Metabolic Efficiency Training
Teaching Your Body to Burn More Fat
By Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, METS II
The concept of metabolic efficiency was first “born” in my sports nutrition practice in 2006.
I wanted to help endurance athletes who experienced gastrointestinal (GI) distress and the best way I found to do this was to teach them how to manipulate their internal stores of fat and carbohydrate through the balance of blood sugar through different food combinations.
Little did I know the metabolic efficiency concept would turn out to be so much more!
Since then, I have documented positive, almost life-altering changes for individuals related to decreasing body fat and body weight. Athletes praise the fact that they do not need to consume so many simple sugars during training or competition anymore. Their bodies are so efficient at using fat at higher exercise intensities that their hourly calorie needs significantly decrease.
But the most powerful effect that I have noticed with individuals who implement the concept of metabolic efficiency is that it has reversed pre-diabetes states, significantly reduced risk factors for metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease and allowed some people to completely discontinue taking blood lipid controlling medications. Having optimal energy levels throughout the day is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of metabolic efficiency.
"...the most powerful effect that I have noticed with individuals who implement the concept of metabolic efficiency is that it has reversed pre-diabetes states."
Efficiency is a term that is frequently used in life. Be efficient at the tasks you do at work. Be efficient with your time. Be efficient with your cycling mechanics. From a nutrition perspective, being efficient means being able to use your fat and carbohydrate stores better. More specifically, it is about teaching your body to use more of its almost unlimited fat stores and preserve its extremely limited carbohydrate stores.
Metabolic efficiency is not a diet, for a diet is temporary without long lasting results. Rather, a daily nutrition plan should embrace a long-term commitment and change. The metabolic efficiency concept explains the body’s use of its internal stores of fat and carbohydrate at rest and during exercise. It is focused on the manipulation of the daily nutrition plan and the contribution from different types of exercise. It blends nutrition and exercise, not one independently. Research often separates these two to make it easier and less confusing to study. In real-life, we care about the combination of both because that is what we do daily.
This is not an all or none concept. As you can see from the following table listing the benefits of using the metabolic efficiency concept through the combination of nutrition and exercise, there is the symbiotic relationship between the two in improving many markers of health, fitness and nutrition.
|Benefits of Improving Metabolic Efficiency|
|Weight loss||Body fat loss||Better fasting blood sugar levels|
|Better fasting insulin levels||Improved concentration and focus||Improved mood states|
|Better satiety||Lower calorie needs per hour during exercise||Ability to follow a lower sodium eating plan|
|Improved blood lipid profile||More sustained energy||Improved HbA1c levels|
|Improve sleep||Reduce food cravings||Decrease risk of chronic disease states|
What clearly separates metabolic efficiency from any other concept or nutrition plan is that it is easy to implement, sustainable for a long time, non-restrictive, flexible to meet your health and exercise goals and has the bottom line goal of controlling and optimizing blood sugar. This is not a diet. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t exercised in years or if you are a competitive athlete. The goals at the end of the day is to figure out which foods in what proportions best controls and optimizes your blood sugar. Depending on your training program and body composition goals, there may be different daily nutrition implementation strategies (as you will read later). Your daily nutrition plan should support the goals of improving health first and performance second.
When you hear the word “training”, exercise often comes to mind. However, “training” in the frame of the concept of metabolic efficiency relates to the whole equation, which is comprised of exercise and nutrition. Based on the metabolic efficiency assessment protocol that I developed and continue to use to quantify the metabolic efficiency status and parameters of individuals, I have noticed some interesting points as it relates to an individual’s goal of becoming more metabolically efficient.
There appears to be a much more significant improvement in metabolic efficiency from daily nutrition changes (controlling and optimizing blood sugar) versus exercise changes. While it is true that aerobic training can improve the body’s ability to burn more fat, it is not the only way. In fact, the contribution of changing your daily nutrition plan can account for roughly 75% of your ability to use fat better, with the other 25% coming from aerobic exercise.
This is certainly not meant to disregard the impact that aerobic exercise can have on metabolic efficiency or overall cardiovascular health. However, in this PowerTap e-book, I am only choosing to discuss the nutrition part of the Metabolic Efficiency equation.
Depending on gender and size, the average adult has about 1,300-2,000 calories stored as carbohydrate (commonly referred to as glycogen stores) in the liver, muscles, and a small amount in the blood. Glycogen stores can deplete rather quickly, after about 2-3 hours of continuous exercise at a moderate intensity. What many people do not realize is that the body can do a moderately intense workout of up to 2-3 hours based solely on the use of their internal glycogen stores.
What does this mean? Simply stated, if you have a training session that lasts less than 2-3 hours, you may not need to bother feeding extra carbohydrate calories during. Of course, this depends on whether you are metabolically efficient or not and what you ate before the session.
The higher carbohydrate diet you follow, the more carbohydrates you need throughout the day and during training. This is a basic biochemistry: eat more carbs, burn more carbs. You are a "sugar burner."
However, if you are teaching your body to become more metabolically efficient and thus use more of your fat as energy thereby preserving your carbohydrate stores, then you do not need to eat as many carbohydrates throughout the day and during training. Your body can be taught to burn more carbohydrate or fat.
As I have mentioned thus far, there are far more reasons to choose the latter for both health and performance reasons.
"...the body can do a moderately intense workout of up to 2-3 hours based solely on the use of their internal glycogen stores."
Even more interesting is the fact that the risk of gastrointestinal (GI) distress is higher in individuals who eat a large amount of simple sugar during exercise. This is because of what is called the blood shunting response. As you exercise, especially at higher intensity, the working muscles require more blood flow to support locomotion and thus less blood flow is directed to the digestive tract.
If you eat or drink something that contains a lot of calories during exercise, the body often rebels and GI distress rears its ugly head in some way, shape or form. You may become nauseous, experience bloating, flatulence or diarrhea. GI distress during exercise usually doesn’t happen when you only drink water or minimize simple sugar intake. In this case, the gut is “cleaner” and more importantly, it does not have to compete with the muscles for blood flow. I am sure you are wondering why I am discussing GI distress as it relates to metabolic efficiency.
Once you develop your body’s ability to use more fat at higher intensities, thereby preserving your glycogen stores, your body requires fewer calories per hour during exercise. In fact, most metabolically efficient individuals never experience GI distress because they do not have to feed their bodies large amounts of calories per hour during exercise any longer. It’s a win-win scenario!
What about fat? The normal adult can store upwards of 80,000 calories or more worth of fat in their body! Even lean athletes usually have between 30,000 - 50,000 calories stored as fat. While this may seem a bit depressing compared to the very few carbohydrate calories that are stored in the body, it actually presents quite the opportunity. At least, that is the way I saw it years ago when shuffling through my biochemistry, exercise physiology, nutrition and metabolism textbooks and research articles.
If the body has approximately 40 times more fat than carbohydrate stores, then there is a greater opportunity to utilize these fat stores for energy. It just so happens that doing so will also have a significantly positive effect on health and will lead to weight loss and body composition changes, all of which can improve exercise performance. And no, you don’t have to eat a lot of fat in order to burn more fat (as you do with carbohydrates). You simply need to control and optimize blood sugar through the introduction of the right quantities of macronutrients.
The Hand Model
The easiest way to do this is to employ the non-quantitative (non-calorie counting) method called my Hand Model. The goal is to combine the proper amounts of protein, fat, and fiber in almost all meals and snacks to optimize blood sugar. As you can see from the figure below, the Hand Model is a qualitative strategy that teaches you to combine the right volume of food together.
Using the Hand Model, one hand represents the size/volume of a fiber rich food (carbohydrate such as a vegetable, fruit, or whole grain), while the other hand represents the size/volume of a protein rich food (chicken, beef, fish, tofu, beans, etc.). Fat is not represented as a hand but rather, included in the protein source. Almost all protein sources will have fat so it is not necessary to add additional fat, per se. As the Hand Model table shows, there are 1:1, 2:1, 3:1, and 4:1 ratios associated with blood sugar control. The ratios indicate one (two, three, or four) hands of a fiber (carbohydrate) rich food to one hand of a protein/fat rich food. Most individuals will prefer a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of fiber to protein/fat throughout the day unless training volume is significantly high. A 3:1 ratio should only be followed immediately after heavy training and a 4:1 will be used very seldom.
There is no need to measure food or count calories. Simply attain the desired quantity of protein, fat, and fiber in context of your hands to best control blood sugar.
For example, for a breakfast egg scramble, depending on the size of your hand, you would likely eat 3-4 eggs (protein/fat hand) combined with enough mushrooms, onions, peppers, and tomatoes to fill your other hand (fiber hand).
Lunch could be a Cobb salad with enough of the protein source (ham, bacon, chicken, egg) to fill one hand and enough greens to fill the other.
Make it simple, for simple is sustainable.
It sounds easy and to be completely honest, it should be. At certain times you may eat a bit under or over your hands but that is the beauty of it. It allows you flexibility. You should structure the nutrients you eat to best control blood sugar and make you full.
Additionally, you should listen to your body after eating to see what cues it gives off when you put together certain foods.
- Are you hungry immediately after you eat? Perhaps try increasing protein and fat.
- Are you not able to finish meals? Perhaps reduce all volume of fiber, protein, and fat.
- Are you in a heavy training block? Perhaps eat more toward the 2:1 ratio instead of 1:1.
It offers a good amount of flexibility while teaching you about your body signals and responses to food. Of course, it is important to understand that some individuals may require a bit more in depth assistance with this which is why I highly recommend working with a qualified Sport Dietitian who understands Metabolic Efficiency.
"Eat to train, don’t train to eat."
Paying attention to controlling and optimizing blood sugar through good daily nutrition strategies, while implementing the concept of Metabolic Efficiency, should be the main focus for any individual athlete.
As you are accustomed to following a training program, you should also be following an eating program, not a diet. Remember that the food that you put into your body in the proper quantities can provide an opportunity for your body to burn more fat as energy, which has tremendous health and performance goals.
And remember my mantra, "eat to train, don’t train to eat."
Next: Cycling and Hydration
When we sweat, we begin to lose our body's water quickly. This means we need to drink when we exercise to replace lost fluids. But, sweat isn’t just water.