In a perfect world, we would burn fatty acids the majority of the day until our bodies called upon the need for glucose.
What needs glucose?
High intensity exercise needs glycogen to function, and our brain needs some glucose to operate.
So then, how do we tip the scales in favor of burning fatty acids. And save our glucose for exercise and brain/nervous system function? The following 4 tips can help you become a better fat burner.
Eating too many carbohydrates will cause excessively high insulin levels. While you can still lose fat with moderate levels of insulin present, you will not be able to mobilize as many fatty acids as if you were controlling your carbohydrate intake to what you need.
Eating too many carbs will cause you to upregulate the enzymes needed to metabolize glucose, and downregulate the enzymes necessary for fat metabolism. Focusing your carbohydrate intake around your workouts, and managing insulin levels will start retraining your body to use more fatty acids for fuel.
You’ve probably heard that fasted cardio first thing in the morning will help you burn more fat. While there are some exceptions to this idea. Exercising on an empty stomach helps train your body to more efficiently use fat for fuel.
When you have low glycogen and blood sugar levels, like you do when you wake in the morning after a night of fasting. You cause your body to up-regulate the enzymes necessary to burn fatty acids for fuel.
This adaptation occurs over a period of time, and is one of the reasons why long distance runners will train in a glycogen depleted state and then carbohydrate load before a race.
To fully understand what’s best for your body, it would help to understand how fat loss occurs. It’s best to view this as a complicated process that can be boiled down into 4 general factors:
Weight Loss Factor #1: Calories burned
To drop weight you must burn calories. But research in the Strength and Conditioning Journal found that fasted cardio does not increase lipolysis—the process of burning fat—compared to when you’ve enjoyed a pre-workout meal.
So while you’re burning calories fasted, the actual process of fat loss is not accelerated if you’re cranking away for 30 to 60 minutes.
Not to mention, fat loss is directly linked to workout intensity. When you fast and then try to do a longer workout, the likelihood of you tapping out is increased. Better to eat a little food and push harder, rather than have a sub-par training session.
Weight Loss Factor #2: Protein breakdown
Remember, this isn’t an attempt to become skinny and drop muscle mass. You want to retain lean mass and drop fat.
For that to happen, you want to focus on protein retention and limit protein breakdown. But when you exercise fasted, it can double protein breakdown. Meaning some of that hard work is eating away at your muscle.
Weight Loss Factor #3: Fat breakdown
Research shows that if you want to really accelerate the fat burning process with cardio. You need to do it at lower intensity.
But it’s not just low intensity—it’s like a crawl through the desert. We’re talking about 2 hours slogging away on a slow walk, and even then it’s limited. And who has 2 hours per day just for cardio?
You might assume you’ll just do a HIIT workout and bump up the intensity, while cutting down on time. However, when you perform high intensity cardio fasted, you break down fat faster than you can use it as energy.
When that happens, sadly, it the fat is shuttled back into your fat cells.
This is one of the silver bullets to consider as to why fasted cardio might not be the best route.
Weight Loss Factor #4: The Afterburn
The final consideration is EPOC, or exercise post-exercise oxygen consumption. This is what your body keeps burning after you stop training.
It’s the main reason people cite as a reason for lifting weights; you stop training and your body keeps the “metabolic furnace” churning.
This does happen, but eating prior to a workout increases your “afterburn” compared to a fasted state.
Improve Your Insulin Sensitivity
Being more insulin sensitive means your body has a better ability to manage your carbohydrate intake. It can metabolize glucose and store glycogen without a lot of insulin. In doing so, you keep your fat metabolism humming right along – training your body to be more efficient at using fat for fuel.
How do you increase your insulin sensitivity?
Through proper diet and exercise of course. Eliminating sugar, flour, and other high-glycemic processed carbohydrate sources will make a huge difference.
In addition, adding resistance training to your fitness program will help too. 16 weeks of resistance training was accompanied by reduced insulin resistance in type II diabetics.
What Causes Insulin Resistance?
If you’ve been around the Paleo world for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with an explanation that goes like this: eating too many refined or simple carbs overwhelms the body’s capacity to store glucose, causing insulin resistance and eventually diabetes.
It’s true that eating a lot of refined carbohydrates is one cause of insulin trouble – see this study, for example, but just blaming “carbs” is missing the point.
For one thing, plenty of people in traditional cultures eat a high-carb diet but don’t get diabetes – the Kitavans are the most obvious example. And a very low-carb diet can actually cause insulin resistance as part of the starvation response.
Carbs are one piece of the puzzle, but the puzzle doesn’t end there.
So instead of just carbs, take a look at a few other things that can contribute to insulin resistance:
- Visceral fat accumulation. Insulin resistance can cause fat gain, but fat can also contribute to insulin resistance, especially visceral fat. Visceral fat is fat around the organs; typically it shows up as a “beer belly.” If you touch visceral fat, it’s hard, not squishy or jiggly. Regardless of how it got there, visceral fat probably contributes to insulin resistance (interestingly enough, the jiggly subcutaneous fat that most women have around their stomach and thighs doesn’t contribute to insulin resistance)
- Chronic inflammation. Chronic, low-level inflammation (from things like Omega-6 overload or chronic lifestyle stress) is a major driver of insulin resistance.
- Diets high in both fat and sugar. Plenty of studies have shown that a junk food-esque high-fat and high-sugar diet will reliably induce insulin resistance.
- Sleep deprivation and chronic stress. As this review puts it, “sleepdeprivation induces insulin resistance in multiple metabolic pathways in both healthy subjects and patients with type 1 diabetes.” Stress alsocontributes to insulin resistance. In this study, for example, greater job stress was associated with much higher risk of metabolic syndrome.
Instead of just looking at carbs
Instead of just looking at carbs (which don’t cause insulin resistance in the absence of other factors), it might be accurate to say that “the modern diet” or “a modern diet high in refined carbs among all kinds of other bad stuff” causes insulin resistance.
Sure, that diet is high in refined carbs. But it’s also high in inflammatory Omega-6-rich junk oils like corn and soybean oil and gut irritants like wheat.
It’s typically excessive in sugar and calories, which is a great way to gain some visceral fat And it’s accompanied by the chronic stress of sitting in traffic and working overtime, and the crazy pace of a life so fast nobody has time to relax.
That’s the difference between the average couch potato (high-carb, high-junk, high-stress, insulin resistant) and the average Kitavan (high-carb, low-junk, low-stress, insulin sensitive).
Insulin resistance is not “just about carbs.” And fixing it involves a lot more than “just cutting carbs.” Fixating on carbs is easier, but it’s not the whole story, and probably won’t get you the best results. So read on to see what various studies have tested and how it turned out.
Increase Your Mitochondria
Mitochondria are where fatty acids go to be oxidized and turned into available energy (ATP). Increasing your mitochondria helps you to burn more fat and do it more efficiently. In order to increase your mitochondria, you first need to provide a reason for your body to manufacture more of them.
You do this by pushing your energy demands up and beyond what’s available to you right now. This stimulus causes a rapid creation of these little cell powerhouses. Which in return will help you more efficiently use fatty acids for fuel. Up your intensity and you will be rewarded.
Exercise is the Most Effective Way to Make New Mitochondria
Exercise is the most potent signal for the increased production of mitochondria in muscle, by increasing the ability of the muscle to burn carbohydrates and fatty acids for ATP.
When you perform exercise. Muscle cells generate a low-energy signal known as AMP. And the accumulation of AMP over time signals for increased ATP production.
An increasing AMP:ATP ratio initiates a cascade of signals within the muscle tissue to produce more ATP to protect against an energy deficit. At the same time. During periods of sustained muscle contraction, calcium is released from intracellular stores, resulting in a 300% to 10,000% increase in intracellular calcium.
Increased calcium and AMP are powerful signals for the production of more mitochondria, which occurs in the resting state immediately following exercise.
In response to a large demand for ATP production, muscle cells respond by overcompensating in their ability to produce energy for the next round of exercise, by inducing mitochondrial biogenesis in the resting state.
By doing this, mitochondria are able to consume larger amounts of oxygen. Carbohydrates and fatty acids, the fuels needed to power the production of ATP.
The ability of muscles to overcompensate for exercise “stress” is exactly why frequent exercise results in increased strength, endurance, resistance to fatigue and whole body fitness.
These 4 ways are just a few of the steps you can take to become a better fat burner. Start making the change from being a sugar burner to becoming a better fat burner. And the fat loss results will start to show.