The Big 3 Metabolic Knobs

April 6, 2021

Fat College Kid

It was the last day of my second year of college at the University of Washington. I was going home for the summer and my dad was about to be here to help me move. He was about to see me in the middle of an unintended experiment on myself. I began the year weighing a pudgy 230 pounds, ballooning up to 280 pounds in 9 short months.

Over my 20 years in existence, I went from a skinny, active kid to a couch potato teenager, to a sedentary, desk-ridden college kid. My regular diet was pretty SAD (standard American diet) indeed: loads of cereal, frozen meals of questionable quality, and countless pints of Ben and Jerry's. I was losing what seemed like an impossible battle with being the fat kid and my health along with it.

Thinking I had a good understanding of why I was fat, a few years later I started to hit the gym twice a day and consumed lots of chicken breast with vegetables. It sort of worked. I still wanted the SAD foods and often binged on them. I became just chubby instead of fat and was in reasonable shape.

Now, nearly 20 years since that fat kid went home from college, I've learned much about how the human body works and many knobs to turn on my metabolism. In the spirit of sharing the 20% that got 80% of the results, here are the three with the biggest impact:

1. Time Restricted Eating (TRE)

Putting boundaries on rules on when I ate made a huge difference. No matter what you call it or what sort of fasting zealots there are out there, there are both practical and scientific reasons to keep track of when to eat and for how long.

First, the practical

I'm usually strapped for time, especially now with a three year old running around. Eating only from 9am to 5pm, for example, frees up big chunks of the clock. Think of it as batching eating. Thirty minutes in the morning. An hour at night. Save time by compressing eating into an 8 hour (or shorter) window.

Second, the indulgent

I didn't apply any other rules when I first began restricting when I ate. I enjoyed ice cream at times and plenty of other pleasures of questionable nutritional value. The impact of not eating for 16+ hours at a time essentially offsets the damage done by sugar and processed foods. I'm not saying eating those kinds of things was a good idea, but when it did happen I didn't dwell too much on it.

Third, the science

I began hearing study after study about the benefits of "intermittent fasting", including: boosted BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), metabolic flexibility, improved gut health, lower inflammation, increased growth hormone, autophagy (clearing dead and damaged cell parts), and many more. Recently, I've learned that circadian rhythm (which impacts sleep, of course, but many other bodily processes) is strongly influenced by when I eat. Sticking to eating while the sun is up is a good rule of thumb. But, the biggest driver for me to never quit TRE was sticking on a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) and observing my glucose levels during periods of eating and periods of fasting. The ability to gain control over spikes of blood sugar levels with TRE is second only to my number two on the impact scale...

2. Muscle

Unfortunately, it took me 38 years to figure this one out. It seems obvious in hindsight, but the more muscle I have, the quicker I can absorb sugar with less stored as fat. That's the biggest impact I've seen. Also, metabolism is increased, but that is hard to measure even if you try to count calories (never accurate, by the way).

The other sad part about waiting so long to focus on muscle is that once you have it, and lose it, it is much easier to get it back than it was the first time. Not sure the mechanism exactly, but it is definitely true - ask anybody muscular in the gym. It isn't even that complicated or difficult to put on muscle. There are a couple of areas to really focus on, but anyone can do it and make a huge difference in a year or less.

Finally, sarcopenia is a real threat as all of us age. I know I don't want to be the one calling an ambulance in my 80s because I can't get up from a fall. Frailty is directly correlated to muscle mass and strength.

3. Sleep

I still suck at this one, but dammit I try. Daily anxiety lures me to distractions at night like Twitter and podcasts to lull me to sleep. Plus, the stresses of work and parenthood often leave my brain buzzing long after I should have been asleep, even if I'm able to avoid outside influences.

Reading Matthew Walker's Why We Sleep was a huge wake up call to the importance of sleep. Really, all you need from that book is this one fact: after eons of evolution, humans still spend 1/3 of the day asleep; it is that important.

What's really interesting about sleep to me is how it creates synergy with all the other metabolic processes and changes in all humans. Good quality sleep improves memory, boosts energy, aids fat loss, lowers hunger and cravings, stabilizes mood, and much more.

Yeah, I Left Something Important Out

Exercise. I actually think it is number four, but since we humans like things in 3s, I'll talk much more about exercise sometime later. I love it in many forms and think it is much more beneficial for productivity and mood than it is for the body and metabolism.

Anyway, this is what I've discovered to be most important when it comes to metabolic health. It has changed a bit over the last year, and will likely change in the future. I just wanted to share what I've discovered that works well for me.