrates would be the effective strategy to get quick energy for the most beneficial workout. This is optimal even more so because now the sugar levels are depleted and the body can begin to burn fatty acids into ketones (acidic organic compounds that go through several processes to produce energy). Now, the body can burn fat while producing energy, leading to a trim, lean figure.
While a fit physique is one benefit of this metabolic flexibility the health benefits are particularly important. If we are able to burn both fat and carbohydrates at the correct times, we can keep fat from being stored (leading to obesity) and instead use it as a energy source. Additionally, when we lower body fat we also lower the risk of thickening and hardening our arteries. Which furthermore lowers the risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease.
So how do we become metabolically flexible? There are several ways to help regain flexibility such as changes in diet and exercise. Regular exercise is key because it requires us to burn more energy and therefore reduces the excess sugars in our body. In turn, this reduces the insulin levels that can build up and cause our body to become insulin resistance. Secondly, reducing carbohydrates is essential, especially cutting out refined sugars. If sugars are readily available, the body will use glucose as the default energy pathway over ketones, leading to the continuation of fat storage. Therefore, diet and fitness need to be done in unison.
A Ketogenic diet is especially useful in gaining flexibility as it eliminates sugars, reduces carbohydrates and other inflammatory foods such as legumes. Therefore it relies primarily on fats and proteins which aid in gaining muscle and using ketones as a main fuel source. Because the body can naturally make glucose from fatty acids and protein, we can still use it as a fuel source in appropriate times such as intense training. While the Ketogenic diet is an effective method, it is not the only method to achieving metabolic flexibility. Overall, it is important to be mindful of maximizing healthy fat intake and at least reducing carbohydrates in accordance to our workouts.
Metabolic flexibility is the reminder that we don’t have to endure cravings, fatigue or sugar crashes throughout the day. With correct macronutrient balance and exercise, we can burn fat as the energy source it’s intended for. Furthermore, reducing weight gain and eliminating the invitation for disease.
Malia Simpson- Marketing and Social Media Manager at Icon Foods