Using Metabolic Efficiency to Improve Health

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With the 2015 race season drawing to a close its time to be honest about the type and amount of calories you are consuming.   Athletes often gain weight when the competition phase is over. Heading into cooler shorter days makes it easy to bring on the comfort foods and body fat. This is not all bad because trying to maintain a race weight all year is not good for your immune system and we need to enjoy eating. However, during this transition phase into the next year’s race season is a good time to ditch all engineered sports nutrition products such as bars, gels, chews, even sugary sports drinks and shift into balancing carbohydrates and eating whole foods.  You owe it to the health of your gut. Varieties of vegetables and whole foods promote healthy gut bacteria.

Many athletes are still confused about how many carbohydrates they should be eating when not in heavy training. There is no shortage of articles on low carb diets. But here is the catch — the confusion exists because there is no clear definition of what is “low carb.”  A ketogenic diet comes closest to defining what a true low carb diet is. Eating less than 30 grams of carbs a day will put most people in ketosis, not something that the general population needs to do.

Here is an example of why the term low carb means nothing.  On a recent 4 hour plane flight I sat next to a lean ultra-distance runner that had all his food packed in a cooler. Little did he know he was sitting next to a Sports Dietitian that was curious about what he was eating. I was envious of his fresh greens with quinoa and strips of lean beef and vinaigrette. So I had to ask “do you eat a certain way to support your athletic lifestyle?” He said ‘yes, I eat low carb’.  Hmm, okay, the conversation went on to how he described his version of ‘low carb’.  He didn’t give an answer with grams of carbs per kilogram of body weight, or total grams of carbs per day.  His idea of ‘low carb’ was to not eat a lot of starchy carbs when not training hard. He actually eats plenty of carbs from nuts, vegetables, yogurt and sweet potatoes. What he basically is doing was periodizing his carb intake to his activity level. This is the foundational concept in Metabolic Efficiency. Metabolic Efficiency – what is it?

Metabolic Efficiency is not low carb, starvation, or carb restriction. Rather, it is changing your carb intake depending on your activity level and including adequate protein and fats in your daily diet. I often cal it carbohydrate periodization. There is some research coming out on comparing periodizing carbs with a low carb high fat diet (LCHF).

Following the Metabolic Efficiency concept is not hard and the health rewards are abundant. I have worked with many active clients that have insulin resistance, elevated triglycerides, chronic fatigue and inflammation, and poor body composition.  These athletes are metabolically broken. The fast pace lifestyle of many athletes often leads to poor planning of meals and consequentially end up eating processed food. Look at what is in your fast food: Fast Food Calories. These foods tend to be higher in carbs. Moving towards whole foods will improve the healthy microorganisms of your gut, you will have more satiation, and in the end consume fewer calories without even trying. The bonus is that you can change body composition without counting calories.

Possibly you have heard that a Metabolic Efficiency way of eating will improve fat burn. The question is where is the fat coming from? We have fat in our muscles and subcutaneous fat (the stuff you pinch). When eating a meal with adequate protein, fibrous carbs and fat there tends to be a lower insulin response.  This is good because insulin can get in the way of releasing fat from the cell. The more often you can control the insulin response to your meal the better your chances are for allowing fat to be used for energy. Does this mean if you indulge in a food that drove up insulin you just ruined your chances of burning fat all day? No.  Fat flux is always occurring. Fat into the cell – fat out of the cell.  You will experience more flux of fat out of the cell when controlling blood sugar with protein, fat and fiber.

If you feel like you are metabolically broken and want to improve your health for next race season, start now. Don’t wait until after the Holidays. Our health does not go on vacation.

Cardiovascular disease in athletes is real. More info: athletes-heart disease.

One of several studies discussing that improving insulin resistance will improve fat flux (Metabolic Inflexibility)



Sheila Leard, RD, CSSD, CPT

My Nutrition Zone

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