Metabolic flexibility — a buzz phrase of late — describes the body’s ability to switch between using carbs and fat for energy, depending on availability.
Improving this metabolic flexibility is being touted as the key to healthier living, through losing or maintaining weight naturally, promoting a better immune system, increasing your ability to build lean muscle, feeling more energized, feeling fuller for longer, improving performance and avoiding blood sugar spikes.
So how can we improve this ability? First we need to know exactly what our metabolism is doing. We know that metabolism is the chemical reaction in our cells that turns food into energy, but the food groups we’re using could be key. We need to make sure our bodies are burning fats and using up carbs at optimal times, and to do this we need to be eating these macronutrients at the right time. But because we all have different metabolisms, there’s no one-size-fits-all equation to work out what macros our body is burning at any given time.
“A good amount of how our metabolism operates is due to genetic factors,” explains Abigail Markman, customer support nutritionist for the metabolism tracking device Lumen. “We can inherit traits from our parents and our ancestors, however, our environment can also influence our metabolism. Science has yet to pinpoint how much of our metabolism is influenced by genetics, and how much by the environment, but we can positively influence our metabolism to operate better and more efficiently through lifestyle changes such as exercise and diet. In addition, we know that our nutrition can impact our genes. So it is not always easy to distinguish between genes and environmental factors.”
What our metabolisms use for fuel is based on many different factors and controlled by many different mechanisms.
“These differences can start in the process of digestion, or can happen in the bloodstream, or the cells themselves,” explains Markman. “Different health conditions can also influence how we use food for fuel.”
Testing which macronutrients we’re burning at any given time is something that’s only really been available in labs for elite athletes, but metabolism tracker Lumen is now offering that service to the general public — and doing it in the UAE, too. So how does it work?
Breathing into Lumen’s tube device every morning, evening and before and after exercise creates data that is stored on the accompanying app. Lumen then tracks your metabolism over two weeks before designing a specific nutrition plan that will make you more efficient at using your available energy, and in turn improving your metabolic flexibility.
“Lumen uses the CO2 in your breath to determine if you are using carbs or fats for fuel,” explains Markman. “Ideally, a healthy metabolism will easily switch between using carbs or fats, and will use the fuel that is available efficiently. There are ideal times you want to see your metabolism using a specific type of fuel. For example, a healthy metabolism will be in ‘fat burn’ in the morning.”
Markman goes on to explain a little more about Lumen, which is the only metabolism tracker on the market.
“Lumen’s main focus is improving your metabolic flexibility — your metabolism’s ability to switch between using carbs and fats for fuel at specific times, or to use the available fuel source,” she says. “Today, we know that metabolic flexibility is the leading player behind health, weight loss, energy, performance, and longevity. Lumen helps you learn more about you and your unique metabolism. With Lumen, you can see how different factors affect you as an individual. For example, how your metabolism reacts to different amounts of sleep, how it reacts to exercise, how you react to being sick. Lumen can also help guide you to optimize your workouts and help you understand what steps to take to feel your best during, and after, the workout.”
What about those of us who don’t have access to a Lumen device? What can we do to improve our metabolic flexibility?
“In general, we recommend focusing on a balanced diet filled with whole foods — these foods are nutrient-dense and contain important vitamins, minerals, and fibre,” says Markman. “Incorporating movement into your day-to-day life, both exercise and non-exercise activity, as well as stress management and getting sufficient sleep are all good tactics to help maintain metabolic health.”
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.