Most cars and trucks can only run on one type of fuel and when the tank runs out that’s it! As a species, we humans have the amazing ability to derive energy from one of two major dietary sources, carbohydrates and fat. (think of us as hybrid vehicles).
On a cellular level, energy production specifically happens in the mitochondria of our cells. Over time, the mitochondria become conditioned to preferentially burning glucose as a source of energy (thanks to an overabundance of processed foods containing sugar and flour). Over a lifetime, we have increased the enzymes in the mitochondria that burn glucose and simultaneously down-regulated the pathways for burning fat due to lack of use.
Here’s what happens to the average person who doesn’t eat for a few hours. Because they are highly adapted to using carbohydrates as a source of energy, when glucose from the last meal runs out, instead of shifting to the fasted state and mobilizing and burning stored body fat, they become hungry for more glucose, from (you guessed it) more carbohydrates! They spend most of the day trapped in an endless cycle of eating every few hours, spiking insulin levels, and then becoming hungry when blood sugar drops. Since they’ve become so dependent on sugar they can’t readily access their fat stores for energy. Left unchecked this can lead to insulin resistance and even type 2 or “adult onset” diabetes.
Your body’s ability to utilize fat as fuel is similar to a tanker truck on the highway filled with oil. If the tanker truck runs out of gas it stops moving, despite the fact that it has thousands of gallons of potential fuel on board. This is because it must run on refined gas and is incapable of burning oil for fuel.
Thankfully, we have the ability to influence the expression of our genes, thus becoming “fat adapted” and improving our ability to fuel ourselves with stored body fat instead of glucose.
This is kind of like getting a “conversion kit” for the tanker truck engine that allows it to use all the oil stored in the tank as fuel instead of having to rely solely on the gas in the fuel tank!
However, this takes time and practice, and your body has to do a number of things to slowly up-regulate (or increase) your fat-burning pathways.
This includes improving insulin sensitivity to lower insulin and promote fat mobilization. There are several ways to improve “fat adaptation” or the ability to successfully burn stored body fat for energy, and these include the following:
- Low carbohydrate / high fat diets. Eating a Low Carb High Fat diet conditions the body to utilize fat rather than glucose for energy. The key is not “topping off the tank” with carbs and sugar every time the “low fuel light” comes on. Consuming more dietary fat sort of helps “prime the pump” and helps the body recognize fat (including body fat) as a fuel source.
- Exercise. High-intensity exercise depletes glucose and glycogen rapidly, forcing the body to switch over and utilize more fat for fuel. Exercise also improves insulin sensitivity.
- Supplementing with Omega 3 EFA’s from fish oil to improve the permeability of the cells and L-Carnitine to facilitate the transfer of fatty acids into energy
- Calorie restriction. Eating less often also equals less glucose being available for fuel so the body relies on stored body fat for fuel. Cleaning up your diet will help too, since you will eat less calories when you stick to whole, natural, unprocessed, real foods found in nature and avoid processed foods as much as possible.
- Intermittent fasting, and spending more time in the fasted state, which gives the body more ‘practice’ at burning fat.
I’ve only recently begun incorporating intermittent fasting into my routine but so far it’s working well. (It sounds hardcore but basically, it just amounts to skipping lunch and snacks a few times a week.) I’ve also done liquid and fat only “modified fasts” with black coffee and MCT oil with butter for breakfast and chicken broth for lunch.
If skipping meals entirely doesn’t sound that appealing, try just eliminating excess carbohydrates (especially any flour or sugar-based ones beginning in the morning).
Put these tips into practice and you’ll be trucking right along and burning fat before you know it!