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5 Steps to Improved Metabolic Efficiency

Written by Paul Kriegler, RD, CPT, CISSN, Life Time Fitness

“Metabolic efficiency” is a concept gaining momentum in the world of fitness.  It’s a new fueling solution for individuals seeking body composition change or sports performance.  Whether you’re an experienced athlete or just getting started, metabolic efficiency concepts apply to you!

Metabolic efficiency was stumbled upon by Registered Dietitian and Exercise Physiologist Bob Seebohar. He was searching for a way his athletes to avoid gastrointestinal (GI) upset while fueling during races, so he challenged the common “carb-loading” theories.  Despite the consuming hundreds of calories from high-energy carbohydrate fueling supplements during events, he and his athletes still ran out of energy late in their races.  The vast array of products – gels, liquids, bars, and powders – are designed to deliver “fuel” quickly and simply. As we exercise, especially at race-like intensities, our body diverts blood flow away from the digestive tract to deliver oxygen-rich blood to our working muscles.  In most cases, this is a recipe for digestive disaster.

Seebohar’s research helped him realize traditional sports nutrition belief that carbs fuel performance was far from optimal for many people, including himself.  Maybe “carb loading” and continuous carb fueling did more harm than good?   Since using metabolic testing equipment, like the New Leaf carts used at Life Time, along with good old fashioned nutrition coaching, Seebohar’s athletes have seen drastic reductions in GI distress occurrences as they improve their efficiency.  These athletes have also seen radical performance improvements – all while taking in fewer calories during training sessions and races.  They’ve become more “metabolically efficient”.  They’ve also become leaner in many cases although many start out leaner than average already!

The real benefit of Metabolic Efficiency isn’t for world class athletes. Metabolic Efficiency principles apply to everyone!  Through simple behavior changes in daily nutrition and smart training all of us can teach our bodies to be better fat burners!

Our bodies work like hybrid automobiles in a sense; we can burn a variety of fuels depending on the intensity of the activity we do on a daily basis.  We’ll discuss more specifics of the physiology related to metabolic efficiency and it’s surprisingly long history in exercise science in future articles.  For now let’s outline 5 simple ways to start reaping the benefits of a more metabolically efficient body – whether you plan to race that way or just want to drop some body fat.

1. Be honest with yourself about your daily nutrition habits

There are 24 hours in each day.  Most adults sleep for about six to seven hours. For the most part, our members or those trying to lose weight might exercise for an hour or two per day on average.  That leaves us all with at least 15 hours left over to screw up our nutrition.  Looking at your day from this angle gets you thinking about which factor has the most power over your overall health and fitness.

How closely do you follow nutrition recommendations for optimal health?  Do you eat a diet consisting mostly of nutrient & fiber-rich vegetables – 7-9 cups per day?  Is there high-quality protein included at every meal? Are you incorporating healthy, natural fats that enhance your body’s ability to reduce inflammation – Omega-3’s?  If you didn’t answer a decisive yes to all of these questions, then step one is cut the processed “Franken-foods” out of your daily routine and eat more wholesome, fresh food every time you sit down to eat. 

2. Stop making excuses, start making meals

Everybody is busy these days.  Yet many people are successful at making good food available for themselves no matter what their circumstances are.  Making healthy food isn’t rocket science unless you make it that way.  Set aside an hour or so twice a week to prepare a few meals worth of wholesome food!

On a sheet of paper, make a list of proteins – not proteins you simply like, but those which you are willing to keep available and prepared for quick access.  Next to this list, make another list of non-starchy vegetables (all veggies except potatoes, corn, peas, and winter squash).  Again, don’t just catalog the vegetables you like, make a point to have four or five that you will deliberately keep handy at all times – in large amounts.  In a third column, list all the healthy fats you can think of; nuts, seeds, olives, olive oil, avocado, butter, coconut, etc.  Use fats to flavor the foods in the first two columns.  Put this list of foods on the fridge so you always have a list of the healthiest foods on earth that you also LIKE. 

3. Focus on what builds a strong, lean, efficient body.

Fire up your culinary imagination and your favorite cookbook or recipe website.  Look up recipes using key ingredients from your list.  Use the recipes as ideas for how to blend flavors, vary cooking methods, or make your old staple recipes more exciting!  Don’t follow all these ideas rigidly but instead focus on preparing the proteins, veggies and fats in a way that will fill you up while de-emphasizing the starchy or sugary foods. 

Pick out three or four recipes for your first week on this journey.  Cram as many vegetables as you can into each recipe idea and also emphasize getting enough protein and fat to stay satisfied for hours after each meal.  To decide how much protein is “enough”, visit with a Registered Dietitian at your local Life Time or read about protein in one of the many articles on this site

4. Fill up on flavor and fiber

Don’t try to portion control your veggies – especially the non-starchy type.  When is the last time you heard a health expert say, “don’t eat too many vegetables, you might get too healthy”?  Eat as many of these as you want along with a protein source three times a day.  We recommend at least 7 cups per day for optimal health, but if you’re hungry for more, have at it!  Enjoy the different textures and flavors that grow naturally from the ground!

If you increase your intake of plant foods there’s no doubt you’ll increase your fiber as well.  You may not miss having 6 or more servings of “whole” grains to get your fiber.  Your digestive system will probably thank you for the more wholesome switch. Plant foods, especially non-starchy vegetables, should make up the majority of our food volume.

5. Don’t sabotage the purpose of your workout by putting yourself in a metabolic “catch 22”

Most people spend time at the gym in an effort to melt body fat, yet many of them see only modest changes even with increasing effort.  Many of them may be working at intensities that are either too hard or too easy to get the maximal fat burning-effect.  In previous articles, we’ve highlighted research on metabolic factors that contribute to a successful workout, most important of which is blood sugar control.   When blood sugar is higher than normal, like after a starchy meal or snack, fat oxidation (burning) is significantly reduced and instead the carbohydrates recently eaten will be the preferred fuel. 

Plan your cardiovascular fat-burning workouts intelligently.  Learn which intensity is optimal for your body to melt fat and invest time working out at that intensity.  Don’t think of each workout session as a way to simply burn calories; it’s a time for you to teach your body how you’d like it to change the way it functions.  If your preference is to teach your body how to burn fat more efficiently, then enter each workout semi-fasted, or at least don’t load up on carbohydrates for your daily workout.  Instead, fill up on more adequate proteins, fats, and fibrous vegetables!

In future articles, we’ll examine a case study of metabolic efficiency and determine how to optimize food choices for maximal exercise benefit.  For now, you’ve got enough ideas to start making your own body more Metabolically Efficient!

Keep the conversation going below; leave comments, questions, or your own story of Metabolic Efficiency training below.  

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    5 Steps to Improved Metabolic Efficiency - Articles - LifeTime WeightLoss

Reader Comments (6)

Paul--loved this article! Great job! And yes, this is what I am working on! ...great for the GI system! haha Miss you!

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmily G

Thanks Em! I hope you're taking the simple approach to gaining this efficiency!

November 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Kriegler, RD/LD


August 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfat burning workouts

Thank you

August 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfat burning workouts

Thank you

August 19, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfat burning workouts

Thank you

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterfat burning workouts

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