People don’t get fat because they are lazy or lack willpower. Resist the urge to fat shame because it’s not as simple as “move more, eat less.” We now know diets focused solely on reducing calories don’t work long term. This is because an invisible cascade of biological and psychological responses push back and prevent fat loss. The cause of obesity is multifactorial: genetics, calories, diets, medical issues, hormones, activity levels, pharmaceuticals, stress, psycho-social elements, environment, sleep, etc… These scenarios create hormonal imbalances. Hormones have the power to drive hunger, satiety, activity levels, sleep, metabolic rate and fat storage, to name a few. The biggest influencer when it comes to fat storage and hunger is a hormone called insulin. It is known as the energy storing hormone. When insulin levels are high (like after eating a twinkie) the body will store lipids in our fat cells. When insulin levels drop our bodies liberate lipids for energy. In a low insulin environment, the body will not store fat, it will use it for fuel instead. This is not a controversial statement or alternative fact. The more one triggers an insulin response, the more likely one is to develop a pro-fat storage environment of insulin resistance. This is called the insulin hypothesis of obesity.
Insulin is released by the pancreas into the bloodstream to control blood sugar (glucose). It moves glucose from the food we eat into the cells to be used for energy. At the same time, it inhibits the utilization of fat for energy. When cells can’t use the glucose fast enough or don’t have enough room for more, the glucose is sent to the liver for storage. However, when the liver can’t take any more glucose it converts it to fatty acids for long term storage (around your belly). This, in turn, activates the secretion of more insulin. As this process repeats itself, a chronic condition is created and the cells become insulin resistant. Type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome are born out of this pathological feedback loop. High insulin in the body provides an ideal environment for storing lipids in fat cells (lipogenesis) while simultaneously preventing that fat from being used as energy (lipolysis). This is why insulin resistance goes hand in hand with obesity.
What Stimulates the Release of Insulin?
- Consumption of any food (eating anything releases some amount of insulin)
- High stress levels
- Eating sugar and simple carbohydrates
- Large meals
- Physical inactivity (being sedentary)
Fact: Just thinking about eating carbohydrates (pasta, cake, rice, ice cream etc…) raises your insulin levels and makes you hungry, or hungrier!
Insulin is necessary for human health and is always circulating throughout the body. Besides promoting fat gain, insulin also plays an important role in assisting muscle growth, a process called protein synthesis. Bodybuilders who take steroids also frequently inject insulin due to its high anabolic properties (for muscle and fat). The problem most people have is that they produce too much.
It is important to remember that high carb diets don’t always lead to chronically high insulin levels. If an individual eats a ‘maintenance’ level of calories or lower, energy needs will not be taxed. The body does not have to process excess glucose/energy as it is easily cleared through non-insulin mediated glucose uptake and will not require a large release of insulin. So low-calorie, high carb diets can innoculate one against insulin problems and obesity issues. However, low-calorie, high carb diets are notoriously hard to maintain and usually are also low fat. Good luck enjoying those meals!
NOTE: Sugar appears to be addictive in much the same way as cocaine. In fact, rodent studies have shown a preference for sugar over cocaine in situations where there is equal availability.
Signs and Symptoms of Insulin Resistance
- Brain fog
- Chronic hunger
- Irritability in low food environments
- Spikes of low energy throughout the day
- Large belly
- High blood pressure
- Sleepiness after meals
- Weight gain
Note: It is tempting to take a reductionist approach to obesity and proclaim: high carb diets lead to insulin resistance which causes obesity. Let me be clear: There is no single agent directly responsible for obesity and its related diseases within a population. However, study after study show that most people respond positively to low carbohydrate diets.
There are many things you can do to prevent insulin resistance and/or even reverse it. Here are the steps to better health and fat loss:
- Limit carbohydrate based foods (especially sugar)
- Eat more fiber (lots of vegetables)
- Eat more omega-3 fats
- Get 7-9 hours of restful sleep per night
- Try intermittent fasting
- Add some vinegar to your meal
- Do cardio regularly
- Start a weight training program
- Look into a ketosis based diet
- Don’t overeat!
- Do not drink calories
- Don’t snack.
Biochemistry is an extremely complex system that is not fully understood. The calorie in, calorie out model of obesity is an oversimplification as is the insulin hypothesis. The human body has many pathways, some still a mystery to science, by which it converts carbs, proteins, and fats into love handles. Addressing the underlying biological drive to overeat by taming the hormone insulin makes for a far more practical solution to fat loss than counting calories. May the insulin force be with you.