In my last fitness post I mentioned two terms throughout: sugar-burner and fat-burner. Both describe the possible types of fuel our bodies can use – carbohydrates or fat. While at first glance it may seem unimportant, knowing what fuels your body is incredibly vital. It can be the difference between the path to surviving versus thriving; eventual ill-health and disease or wellbeing. And all is controlled through diet.
Carbohydrates: The Cheap Fuel
‘Carbs are the body’s preferred source of fuel’ – how many times have you heard this misleading statement? I know I’ve mentioned it in my posts but we need to stop thinking like this. Our bodies don’t actually prefer carbs as fuel, they need to immediately address what carbs do to our physiology, which we misinterpret as a burst of energy from fuelling up. It’s the hormonal science connected to Calories In vs. Calories Out unlike protein and fat, carbs raise our blood glucose levels. This is toxic to our bodies so we release insulin to lower it to the normal range of 1 tsp of glucose. This cycle continues over decades and can eventually lead to insulin resistance, where our pancreas produces excessive quantities of insulin to combat frequently high blood glucose levels, ultimately leading to the lifestyle-related diseases and health issues associated with metabolic syndrome. While extreme, it explains why so many people in the developed world, the UK included, are overweight with health issues.
Using carbohydrates as your primary source of fuel makes your lean muscle mass more vulnerable via a process called gluconeogenesis, which means ‘to create new sugar.’ Your body will derive energy from protein to feed your sugar-burning body. This isn’t a good thing when it comes to muscles because essentially your body is eating them if you can’t get more food in time. If you think surely you’re immune to this think again – this muscle vulnerability can occur when you’re extremely hungry but don’t or can’t eat, and then your hunger eventually disappears. This muscle-eating can also occur in the later stages of an endurance race because the total energy we get from carbs is finite, and our muscles can only store a maximum of 2000 calories of energy1. If you’ve not properly fuelled, your muscles are completely void of glycogen (muscle energy) which results in a serious drop in intensity and staggering to the finish line. You never want this to happen.
Eating a diet akin to the UK Eatwell Plate – consisting of much carbs through grain and sugar consumption, high fruit intake, and processed foods – makes you a sugar-burner. You can also be a paleo sugar-burner if you too many ‘paleo-fied’ sweets and baked goods, and not enough dietary fat. To be a sugar-burner could also mean to have issues with sugary foods and being unable to quit them.
Signs you’re a sugar-burner:
- Frequent cravings.
- Frequent hunger.
- The need to eat about every three hours.
- Eating 5-6+ times a day.
- With some foods you feel like you just can’t stop eating.
- The need for a pre-workout snack or meal.
- Late afternoon blahs where you feel like you could take a nap.
- Brain fog – your brain isn’t working and it needs a rest.
- Frequent highs and lows in energy as a result of blood glucose levels.
- Hunger is an all-consuming monster. You need to feed it and feed it now!!!!! You can’t do anything until it’s fed, and you will eat anything to feed it.
- Hanger = hunger + anger. Irritability when hungry is an understatement.
- Possible hunger in the middle of the night.
- Feeling faint when you’re very hungry.
Fat: The Rich Fuel
When we were early humans our bodies were actually adapted to burn fat for energy; it was the actual preferred energy source. This allowed early humans to survive when food wasn’t so plentiful, fasting if needs be.
Fat doesn’t affect our metabolism the way carbs do; it doesn’t touch our blood glucose levels, which allows us to have stable energy levels all day long, rather than experience carb-related highs and lows. Between meals our fat cells are open for business allowing fatty acids to travel around and feed other cells like muscles. This explains why we aren’t perpetually hungry all day long. We can continue this uninterrupted cycle with a low-carb high-fat primal diet, akin to the one prescribed by Mark Sisson.
Our brains are made of mostly fat so it makes perfect sense to use a familiar fuel. We can store close to a million calories worth of fat; pretty hefty compared to carb storage2. And we don’t have to fat-load to accomplish this. Finally, you’ll never get into desperate muscle-eating territory.
Being a fat-burner means that you are using fatty acids in your fat stores or fat from your diet as energy. Once you become a fat-burner it will feel like night and day!
Signs you’re a fat-burner:
- Stable energy all day long.
- You just feel great.
- Mental clarity all day long, even in the late afternoon at work.
- Hunger doesn’t rear its ugly head. In fact, hunger pangs are tiny in comparison.
- No cravings!
- No hanger!
- Eating about every 5-6 hours but you can go longer if need be. And you won’t feel famished if you do.
- Eating 2-3 meals a day without the need to snack.
- Being able to exercise in a fasted state.
- No need for a pre-exercise snack or meal.
- Can engage in intermittent fasting.
And all of these fantastic signs can be changed simply through diet. Sugar-burners can easily become fat-burners, it’s not a matter of genetic pre-disposition. I used to be a sugar-burner! All it takes is a well-formulated Paleo diet with plenty of healthy fats, moderate protein, lots of vegetables, and some fruit. Being a fat-burner dramatically decreases your chances of ill-health later in life mainly because your insulin levels will be stable and insulin sensitivity will increase over time – a good thing3. Being a fat-burner really allows one to thrive rather than simply survive.
- Volek, J.S. and Phinney, S.D. (2012). The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Florida, USA: Beyond Obesity LLC.
- Sisson, Mark. (2012). The Primal Blueprint. London, UK: Vermilion.
- Emmerich, Maria. (2013). Keto-Adapted: your guide to accelerated weight loss and healthy eating. [s.l.]: Maria and Craig Emmerich.