It almost goes without saying that our bodies are capable of truly amazing things. I say almost, because at times we forget just how magnificent our bodies really are. While there is hardly enough room in this post to delve into it at length, my goal today is to touch on a few fascinating concepts; metabolic health, metabolic flexibility and fat-adaption and how each of these influence our ability to adventure optimally.
Continual advancements in science and biology coupled with exciting findings in nutrigenomics and genetics, continue to remind us that our relationship with food is incredibly complex, nuanced and full of unsolved mysteries. One thing we know for certain is that what we eat and what we drink plays an integral role in how we think, feel and behave. All of our nutritional intake not only informs the physical makeup of our cells and tissues, but it also informs the way those cells behave too! We are what we eat on so many levels.
The fact that our nutritional consumption has such a profound impact on every aspect of our lives makes complete and total sense since the one thing that most of us are lucky enough to do every single day, is eat!
While what we eat (and what we ate) can help us perform incredible feats, bask in the beauty of adventure and appreciate life's little moments, it can also wreak havoc on our bodies (which includes our mind), if we aren’t conscious of the quality, quantity and frequency of said intake. I, for one, believe that we can’t have good mental health without good overall health, since the two are inextricably linked.
Metabolic health is defined as having ideal levels of blood sugar, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, blood pressure, and waist circumference, without using medications. The latest research shockingly suggests that only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy. 12%!! Yikes!! Last time I checked that’s qualifies for a D- in health and well-being with marked room for improvement. Metabolic syndrome, on the other hand, is what most of us are suffering from and there are many reasons for its cause.
One of the modern luxuries of our food-obsessed world is having access to an abundance of edible fare at our fingertips every hour of every day. Between grocery stores, restaurants, snack shacks, farmers markets, delivery apps and piled up pantries and refrigerators, we are just steps, clicks or calls away from calories all the damn time. Perhaps the only escape from the ease of access is when we are far off in the backcountry on some epic wilderness adventure, one that we likely brought a small mountain of snacks along for.
While there are certainly upsides to this abundant access, there are also some downsides too. While human beings are meant to get healthy, nutritional input from nutrient-dense foods, we are also evolved to take breaks from it, too. We are made to move, play, create, explore … and burn up energy from the foods we’ve consumed to keep our finely tuned meat machines in balance.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors did exactly that. At times, they went days without eating anything while still having the energy to forage for food — chase wild game, dig for roots and tubers, pick seasonal fruits and wild harvest the forest's fare. They didn’t have an ice box to reach into when the hunger monster growled or the ability to ‘eat their feelings’ when times got tough, which they undoubtedly did. How the heck did they do all of that when most of us can’t even make it from lunch to dinner without gorging on grub?
Luckily, for our ancestors (and in turn, for us) the body has a magnificent survival mechanism to allow for this energy expenditure to take place even without constant calories coming in. When we feast on food, our bodily functions go to work, breaking it down, allocating it throughout our systems, turning it into usable energy and storing the excess in our muscles, organs and fat cells to call upon for future use. When famine occurs, our bodies call upon said storage supply and metabolize it into energizing fuel. Magic!
Our marvelous modern-day meatbags have the exact same capacity for this fat and glycogen oxidation; it’s just that many of us have never had to turn this survival system on. Quite the opposite, in fact; most of us don’t have enough physical and mental outputs with which to burn the calories we are consuming, so we continue to accumulate them, packing it on as fat.
This fat is an incredibly dense fuel source that our bodies can use, just like our ancestors did, to energize our everyday activities. But in order to access this fat and turn it into fuel, we need to be fat-adapted, which many of us simply aren’t.
We aren’t fat-adapted because most of us are constantly consuming foodstuffs that are high in carbohydrates (think bread, pasta, chips, sugary drinks, pastries, candy and beer or whole-food options like grains, tubers and fruits).*
Most carbohydrates get turned into glucose (a form of sugar) when digested in the body. Our body preferentially burns glucose like a hot rocket fuel, but glucose can also boost our blood-sugar levels way up to the moon. Because too much glucose in the bloodstream can be toxic, our brilliant bodies respond to this blood sugar spike by releasing the amazing blood-sugar regulating hormone insulin from the pancreas. Insulin’s job is to escort the glucose from the bloodstream to the liver or muscles to be stored as glycogen (stored glucose) or fat.
When we constantly consume a high-carb diet, we overproduce insulin and when we do this for extended periods of time, it allows all kinds of disasters to take place. This perpetual havoc can eventually lead us to developing insulin resistance syndrome and setting us up for a ton of health problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. These are all markers of the metabolic syndrome I mentioned earlier.
Those blood sugar spikes also lead to the infamous blood sugar crash, leaving us feeling hangry, irritable, anxious or fatigued. This is why we might feel sluggish a few hours after breakfast (and lunch and dinner). It’s also what makes us feel like we need to eat every two to three hours (another granola bar, please!) topping up those energy stores. It’s not because we need fuel — we’re full of fat stores — but if our fat burning machinery isn’t up and running yet, we can’t dig into the goods. We need to first become fat-adapted so that we can become metabolically flexible.
Just like we want to be flexible when life hands us lemons, we want to be flexible in our metabolism as well. Metabolic flexibility is the idea that your body can metabolize and, therefore, mobilize off any fuel source that it has available to it. This could be naturally derived from the fat in the food you just ate or from your belly, butt or thighs; it could be glucose from recently ingested carbs swimming in the bloodstream or glycogen from your muscles. You can even use ketones, that superfuel made from your liver when you’re fasting or restricting dietary carbs.
No matter the case, your body has a diversity of fuels to choose from and it will be able to move easily and seamlessly from one option to the next depending on your immediate energy needs and its sophisticated selection process. Hurray!
Being metabolically flexible has so many amazing benefits, besides those aforementioned. Metabolic flexibility allows you to feel great all day long with stable moods, stable energy, stable cognitive functioning and stable appetite (even if you haven’t eaten in hours). It frees you from being on a strict eating regime and reduces hunger pangs and cravings while increasing satiety, which I believe leads to better life satisfaction.
So how can you become metabolically flexible, fat adapted and bolster your overall metabolic health and what the heck does this have to do with adventure?
As I mentioned, it would take a lot of bandwidth to go deep in any and all of these realms but for those interested, the internet has a plethora of great information. In the name of trusted sources, I highly recommend Mark Sisson and his Daily Apple blog as well as his incredible new book Two Meals a Day which is rife with great information and some great protocols to help you develop metabolic health, flexibility and fat-adaption.
Like everything in life, it’s a journey that doesn't come to be with the snap of a finger, the flick of a wand or the burning of all the bags of chips and candy in your cupboards (though that’s not a bad start!) Concepts like intermittent fasting (also called intermittent eating or time-restricted eating) can be incredibly helpful tools and great places to start on your fat-adaption journey.
From there, incorporating more healthy, whole foods into your nutritional palate, mindfully increasing quality sources of dietary fats and proteins, depending on your outputs and lifestyle factors, while (again, mindfully) reducing healthy, whole carbs and doing your best to eliminate processed, junky foods will hugely help you on your path to metabolic success.
As for becoming an optimal adventurer, I believe that increasing your metabolic health will make you a more robust version of yourself in all facets of your life. Not only will you be able to hike further, faster and with greater ease, you’ll be able to think and feel infinitely better while doing it. What a gift!
With less time spent ravaging the food bag for sugary snacks or carb-top ups every two hours, you’ll have far more time to bask in the moment, stare at the sunset and be present for the amazingness that is life. Thinking clearer, acting kinder and having more patience for everything and anything that comes your way, you’ll be able to move through life with an empowered ease.
We are here today because we stand on the shoulders of all our ancestors who paved the way by developing these primal responses to the unexpected vagaries of life. We can honor their journey and our own, by tapping into the primal power of their gifts and becoming the best versions of ourselves that we are capable of being.
*Quick aside here, I’m in no way saying that carbohydrates are the enemy, but the quality, quantity and frequency of them can definitely turn them into a frenemy. Choosing high-quality, whole-food, complex carbs in a mindful balance is definitely an integral part of my adventure-laden lifestyle.
Ali Becker is an adventure writer and narrative storyteller who shares compelling conversations about personal transformations, overcoming limitations, wellness education and adventurous situations. You can read her recent ramblings at thisisalibecker.com or follow her journey on social at @thisisalibecker