How to re-wire your body to burn, not store, fat

Like so many other Americans, Mike Berland had been struggling with a big problem: weight gain and a seeming inability to lose it. An avid golfer, skier, runner and triathlete, Berland could no longer enjoy the activities he loved without feeling terrible or gaining weight. Eating restrictions further dampened his sense of wellbeing. You may be wondering, how could someone gain weight while being so active? Turns out, Berland suffers from conditions that commonly plague other men and women like him: metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance.  

What is metabolic syndrome?

Nearly 34 percent of American adults suffer from metabolic syndrome, also known as MetS or syndrome X. The condition causes the body to store food as fat rather than burn it for energy— the main reason our body needs food. Carbohydrates and simple sugars are the most problematic for individuals with MetS, and even highly active people who are diagnosed aren’t immune to this fat-storing problem. That’s partially because MetS is linked with insulin resistance.

The hormone insulin is responsible for shuttling glucose into cells to be used as energy. Insulin receptors on your muscles operate under a lock and key system: The insulin docks in an insulin receptor, turns the key, and lets the sugar into the muscle. But with insulin resistance, the hormone doesn't open the door. People with MetS can't get sugar into their muscles as efficiently as someone without the condition.

When muscles can’t use this sugar, it has to go somewhere else, so it gets shuttled away and is stored as fat.

How can I burn fat that’s already been stored?

The Fat-Burning Machine program requires strategically eating the right carbs at the right time to kick the body into burning fat rather than storing it. Foods high in sugar should be eliminated from you diet, but the Fat-Burning Machine differs from other popular diets because bread and dairy are permitted, and users can enjoy plenty of healthy fat.

One key to this method is avoiding certain carbohydrate-laden foods in the evening. Taking this step allows your body to access stored fats overnight and effectively use that fat as fuel. Combined with exercise, these nutrition strategies can help accelerate weight loss.

Best of all, recent research suggests higher-fat diets are better than low-fat diets at helping participants lose weight and improve health markers, and the Fat-Burning Machine program reflects this idea.

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How much fruit can I have?

Some of the most popular diets today allow unlimited fruit because it is “natural.” But for people with insulin resistance, fruit smoothies, dried fruits and fruit juices only contribute to the fat-storing problem. Many of these fruit items are comprised of more than 95 percent carbohydrates, with a huge percentage of the carbs being sugar. That’s because fructose, which naturally occurs in fruit, is sugar.

Some people can consume a limited amount of fruit, while others cannot. The Fat-Burning Machine program can help determine if you are sensitive to fruit or not.

Do I need to eat before a workout?

Somewhere along the way, people got the idea that if they didn’t eat before a workout they would keel over from lack of fuel, but I believe this is wrong.

Some 1,200 to 2,000 carbohydrate calories are sitting around in your muscles and liver, and they’re ready and waiting to be used. Usually, this bank provides sufficient fuel to get people through a 60- to 90-minute all-out race effort and enough calories to get them through a two- to three-hour workout at a milder pace.

Believe it or not, your body has enough fat to fuel you through multiple marathons as well. For example, a 175-pound person that has only 10 percent body fat has 61,250 stored fat calories! All you have to do to access this great reserve of fuel is train your body to burn fat more efficiently— and it’s easier than you think.

You don’t need to eat anything before any workout that lasts 60 minutes or less. Very, very limited fueling is needed for easy to moderate workouts lasting more than 90 minutes long. All you have to do is  train your body to be a Fat-Burning Machine to have access to this great energy reserve.

How hard should I work out?

The most common mistake I see people make is trying to exercise too hard all the time. Although it may seem counterintuitive, torturing yourself into a sweat-storm to burn the maximum amount of calories possible may be hurting you in the long run. If you exercise all-out for 30 to 90 minutes, your body preferentially uses carbohydrates and blood sugars. This makes you very hungry in the few hours after a workout and can cause overeating.

Research suggests exercise at a more moderate pace that includes short accelerations or bursts of speed that last about 30 seconds long can help train the body to become less insulin resistant or improve your body’s ability to use carbohydrates. This type of training is more effective than steady-state exercise for improving your insulin resistance, which has a direct effect on your ability to reverse the fat-storing problem.

I call these short bouts of speed Miracle Intervals because not only do they improve insulin resistance, but they improve performance as well.

Being smart about which combinations of workouts to do and which foods to eat can make a big difference on your waistline, but it may cost you a new wardrobe!

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Gale Bernhardt is co-author of the book, “Become a Fat-Burning Machine: The 12-Week Diet.” She is a two-time Olympic coach and leading athletic trainer. Gale is certified as a Level I Coach by USA Cycling and a Level III Coach by USA Triathlon. She served on the USA Triathlon National Coaching Committee from 2000 to 2006.