Kari over at The Running Lifestyle Show and I throw the term “fat adapted diet” around a lot. But I think the term can be really confusing because we aren’t talking about a ketogenic diet, or a diet where, on average, 70-80% of calories are from dietary fat. Instead, we are discussing a diet rich in nutrient-dense fatty acids which help your body learn to preferentially burn calories from fat rather than carbohydrate. (If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking “BUT SERENA, FAT HAS MORE CALORIES!!,” then ya gotta click that link and set your mind straight!)
Let me explain. Traditionally, the Standard American Diet (hmm, which incidentally spells the acronym “S.A.D”) suggests individuals to consume 50-60% of calories from carbohydrate, spread evenly throughout the day in “small, frequent meals,” like 5-6 times daily! However, I’d contest that consuming the majority of calories from carbohydrate and eating carbohydrate constantly throughout the day messes with our body’s insulin response, and contributes to holding onto fat.
Let me explain. We’ve talked about all the fat-storing/burning hormones before. But basically, in the presence of insulin, its impossible to burn body fat. Now, don’t get me wrong, insulin, is fabulous and absurdly important to living a healthy life. Type 1 Diabetics will literally die because of their inability to manufacture insulin without modern medicine’s interventions. This is because we require insulin to open the doors to our cells to let energy in. We all need energy to stay alive and well; so the goal here is not to eliminate the secretion of insulin, but to remain insulin sensitive.
Your body’s propensity to release insulin in response to eating a carbohydrate rich food is related to how frequently you eat starch and your activity level.
Think of insulin like alcohol for a hot second. The first time you consume alcohol, you become intoxicated rather quickly, maybe after one beer. Your alcohol tolerance is very low. Then, as you continue to consume alcohol throughout your lifetime, it takes more and more drinks to get that same buzz. Insulin is similar in that the first time you ever eat a very starchy food (let’s say your first run-in with white rice as an infant), your body only needs to release a little bit of insulin to adequately get the energy from the rice into your cells. As we continue to eat starchy foods throughout our lifetime, the amount of insulin we need to get small amounts of starch through the figurative-doors of our cells increases; aka. you become less sensitive to insulin. So, that same amount of white rice you ate as an infant, now requires way more insulin than it did when you were a wee-little-one to get the energy into your cells. Besides diet, staying active, such as by running, walking and exercising frequently, also helps your body “use up” insulin faster thus increasing your ability to stay insulin sensitive.
FYI, insulin also is released in response to eating protein dense foods, but just not as dramatically. Dietary fat, however, does not require insulin to be stored in the body’s cells as energy.
Sooo… the point being: eating a diet which is more balanced means that you choose closer to 20-40% of calories from nutrient rich carbohydrate, rather than greater than 50% of calories from carb from nutrient poor carbs; so that you’re still able to consume ~30-40% of calories from healthy fat and the remainder from lean protein. By eating less carbohydrate, you give your body a chance to re-sensitize to insulin. And! If you’re a huge fan of The Running Lifestyle Show, like I AM, then you’re probably super motivated to run-all-the-miles which helps you stay insulin sensitive!
SO! Now we understand that eating less calories from carbohydrate helps our body attenuate the insulin response, so we have a better chance of burning BODY FAT instead of sugar all day. And we can double-whammy our insulin sensitivity by leading an active lifestyle!
Other important factors in following this balanced lifestyle is choosing enough calories to fuel proper metabolism and to choose calories from nutrient dense sources. Eating the appropriate amount of calories to fuel your day-to-day activities is important so our body does not sense a “chronic calorie deficit” which can actually slow metabolism, and cause a preference for burning muscle rather than body fat, since muscle burns calories and your body thinks its starving when chronically deprived of energy! Eating nutrient dense foods is important because it helps curb cravings, as nutrient deficiencies contribute to your body wanting to eat more in an effort to seek out the nutrients its missing!
What’s this all mean for you? It means that if you’re not very active, start at an even playing field with 33% of calories from each macronutrient: nutrient rich carb (mostly non-starchy vegetables), lean proteins, and clean, healthy fats. Forego processed oils such as vegetable/margarine/corn/soy oil, nutrient poor starches such as pasta and bread, and try to choose protein from humanely raised animals/free range eggs/wild fish. And emphasize at least 10 grams of healthy fat at every meal without a huge load of starch, so that the body becomes efficient at burning fat (AKA! FAT ADAPTED!).
Fat is fabulous, and so is lean protein and nutrient dense carb, but Kari and I just like to focus on dietary fat for the shock-value (since low fat, in popular culture, has been praised for WAYYYYYYYY TOO LONG!)