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The Physiology of Fat Loss

by: Len Kravitz, PhD , Christine Mermier, PhD and Mike Deyhle

From the fat cell to the fat furnace, find out exactly what causes the body to burn fat.

Fat may seem like the enemy of civilized people—especially sedentary ones. Yet we cannot live without it.Fat plays a key role in the structure and flexibility of cell membranes, and it helps regulate the movement of substances through those membranes. Special types of fat, known as eicosanoids, send hormone-like signals that exert intricate control over many bodily systems, mostly those affecting inflammation or immune function.

Of course, the best-known function of fat is as an energy reserve. Fat has more than twice the energy-storage capacity of carbohydrate (9 calories per gram vs. 4 calories per gram). It has been estimated that lean adult men store about 131,000 calories in fat (Horowitz & Klein 2000), enough energy to keep the average person alive for about 65 days.

For fitness professionals, the prime concern arises when the body’s fat-storage function works too well, hoarding unwanted fat that makes people unhealthy and self-conscious about their appearance. Understanding how fat travels through the body can help personal trainers work with clients to reduce excess body fat and improve athletic performance.

The Journey of a Fatty Acid to Muscle

THE ADIPOCYTE

p38 ImageFat resides primarily in designated fat-storage cells called adipocytes. Most adipocytes are just under the skin (subcutaneous fat) and in regions surrounding (and protecting) vital organs (visceral fat). Nearly all fat in adipocytes exists in the form of triacylglycerols (TAGs or triglycerides). Each TAG consists of a backbone (glycerol) with three fatty-acid tails (see Figure 1).

Depending on energy supply and demand, adipocytes can either store fat from the blood or release fat back to the blood. After we eat, when the energy supply is high, the hormone insulin keeps fatty acids inside the adipocytes (Duncan et al. 2007). After a few hours of fasting or (especially) during exercise, insulin levels tend to drop (see Figure 2), while levels of other hormones—such as epinephrine (adrenaline)—increase.

When epinephrine binds to adipocytes, TAG stores go through a process called lipolysis (Duncan et al. 2007), which separates fatty acids from their glycerol backbone. After lipolysis, fatty acids and glycerol can leave the adipocytes and enter the blood.

p39 ImageFatty Acids in the Blood

Because fat does not easily dissolve in water, it needs a carrier protein to keep it evenly suspended in the water-based environment of the blood. The primary protein carrier for fat in the blood is albumin (Holloway et. al. 2008). One albumin protein can carry multiple fatty acids through the blood to muscle cells (Horowitz & Klein 2000). In the very small blood vessels (capillaries) surrounding the muscle, fatty acids can be removed from albumin and taken into the muscle (Holloway et al. 2008).

Fatty Acids Going From the Blood Into Muscle

Fatty acids must cross two barriers to get from the blood into the muscle. The first is the cell lining of the capillary (called the endothelium), and the second is the muscle-cell membrane (known as the sarcolemma). Fatty-acid movement across these barriers was once thought to be extremely rapid and unregulated (Holloway et al. 2008). More recent research has shown that this process is not nearly as fast as once thought and that the presence of special binding proteins is required at the endothelium and sarcolemma for fatty acids to pass through (Holloway et al. 2008). Two proteins that are important for fatty-acid transport into the muscle cells are FAT/CD36 and FABPpm.

Two Fates of Fat Inside Muscle

Once fat is inside the muscle, a molecule called coenzyme A (CoA) is added to the fatty acids (Holloway et al. 2008). CoA is a transport protein that maintains the inward flow of fatty acids entering the muscle and prepares the fatty acid for one of two fates:

  • oxidation (in which electrons are removed from a molecule) to produce energy or
  • storage within the muscle (Holloway et al. 2008; Shaw, Clark & Wagenmakers 2010)

The majority (80%) of fatty acids entering the muscle during exercise are oxidized for energy, while most fatty acids entering the muscle after a meal are repackaged into TAGs and stored in the muscle in lipid droplets (Shaw, Clark & Wagenmakers, 2010). Fatty acids stored in muscle are called intramyocellular triacylglycerols (IMTAGs) or intramuscular fat.

There are two to three times more IMTAGs stored in slow twitch muscle fibers (the slow oxidative fibers) than there are in fast-twitch muscle fibers (Shaw, Clark & Wagenmakers 2010). Shaw and colleagues note that even though this IMTAG supply makes up only a fraction (1%–2%) of the total fat stores within the body, it is of great interest to exercise physiologists because it is a metabolically active fatty-acid substrate especially used during periods of increased energy expenditure, such as endurance exercise.

Fatty Acids Burned for Energy

Fatty acids burned for energy (oxidized) in the muscle can come either directly from the blood or from IMTAG stores. For fatty acids to be oxidized, they must be transported into the cells’ mitochondria (see Figure 3). A mitochondrion is an organelle that functions like a cellular power plant; it processes fatty acids (and other fuels) to create a readily usable energy currency (ATP) in order to meet the energy needs of a muscle cell.

Most fatty acids are transported into the mitochondria via the carnitine shuttle (Holloway et al. 2008), which uses two enzymes and carnitine (an amino acid-like molecule) to do the transporting. One of these enzymes is called carnitine palmitoyltransferase I (CPT1). CPT1 may work with one of the same proteins (FAT/CD36) used to bring fatty acids into the muscle cells from the blood (Holloway et al. 2008). Once inside the mitochondria, fatty acids are broken down through several enzymatic pathways—including beta-oxidation, the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle and the electron transport chain—to produce ATP.

Fatty-Acid Oxidation During a Single Bout of Exercise

At the start of exercise, more blood flows to adipose tissue and muscle (Horowitz & Klein 2000), releasing more fatty acids from adipose tissue and delivering more fatty acids to the muscle.

Exercise intensity has a great impact on fat oxidation.We burn the most fat when exercising at low to moderate intensity—that is, when oxygen consumption is between 25% and 60% of maximum (Horowitz & Klein 2000). At very low exercise intensities (25% VO2max), most of the fatty acids used during exercise come from the blood (Achten & Jeukendrup 2004). As exercise increases to moderate intensity (around 60% of VO2max), most of the fatty acids oxidized appear to come from IMTAG stores (Horowitz & Klein 2000).

p39 ImageAt higher exercise intensities (>70% VO2max), total fat oxidation falls below the levels observed at moderate intensity (Horowitz & Klein 2000). This reduction in fatty-acid oxidation is coupled with an increase in carbohydrate breakdown to meet the energy demands of the exercise (Horowitz & Klein 2000).

We often overemphasize the fatty-acid contribution to calories burned during a bout of exercise. It’s also important to consider recovery from a bout of exercise, as well as training adaptations to repeated bouts, if you’re helping clients meet their fat-loss goals.

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By Vanessa Rodriguez For Active.com

Although we know good nutrition is crucial for training, shelling out those extra few dollars for healthier groceries can be painful. These practical tips can help you meet the needs of both your budget and your body.

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1. Establish your priorities. How important is good nutrition to you? Answering this question honestly can help you determine how much money you are willing to invest in your food. It’s difficult to spend money on things we don’t prioritize. Once we decide that our nutrition is something we want to invest in, it’s easier to make the following changes.

2. Plan and prepare. When it comes to food, saving money always means investing more time in planning and preparation. Yes, we love the convenience of food on-the-go. But eliminating them from your grocery runs can instantly slash our expenses. Be prepared to start washing, chopping, storing, and freezing. Sit down and plan your meals out for the entire week. Make a grocery list and stick to it.

3. Invest in a freezer. If you have the space, this can save you major dollars in the long term. Buy good meat in bulk. Buy entire animals if you can. Get fruits and vegetables in large quantities when they are in season (and therefore the cheapest), then freeze them for use throughout the year.

4. Invest in a nutrition or cooking class. Get a few friends together for a group session to save money. Pay for just a few consultations or classes to cover the basics. Learn to read food labels and get a grocery store tour (be careful when attending free tours—they are usually sponsored by a company with a vested interest in what you buy, so you won’t always be getting completely transparent information).

Spending money on a nutritionist may initially seem counterproductive, but there’s nothing worse than finding out that you’ve been spending all your money on food you thought was healthy, but really wasn’t. Many labels like natural, raw, and whole wheat are not regulated and can be used to sell products at a higher price. A nutritionist can teach you how to determine which foods live up to their labels and which are just clever marketing.

5. Sit down for meals. You’ll be amazed at how much more you eat when you’re on the run. Make time for meals. Sit at an actual table. You generally eat less if you eat with others, plus you are more likely to enjoy your food.

6. Pay more but eat less. Buy higher quality foods but pay attention to your portions. It’s important to accomplish this without feeling hungry, which is very possible by eating the right foods. Fruits and vegetables contain significant amounts of water and are therefore more filling. Whole grains are more satisfying than white flour-based products. In the end you feel full by eating less.

7. Choose your battles. You don’t have to buy everything organic. Pick and choose according to your means, but keep in mind that there are certain foods with higher pesticide loads (and therefore better bought organic). You can find a list of these foods here.

8. Get to know your food community. Most cities have some sort of resource for getting fresh food at a good price. It could be a community garden, a food box program, or a farmer’s market. A little bit of research into your local options can go a long way.

9. Remember that any change is good change. Don’t get discouraged. Your body is the greatest asset you own. Eating well may take up more of your time, but it can also help you live longer and feel happier. You’re stuck with your body for life; how you prioritize your food is ultimately your choice.

Vanessa Rodriguez is the former nutrition editor for Active.com. She is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and an avid ultra-distance trail runner.

Committing to living well does cost more money than swooping through the drive-thru for a $1 burger. Nevertheless, when it comes to improving your health, shelling out extra money is worth the long-term benefits–unless you’re paying for healthy benefits that you’re not actually getting. Here are some healthy moves, that while well-intentioned, might be a waste of your money.

Buying Foods Labeled Antibiotic-free

According to the site Greener Choices, the food label “antibiotic-free” is completely meaningless. In fact, the USDA has banned its use on meat and poultry products. While similar labels with terms such as, “no antibiotics administered” or “raised without antibiotics” are allowed, there is no USDA verification system in place to ensure that the claim is valid. A better bet for your budget is to stick to meats labeled as “Certified Organic.” You may pay more for these foods, but producers go through a stringent process to earn the right to use the label.

Splurging on 100% Vegetarian

According to the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), “flexitarians” (consumers who are have not completely resolved to a vegetarian lifestyle, but make an effort to reduce their consumption of animal derived products) make up a quickly growing consumer group.  To target this demographic, mass-market producers such as Kraft, General Mills and ConAgra foods have launched their own vegetarian lines that carry a label indicating as such.

The problem? Vegetarian lifestyles come in many forms: Some avoid meat, fish and poultry, but eat dairy and egg products. Others avoid all animal products, including honey. Furthermore, there is no governing body that regulates the “vegetarian” claim. Unless you buy products labeled “Certified Vegan,” which are verified by Vegan Action (a company that certifies vegan products based on documentation from manufacturers), the “vegetarian” label can mean any number of things.

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