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Mitochondria and carb cycling are 2 hot health topics that could be the key to renewed energy.
Forgot everything you learned in AP Bio class? We have a refresher on mitochondria, your energy factory and how to keep it working for you. Also, a guide to carb cyling, the newest way to prevent a fat-loss plateau.
Q: What are “mitochondria”? I’ve never heard this term before, and now I’m starting to hear it everywhere!
The mitochondria are microscopic structures inside your cells that have an outsize effect on every aspect of your health. Almost every cell in the human body has between one and tens of thousands of them. (The heart muscle – which consumes a ton of energy and works 24/7 – has about 5,000 mitochondria per cell.) The “mighty mitochondria” are the cellular power plants that keep your metabolism humming. They’re so important that nature has given them their very own DNA, different from that of their host (you). These little self-contained mini-factories live inside the cells and are responsible for creating adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the Bitcoin of cellular energy for the human body. Your body uses ATP for everything from blinking to playing Guitar Hero. The mitochondria are also responsible for burning fat, detoxiācation and āghting oxygen-based free radicals. It’s quite a résumé! So if the mitochondria aren’t functioning at top level, virtually every system in the body is affected. You may feel it as brain fog, fatigue or a tendency to get sick more often, but mitochondrial dysfunction is a component of all chronic diseases, including ne ur ode generative, cardiovascular, diabetes, autoimmune, mood and psychiatric diseases. And the research on this is voluminous.
So what does it take to keep your mitochondria healthy? Terry Wahls, MD, the physician who mostly recovered from crippling MS by using a mitochondria-friendly diet that she is now testing in clinical trials, suggests starting with these steps:
1 | Stop exposing your mitochondria to toxins.
A good start: Avoid anything on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of most-contaminated fruits and vegetables.
2 | Dump the sugar and white flour–based products, which, according to Wahls, “contribute to mitochondrial starvation.”
3 | Eat more vegetables, berries and high-quality protein (including grass-fed beef and organ meat) as well as seaweed. Dr. Wahl’s personal regimen, which she talks about in her TEDx lecture, “Minding Your Mitochondria,” includes three cups of green leaves, three cups of sulfur-rich vegetables and three cups of colorful produce, or enough to cover three dinner plates each day.
Interestingly, everything that contributes to good health also contributes to mitochondrial health: exercise, clean eating, increasing nutrients like omega-3s and destressing, restful sleep. If you’re already doing those things, you’re probably keeping your mitochondria very happy. If you’re not, start now.
What is carb cycling? Carb cycling is the notion of strategically varying your carb intake either to prevent fat-loss plateaus, help the bod\ work more efācientl\ by burning fat rather than carbs, or to increase physical and athletic performance (or both). These days, we hear of carb cycling mostly as a variation on the keto diet, which we talked about in our November 2017 issue (cleaneating.com/keto).
In case you’re not familiar with the keto diet, it’s basically a high-fat, very low-carb diet (fewer than 50 grams of carbs a day) designed to get your body to produce lots of ketones, a by-product of fat metabolism. Ketones are an absolutely wonderful alternative to glucose (sugar) as a source of energy for your cells. (And wouldn’t you prefer to be burning fat over sugar?)
To get your body to do this, you have to limit your glucose intake and, instead, eat a lot of fat. But there are some potential downfalls, at least for some folks. Carb cycling was “invented” as a way of addressing some of those problems (like sticking with a diet or hitting a plateau). The idea is to eat very low carb for a certain amount of time and then to “jolt” the system with an insulin spike by strategically consuming a carb uptick at periodic intervals. (For example: In my program, Metabolic Factor, we do the carb feast on the 10th, 14th, 18th and 22nd day of the plan.) This not only has metabolic advantages, but it also keeps people very motivated because they’re never more than a few days away from their favorite food.
I’ll be honest: When I wrote my program, I was very skeptical about carb cycling. There isn’t really a good body of peer-reviewed, scientiāc research on carb c\cling keto diets, so for now, it’s like the Wild West out there with a ton of self-experimenters and biohackers leading the charge. And they’re reporting good things. So I interviewed many superstar trainers and even the director of a medical practice where they were using carb cycling and getting terriāc results. , built carb c\cling into my program, beta-tested it and was delighted by the positive response of the people who tried it. Many others who have written carb cycling programs (such as John Kiefer, the modern-day spiritual father of carb cycling) report similar results. The results? Getting your body in an optimal place to burn fat without much of the feeling of deprivation that comes with other low-carb diets.
If you want to try carb cycling, there are plenty of online programs, many free, that will outline different ways to do it depending on your goals. Remember that while you can have carbs on these programs, it’s always better to not treat the carb cycle meals as if they were free passes to Junk Foods R Us.
JONNY BOWDEN, PhD, CNS Board-certified nutrition specialist, motivational speaker, author and expert in the areas of weight loss and health.