Work to Attain Metabolic Flexibility and Dial int​o a Diet Strategy That is Right For You!

There are so many terms and fad diets thrown around regarding nutrition intake, and it can be a frustrating task to determine the right diet. While many people may have success with a variety of diet strategies, there really isn’t one correct diet model that is applicable for everyone. The truth is that everyone has a unique set of genes that are determined by our compounding ancestral DNA, which may benefit from the varying consumptions of different nutrients. However, not everyone has the means to test their DNA, let alone know how to interpret the results and apply them to design an optimal diet. I want to go over some dietary practices that—regardless of your genetic ancestry—you can benefit from and move leaps forward in determining a long-lasting and sustainable diet guideline that will be successful for you and your personal goals. 

Metabolic flexibility should be a goal for everyone to attain: this is a state in which the cells in your body can efficiently shift between and utilize the two main fuel sources of fats and carbs. Attaining metabolic flexibility is something that can be achieved by implementing some of the strategies outlined within this article. It’s important to understand that macronutrients—carbs, fats and proteins—are all tools in the arsenal and all have their purpose at certain times depending on your personal goals. Getting too obsessed with certain beliefs or restrictions is a recipe for failure. Some of the diet cornerstones you can implement to achieve well-balanced and sustainable benefits from are: having periods of fasting or caloric restriction; controlling glycemic variability, reducing total carbohydrate intake and paying attention to the timing of consumption; consuming a plant-rich diet; increasing the amount of fats (especially DHA omega-3 fatty acids); and having periods where you dip into ketosis. This may sound overwhelming or complicated at first, but keep reading to gain a more thorough understanding of these concepts. I will help you begin to develop a routine for success, whether your goals are to lose fat, build muscle, or simply live longer!

Fasting and Some of it’s Several Benefits:

Let’s dive right into fasting and some of the many benefits you may gain from this practice. First, let’s define what fasting is; fasting is complete abstention of anything that contains calories. There are several forms and variations of fasting, but the most common practices include: long-term fasts, lasting ~24 hours or more; intermittent fasting in which you fast daily for 12-16 hours, thus leaving you with an 8-12 hour compressed feeding window each day; alternate day fasting where you abstain from food the whole day every other day, or where you intermittent fast every other day; and there is also what is called a fasting mimicking diet in which you abstain from certain types of food and overall restrict your caloric intake compared to your normal consumption. 

Regardless of the fasting practice, there are numerous benefits that can be gained, including a cellular process called autophagy, increased insulin sensitivity, increasing natural growth hormone production, as well as entering a state of ketosis which can increase mental clarity. What is autophagy? Autophagy can be broken down into the root words auto and phagy, which can be simply defined as self-eating, respectively. Autophagy essentially refers to a process of cellular cleanup. Your body is made up of trillions of cells and chances are that not all of them are functioning optimally. When autophagy kicks in, the less efficient cells can get either fully broken down into their main components (apoptosis) or cleaned up, so to speak, and these biomolecules (components) can then be reused by other more efficient cells to enhance the overall integrity of the body systems. 

It may help for you to think about it this way: if many of your weak cells get broken down and eliminated into their constituents, when you break your fast and reactivate anabolic pathways (which are just methods of building up new cellular material via pathways such as mTOR [which is a discussion for another time]), your strong and efficient cells are going to be the cells to divide and proliferate (via mitosis). This leaves you with a greater amount of healthy, strong and efficient cells than you previously had, in addition to the assistance of clearing your body of other toxic byproducts and waste (such as inflammation factors and free-radicals). Sparing you from too many metabolic details, we can see that autophagy is an exceptional bodily process that is amazing for overall health, detox and longevity. 

When we talk about increasing insulin sensitivity, anytime we hear the word insulin, we may think of carbohydrates. So, it’s pretty intuitive to think that if we are abstaining from calories in general, we are thus abstaining from carbohydrates as well. When there is no food coming in, the pancreas doesn’t need to work hard to produce insulin. We can think of insulin as almost a key to a locked door, with the locked door being your cells! When food—carbohydrates specifically—hits your digestive system, your pancreas produces insulin and that insulin enters your bloodstream and then will bind to certain receptors on your cells. When insulin binds to the receptors, it initiates a process to bring in glucose transporters to the cell membrane so that glucose (carbohydrates)—as well as certain amino acids—can enter the cell and the glucose can either be utilized for energy, stored as muscle or liver glycogen, or stored as fat in adipocytes (when glycogen stores are full). So when you are in a fasted state, there isn’t much glucose or insulin circulating in your bloodstream; your body has a built-in mechanism to up-regulate the amount of insulin receptors on the cell so that when you do break your fast, a smaller amount of insulin is required to properly utilize carbohydrates for energy or glycogen, decreasing the chance for the carbs being stored as fat. A win-win! 

Ketosis:

This leads us into ketosis and increasing the consumption of dietary fats. What is ketosis? Ketosis is a state in which your body converts fats—either storage fat, or dietary fat—into biomolecules called ketones. Ketogenesis (the process of generating ketones) occurs when the body is deprived of nutrients (fasting) or even when the body is simply deprived of glucose (carbohydrates). These ketones circulate the bloodstream and can even be a preferred fuel source for many tissues including the brain and heart. Ketones can readily cross the blood brain-barrier and can enter cells and be converted to acetyl-CoA which can enter the Kreb’s cycle to produce ATP—pure energy! Ketones are actually preferred by the brain as the main fuel source as opposed to glucose, allowing for more efficient and clearer mental capacity. So, it’s pretty cool that when you are fasting you can actually be more productive than if you had your morning oatmeal, and you can be dipping into your stubborn storage fat deposits for this sustained energy! Though, the truth is, it takes times for your cells—the mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of your cells) specifically—to become efficient at utilizing ketones for energy; this is sometimes referred to as being fat adapted or metabolic flexibility. So, it’s important to be consistent with the practice of fasting to reap the most benefit. However, this process of becoming fat adapted—and thus, metabolically more flexible—can be accelerated by introducing more fats into your diet; especially in the absence of carbohydrates (at least in the beginning). From a ketosis standpoint, if you are implementing a diet that is rich in high quality fatty acids and a moderated amount of quality protein and limiting the amount of carbohydrates to mostly plant-based carbs, you are in a great position to become fat adapted, as well as to burn fat right off the bat.  

Photo by Hanna Yorke

This is referred to as a ketogenic diet and can be considered—by some—as a fasting mimicking diet due to the low amounts of insulin secretion. But there are many reasons to increase the consumption of dietary fats, regardless of whether you follow a ketogenic diet or not. About 60% or our brain and nerves are made up of fat, as well as the majority of our cellular membranes, so it would make sense to provide the body with high quality dietary fats if you want these structures to be of high quality and integrity. Some good sources of fatty acids are those from seafood—such as wild-caught salmon, sardines, oysters—a high quality extra virgin olive oil, grass fed butter and beef, or even avocados. 

Supplementation of DHA omega-3 fatty acids can serve you much benefit as well. It’s almost more important to note which fats to avoid; you really want to focus on limiting processed, refined and heated vegetable oils, due to the fact that they tend to be oxidized, which can be very harmful to our bodies. Take to this analogy: when you leave a sliced apple out on the counter, it turns brown rather rapidly—this is due to oxidation. The same thing happens to vegetable oils when they are industrially refined or heated at too high of a temperature. These oxidized oils are reactive oxygen species, which can also be termed as free-radicals, that are very reactive within the body and can disrupt homeostatic (normal balance and equilibrium) relationships. If these are the only fats in your diet, your body has no choice but to utilize them as components of your cell membranes, which can lead to damage and inflammation among a host of other issues that I will tackle in future articles. 

Carbohydrates and Glycemic Variability:

Next, let’s dive into what I mean by controlling glycemic variability, reducing total carbohydrate intake and paying attention to the timing of consumption. Glycemic variability refers to large fluctuations of your blood sugar throughout the day and thus variability in the insulin secretion from your pancreas. When glycemic variability is out of control, you are setting yourself up for becoming insulin resistant or pre-diabetic; this causes your cells get to the point where they don’t easily respond to insulin and—aside from those dangerous implications—your body will begin to store much more carbohydrates as fat. 

Another reason to control glycemic variability is that when you have high amounts of glucose and insulin in your bloodstream, the insulin and other proteins can become glycosolated; this causes the glucose sugars to bind to insulin and other proteins, forming large complexes that can initiate an inflammation response in the body. This inflammation response can have damaging effects to your cells and body as a whole, essentially putting your body into an unnatural state that disrupts homeostasis. 

This is why reducing the overall consumption of carbohydrates may be a necessary strategy for dietary success. Before you scold me, hear me out: yes, for some more active individuals, they can benefit from increasing carbohydrate intake. However, the timing of this carbohydrate intake can work to your advantage. I personally like to limit carbohydrates throughout the day, and either be in a fasted or ketogenic state; and when I’m undergoing a high activity day—such as a heavy strength-based lower body day—then consuming 80-175 grams of carbohydrates from a real-food source, such as sweet potatoes or rice, with my evening meal can be beneficial in replenishing glycogen stores and activating anabolic pathways that help to repair and rebuild the muscles. This way you gain the mental clarity and fat-burning benefits of being in a fasted to ketogenic state throughout the day, and you get the replenishing effects from the carbs in the evening. 

Another strategy to limit carbs and still reap many benefits is what is sometimes referred to as a targeted ketogenic diet practice, and this would entail consuming roughly 25-50 grams of a relatively high-glycemic carb, such as rice, or even dextrose, before or during a strength based workout, in which the carbs are utilized essentially right away and you can potentially revert back into a ketogenic state post workout. But the main takeaway here is to overall reduce the amount of daily carbohydrates—especially when compared to the standard American diet (SAD). Although, this can really depend on the individual’s tolerance to utilize carbs as well as their physical activity history.

The majority of your carbohydrates should come from a diet that is plant-rich. This is one component of diet that I believe is an essential cornerstone, regardless of what diet you follow. There are many reasons for this approach. Plants are high in prebiotic fibers that are essentially the food for your healthy gut microbiome (the network or microorganisms living within your gut that dictate a healthy human). In addition, the fiber helps to slow the digestion of all other macromolecules so that your body can more easily process the nutrients. Also, plants are full of micronutrients such as phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that are essential for numerous chemical reactions and metabolic processes within the body. A healthy gut leads to a healthy body which leads to a healthy mood and a healthy body composition for an efficient and well-tuned machine. 

Closing Thoughts:

I know that was a lot to take in, and if you made it this far you are well on your way to becoming healthier and primed to achieve your goals and become more metabolically flexible. To summarize, get outside your comfort zone and take some time to abstain from food and participate in fasting. Consume more fats and fewer carbohydrates, and make sure whatever you do consume, it should come from real whole-food sources that are unprocessed and unrefined. Be cognizant of the times you spike your blood sugar—avoid the rollercoaster rides with carbohydrates, and make sure you eat a variety of various plant foods that range in all colors, shapes and sizes. It’s also important to note that you should be drinking plenty of clean, purified water, as well as ingesting a broad range of minerals such as sodium, potassium, magnesium and selenium (you will get a good spectrum of minerals from consumption of a plant-rich diet). I hope you enjoyed this article and learned a thing or two that you can start incorporating today!

Feedback and engagement are encouraged, thank you!

1 thought on “Work to Attain Metabolic Flexibility and Dial int​o a Diet Strategy That is Right For You!”

  1. Very well written Max! Even though I was aware of some of the information you discussed in your article, you presented it in a very concise and organized way which allowed me to have a much better understanding of this topic.

    Thank you.

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