What is Fat Adaptation?
Fat-adaptation sounds exotic, but it’s probably how the human body was designed to function, however, our modern world has really impaired most people’s ability to use fat as fuel. Modern diets have a tremendous amount of carbohydrate compared to what was available in nature only a few hundred years ago. When you add in refined carbohydrates like bread, pasta, and sweets, it’s easy to see that most people are getting several orders of magnitude more carbohydrate than their ancestors did.
In nature, early humans couldn’t just drive to the grocery store and load up on their favorite snack foods. Food was hard to come by, and carbohydrates in particular, were simply not very available. The most abundant source of carbohydrate in nature is ripe fruit. In most of the world, ripe fruit is only available seasonally. Aside from that grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables were also natural sources of carbohydrate, but also only available seasonally. In addition, early man had to compete with all the other animals for these foods. In short, just a few generations ago, humans had to work really hard to find carbohydrates in nature.
Okay… So if our early ancestors weren’t eating a bunch of carbohydrate, what were they eating? Some evidence suggests that they were eating lots of vegetables. Other evidence seems to indicate they were carnivores. Likely, our early ancestors were just eating whatever was available in their local areas. But one thing is certain: they weren’t eating breads, sodas, energy bars, chips, or candy. Contrast that with our modern world where it is estimated that 60% of all calories consumed in the United States come from ultra processed foods.
Back to fat-adaptation. The point in explaining all of this is to illustrate that most people are pretty much dependent on refined carbohydrates, which is likely an unnatural state for humans. Our metabolism is just like any other part of our biology; it adapts really well to its environment. If you practiced basketball 6 hrs per day, and also practiced hockey 1 hr per day, you would obviously be much better at basketball. Our ability to burn fat or carbohydrate works the same way; if we only ever ask our bodies to burn carbohydrate and never ask it to burn fat, we become super efficient at burning carbohydrate and very inefficient at burning fat.
So why is being inefficient at burning fat a problem? There are many reasons why you might want to be a better fat-burner. For starters, some scientists say that the more fat you burn, the longer you will live. There are also links between excessive carbohydrate consumption and a number of metabolic problems such as diabetes, alzheimer’s, and even cancer. But in addition to being healthier, becoming more efficient at burning fat for fuel can make you a better endurance athlete since aerobic respiration burns fat.
The process of becoming fat-adapted is simply teaching your body how to use more fat for fuel, stay aerobic (burns fat), and stave off the recruitment of the anaerobic system (burns sugar) for longer. The aerobic system burns fat and makes water and CO2 as byproducts. The anaerobic system burns sugar and produces lactic acid. Its a bit more complicated than this, but once the body starts creating more lactic acid than it can use and/or dispose of, that’s when the body must stop, which is why making the aerobic system more efficient is so attractive. If you can stay aerobic longer, you can ultimately run longer. And if you can stay aerobic at higher intensities than your competitors, you will be making less lactic acid and will be less labored than your competitors.
There are other practical benefits to being fat-adapted as well. Perhaps the biggest benefit is not being held hostage to a food schedule or your appetite. Fat-adapted athletes can go many hours without eating and do not get hungry. This is a very practical skill, as you will no longer be forced to refuel every few hours, and you will not get “hangry” and feel anxiety about getting your next meal.
In addition, burning fat for fuel during exercise makes you less sore and achy. I went from needing 2-3 massages per week to needing zero massages per week, just by changing my fueling strategy. Changing to fat for fuel also cured many of my chronic nagging injuries. There are many benefits to being fat-adapted. If you’d like to discuss coaching options to learn how to become fat-adapted, fill out my contact form.