Understanding Your Metabolism

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Speeding Up Your Metabolism

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To really understand how your metabolism works and how to make it work for you, there are six important facts you must keep in mind.

Fact #1: Fat Storage Is a Natural Survival Mechanism

The body's ability to efficiently store fat began as a survival mechanism when our human ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Up until the development of agriculture ten thousand years ago, human beings lived in an environment that had no quick and easy sources of food. Early humans needed some kind of physical means to store energy so that they could do the exhausting work of hunting down large animals, sometimes over great distances, running down smaller swift animals, and walking many miles daily to gather nuts, vegetables, grains, and fruits. This energy took the form of extra body fat.

While each person has a different ideal percentage of body fat depending on gender and frame size, generally an average healthy body fat is 18-22 percent for women and 15-17 percent for men.

Fact #2: Eating Too Little Can Slow Down Your Metabolism

Eating too few calories for the efficient functioning of your metabolism ultimately results in more stored fat. This might sound like a contradiction, but eating a calorically deprived diet over a long period of time actually causes the body to begin to hang on to the fat supplies it has and even add to them. Because a steady supply of food was not guaranteed to our hunter-gatherer forebears, the body developed the added ability to slow down the metabolism and store extra fat during periods of famine. If we did not have this ability, we would not have survived the lean times.

This is the primary reason that very low-calorie or starvation diets do not work in the long run. Almost everyone who has ever been on a calorically deprived diet knows that at first the pounds just melt off. But eventually you reach a plateau where you stop losing weight, no matter how hard you try. That is your body's natural fat-storing survival mechanism kicking in.

Recent studies have even shown an unexpected link between chronic caloric deprivation and obesity. Research conducted by Cornell University and the University of California at Davis have shown the connections between obesity, hunger, and poverty: poor women who periodically go without food so that their children can eat are often obese. The more often you starve yourself to try and lose weight, the slower and less efficient your metabolism will become.

In 1993 I had a client who was a former heavyweight boxing champion who would always be 25 to 45 pounds overweight going into our training camps. Each time we prepared him for a fight, he would be losing the same weight over and over again. This meant that we would have to prolong the usual six-week training period to about three months, which often brought us close to the edge of training burnout. It was a tremendous waste of time and resources to train a quarter of a year because of a simple weight issue.

On one occasion we had been training hard for two weeks and my client had not lost a single pound. This was a serious problem because the fight was only six weeks away. Thinking that low thyroid function might be the cause of his inability to lose weight, my doctor ordered a thyroid test, but the test came back normal.

At this time in my career, I had begun reading studies on metabolism. I consulted with the doctor we were using for this program, and he and I decided to run a simple metabolic activity test on our client. The test results showed that his metabolic rate had been slowed by 30 percent. We discovered the reason was that he wasn't following the food plan we had given him to help him lose weight and support the intense physical activity of his training program. Thinking it would help him to lose weight faster, he wasn't eating breakfast and was skimping on lunch. The opposite had occurred. He was tired in training and his body was hanging on to its fat supplies because it thought there was a famine going on. In other words it was slowing down his metabolic rate. At first it was difficult for us to convince him that he had to eat more to lose weight because it went against what he perceived as logic. But as soon as he began eating the proper number of calories and nutrients, he saw the pounds begin to come off.

In his book Turn Up the Heat: Unlock the Fat-Burning Power of Your Metabolism, nutritionist and champion bodybuilder Philip Goglia points out that we are a consistently underfed society: "I have found that most of the people who come to me with weight and health problems are usually already ingesting far fewer calories than they should in order to efficiently fuel their bodies. Therefore, their metabolism, the body's calorie-burning furnace, is already running 25 percent to 60 percent below its ideal metabolic-efficiency level. In turn, the body is storing much of the limited amounts of food these individuals eat as fat and wasting muscle tissue as an adaptive mechanism to create an alternative energy source."

You have to eat a certain amount of calories per day to lose body fat and preserve and build lean muscle mass. Eating too few calories can even cause your body to cannibalize its own lean muscle to get the nutrients needed for survival.

Fact #3: What You Eat Is as Important as How Much You Eat

Longevity studies have shown the importance of not only eating the right number of calories to support your metabolism but eating low-glycemic nutrient-dense calories to prolong the length, health, and quality of your life. For some this might indeed mean having to cut back on calories. But for most this won't be the case.

Our ancestors evolved by eating a diet of complex carbohydrates (highfiber grains that took a long time to digest), lean protein, and fresh fruits and vegetables. In our current culture of processed foods, low-nutrition junk foods, and supersized meals, a person can go for weeks without eating a single piece of fresh produce. Because of large-scale, single-crop agribusiness, which picks most produce before it has even ripened so that it can be shipped to supermarkets hundreds or even thousands of miles away, we end up eating almost no fresh, ripe fruits and vegetables. In addition, our food is grown in soil so depleted in minerals that we get little nutritional value from it.

It does not help that we live in a culture that fears fats and carbohydrates. Most of the popular diet plans restrict one of these food groups.

Fear of Carbohydrates

People avoid carbohydrates because they think they are fattening. Some of the most popular, longstanding programs on the market such as the Atkins diet are based on the premise that you must severely restrict carbohydrates to lose weight. This is not true. Because you need a basic amount of carbohydrates just to keep brain function and other metabolic processes efficient, low-carbohydrate diets can make you feel exhausted and irritable. No one can stay on a diet for long that leaves them depleted of energy and unable to concentrate.

A very low-carbohydrate diet (or fasting) can induce ketosis. This condition occurs when the body is unable to completely burn fat for energy. Ketones are by-products of the incompletely burned fat. If there is no glucose (carbohydrates) available, then the body (including the brain)

can use ketones for energy. The World Health Organization recommends at least 50 grams of carbohydrates daily to avoid ketosis.

In the Fat-Burning Metabolic Fitness Nutritional Plan presented in this book, I ask readers to eat a diet that includes 40 percent low-glycemic carbohydrates. Choosing the correct kind of carbohydrates is an important part of losing weight, maintaining weight, and staying healthy. Sugary and overprocessed foods such as candy, cake, and soft drinks are simple carbohydrates. Bran muffins, brown rice, and whole-grain breads are complex carbohydrates. Also, each fruit, vegetable, and grain has a different rate of digestion based on the glycemic index. Carbohydrates that digest slowly and release their energy into the bloodstream gradually result in less stored fat than those that digest quickly, releasing their energy in amounts greater than the body can use.

Fear of Fats

Many people are afraid of eating fats because they associate them with instant weight gain. When my nutritionist, Molly Kimball, evaluates clients for my health and performance enhancement program (PEP), she often finds that people who are trying to lose weight frequently avoid fats. They believe that everything they eat must be low-fat or fat-free. This makes for a boring and tasteless diet. Their typical breakfast might be dry toast or a bagel or cereal with low-fat milk. Lunch might be a sandwich with very little meat and no mayonnaise or cheese. Dinner might be pasta, brown rice, or a potato and with a little protein. Eating all of these carbohydrates by themselves without a sufficient amount of lean meat (30 percent of the total diet) and acceptable fats (30 percent of the total diet) can trigger an insulin release, causing blood sugar to dip.

No one can avoid fats and stay healthy. Because fat is an energy source, your body needs a certain amount to function efficiently. Most fats are commonly found in animal foods or can be synthesized in your body from carbohydrates. However, your body cannot make these essential fatty acids, which are omega-6 and omega-3. A deficiency of essential fatty acids will produce symptoms such as dry and scaly skin, dermatitis, and hair loss.

Clients are often shocked to find out how the pounds begin to drop when they begin eating the right amount of fats. Again, the type of fats that you eat—mono- and polyunsaturated fats versus saturated fats—is the most important factor in weight loss, weight maintenance, and good health.

Studies have shown that a healthy nutritional program consists of 40 percent low-glycemic carbohydrates, 30 percent lean protein, and 30 percent acceptable fats.

Fact #4: Controlling Your Insulin Response Is Key for Fat Loss

The most effective way to reduce body fat and promote metabolic efficiency is to normalize your body's ability to manage insulin. Effectively managing insulin is based on four factors: (1) the glycemic index of the foods you eat (their complexity and the amount of time it takes to digest them), (2) the efficiency of your metabolism, (3) your fat-to-lean muscle ratio, and (4) the amount and type of physical activity and exercise you engage in.

Since muscle tissue is metabolically active and fat just basically sits there, the fatter you are, the less metabolically active your body will be. There are two main scenarios in which a person develops a high fat-to-lean muscle ratio. The first can occur at any age and is lifestyle related—high levels of stress, poor eating habits, low levels of exercise or no exercise. The second is a natural but reversible process called sarcope-nia that develops with age. Sarcopenia is basically the wasting of lean muscle and the gain in body fat that results from lack of exercise, especially resistive exercise. Whatever the reason, having an unhealthy amount of body fat can lead to a lower metabolic rate and insulin resistance.

Insulin is the hormone involved in storing energy from the foods that we eat. When there is an overabundance of energy-giving foods in a meal, especially carbohydrates but to a lesser degree proteins and to a much lesser degree fats, the body will secrete insulin in great quantities. Any nutrients that cannot be used at that time will be stored. Insulin affects excess proteins by promoting amino acid uptake by cells. Insulin causes excess carbohydrates to be stored as glycogen in the liver, muscles, and circulatory system until they are needed between meals when glucose levels drop. All of the excess carbohydrates that cannot be stored as glycogen are converted into fat and stored in the adipose (fatty) tissues.

The book Endocrinology and Reproduction by P. C. K. Leung and others gives further insights into this process in the chapter where it discusses insulin and diabetes: "When insulin is secreted into the blood, it circulates almost entirely in an unbound form: it has a plasma half-life that averages only about 6 minutes, so that it is mainly cleared from the circulation within 10 to 15 minutes. . . . This rapid removal from the plasma is important because at times it is equally as important to turn off rapidly as to turn on the control functions of insulin."

When a person becomes overfat, especially in the abdominal area, he or she can become insulin resistant. Muscle cells, which make up 30 to 50

percent of the body, get out of shape and lose much of their ability to respond effectively to insulin. This leaves a surplus of glucose floating around in the blood—much more than the body actually needs for its immediate energy needs. In turn, the pancreas is stimulated to release even more insulin to do its job of transporting the glucose through the cell membranes.

Since the fat cells of an overfat individual are more receptive to insulin than the muscle cells, this is where much of the remaining glucose eventually gets deposited. A vicious cycle is created, causing even more fat gain—that is, the more overfat a person becomes, the more excess carbohydrates will be converted into fat storage.

Most people did not become overfat during the centuries of hunting and farming, primarily because our ancestors ate more complex foods and engaged in more physical work, which caused a more stable insulin response and resulted in leaner, stronger, healthier bodies. These complex foods, which take longer to digest, included whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, all of which have a high fiber content and are low in simple sugars.

The glycemic index rates foods according to the speed at which they are digested and converted to energy or stored. Foods with a low glycemic index are more complex and require burning more calories to digest them. Foods with a high glycemic index digest quickly; therefore, if they are not burned during daily activities, they are usually stored as fat because your body is genetically programmed to store the food energy that you cannot use immediately. This goes back to the feast-or-famine idea discussed earlier. Since our ancestors could not always get regular meals, their bodies developed the ability to slow their metabolism and store all excess foods as fat for the lean times.

Fact #5: You Must Be Physically Active to Have an Efficient Metabolism

Metabolic efficiency is directly related to the amount of activity you engage in each day. This includes everything from planned exercise to walking through your local mall to playing with your kids to taking your spouse out dancing or your family for a walk in the local park. If you aren't physically active, you will begin to gain weight. It's that simple.

According to a recent report by the surgeon general, a shocking 60 percent of Americans do not engage in enough activity to keep them even minimally healthy, and 25 percent get no exercise at all. Many people think that metabolism slows as you get older. It is not your metabolic processes that are slowing down, however; it is your lifestyle and level of activity.

When most baby boomers think back to how they looked in their childhood, they probably remember a skinny boy or girl who was always outside running around or playing sports. When they got older and took on adult responsibilities, they may have sat behind a desk for eight hours a day. As time passed, children were born, family responsibilities increased, and they got older, they probably spent more time working and less time being physically active, resulting in gradual yearly weight gain. With the advent of television and home computers, even leisure time took on a sedentary nature, with the average adult watching four hours of TV daily. The commercials for junk food, sugary treats, soft drinks, chips, and highly processed foods also encourage poor eating habits. When was the last time you saw a TV ad for fresh fruits and vegetables?

A certain amount of inactivity is directly related to the fact that more than 50 percent of all Americans are now living in urban environments where being active outdoors is not necessarily a part of daily life. If you live in a condo or an apartment, you probably don't mow the lawn or do yard work; nor are your kids easily able to step outside and play or take a dip in the pool.

To create metabolic efficiency, you need to engage in at least twenty to thirty minutes of exercise at least three times per week. How you should exercise is related to your gender. Studies have shown that women tend to metabolize more fat at low to moderate intensities of exercise and men at moderate to high intensities. Also, as individuals get older, the ratio between aerobic and resistance exercise should change. The older a person gets, the more he or she will need to conserve bone mass and lean muscle, both of which decrease with age. The average cardiovascular and resistance exercise percentages for a person in good health with normal weight should be as follows:


Cardio (%)

Resistance (%)

Under 40












70 and older



In this book I show you how to maximize the fat loss and metabolic benefits you derive from exercise.

Fact #6: Your Metabolism Loves Consistency

The one thing that your metabolic processes love the most is consistency. If you spend one month never exercising, one week overexercising, and another month exercising only occasionally, your body will not be able to get the full benefit of a consistent activity level and the benefits of a metabolism that is more efficient at fat burning. When you are constantly alternating overeating with undereating, your blood sugar and insulin response are yo-yoing up and down as your body desperately tries to figure out whether there is a feast or a famine. Eating three healthy meals per day plus two or three snacks will create maximum metabolic efficiency.

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