This isn’t a subject with phrasing I particularly enjoy–it’s too sexy, too click-bait-y. The words sugar AND fat, pitted against each other?? The ability to be categorized into one OR the other? Seems too perfect for the health and wellness world I try to use nutritional therapy to help to push away from, away from the one that’s full of “either ors”, “yes or nos”, and of course, my favorite to dismantle, “all or nothings”.
This subject seems almost too perfect for guilt trips, shame and restriction around eating–to be able to claim “I’m a fat-burner!” or “him? He’s a sugar-burner, I can just tell.” We’re going to leave that judgment behind, because guess what? Our bodies have these two modes for a reason. Yep. Just like we gain body fat–for a reason. Just like we get tired–for a reason. I see so many people beat themselves up for the physiological processes their bodies go through simply because they have human bodies. Ok? Ok. End rant. Now, let’s get down to business!
I’m using the terms sugar, starches, and carbohydrates here interchangeably, too, by the way. In short, our bodies can use either carbohydrates primarily for energy or fats primarily for energy. In short, sources of carbohydrates spike our blood glucose levels, and the higher the spike (due to being a more processed starch or sugar, or consuming those carbs without fats, proteins, water or fiber in combination), the harder the body has to work to re-regulate the blood sugar levels using insulin, then inevitably, that blood sugar spike will turn into a blood sugar crash? What are some of the symptoms of these blood sugar fluctuations when they’re spiking up, down, up and down throughout the day?
- More pronounced energy spikes and dips throughout the day
- Increased need for snacks and food between designated meal times
- Increased quick energy, yet including feelings of jitteriness, shakiness, or nervousness
- Increased desire for carbohydrates (starches or sugar)
- Decreased ability to utilize body fat stores for energy
- Most consistent energy throughout the day
- Feels less intense need for snacks in order to get through the day
- Can tap into using body fat stores for energy
So you may say well wait, isn’t it just better if EVERYONE were to always be in fat burning mode all the time? I used to think that when I first started Crossfit back in 2011. Who needs to be a sugar-burner if you’re a fat burner? I actually thought that while doing crossfit as a self-identified low-carb paleo-er. And then I noticed how burnt out I’d be after workouts, how I felt cold, maybe looked kinda grey and didn’t really have much oomph in workouts. I was scared of carbs as someone who had lost ~60 pounds by learning just what foods were doing in her body, and wasn’t sure if reintroducing some options really was the best option… for me!
Guess what! You can skip this new-fangled dietary dogma and find a great balance for yourself because here’s the kicker: While in the fat-burning mode primarily, your body can effectively utilize some sugar-burning without flipping over into full-on sugar-burning mode completely. The opposite isn’t quite as easy.
Now I’m of the opinion that people need to experiment. There’s no one-size fits all approach to health and wellness, and I’m not here to tell you anything except perhaps it’s time to do some self study. If you feel like you can’t get by without a snack? Maybe it’s time to switch things up and lower the starches and sugars, and increase proteins and fats (trade out a snack of sweetened yogurt and a granola bar for half an avocado and a pack of tuna, or a homemade trail mix full of toasted walnuts, pumpkin seeds and coconut flakes). Hitting a plateau with your lifts at the gym and looking for increased muscle mass? Maybe it’s time to increase the carbohydrates right before, during and after your workouts (ever sipped on some coconut water between lifts? Give it a try). Crashing after lunch, feeling hangry and snappy before dinner? What about taking the sugar out of your morning coffee and adding some heavy cream instead?
Because of the stupefying availability of refined carbohydrates in this day and age, it’s unfortunately much easier to be in the sugar-burning mode without ever knowing that there could be different options available. Again, any of the nutritional therapy I practice I wholly support learning what’s going on, then making any choice you so please!
Is being a sugar-burner versus a fat-burner a little less sexy now (ugh, even using that word gets me skeeved)? Do you see how they’re both natural for your body to be in, yet depending on your goals, you can figure out which you’d prefer to use during the day? Food journaling can be a useful tool to help assess, in general (there’s no need to track specific amounts), which macronutrient is providing you the most fuel throughout the day. So take a gander, and get curious–are you a sugar-burner, or a fat-burner? Aaaaand, but of course, the most important question–why do you care, and how will you change things if you do? Some food (hah) for thought.