• Siri DeMarche

Metabolic Flexibility: What It Is & Why It Is The Optimal State Of Living

Updated: Aug 2

*As always, scroll to the very bottom for a TLDR synopsis*


Why is metabolic flexibility the optimal state for us? To name a few reasons; 1) it is better for your long term health (disease prevention, increased nutrition absorption, & increased insulin sensitivity) 2) it allows your body to use whatever fuel is available 3) it allows you to go longer periods of time without eating & feeling fine (not wrecking havoc on relationships by getting hangry on a regular basis haha) 4) it is sustainable without much extra thought or planning 5) it can help to meet increased energy demands during exercise....I could go on, but let's start with the basics. Metabolic flexibility really is not that difficult to achieve once you give it a wee bit of time to work its magic. The only reason it may take a wee bit of time is because our modern food and lifestyle habits (most notably today's typical American diet) has elapsed so far from the way our human predecessors lived (without grocery stores and restaurants), that at first it might not feel natural. It is estimated that only 15% of the American population is metabolically flexible and able to use whatever fuel is available: glucose (sugar), glycogen (sugar stores), dietary fat, or stored fat.


So what is metabolic flexibility and how can we achieve it? Metabolic flexibility is the "ability of an organism to respond or adopt to changes in metabolic activity or energy demand as well as the prevailing conditions or activity" (Kohler, 1985). Originally it was used as a term to describe the increased capacity of helminthes (a parasitic worm) to generate chemical energy and important metabolites (both aerobically & anaerobically) allowing for a more versatile metabolic response to an ever changing environment, and resulting in increased efficient adaptation. Today metabolic flexibility is more commonly used to describe fuel selection in the transition from fasted to fed states (insulin stimulation). Insulin is the hormone that allows your body to use extracted sugar from consumed carbohydrates (as energy to be used right away or stored as glucose for future use). If you are insulin resistant, it means the cells in your muscles, body fat, and liver begin resisting/ignoring the signal from your hormone insulin. Insulin resistance is what happens when you consume carbohydrates but your cells do not open up to receive the fuel.


Two things that prevent or disrupt metabolic flexibility are metabolic disorders (ex. insulin resistance & diabetes) and our modern diet. Metabolic flexibility has great implication in insulin resistance as a probable underlying cause of type 2 diabetes. This idea was originally advanced by Wilhelm Falta in 1931 and since then, insulin resistance has become the most widely accepted dominant factor leading to type 2 diabetes and the single link among a variety of cardiometabolic risk factors linking obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. If metabolic flexibility is the ability to respond or adapt to conditional changes in metabolic demand (looking at insulin resistance and the mechanisms responsible for selection between glucose and fatty acids), then metabolic inflexibility is the inability to respond or adapt to conditional changes in metabolic demand, underscoring it's role in obesity and type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance is a key contributor to the development of metabolic inflexibility of many tissues and organs. This inflexibility will lead to other future health problems.



Our modern diet is another disrupter of metabolic flexibility. A diet too high in carbohydrates (like the standard American diet) and one whose typical daily layout is three meals + snacks to carry you in between, results in a distracted cycle of sub-optimal mind & body efficiency. If your diet is too high in carbohydrates (especially processed carbohydrates), your body is constantly looking for carbohydrates as a fuel source. When you can't find them, you get tired, you get cravings, your muscles feel weak, you get distracted...etc. your body keeps pestering you with these signals until you nab some carbs and eat until you are full or satisfied. Wouldn't it be so much easier if you weren't getting pestered constantly with these signals (and cheaper too)? If you are constantly eating mostly carbohydrates, your body has greater trouble accessing other forms of fuel that may be stored and ready for use. The ability to easily access these other stored forms of fuel allowed our predecessors to go days without eating in times of food scarcity.


On the opposite side of the spectrum is ketosis. While maintaining a state of ketosis has been shown to be beneficial to both brain and waste line, I do not believe it is the best option long term. Learning how to enter a state of ketosis is beneficial because you are enabling your body to utilize your fat stores, tapping into another metabolic process and giving your muscles and brain easier access to a greater supply of fuel. However if you live in a constant state of ketosis (very minimal carbohydrate intake & production), your body will begin to lose the necessary enzymes and the gut bacteria needed to properly digest carbohydrates. {Caveat: carbohydrates in this context refers to whole carbohydrates in their natural state, unrefined & unprocessed- not refined/processed carbohydrates such as pastas, breads, potato chips...etc. (But those would be more difficult to digest). I would not recommend consuming refined/processed products}. Metabolic flexibility is the ability to tap into both gluconeogenesis (glucose synthesis) and ketosis, with ability to use fuel derived from both carbohydrates and fats.


*Note Glycolysis refers to the breakdown of glucose, whereas Gluconeogenesis refers to the synthesis of glycogen (a long chain of glucose molecules)- both are similar sounding terms :)


Being metabolically flexible has several advantages. One being that you are less likely to develop insulin resistance (and therefore even less likely to develop metabolic diseases & conditions like type 2 diabetes, hyperinsulinemia, hyperglycemia, fatty acid oxidation defects, altered mitochondrial energetics, and intramyocellular lipid accumulation) if your cells are able to use the fuel that you consume- either carbohydrate, fat, or protein. Another advantage is that enhanced metabolic flexibility is associated with a higher mitochondrial capacity in trained muscle. What does this mean? Refer back to fifth grade biology where you learned that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell! If mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells, than feeding the mitochondria fuel that can be readily absorbed & utilized will increase performance of the mitochondria and therefore enhance biochemical respiration and energy production. This is especially relevant to sports endurance, where performance is limited by muscle glycogen stores. {For simplicity's sake, I am omitting a discussion of cellular respiration during aerobic vs anaerobic conditions, i.e. the glycolysis and the Kreb's Cycle}. If your body can tap into fatty acid stores and carbohydrate store to access higher rates of fatty acid oxidation and exogenous carbohydrate oxidation, than as energy demand is increased, muscle glycogen stores are preserved and sports performance is theoretically unhindered.


The man out in front with the dog looks happy. Perhaps he is metabolically flexible. Be like the man with the dog.

How can we achieve metabolic flexibility, prevent disease, mobilize fuel obtained through both gluconeogenesis and ketosis (rather than storing excess fuel without a way to tap into it for future energy use and packing on the lbs instead), and preserve glycogen stores as exercise duration & intensity increases? The goal is to not have your body starving for a particular nutrient that it would otherwise be able to handle. If you do not regularly give your body a particular macro nutrient (fats, proteins, or carbohydrates), than it will resist the shift when you do reintroduce said macronutrient back into the equation- wrecking all sorts of metabolic havoc and discomfort. If you are metabolically flexible, your body will not go into panic when a nutrient is not available for use, because it can use what is currently available instead.


Given the choice, your body will burn carbohydrates before it burns fat because every cell in your body uses glucose and it is easier to access than fat is. When you consume carbohydrates, your body converts them to glucose and then to glycogen. In glucose form, it stays in the bloodstream fueling metabolism and activity. Any leftover glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. If need be your body can tap into these reserves later. This is if you stop consuming carbohydrates. Insulin resistance occurs when your glycogen stores are full, but you keep consuming carbohydrates and consequently decrease your sensitivity to them. Your muscles and liver can only store a finite amount of glycogen, but your body can store an incredible amount of fat. Because it is easier for your body to burn stored carbohydrates rather than stored fat, it will burn carbohydrates first. In dire circumstances (i.e. starvation) your body can burn fat, but it is at a higher metabolic demand, which is why your body naturally prefers to burn carbohydrates. This means that you need to teach your body how to access your fat fuel stores and use them as energy in non-dire situations. You can do this by achieving and living in a state of ketosis, but again we want to still be able to use our carbohydrates, not to mention the various necessary nutrients you'd be missing out on by maintaining a state of ketosis long term (polyphenols, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals...). And while proteins can be converted to glucose in a low carb state via gluconeogenesis, you'd still be missing out on the aforementioned nutrients. We want to be metabolically flexible with the ability to use all macronutrients as fuel. There are a few ways to achieve metabolic flexibility.


One answer is to turn to Cyclical Ketosis. Cyclical Ketosis involves eating a higher portion of carbohydrates once a week (over 100g) to maintain the ability to digest them and maintain a painless metabolic shift between the two systems- gluconeogenesis & ketosis. Instead of being in a constant state of ketosis, and then feeling like total sh** when you reintroduce carbs, as your body tries to remember how to digest them properly. In my opinion, cyclical ketosis can be a bit daunting to follow and not an easy lifestyle shift to make.


I think the two easiest and most affordable ways to go about achieving metabolic flexibility are;


1) Introducing a higher ratio of fats to other macronutrients into your diet (things like avocado, nuts, fatty wild fish...etc. the omega-3's) so that your body becomes accustomed to recognizing them as an available fuel source. If possible, try to consume these fats separate from high sugar/starchy carbohydrates (squashes, zucchinis, potatoes, high sugar fruits...). As discussed above, given the choice, your body will opt for using the carbohydrates as fuel first because it is metabolically easier to do so rather than the fat consumed at the same time. If the fat is not converted into a readily available fuel source, it will be stored as fat. While this stored fat can be tapped into, it takes a higher metabolic energy to do so. Because the body can store an incredible amount of fat and it takes a high metabolic energy shift to use it as fuel, the body will not tap into fat storage unless forced. But we can teach our body to do this without freaking it out (i.e. putting it into starvation mode). By consuming a higher percentage of fats as part of your daily food intake (without the presence of high sugar carbohydrates in the same meal), you are priming your body to understand that fat is a viable fuel source, can be readily used, does not need to be stored, and that your current fat stores are a potential source of future fuel. By priming your body to understand that fat is an available fuel source, your body is less apt to resist the metabolic shift required to consume fat as fuel instead of primarily carbohydrate as fuel. When we can use both carbohydrates and fats as fuel, our body will adapt to utilizing both systems, instead of heavily relying on one and under utilizing (and potentially losing) necessary process components of the other. When we teach our bodies to utilize both systems, we are able to use whatever fuel is available to us and not resist the often uncomfortable metabolic shift from the primarily used system to the lesser used system.


2) Intermittent Fasting with an OG RanchHand Coffee (minus the collagen powder). When done correctly, intermittent fasting is lifestyle friendly and hardly requires any planning. Intermittent fasting is essentially eating during a restricted time frame and there are various forms it can take (Do your research, consult a professional, but I am happy to help you navigate which form may best fit your lifestyle and to help you prepare, so that you find success from the get-go). Note: there are important differences in fasting between men & women that should be taken into consideration (message me if you want more info on this). Intermittent fasting is NOT a decrease in the amount you eat, but a shortened time frame during which you eat. This allows your body to fully digest the food that you consume during your eating window. When properly applied (again, happy to help you), intermittent fasting delivers a host of great benefits, among which is increasing insulin sensitivity and decreasing blood levels of insulin. Recall from above that increasing sensitivity will allow your cells to use blood glucose more effectively, inherently reducing blood sugar levels and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Another major benefit of intermittent fasting is giving your body a larger recovery window (when you are not eating). During this time your body now has the capacity to initiate important cellular and hormonal processes, time that would otherwise be spent digesting food substances. These processes include; cellular repair through autophagy (cleaning out damaged/dysfunctional cells in order to regenerate new healthy ones), increased blood levels of human growth hormone (associated with muscle building and fat store utilization), the altering of gene expression in relation to longevity and disease prevention, reduction in oxidative stress and inflammation (both associated with aging and chronic disease). All these benefits of intermittent fasting for the body are also beneficial for the brain. It also increases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)- a deficiency of which can lead to depression and other brain problems. Ongoing studies are investigating the effects of intermittent fasting in the prevention of Alzheimer's and increasing lifespan. Thus far the research looks promising. And now on to the coffee :0)


Autophagy allows for unnecessary or dysfunctional cellular components to be recycled.

A RanchHand coffee makes intermittent fasting significantly easier, especially in the beginning. It helps you feel satisfied in the waking hours before you break your fast and only requires one extra step in your morning brew magic. For example, I fast for 16hrs of the day and eat during 8hrs. If my last meal was at 6pm the night before, then I break my fast with a first large meal at 10am. But before 10am, I have a mug of steamy RanchHand coffee (no this does not break your fast, but rather mimics it to an extent) to prime my body's ability to access my fat stores for energy. RanchHand coffee does not "break" your fast because it does not raise your blood sugar levels (just don't add any extra things with 1g+ carbohydrate. I.e, no milks, sugars, cacao, collagen powder..etc.). While you may not experience all the benefits of a true water fast, for the purposes of becoming metabolically flexible, having a RanchHand coffee is a great hack. Don't get me wrong, I love a bit of coco, a splash of nut milk, maybe a scoop of collagen powder in my coffee (see some ideas here) but not before I have broken my fast with something that will spike my insulin levels. Because I want to prime my body's ability to use fat storage as a fuel source, by adding ingredients that contain above 1g of carbohydrate, my body will instead use glucose for energy; raising my insulin levels in the process and breaking my fast too early.


Here is a look at the ingredients of a RanchHand coffee and how to make it:


Ingredients & Breakdown:

-1-2 tbsp grass-fed butter (I like Kerrigold's unsalted)

Butter is what gives this coffee it's creamy texture. Grass-fed is better than grain-fed for a few reasons. Grain-fed butter has a different fat composition that doesn't blend as well (or taste as good!) as that from grass-fed pasture raised cows. Grass-fed cow's milk is nutritious, with healthy fat & soluble vitamins A, K, and E- good for your skin, eyes, brain, heart...in addition to CLA (conjugated linoleic acid: helps to burn fat & is anti-inflammatory) and butyrate (a short-chain fatty acid that strengthens the gut and brain). Grain-fed butter is lower on nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids. Ever wonder why grass-fed butter is yellow & grain-fed butter is white? :)


-1tsp-2tbsp unrefined coconut oil or a high quality MCT oil (message me if you aren't sure what "high-quality" means)

Unrefined coconut oil or a high-quality MCT oil helps to raise your blood ketone levels. ensuring that your body turns to fat stores for energy rather than glucose. Again, priming the body's ability to recognize stored fat as a fuel source. Quality coconut oil/MCT oil contains purified saturated fatty acids called medium-chain triglycerides. There are four types of MCTs: C6, C8, C10,& C12 and most MCT oils are a blend of them. Some of these turn into ketones more effectively than others, with C8 being the most effective. Coconut oil is mostly C12, but is also less expensive than a MCT oil. To get the most bang for your buck, opt for an MCT oil with a higher ratio of C8 (message me if you want some of my favorites). An untrained stomach can be a wee sensitive to MCT oil starting out, so start with 1tsp and work your way up from there.


-8-12oz hot coffee (or tea)

The most important thing in choosing what type of coffee bean you're looking for is to make sure that it is mold free. Coffee often contains naturally occurring mold toxins that can impair the immune system, give you jitters, give you the cranks, and increase brain fog. If you get bad headaches or are cranky without your morning coffee, mold could be to blame. Some things to look for to assess your coffee mold situation are farming quality (opt for organic beans grown without herbicides or pesticides- look for a Rainforest Alliance Certified Farms stamp if you're unsure where to start looking for quality coffee (they follow high standards to ensure that their workers are treated fairly & the environment is taken care of). Happy to help you in your coffee search as well- just shoot me a message.



How To:

1) Brew coffee (typically 2.5tbsp per 8oz water depending on how strong you like your coffee)

2) Blend with butter and oil in blend so it's nice and frothy

3) Enjoy enhanced mental focus and energy to punch through the morning grog (if you're feeling particularly groggy, you may need to replenish some electrolytes (add a pinch of Celtic sea salt or Himalayan sea salt to your brew- it actually tastes really great).



Finding and maintaining a state of metabolic flexibility is optimal for (hopefully now) obvious reasons and is just so much easier on your lifestyle- whether that includes lots of traveling, kiddos, hectic job...etc. Metabolic flexibility allows you to go longer without eating (or getting hangry), is a preventative measure against a host of diseases and ailments, is kinder to your grocery bill, requires less planning, can help you in endurance sport performance...the list goes on. Being able to use both fats and carbohydrates as readily available fuel sources is better for your brain and body. And again when I say "carbohydrates," I'm not talking about refined or processed foods. Happy flexin' :)


This is an overview of what metabolic flexibility is and generally how to achieve it. If you are interested in learning more, I have created an online course that takes you through the exact step-by-step process that I used to become metabolically flexible and maintain it as a sustainable lifestyle. Check out the details here


References


TLDR


Metabolic flexibility is the "ability of an organism to respond or adopt to changes in metabolic activity or energy demand as well as the prevailing conditions or activity." For us, it means being able to use both carbohydrate and fat as ready bioavailable fuel, tapping into both gluconeogeneis and ketosis. It is an optimal state of being and eating for a few reasons; 1) it is better for your long term health (with regards to disease prevention, nutrition absorption, & insulin sensitivity) 2) it allows your body to more readily use whatever fuel is available 3) it allows you to go longer periods of time without eating & feeling fine (not wrecking havoc on relationships by getting hangry on a regular basis) 4) is sustainable without much extra thought or planning 5) helpful to meet increased energy demands during exercise. There are two easy and affordable ways to achieve metabolic flexibility;

1) Increase your intake of dietary fats (things like avocado, nuts, fatty wild fish...etc. the omega-3's) so that your body becomes accustomed to recognizing them as an available fuel source. If possible, try to consume these fats separate from high sugar/starchy carbohydrates (squashes, zucchinis, potatoes, high sugar fruits...).

2) Intermittent Fasting using a RanchHand coffee. Intermittent fasting is essentially eating during a restricted time frame and there are various forms it can take (Do your research, consult a professional, but I am happy to help you navigate which form may best fit your lifestyle and to help you prepare, so that you find success from the get-go). Note: there are important differences in fasting between men & women that should be taken into consideration (message me if you want more info on this). Intermittent fasting is NOT a decrease in the amount you eat, but a shortened time frame during which you eat. This allows your body to fully digest the food that you consume during your eating window. When properly applied (again, happy to help you), intermittent fasting delivers a host of great benefits,like increasing insulin sensitivity and decreasing blood levels of insulin, allowing important cellular and hormonal processes to take place.


--> RanchHand Coffee Recipe

-1-2 tbsp grass-fed butter (I like Kerrigold's unsalted)

-1tsp-2tbsp unrefined coconut oil or a high quality MCT oil (message me if you aren't sure what "high-quality" means)

-8-12oz hot coffee or tea

1) Brew coffee (typically 2.5tbsp per 8oz water depending on how strong you like your coffee)

2) Blend with butter and oil in blend so it's nice and frothy

3) Enjoy enhanced mental focus and energy to punch through the morning grog (if you're feeling particularly groggy, you may need to replenish some electrolytes (add a pinch of Celtic sea salt or Himalayan sea salt to your brew- it actually tastes really great).




Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or any other medical body. I do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.

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