There is a new buzz-phrase being touted as the way to ditch the midlife extra pounds, as well as preventing chronic disease like Type 2 diabetes, without the need for a depressing diet regime. Forget soups, shakes and a life of no carbs, instead, experts say, we need to retrain our bodies to return to a more natural metabolic flexible state.
“Simply put,” explains registered nutritionist Rhian Stephenson, founder of wellbeing business Artah, “metabolic flexibility is how well your body can switch between using carbohydrates and fats for energy. Our bodies are designed to do this seamlessly so that we can maintain energy production in times of caloric restriction, such as when we had to hunt for food, or increased energy demands.”
The body naturally burns carbohydrates first because they are easier to convert to energy – but if we can retrain the body to burn both more readily, it boosts the ability to lose weight.
But the problem is our modern diet and lifestyle can often impair this essential process, which can lead to metabolic imbalance and disease. According to a paper in Endocrine Reviews: “Disrupted metabolic flexibility is associated with many pathological conditions including metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and cancer.” One in three midlifers over the age of 50 will suffer from metabolic syndrome, a combination of diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension) and obesity, according to the NHS.
It mostly comes down to what we eat. “The quality of our food is a big factor that makes us inflexible,” Stephenson says. “The main contributor to this loss of flexibility is impaired glucose metabolism and hyperinsulinemia, or too much insulin. When our diets are too high in refined processed foods, refined carbohydrates and sugar, we are constantly spiking insulin and using sugar as our primary source of fuel.”
We also eat too often. “When you think about our trained eating habits – three meals a day plus snacks – it’s not reflective of our body’s natural rhythm or how we’re designed to burn energy,” Stephenson says.
Despite these healthy eating guidelines, not all of us will respond to food in the same way. That’s where a raft of new tech comes in, fueling our interest in personalized nutrition with devices from blood glucose monitors to CO2 trackers to metabolism trackers that aim to give us in-depth data on how foods are affecting our body.
“There is a marked sea change in the way we think about nutrition now,” says Professor Tim Spector, author of Spoon-Fed, Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food is Wrong. “It’s not just about calories in, calories out; it’s the way your body reacts to food on a very individual level.”
In fact, according to Predict, the largest in-depth nutrition study in the world, there is “up to a tenfold variation in responses to the same meal for different people”.