Are you fat-adapted or a sugar burner?
Are you super sporty and looking to perform better? Or a Kalila mum with weight worries on your mind? One of the buzz topics in recent years in sports nutrition and weight loss camps is this question of “which fuel is best for your body?”
Are you fat-adapted?
Or are you a sugar burner?
And what does it all mean?
Both terms refer to your body and its fuel of choice. Are you burning carbs (sugars) or fat? When you’re fat-adapted you are in a metabolic state where you’re able to burn your stored body fat reserves for energy. Fabulous I hear you all cry! However, the typical high-carb Western diet puts most of us squarely in the sugar burner camp riding the daily rollercoaster of snack attacks, sugar highs and lows, cravings or “hangry” sensations (i.e., hungry and angry), and worst, not feeling full after eating.
We’ve all heard of carb-loading before a race, which is great if you’re about to run a marathon, but what does it mean for us average gals looking to stay fit and healthy? Should we be rethinking fat as fuel?
Well, the evidence on fat-adaption is compelling so perhaps it’s time to switch to a better fuel and give our metabolism a break? Instead of constantly relying on an influx of carbs, we could use the excess fat on our body as a steady source of fuel.
What are the benefits of being fat-adapted?
Being fat-adapted has many benefits. For people looking to manage their weight it helps balance the hormones involved in eating; leptin, ghrelin and insulin, and as we mentioned resets our metabolism to start burning up fat stores. For athletes, particularly those participating in endurance events, it’s an efficient fuel to sustain energy for longer so having the flexibility to switch between burning carbs (sugars) and fats can give athletes a sporting edge. So is fat the new fast?
First, let’s look at the first of these points; hormones and weight management, which affect most of us women.
Hormones control how we eat. Ghrelin “the hunger hormone” tells us when to eat, and leptin “the satiety hormone” tells us when we are full. In the middle we have insulin which helps keep blood sugar levels balanced. The trouble is, insulin responds to sugars (glucose) in carbohydrate foods. Too much sugar sends our blood-sugar levels through the roof. The more we rely on carbs as fuel the more insulin we have in circulation which slowly and steadily throws your brain’s chemical signals off — including those that let you know you’re full. Can you see where this is going? Hormones are our brain signals so once they stop working efficiently it’s easy to over eat. When we overeat insulin takes all the sugar that we don’t burn off as immediate energy and stores it as fat, hence its nickname as the “fat storing hormone”.
So if you know your diet is rich in carbs (pasta, bread, rice, cakes, biscuits etc) and you rely heavily on snacks to get you through the day to beat those feelings of hunger, the chances are you’re a sugar burner.
But what about for sport? Carb-loading is one of the traditional recommendation for athletes during training and before a race. After all a runner needs immediate energy right? Glycogen (stored sugar) is the most accessible fuel in the body and it’s quickly metabolised into energy. By contrast, fat stores are harder to access and the body only switches to this fuel supply when it has run out of glycogen. However, the body can store up to x20 times more fat calories than carbs so if you’re in it for the long haul you might just need that extra energy. As with all things it comes down to balance, or in this case flexibility of being able to tap into both energy reserves.
So why become fat-adapted?
Our bodies are amazingly adaptable and capable of metabolic flexibility, or switching between using sugar or adipose tissue (aka stored fat), to perform all its daily functions. The more we encourage this flexibility the more efficient our body becomes at using energy. If we add in the right exercise, to help build muscle mass, we can improve our metabolical efficiency further. The rise of HIIT, weight training and resistance workouts all favour building muscle mass and typically promote fat-burning. The body switches to burning carbs at an elevated pulse rate so traditional cardio workouts are more likely to burn carbs (sugars). Ideally we need a mix of the two to support optimal metabolic function.
Becoming ‘more’ fat-adapted essentially helps reset our metabolism and can help relieve many of the sensations mentioned above related to eating a carb-heavy diet. Once adapted you may be able to happily go 4-6 hours between meals without feeling hungry. And those cravings we mentioned…under control once you’re eating more of the right foods; quality protein, healthy fats and low glycemic index (GI) fruits and vegetables. These foods reduce the sugar intake from carbs and replace them with more high density vitamins and minerals which help you feel fuller for longer.
In short…you should feel fuller for longer and get to burn excess fat stores to help sustain a healthy weight.
How to become fat adapted?
To start moving towards fat-adaptation, you need to tackle these four steps:
- Limit the amount of carbs you eat
- Eat a larger portion of healthy fats
- Monitor your intake of high-quality proteins
- Reduce snacking between meals
Reducing your carb intake helps your body burn off all your remaining carbs and glycogen (sugar) stores. Once empty, it will tap into your excess fat stores to give your metabolism the energy it needs.
Combining protein (meat, fish, eggs, legumes) and healthy fats (oily fish, avocadoes, nuts, seeds) will keep you feel full and energised so you won’t experience those pesky energy crashes, unwanted cravings or that constant growl of hunger in your tummy.
Limiting snacking helps give all those hormones I mentioned a chance to rest. The more they rest between meals the better they are at signalling when we’re really hungry and more importantly when we are full.
You should start to notice changes in just a couple of weeks,
For the sporty mums amongst us, you might find your stamina and endurance improve during training, helping you to build those all-important muscle memories in preparation for your next race.