Metabolic what? Efficiency huh? Don’t worry, I’m not trying to sell you anything or will not promise any infomercial results that are not scientifically supported. My goal is to help explain how you can change your paradigm of thinking about nutrition so you can teach your body to use the right nutrients at the right times to improve your health and performance. It is about adopting some very simple nutrition concepts and most importantly, implementing them. Execution is paramount. The best plan in the world will not be any good if it is not followed.
What Is Metabolic Efficiency?
Efficiency is a term that is typically associated with running, specifically bio-mechanics and technique improvement. From a nutrition perspective, being metabolically efficient simply means being able to use the proper nutrients that are already stored in the body at the right times and for the right reasons. In fact, the average body has about 1,200-2,000 calories stored as carbohydrate but over 80,000 stored as fat. As an eternal optimist, I see a tremendous opportunity here!
It is likely that you have heard of this scenario before as it applies to running: as you increase your intensity of training, your body prefers to use more carbohydrate and less fat for fuel. The physiological term for this is called the crossover concept and it has existed in exercise physiology research for at least 60 years. With aerobic training you can manipulate your body’s ability to burn more fat but this blog isn’t about what we have known for decades. It’s about the relatively unknown effect of your daily intake of macro-nutrients and their impact on fuel utilization and metabolic efficiency.
Why Be More Metabolically Efficient?
I’ve been working with endurance athletes for almost 20 years and whenever I ask them about their goals for the short and long-term, I typically receive the same two responses: lose weight/decrease body fat and get faster. I’ll address mostly the first point since manipulating your body weight and composition in a favorable direction can have a positive impact on your run performance.
The Carbohydrate Crisis
Carbohydrates are a staple in any athlete’s eating plan and for good reason. They provide the energy that is needed to fuel the body for training sessions. But during some times of the year when run training load is lower, maintaining a higher carbohydrate eating plan can lead to unnecessary weight and body fat gain (not to mention predispose some runners for chronic diseases).
Eating too much of any one macro-nutrient can lead to metabolic inefficiencies. Focus too heavy on one macro-nutrient and a state of imbalance occurs. Eat a combination of foods and you will remain in balance and not get thrown out of whack.
How To Become Metabolically Efficient
At the end of the day, the “secret” to improving your metabolic efficiency is really no secret. Combine a lean protein with a fiber rich food during most feeding times. These two nutrients will stabilize your blood sugar best and this in itself will lead to enhanced metabolic efficiency. The reason? Whenever blood sugar is high, the pancreas secretes the hormone insulin and it just so happens that insulin inhibits the body’s ability to utilize fat. Keep your blood sugar (and insulin) under control with food and you will be a metabolically efficient athlete. Plain and simple!
When you eat, focus on putting a good source of protein on your plate first followed by an abundance of color (fiber containing fruits and vegetables). If you are not in a high training load, don’t worry too much about whole grains and starches. Your body will not need a high amount of carbohydrates due to lower energy expenditure. And remember, as you develop better metabolic efficiency, you will preserve carbohydrate stores even better so you will find that you will need fewer carbohydrates to fuel your training load.
Be careful to not be too strict when you change your nutrition plan. In fact, I promote athletes stay on track about 90% of the time and allow “misses” the other 10% of the time. Misses are foods that cannot be classified as protein, fruits, vegetables or whole grains (think alcohol, sweets, chips, etc.). There is certainly nothing wrong with them (that’s another blog topic for the future); however, reducing their frequency is the key.
This really shouldn’t be too difficult. There are no calorie counts or weighing foods. Use your innate ability to put together the right foods and use your hunger cues to help drive your decisions. Of course, it will take preparation, execution and commitment on your part to instill this new change into your life. Remember, this is a behavior change that can take weeks to months to adopt. Start now and remember that this is a behavior change so allow yourself some times where you will take a few steps backwards. It’s all part of the process of improving your body’s metabolic efficiency!
Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS
Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, is one of the foremost experts on sports nutrition for endurance athletes. He was previously the Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Florida and most recently a Sport Dietitian for the US Olympic Committee. Currently, he owns and operates Fuel4mance, which is a sports nutrition consulting business. Contact him at email@example.com
Photo by Michael Cannon
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