Have you ever wondered how your body actually burns fat?
Years ago a popular health magazine decided to try to answer that same question with a novel approach. They looked at how people actually gain weight, 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 followed around a bunch of Sumo wrestlers whose job requires them to maintain enormous stores of body fat. Whatever it is they were doing, that’s exactly what we shouldn’t do.
Now Sumo wrestlers gain weight for a number of reasons, and genetics certainly plays a role, but what they did eating-wise is the thing we want to pay attention to, because it’s ultimately going to teach us something about how to burn fat.
Here’s what the Sumo guys did…
They worked out a bit. They lazed around. They worked out some more. They took a nap. And then, at the end of the day, they ate their one meal, a massive feast with more food than most could eat over a few days. Shortly after this multi-thousand calorie feast they’d go to bed for the night.
Okay, 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. I’ll explain how in a moment …
The main 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 what I like to call your “fat-burning switch.”
Needless to say, the fat-burning switch on a Sumo wrestler doesn’t get much “on” time.
So here’s the biochemistry behind the Sumos’ weight gain…
When you eat a big meal–which is inevitably loaded with carbohydrates–it sends your blood sugar soaring. The body immediately releases a hormone (insulin) whose job it is to wrangle that sugar and get it out of the bloodstream where–if it were to stay elevated for very long and if that were to happen frequently–it would do some serious damage.
Insulin escorts sugar into the cells. When the muscle cells don’t need it, it goes 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 from the bloodstream, cleaves them into smaller parts (called fatty acids), and then promptly helps store these fatty acids in your fat cells.
In the Sumo scenario there are plenty of triglycerides to break up and store, because he just ate a high-carb meal, which not only increases triglycerides but also drives insulin levels up.
It gets worse.
Once insulin is riding the seas of the bloodstream, it effectively locks the doors to the fat cells. They won’t open up and release their bounty (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 (very oversimplified) biochemistry, and it works that way whether you’re a regular person or you’re a professional Sumo wrestler.
And now to our question:
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 probably something you’ve never heard of before, but it’s a critical component of your fat-burning biochemistry.
When blood sugar is low, and you need more energy, and food isn’t available, glucagon is secreted. 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 like glucagon is the “opposite” of insulin, HSL is the “opposite” of LPL, the fat-storing enzyme we spoke of earlier. HSL breaks down triglycerides (the 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 axis is the “fat-burning switch.”
Working backwards, we can see the obvious:
Fat loss won’t take place unless the fat-burning switch (glucagon/ HSL) is turned on. 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.
Hence the solution to the problem of how to burn fat is pretty simple. Keep blood sugar in a nice, moderate range where it won’t trigger excess insulin. By keeping blood sugar (and insulin) down, you allow glucagon/HSL–the fat-burning switch to do its 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.
The simplest way to do this is to only eat high energy carbohydrates straight after intense exercise like interval or resistance training. After this training your muscles are depleted of carbohydrate storage(glycogen) and are able to use the blood sugar that is created by eating carbohydrates.
This way you will only be triggering the release of insulin when youre body is ready and able to deal with the carbohydrates. Its is also great for the recovery and growth of muscles to recieve this carbohydrate fuel straight after intense work.
Any other time you want to base your meals around low energy carbohydrates like green veges and salad coupled with a lean source of protein which slows down the rate that carbohydrate enters the blood stream. This will ensure your fat burning switch is on.