Let’s Stop Storing Fat and Start Burning it

aliWouldn’t it be convenient if you could just tell your body what you wanted it to do? “Come on brain, think of something funny to say to this gorgeous girl!” “What the hell are you doing legs? Can’t you go faster than that?” And perhaps the most common complaint… “C’mon belly, do you really need to store that much fat?” I’m sure many of you have felt this urge to want to be able to control what state, or mode, as I like to call it, that your body is in. Tired, hungry, apathetic, excited, depressed. These are all examples of modes that we find ourselves in from time to time. Sometimes it’s even a combination of two or more (we all know that horny and energetic is a particularly deadly combo). If you take a look at the guy Muhammad Ali just hit, he’s in knocked the fuck out mode.

The physiological state that you currently occupy is actually determined by the levels of various hormones within your body. I’ll give you a very simple example to illustrate my point. Let’s say you are a very simple organism called a “stanz” and X and Y are the only hormones you have in your body. In this hypothetical creature, the hormone X induces energy burning whereas Y does just the opposite: it cause energy storage. Now, what happens if there is both X and Y at the same time? Well, it depends on how much you have of each. If you have a ton of X and only a little bit of Y then you will keep burning energy. If, on the other hand, the levels were a bit more equal, they would almost cancel each other out, producing more of a static state. Think of X and Y like armies going into battle. Whoever brings more meat-heads to the fight will win the battle and impose their will as can be seen from the incredibly detailed depiction below.

burn vs. store

In humans, the number of hormonal armies are much greater than that of the stanz, but the principle is the same. The main difference is that in the stanz, one hormone produces one mode. In you and I, however, it can take a team of hormones to produce one mode. Instead of having just X, humans have A, B, C, D, and E which all contribute to putting the body in burn mode. At this point, you might be asking yourself, “alright, why do I care at all about this?” Remember how I was telling you about being able to control your mode earlier? Well it turns out that there are two modes that you have way more control of than you think. Which modes? Burn and store.

When you eat a certain food, you are communicating with your body. Namely, you tell it which hormones to produce and what mode to go in. Interestingly, different nutrients (carbs, fat, protein) tell your body to produce different hormones. I’d be willing to bet my left shin bone that  most of you have heard of insulin. It’s that stuff your body uses to get glucose into your cells right? Well, yes, but that does not even come close to the full story on insulin. When you eat a meal containing carbohydrates (and some proteins as well), an organ called the pancreas releases the hormone insulin. As I alluded to earlier, the common of view of insulin’s function is that it helps glucose get into your cells. While insulin certainly does help glucose get to your cells, you don’t need insulin for glucose to be able to do this. When you exercise, your insulin levels go way down but your glucose uptake by your muscles goes way up. Go figure. Therefore, it’s important to remember: insulin helps glucose uptake, it does not cause it. However, insulin’s role as a hormone is much larger than just helping get glucose inside cells.


We have known for quite some time now that insulin is a very potent storage hormone.  When you haven’t eaten for awhile and the effects of your last meal have worn off, you begin to use your body fat as a source of energy. Then let’s say you eat a big bowl of pasta, or any other carb-heavy meal. This results in the release of insulin which does two things: 1) It tells your body to start using glucose as energy and 2) to stop burning fat for energy which results in fat being stored. Now let’s get back to choosing your mode. When you decide to eat carbohydrates, you literally tell your body “Hey, I’ve got an abundance of energy here so you can stop burning fat!” This would have been great to prevent starvation 40,000 years ago when you didn’t know if you were going to eat again in the next 5 days. Today, the only thing you don’t know is whether your next beverage will be a Big Gulp or a Slurpee. The reason we have endured an obesity epidemic in this country is for this very reason: we are in store mode way too often and in burn mode way too infrequently. Not only do  we have easy access to unlimited carbohydrates (think: bread, pasta, granola bars, Jamba Juice), but our government recommends that we eat 300 grams of them a day! What I want you to remember is this: I am not demonizing carbohydrates because they have their place, but know that when you eat carbohydrates and cause a spike in insulin you tell your body to go into store mode.

So how do I get #geared, go into burn mode, and lose some of that fat? For one thing, reduce the amount of carbs in your diet as we have just discussed. Although dietary fat has been demonized, it and some proteins are the main foods that can make you satiated without the huge spike in insulin. When you have fat in your diet your body says “Ok, well this is the type of fuel I am being given, so I am going to continue to use it.” The message here is eat fat to burn fat. If you want to lose some of that extra belly flab you have to get your body adapted to utilizing fat as an energy source. Our bodies are actually much better at using fat for energy than we are glucose (why do you think we can store so much fat and so little glucose?).

There are a few other things you can do to get into burn mode. Caffeine causes the release of fat from your adipose tissue to be used as energy. You have to use caffeine with caution though, too much can really throw off your sleeping patterns and make you dehydrated. There are plenty of ways you can get caffeine but I would recommend straight, black coffee. The reason is that energy drinks and Starbucks concoctions have an inordinate amount of sugar in them. Remember, you are using caffeine to get into burn mode and you don’t want that sugar to get you into storage mode again. Exercise is another helpful tool to start burning. And by this I don’t mean you have to do back-to-back-to-back Tough Mudders just to burn 1 gram of fat. Simply walking around, standing, doing a couple air squats here and there, and just generally being active should do the trick.

There are really two main points that need to be remembered when choosing your mode. 1) Insulin (secreted due to dietary carbohydrates) puts you in a fat storage mode. 2) Your body burns the fuel you give it. If you want to teach your body to burn fat, then fats have to be a significant part of your diet.

What mode are you in?