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Metabolic Flexibility: Retraining the Metabolism for Optimal Health

In an attempt to ease digestion, improve energy levels, and promote weight loss, many popular health recommendations focus on increasing metabolic rates. However, while manipulating metabolic speeds may help burn a few extra calories, the efficiency with which the body expends energy largely relies on age and genetic factors. A critical factor is often overlooked in the pursuit of improving metabolism: metabolic flexibility.

A key to optimal wellbeing, longevity, and chronic disease prevention, metabolic flexibility directly measures the body’s ability to respond and adapt to conditional changes in metabolic demands. Access to high-calorie processed foods as part of the standard American diet combined with increasingly sedentary lifestyles have directly impacted the ability of the metabolism to be flexible, and thus, support sustained energy production. Studies have shown that metabolic flexibility can prevent and treat metabolic diseases like diabetes and insulin resistance and help the body run at its optimal levels.

The real key to long-term health is not a fast metabolism – it is a flexible one.

What is Metabolic Flexibility?

Metabolic flexibility refers to the capacity of the organism to adapt fuel oxidation to fuel availability as energetic demands and nutrient availability fluctuate. The mechanisms governing fuel selection between glucose and fatty acids impact the risk for insulin resistance. If they are not functioning correctly, long-term health consequences ranging from hypertension to type 2 diabetes and obesity can arise.

The body of literature regarding metabolic flexibility expands as more clinical data points to its vast implications on overall health. Authors of a recent manuscript published in Cell Metabolism highlight that advances in omics technologies have spurred research that aims to interrogate mechanisms for improved metabolic flexibility in skeletal muscle and adipose tissue with the goal of preventing and treating metabolic disease.

Risks Associated with Metabolic Inflexibility

Due to poor dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles, metabolic inflexibility has become the patient standard. In the short term, this may manifest as decreased energy after meals, midday energy crashes, weight management difficulties, and mental illness symptoms, such as anxiety.

Over time, the physiological impact of weakened metabolic flexibility, including elevated glucose levels and insulin resistance, can lead to type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and other long-term health conditions. Impaired fat utilization associated with metabolic inflexibility can lead to weight gain and obesity, furthering the risk of chronic disease. Additionally, a weakened metabolism can alter the mass, structure, and function of the mitochondria in cells, thus causing elevated free radical levels in the body.

Health Benefits of a Flexible Metabolism 

Sustained energy, fewer glucose-related energy crashes, decreased cravings, and optimized fat usage, are only a few of the many benefits of having a flexible metabolism. When the body can seamlessly shift between fuel sources, it can adequately utilize energy instead of inefficiently storing it, resulting in improved weight maintenance, increased energy levels, and decreased risk of metabolic disease. Furthermore, metabolic flexibility is associated with consistent glucose levels, optimized workout performance, better sleep, and improved overall health.

Retraining the Modern Metabolism

Current data suggests that only 15% of the population has a flexible metabolism. While the concept continues to be a subject of scientific research and beneficial interventions are likely to emerge, there are already several methods that can help retrain a disrupted metabolism.

Dietary Interventions

The standard American diet emphasizes carb consumption and frequent eating, which accustoms the body to seeking out carbs for energy and promotes fat storage. On the other hand, low-carb, high-fat diets promote ketosis – or the state in which the body burns fat instead of blood sugar – forcing the body to adapt to changing metabolic demands.

Intermittent fasting has proven to achieve metabolic flexibility and address insulin resistance as well. By restricting the food intake for 12-18 hours per day, intermittent fasting allows the body enough time to burn stored fat for energy and release a healthy level of toxins. Combined with intermittent fasting, the benefits of low-carb diets rich in whole, real food are numerous: glowing skin, fat loss, improved brain function, and elevated healthspan.

Regular Physical Activity

Physical inactivity is one of the leading causes of metabolic inflexibility, while regular exercise is one of the most effective techniques for boosting metabolic flexibility. Incorporating as much movement throughout the day can train the metabolism to respond to shifts in energetic demands. Consistent physical activity is the key to increasing mitochondrial content, improving glycemic control, and improving insulin sensitivity.

All forms of physical activity are beneficial to overall health; however, experts believe that a combination of aerobic cardio and strength training exercises can yield optimal results for metabolic flexibility.

Key Takeaways

The majority of the population has an inflexible metabolism that cannot respond effectively to changing energy demands and nutrient availability. As a result, many struggle with weight management, chronic disease, and poor health and wellbeing. Retraining the metabolism with dietary and other lifestyle interventions can help develop metabolic flexibility – a key component of overall health.

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