Let’s start by working backwards, how do we get fat?
A few years ago a popular health magazine decided to try to answer that same question by reasoning that if we knew all the “tricks” to gaining weight, we could learn what “not” to do if we wanted to stay lean.
So they picked a group whose job requires them to maintain enormous stores of body fat – Sumo wrestlers. If we knew what they did we might learn what not to do so they looked at what Sumo’s did to get fat and this is a simplified description of much how they go about it.
They had a strict daily workout regime with as much rest as possible in between workouts, they took a lot of short naps and then at the end of the day, they ate their one meal, a massive calorie dense amount of food and beer that would make an all you can eat buffet at the local gastro pub seem skimpy. Shortly after this multi-thousand calorie feast they’d go straight to bed for the night.
So what can we learn from this? One reason this technique is so effective for weight gain is that it mobilizes every fat-storing mechanism we have in our body. The point here is that if you want to burn fat instead of store it, you have to learn how to turn off your “fat storing mechanisms,” and instead turn on your “fat burning mechanisms.”
So here’s the simplified biochemistry behind the Sumos’ weight gain…
When you eat a big carbohydrate rich meal, it sends your blood sugar soaring. The body immediately releases a hormone (insulin) whose job it is to control that sugar and get it out of the bloodstream and into the muscle cells. The ting is when the muscle cells don’t need it, like if you’re not moving around much and are inactive, insulin takes that sugar and shuttles it into the fat cells. No wonder insulin is also known as the “fat-storing hormone.” Insulin does its work with the help of an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase (LPL), which is kind of like the “fat-storing enzyme.” LPL takes triglycerides (fats) from the bloodstream, breaks them down into smaller parts (fatty acids), and then promptly helps store these fatty acids in your fat cells.
Once insulin is released into the bloodstream, it effectively locks the doors to the fat cells. They won’t open up and release their potential energy stores (that is, you won’t burn fat) until insulin levels come back down. Of course, the more you continue to eat that same high carb diet, the less your insulin levels go down. That’s the biochemistry put very simply, and it works that way whether you’re a couch potato or you’re a professional Sumo wrestler.
So Just How DO You Burn Fat?
You do the exact opposite of everything I just said, and here’s why …
Insulin has a sister hormone, and its name is glucagon. It’s a critical component involved in fat burning biochemistry. When blood sugar is low, and you need more energy, (but food isn’t available), glucagon is secreted into the bloodstream. Its purpose is the exact opposite of insulin’s. Glucagon goes into the cells and causes fat to be released. And it does so with the help of a fat-burning enzyme called hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL).
Much as glucagon is the “opposite” of insulin, HSL is the “opposite” of LPL, the fat-storing enzyme I spoke of earlier. HSL breaks down triglycerides (a form of fat stored in your cells) into fatty acids and glycerol, so as they travel around the bloodstream they can be burned for energy or excreted. This glucagon-HSL partnership makes up part of the fat burning process.
To sum it all up and working backwards, we start to see the obvious: Fat burning (and weight loss) won’t take place unless the fat-burning components (glucagon/ HSL) are all in place.
The fat burning switch is in the “off” position as long as insulin levels are high. Insulin levels are high whenever blood sugar is high, and blood sugar is typically high in response to high-carbohydrate meals. Therefore the solution to the problem involved in “how to burn fat” is pretty simple. Keep blood sugar in a safe, moderate range where it won’t trigger an insulin spike. By keeping blood sugar (and insulin) down, you allow glucagon/HSL, the fat-burning switch, to do it’s magic.
If you want to trigger your fat-burning switch, you have to learn to eat in a way that won’t trigger excess insulin. Fortunately, that isn’t that hard to do. I’ll tell you more about how to do this by understanding the dangers posed by high glycaemic indexed carbs, processed foods and bad fats in future posts.
Thanks for reading!