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Why burning fat for energy is the key to weight-loss

You will not reach your long-term fitness goals until your body learns to burn fat for fuel

Drew Manning lost 75 pounds in six months. But six months prior to that he had gained 75 pounds. On purpose. That’s putting on more than 10 pounds of fat a month. It didn’t only put an extreme amount of stress on his physical state, but mental state as well. Both his blood pressure and cholesterol shot up, he had brain fog and his mood was lethargic.

Drew Manning

Manning told me he knew it wasn’t going to be easy physically, “but I have never thought about the emotional battle I’d be facing.”

Manning is a health and fitness expert and the New York Times best-selling author of Fit2Fat2Fit: The Unexpected Lessons from Gaining and Losing 75 lbs on Purpose. Known for his straightforward and empathetic fitness and health coaching, Manning has been featured on The Dr. Oz Show, CNN, Good Morning America, and he’s also the creator of the A&E Show Fit to Fat to Fit.

He’s been a fitness coach helping those who wanted to lose weight, yet he had no idea what it was like to wanting or having to lose a large amount of fat. So, he stepped into his clients’ shoes and embarked on the “fit to fat to fit” journey. Manning says losing all that weight wasn’t easy, but he may have done it easier than most people would’ve.

The same way our brain has memory, our muscles do to — remember the saying, once you learn how to ride a bike, you’ll always know it, no matter how long you wouldn’t do it — your body remembers. Manning had been athletic his whole life. Because of his healthy lifestyle choices, he was metabolically flexible, and his body had been adapted to use fat when carbohydrates weren’t available.

What’s metabolic flexibility?

Metabolism is the body’s mechanism to provide energy for its existence. Metabolic flexibility is the body’s ability to switch between using carbohydrates for energy to using fat for energy.

It’s been encoded in our biology throughout evolution. When our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have food for days, their body wouldn’t shut down, instead it’d tap into its fat storage for fuel, so they could still have energy to escape in case of danger.

A lot has changed since then. Our 24-hour access to snacks and processed foods made us rather inflexible, which has grown into an obesity epidemic. A study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health found that only one in eight Americans have optimal metabolic health.

Our bodies crave carbs every two-to-three hours, many people get hangry (angry hungry) if they have to skip a meal, and there’s that 4 p.m. slump and brain-fog. We experience these because the human body burns through carbs quicker than fat then craves them again right away. Fat tends to keep us satiated for at least four to five hours.

Think of it this way: There’s a campfire. If you put paper on it, it burns through it in a matter of seconds. But when you throw wood on it, it can burn for hours. That’s your body on carbs, as paper, versus fat, as wood.

Studies have shown that the lack of metabolic flexibility in our society today is a hallmark of many metabolic diseases, including cancer, metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance, which could lead to type 2 Diabetes. And, nearly 35% of all U.S. adults and 50% of those 60 years of age or older were estimated to have the metabolic syndrome a few years ago.

Becoming metabolically flexible, however, doesn’t happen overnight. Manning says it takes time to adjust. “Give yourself a good 30 days to adapt,” he said. “And, stay on top of your salt intake.” Once you lower your carbs and processed foods, which are often very sodium-heavy, you’ll lose water weight too and will flush out electrolytes, so it’s important to keep up your mineral intake.

Signs you’re metabolically inflexible

  • Craving snacks every two-to-three hours
  • Getting angry when you have to skip a meal
  • Having to eat as soon as you wake up
  • Waking up in the middle of the night hungry
  • You’re not losing weight
  • You have a slow metabolism

How to become metabolically flexible?

  • Incorporate some form of fasting: Eat within an 8-to-12-hour window and fast in the remaining 12 to 16, mostly overnight. Or do a 24-hour fast once every other week. I personally tend to do a 24-hours once a week. This will slowly help your body adapt to not having food so regularly, and will start using fuel alternatives, like fat.
  • Eat more fat and less carbs: Make sure the fat you eat is good fat, such as avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, eggs or fatty fish and meat. Avoid soybean oil and canola oil, processed foods and refined sugar.
  • Reduce processed foods: Stay away from foods that are pre-packaged and pre-cooked. They’re often filled with sugar, vegetable oils and additives.
  • Eat whole foods: Stay on the outer circle of the grocery store and reach for whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, beans and quality meat. When it comes to fruits, choose ones that are low in sugar like berries, and ones that are seasonal.
  • Exercise: Physical activity, especially high-intensity interval training, helps your body empty out its glycogen storage. Even better if you work out on an empty stomach in the morning. Glycogen is your body’s way of storing glucose in the liver and muscles to use later. When you exercise and use up all your stored glycogen, your body won’t have a choice but to burn fat for energy.