Here's a Thought: Stop Cutting Calories, and Get to Know Your Metabolic Type

Updated 10/04/17
what is a muscle burner
Ivy Park

If you've been diligently working away on your fitness and nutrition but still can't seem to shift body fat, I'm about to blow your mind. There's a reason your body may be resisting weight loss, and it has more to do with your hormones than a love affair with Netflix… (Okay, that could still have something to do with it, but stay with me…)

Allow me to intro the concept of metabolic burner types. Familiar? I wasn't, until my personal trainer (and pro lifestyle and movement coach), Ben Young, gave me the rundown. To bring you up to speed, I'd been following a plan to "tone up" for around six months. Despite eating well and exercising consistently, results had been, well, underwhelming. In an effort to "apply the blowtorch," I began adding in more workouts and cutting more calories. Still, changes were minimal. My frustration culminated in an epic whining session during which I asked, "When am I going to look like Gisele Bündchen?" (FYI, I am five-foot-three, so the answer to that is, um, never.) Young smiled at me calmly, and then he proceeded to explain what he suspected was going on.

As it turns out, my one-size-fits-all approach to slimming down (more diet + more exercise = more fat loss), was way off.

Young dropped a bombshell on my limited understanding of fat loss when he explained that my metabolic type meant that for me, kicking up the exercise and cutting down the calories was working in reverse. I'll give you a minute to let that sink in… Turns out that my already elevated stress levels were being elevated further by too much exercise and not enough carbs, and as a result, my body was opting to burn energy sourced from my muscles instead of fat. I was, what Young termed, a muscle burner.

Hearing this was, obviously, terrifying to me. I immediately text my fiancé: "HELP, my body is burning its own muscles. Think that makes me a cannibal?" (He replied with a knife and fork emoji, but I digress.) A few months later, I have a little more perspective, because this one piece of info has made more of a difference to my body composition than anything else ever has. I'm now on track to slim down in a way that works with—not against—my body's individual hormones.

Interested? Keep reading for everything you need to know about metabolic burner types.

In a nutshell, the theory of metabolic burner types goes something like this: Our bodies are always either storing or burning body fat—which one depends on multiple factors, including what you're currently doing (couch versus cardio) and the state of your metabolism. Your metabolism is largely affected by individual hormones and how your lifestyle choices (sleep/stress/food/water) impact them.

There are three broad categories of metabolic types that fall upon a continuum. "They're not set in stone, and you may shift slightly throughout your life," explains Young. The key to understanding your metabolic burner type is to decipher how to get your body burning fat over sugar or muscle for fuel. Without having access to proper metabolic testing, it can be tricky to figure out your type with any kind of certainty, but there are a few key traits that can point you in the right direction. "Once we know your general type, we can provide diet, lifestyle, and exercise tips to get you started and draw upon biofeedback tools (hunger, energy, and cravings) to keep hormones in balance and burn fat without fighting against willpower," says Young.

There are loads of simple questionnaires online that you can take to find out your type, and then keep reading for more on each metabolic burner type.

Being a sugar burner may sound like a good thing, but the reality is very different. Sugar burners do burn sugar (specifically, glucose from carbs), but this means that when carbohydrates are present in their diet, they're far more likely to store fat. They're also more prone to insulin resistance, a condition that contributes to high blood sugar and often precedes type 2 diabetes. Young says there is a classic description of this metabolic type: "They can typically look very dense and appear overweight." Additionally, sugar burners may struggle to lose weight, frequently carry belly fat and are hungry a few hours after they eat.

(They can be big snackers.) The key to weight loss for sugar burners comes down to carb control (more whole grains, not refined grains like white bread and pasta!) and tapering off into a low-sugar, good-fat, lean protein diet (think lean and clean).

Ever heard the term "skinny fat"? If you have, and you relate, this might hit a little close to home. "Muscle burners typically forget to eat and burn up protein from their own muscle tissue via gluconeogenesis, which is the process of converting protein into glucose as fuel," explains Young. This process is triggered by two main things: a higher protein diet and stress. "Muscle burners have higher resting levels of cortisol in their blood, which makes regular stress reduction activities, and the inclusion of a little more carbohydrate in the diet, important," says Young.

Both of these strategies are thought to reduce the catabolic (or "breaking down") effect cortisol has on muscle tissue. Young also points out that too much carbohydrate can knock fat loss results, too. Essentially, muscle burners need to experiment with carbs to find their individual optimal level, while also managing stress. (Check out The Inner Gym, $10, for a great resource on stress-relief.)

Activities that can push you into becoming a muscle burner include: Abstaining from weight training, eating a low protein and fat diet, doing excessive cardio, undertaking an "eat less, exercise more" approach, as well as career stress, skipping meals, and burning the candle at both ends.

"Mixed burners typically sit in the middle; they can be pulled left or right toward being more of a sugar or muscle burner depending on whether they become overly exposed to excessive carbohydrate intake or increased stress levels," says Young. Other things that can shift you toward either end of the metabolic spectrum? Missing meals (what Young terms "eating to live"), overeating ("living to eat"), too much couch time, chronic lack of sleep and excessive work hours. The important thing to note is that which way you're leaning affects how much carbohydrate you need at any one time.

"If you're physically inactive and overeating for a long period, a lower carbohydrate intake would generally benefit you. However, if you then change dramatically to higher bouts of stress like heavy exercise, you'd want to slightly increase your carbohydrate level and improve the ratio of protein and fiber in the diet as well as incorporate stress-reducing activities to support weight loss."

Have you heard of metabolic burner types before? What do you make of them? Sound off below!

 

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