Tuesday, 11 February 2014

De-mystifying Metabolic Efficiency - It's not all bacon and eggs!

After a swim session the other week, my clubmate told me about a TV program he had watched on BBC2 called Sugar vs. Fat and recommended that I watch it. The program involved a study designed by twin Dr brothers; one would embark on an extreme high sugar diet and the other on an extreme high fat diet for a month, with the aim of getting clues as to whether there were advantages or disadvantages in following any of these diets.

To be honest I thought it was a rubbish program and a rubbish study, the sort of “study” you’d find reported in The Daily Mail. But nevertheless it has spurred me to write this blog!  I have a feeling that a lot of my athlete friends imagine I eat bacon eggs at every meal or at least fairly regularly. This is perhaps my own fault for posting pictures on Facebook of my high fat meals. I do eat a wide range of ingredients on my weekly diet which includes plenty of vegetables and a reasonable amount of fruit as well as seeds, nuts, seafood, poultry, red meat, as well as good quality oils such as olive oil, coconut oil, butter and lots of dairy. What I try to avoid are refined carbohydrates including sugar, processed food and oils.

Returning to the “study”, the twin on the high fat diet complained of difficulties when going to the toilet, bearing in mind he wasn't eating ANY fruit or vegetables his fibre intake was virtually non-existent. Even in more well-known extreme high fat diets such as the Ketogenic diet and Atkins, individuals are encouraged to eat low carb forms of fruit and veg to satisfy their fibre needs and take a fibre supplement.

What is metabolic efficiency (ME) then? It's a concept developed by an American dietician, Bob Seebohar, whereby you manipulate your daily nutrition to reduce blood sugar levels and maintain insulin spikes to a minimum. It’s not a diet per se; I see it as a way of putting together meals and snacks. How do you do it then? It’s simple, first of all Seebohar recommends that you eat when biologically hungry rather than at set times, to put it in other words, you eat when you body tells you it’s hungry, do not go hungry, eat when your body signals to you that it needs re-fuelling.

To put an ME meal or snack together, firstly prioritise a good source of fat and protein and then some source of fibre. Look at the plate and ask yourself, where are my fat and protein sources? Then add a source of fibre (fruit, veg and/or wholegrains). A combination of fat, protein and fibre in a meal has been shown to keep sugar levels down and to reduce insulin spikes. Imagine that your body has a valve that controls the release of insulin, if the valve is not controlled then too much insulin will escape and that will stop you from burning fat. For example, a bowl of porridge made with skimmed milk, chopped banana and honey is NOT a ME breakfast. It’s not that the ingredients cannot be used as such; it’s just that this combination will turn off your fat burning mechanism by raising insulin levels too much, the ‘valve’ will go berserk.

What Seebohar cannot tell you is how many carbohydrates you will need to eat, that depends on the individual, if they are an athlete, what their sport is, which part of the season they are at, etc. In his book ‘Nutrition Periodisation for Athletes’ Seebohar explains (obviously) better than I do, how to individualise your plan and periodise it throughout the season. I also recommend checking his website and following his blog. For example, as a long distance runner and triathlete I periodise my carbohydrate intake and reduce it when volume and intensity of training is low; then as I get closer to competition season I increase my carbohydrate intake accordingly.

Let me try making this even simpler by giving you some examples of ME meal ideas. A metabolic efficient smoothie for breakfast made with full fat milk, banana, frozen berries, full fat Greek yogurt and whey protein (fat =milk & yogurt, protein = milk, whey & yogurt and fibre from bananas and berries. The other night for dinner I had steak and a salad of rocket, tomatoes, radishes, cucumber, crumbled stilton cheese, seasoned with salt and pepper for dinner and dressed with olive oil (fat =cheese, olive oil & steak; protein = steak and cheese; fibre= vegetables).  Both are examples of ME meals, one is more metabolic efficient than the other but there is really no right or wrong, it is up you (or with the help of a dietician) to figure out how many carbs you should be consuming at a particular period of your season. Obviously if you are eating more carbohydrates than your body needs you won’t be giving yourself much of chance of getting better at using fat for fuel.

It’s really all about individualizing metabolic efficiency to meet your own particular needs. There are different routes to achieve metabolic efficiency. Three years ago I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic, so I spend a lot of my season on really low carbs, as my body doesn’t cope well with glucose, then I’ll eat more carbs when I’m entering the build period of my season and obviously when I’m racing.

So, what about treats?
Seebohar suggests that you can eat what you like from time to time, missing your target by up to 10%. I do miss the target occasionally and eat what I want without feeling guilty, I enjoy it and move on.

Is metabolic efficiency for me?
I think ME is for everyone, whether you are an athlete or not. As the chef in my house I try as much as I can to get my family to eat the ME way, as they are not insulin resistant they can eat more carbs than I do and miss the target more regularly.

Going back to the “study”, the twins carried out an experiment where they both cycled up a steep hill, whilst one consumed a standard sugary gel and the other consumed a slice of butter. How pointless was that? What ME will allow you to do over a period of adaptation is to use less calories per hour, which is very different from eating a slice of bacon at your next race. The advantages being that you are less likely to run out of your glycogen stores whilst training or racing (hitting the wall or bonking) and less likely to suffer from gastrointestinal distress (tummy problems). Last year’s Ironman Austria is an example of how ME worked for me. You can check my blog here.

Rather than believing my anecdotal ‘evidence’ of how ME works for me you can also get yourself ME tested in a lab, and this is part of what the results should look like:

 Your ME goal is to push the ‘crossover point’ to the left over a period of time whilst maintaining the same minutes/per miles, or wattage if you are cycling. ME testing will also be able to give you an exact amount of calories you will need for a given race.

Other than the benefits I have discussed, my experience with ME has also prevented me from becoming a diabetic. This may still happen as I age, but ME will help me delay it for sure. I also don’t suffer from fluctuating energy levels throughout the day and my cravings for sugary things are pretty much non-existent, not to mention I have saved a fortune on gels and sports drinks that I used to use for training and racing.

Finally, the twins were sent for a fasting glucose test and although their results were both within normal levels, the doctor who analysed their samples implied to the viewer that the brother on the high fat diet was very close to becoming a diabetic and the brother on the high sugar diet was now better at producing insulin. What an absolute shambles, I wonder if he knows anything about diabetes at all?!?

If you have a fear of eating fat, then I can also recommend a great book called ‘Death by Food Pyramid’, which details the history of where and how the nutrition advice we get today went “pear shaped”, in terms of our fear of eating fat, especially saturated fat, the relationship of cholesterol and coronary disease and the rise of highly ‘healthy’ processed oils. It’s a brilliant book, superbly well written and researched.


  1. "Your ME goal is to push the ‘crossover point’ to the left over a period of time whilst maintaining the same minutes/per miles, or wattage if you are cycling."

    Don't you mean to the right in the above statement? Indicating greater fat oxidation rate at a higher work rate after ME training.

  2. Hi Brian, it's probably the way I interpreted the graph. We all know the goal in ME is improve how your body fat as fuel. Thanks for reading it.

  3. Taking every program on telly with the pinch of - it's dumbed down for the audience - I was amused and interested by the tests they went through. One in particular was the cycle ride up the hug hill with fuel supplied as either butter or gel. Great science. Knowing how your body needs a few hours to even think about digesting fat!!!! Some are easier than others and when you produce very little bile (those of us minus gal bladder) you find out the hard way how your body needs fat to keep muscles from rubbing against each other and scarring and attaching - big ouchy!! The only thing in the programme that was also in Newscientist was the combination of fat and sugar not switching on the grehlin hormone. Ho hum.