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Your Raging Metabolism
By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
All rights reserved and actively enforced.

Let's talk about your metabolism. Yeah, I know it's too slow. No doubt, you've got the fat gene too. Probably from both sides. I'm kidding, of course, but a lot of people talk quite authoritatively about their metabolism being slow without actually knowing what metabolism is, or what they can do about it.

There are three components to your metabolic rate

  1. Base Metabolic Rate or BMR. This is the amount of energy your body would use simply by lying around in bed all day. You increase your BMR by building more muscle, which is metabolically active. You'll find a calculator to estimate your BMR in the "How calories work" section below.
  2. Unrestricted Physical Activity or UPA. This is the amount of energy your body uses during daily activity. You increase UPA through exercise, and also by doing physical activity throughout the day (take a walk, take the stairs, choose a more distant parking spot).
  3. Thermal Effect of Food or TEF. This is basically the second law of thermodynamics at work - converting energy from one form to another is never 100% efficient. So eating typically throws off a modest amount of energy as heat. You increase TEF by eating limited portions, spaced fairly evenly during the day, containing mostly protein and carbohydrate. Unfortunately, since the body stores excess dietary fat directly as body fat, there is no need to convert it, so eating fat generates virtually no thermic effect at all. Now, don't kid yourself that eating more food is a way of burning calories. But for a given "budget" of calories you eat in a given day, it's better to spread those calories out across several small "fuelings" containing protein and carbohydrate, rather than blowing the budget on a couple of larger or higher fat meals.

Metabolism includes two groups of chemical reactions in the body

  • Anabolism - which is creation or "building up", and
  • Catabolism - which is destruction or "breaking down"

There are a lot of people who simplistically believe that you can't build muscle and burn fat at the same time, since building muscle is anabolic and burning fat is catabolic. This is wrong, but it's wrong in an interesting way. Clearly, you can't be anabolic and catabolic at full-throttle in the same instant, but you can certainly affect your body's ability to accomplish both during the day.

There are dozens of chemicals and hormones involved in regulating metabolism, but for practical purposes, only a few that you have the ability to do much about. The main anabolic/catabolic ones are insulin and cortisol.

Insulin is one of the main anabolic hormones in the body. The only way that glucose (sugar) can get into the cells to be used as energy is for it to be accompanied by a little insulin guy. Insulin does two things: it says "Hey, we've got sugar in the bloodstream here. Stop burning fat so that we can get rid of this stuff first." And then the insulin helps to transport the sugar into the cells.

So insulin is "anabolic". It helps the muscle cells to get fed. Well, muscle cells and fat cells. If your muscle glycogen stores are full, insulin feeds your fat cells instead. If you spike your insulin higher by eating a significant amount of simple carbohydrates (such as sugar) when your energy stores are full, the excess carbs are converted to fat and escorted to your hips. The insulin then causes a subsequent plunge in blood glucose, often followed by fatigue. Brain cells can't store glucose, so that plunge in blood glucose can also cause dizziness. So, too much sugar and you may find yourself saying "I'm fat because I'm tired, and I'm tired because I'm fat."

The Glycemic Effect

Bottom line: insulin is triggered by the consumption of simple carbohydrates. Except when you want to intentionally spike your insulin levels, you should choose carbohydrates that trigger a minimal release of insulin. These are called low-glycemic carbohydrates.

Low glycemic carbs are generally ones that are digested slowly. Think "unprocessed". Carbs that are detached from fiber are digested much more rapidly and cause that spike in blood glucose. Lack of fiber is also by far the most common cause of irregularity. Here are a few examples of low & high glycemic foods:

Low glycemic: apples, oranges, pears, plums, grapes, bananas (firm), grapefruit and other whole, low-sugar fresh fruits, oatmeal, brown rice, "Converted" rice, spaghetti and egg fettuccine (surprisingly), whole-wheat pasta, bran cereal, barley, bulgur, basmati, Kashi and other whole grains, beans, peas (esp. chick and black-eyed), lentils, whole corn, sweet potato, yams, milk (preferably low-fat), partial-protein carbohydrates such as yogurt and soy, and even "sugar" in the form of fructose (found in fruits) or lactose (found in dairy products), but not as glucose or maltose.

High glycemic: fruit juice, white bread, most "wheat" bread (which is usually just white bread with a little fiber added), white rice, baked white potato, bagels, croissants, pretzels, graham crackers, vanilla wafers, waffles, corn chips, cornflakes, cake, jelly beans, sugary drinks, Gatorade, beer. Note that high glycemic foods are often either white or highly processed. 

IMPORTANT : When you eat a portion of carbohydrates, the overall glycemic effect depends on how much of that food you eat. Rutabaga has twice the glycemic index of apples, for example. But you're still better off eating 10 grams of carbohydrate as Rutabaga than eating 30 grams of carbohydrate as apples. Always remember that portion size matters as much as the glycemic index does. As another example, I encourage people to eat carrots, even though carrots have a high glycemic index. You'd simply have to eat a bunch of carrots just to have the same glycemic impact as a single piece of white bread. So remember - portion size matters. If you let your portions get out of control, nothing will help you. 

Cortisol - the Stress Hormone

Cortisol is one of the main catabolic hormones in the body. It is responsible for triggering the breakdown of protein (such as muscle tissue) into building blocks called amino acids. It also inhibits glucose from getting into the cells, causing a further wasting of muscle. Cortisol is also a "junk food" hormone: high levels of cortisol generally trigger a strong craving for high carbohydrate snacks. Several things raise your level of cortisol - lack of food, lack of sleep, prolonged high-intensity or high-impact exercise, and weight lifting. This is why your workouts should generally not exceed about an hour. Bottom line: cortisol is triggered by several forms of stress, and your job is to shut it down.

There are several strategies for shutting down cortisol. First, it's essential to eat regularly and get enough sleep. Second, take Vitamin C (about 500-1000 mg is effective), and glutamine, which is the main ingredient of CytoVol. Both quite safe. Vitamin C is not "fat soluble" - your body doesn't store it for long, so anything your body doesn't need is just flushed out.

Finally, breathe. Regardless of the stress you're under, the simple act of breathing in consciously, breathing out consciously, and recognizing your stress will give it far less power, because you stop being your stress, and realize that you are more than that. (My friend Thay says you can smile at anything - even difficulties - "hello my little stress, I know you, you are my old friend"). The same for worries. The same for any other emotion. The practice is to be gentle with yourself, regroup, and smile at whatever comes at you.

Post Workout Nutrition

In general, you'll maximize your fat loss if you wait about an hour after your workouts before eating. The exception, in my view, is when you smell ammonia. Ammonia is essentially nitrogen, and that sensation after a workout is a signal that you've raised your cortisol levels enough to trigger the breakdown of amino acids by the liver (gluconeogenesis). When the body needs energy, it metabolizes glycogen, then fat, then protein. If one isn't fast enough, it goes down the list. But if it's going to feed on protein, you want it to go after something other than muscle tissue. So if you smell ammonia, you should have a protein and carbohydrate containing supplement immediately after your workout, preferably along with a protein stimulating supplement such as L-Leucine (whey protein is about 20-25% Leucine).

Even if you wait to eat a regular meal, there's increasing evidence that availability of the "branched-chain" amino acid Leucine, even just a gram, closely following a workout, can kick-start new muscle synthesis.

A few additional reasons to avoid spiking insulin except after a weight-training workout. About one in four people are insulin resistant, meaning that the pancreas has to pump out a lot more of the stuff in order to be effective. That excessive insulin reduces the ability of the body to burn fat as energy even after the glucose is cleared. Insulin resistance also typically leads to an increase in "visceral fat" around the organs, particularly in the abdomen, and increases the risk of coronary disease. By keeping your carbohydrates low-glycemic and your portion sizes in control, you reduce the need for this excessive output of insulin, and you keep your fat-burning in high gear.

Insulin resistance is more common if you have diabetes in your family, or if your diet has been high in sugar, high glycemic carbs, and saturated fats. My vote for worst food in the world: funnel cake (called "elephant ears" in the Midwest ): white flour dough, deep fried in lard, covered with powdered sugar. If you ever find yourself standing in line for this stuff, just skip on over and stand in the line to get your head examined.

Fortunately, one excellent fact is that exercise itself improves insulin sensitivity. Also, you'll significantly improve your fat loss if you concentrate on eating low glycemic carbs in your portions. A few supplements are known to improve insulin sensitivity: alpha lipoic acid ( ALA ), green tea extract, and chromium picolinate. All are available at any GNC. Normal dosages (read the label on whatever brand you pick) are sufficient. Since they change the responsiveness to insulin, diabetics who are insulin-dependent should use these only under a doctor's supervision.

Feeling hungry?

Most often, excessive hunger during a fitness program is a signal that the meals are too high in simple carbohydrates like bread, white rice, juice and other “high glycemic” foods. Supplements such as vitamin C and glutamine can also help to reduce cortisol levels, as can slow, mindful breathing.

In addition to insulin and cortisol, two important hormones regulate your appetite:

Ghrelin is produced by the stomach and triggers appetite. High levels of ghrelin create a strong desire to eat.

Leptin is produced by fat cells and provides a signal to the brain that the body is full. When leptin is working properly, your body will respond by decreasing your appetite after a meal. But certain stress factors can lead you to produce a low level of leptin. If that happens, you can still feel hungry even if your stomach is full.

Importantly, both of these hormones are significantly affected by lack of sleep. Researchers at Stanford University recently found that sleep deprivation triggers a significant increase in ghrelin levels and a decrease in leptin levels, which helps to explain why very sleep-deprived people are nearly twice as likely to be obese.

The researchers found that nearly three-quarters of the people they studied slept less than 8 hours per night, and that the increase in obesity was directly proportional to the decrease in sleep.

Since sleep is also important for muscle growth, it really is a good idea to plan 8-9 hours of sleep, if at all possible, as part of a physique transformation program.

Get your Z's.

Inadequate sleep will interfere with nearly every aspect of your fitness program. Enough said.


Related Articles

Your Four Energy Systems
and How to Train Them

If you want to get the most from your workouts, it helps to know a little bit of biology

Nutrition Keys
Small frequent meals, the importance of stable blood sugar, and how to make good choices to support your fitness program.

How Calories Work
A primer on calories and base metabolic rate (BMR).

BMR Calculator
Estimate your base metabolic rate. This is only an estimate, but it can help keep you on track.

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