People think that calories are king when it comes to fat loss and if they can just eat fewer calories and burn as many as possible that they’ll lose weight. Unfortunately, that is NOT true and abiding by that model can leave you hungry, tired, fat and frustrated. I dunno about you but that’s not exactly what I’m going for!
The reality is this: Yes, calories matter. They are the energy currency of our body. If we’re taking in more energy than our body needs to run, we’ll store the energy for a rainy day – often as fat but also potentially as muscle. On the flip side, if we’re taking in LESS energy than our body needs, our body has OPTIONS. What are the options?
- Slow down the metabolism so we decrease the energy requirements. Hang on tight to all that extra body fat because famine might be coming.
- Break down muscle tissue for fuel.
- Break down fat for fuel.
What determines which option happens? Hint: It’s not your calorie intake. It’s your HORMONES. That’s right. While calories DO matter – fat loss (or fat gain) – muscle loss (or muscle gain) – increased metabolic rate (or decreased) is determined by your HORMONES.
And when it comes to fat loss, there is one hormone that is absolutely KING. This hormone will keep you lean OR it will make you fat. And most people have NO idea what it has to do with fat loss or how to make sure its working in their favor. That hormone? INSULIN.
I never gave insulin much thought. I wasn’t diabetic and my blood sugar levels were within the normal range so I never imagined that I might have a problem with insulin. I think most of us probably think the same way – insulin is really only something you need to worry about if you’re diabetic. Here’s the truth: if you want to be lean or healthy, you need to understand and control insulin. If you’re carrying extra weight and are having a hard time getting it off, you MUST pay attention to insulin. It’s not optional.
Insulin became a problem for me (without me knowing it) because I spent years in the carbohydrate cycle. Maybe you recognize it? I’d wake up in the morning and have a bowl of cereal and some juice. Having not eaten since dinner the night before, my body would react to the rapid influx of carbohydrates in that meal, sending my blood sugar through the roof and giving me a burst of needed energy. Insulin arrives in response to my elevated blood sugar, as its job is to clear the sugar from the blood and take it to its storage place. As fast as my blood sugar rose, it plummets because there was nothing in my meal to keep it steady (like fat or protein). That energy I experienced? It’s gone. Not only that, but low blood sugar tells the body that I need more fuel. That triggers hunger as well as cravings for carbohydrates, as the body knows that is the fastest way to get that blood sugar back up. So now, only an hour or two after eating, I’m hungry again, I’m tired, and I’m craving more carbohydrates. That low blood sugar has also trigged a stress response from my body so now there’s this uneasy sense of urgency – “I gotta have sugar NOW!”. So, I’m human. I’d go get a sugary granola bar or snack out of a box of crackers. Annnnnnd we’re right back in the damn cycle! As if being hungry, tired, moody and craving sweets weren’t bad enough, we’re storing fat all the while!
Here’s how insulin works: When you eat foods that raise your blood sugar – think carbohydrates & processed foods – insulin is deployed. Insulin acts as an usher – whatever sugar isn’t immediately needed for fuel is going to be ushered out of the blood by insulin and taken to storage. We talked in detail here about what happens when our short term storage space is full and how that leads to fat storage.
The storage function of insulin is why we consider it an anabolic hormone. Its role is storage or build up of extra fuel. The fat loss process is a catabolic process. In fat loss we are breaking down stored fat. You cannot have an anabolic and catabolic process happening at the same time. So when insulin is around your body is NOT going to burn fat because the signal insulin sends to your body is, “Hey! There’s excess energy (via sugar) hanging around – we’re gonna go find a place to stash it – don’t release any energy (via stored body fat) because we’re already got too much!”
You are either in fat-storing mode or in fat-burning mode. You’re always in one or the other and you cannot be in both. The determining factor? Insulin. Carbohydrates control insulin and insulin controls fat storage. Your dietary choices determine whether or not you’re allowing insulin to work for you. You’re either eating to trigger fat storage, accelerated aging and inflammation or you’re eating to allow insulin to help you burn through your fat stores.
We now understand why we want to eat to control insulin, but lets talk about what happens we don’t. I already talked about the carb cycle and that’s one example – when we don’t eat to control insulin we’re chronically hungry, craving carbs, and experiencing energy swings – periods of high energy followed by periods of low energy. Here’s a quick run down of how high blood sugar and excess insulin will impact your health if you don’t consciously eat to control them.
- Chronic high insulin levels cause your cells become resistant to it. It’s always around, so they stop responding. You know how after listening to loud music for a while it doesn’t seem so loud? The same thing is happening to your cells. Insulin is always around sending these loud signals and your body just gets used to it and begins to ignore it. When your cells stop responding to insulin, not only does your blood sugar remain high, but your body perceives that it needs more insulin and keeps producing more and more, creating a cycle of increased fat storage, impaired fat burning and excess insulin production. Plus, remember that insulin tells the body there is plenty of fuel available. That message turns OFF fat burning. When we’re always producing more insulin as is the case with insulin resistance, our body never gets an opportunity to turn fat burning ON.
- When insulin resistance prevents glucose from getting into your cells, your cells think there isn’t enough glucose in your body and so they initiate a process called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogensis is the process of generating more glucose and dumping it into the blood stream for energy. Of course this energy isn’t needed and likely gets stored as fat.
- Chronically elevated blood sugar is bad news, but so is the chronically elevated insulin that comes along with it! This can lead to systemic inflammation, heart disease and impaired blood flow.
- Your pancreas will eventually get tired of over-producing insulin. When this happens, you may become “insulin dependent” – requiring injections of insulin to help control blood sugar.
- Excess insulin wreaks havoc on your hormones. It can decrease your body’s production of growth hormone, which is essential for energy, repair, metabolism, immunity, libido and much more.
- Insulin resistance decreases certain thyroid hormones slowing your metabolism while increasing fat storage and decreasing your energy levels.
- Elevated insulin decreases sex hormone synthesis, which negatively impacts your menstrual cycle, fertility, mood, sex drive and more.
- Chronically elevated insulin encourages fat storage. The more fat you have, the more of the hormone leptin you produce. Just like you can become insulin resistant, you are likely to become leptin resistant. Leptin is responsible for signaling the brain that you’ve had enough to eat. When you’re leptin resistant, your brain has a hard time receiving those signals and don’t experience that “I’m full” feeling.
- Elevated insulin prevents glucagon from doing it’s job. Glucagon is a hormone that is required for fat to be allowed to leave fat cells and travel to be burned as energy. Glucagon will not operate in the presence of elevated insulin.
Scary stuff, huh? The reality is that this is what’s happening to your body when you eat a high carbohydrate diet rich in processed foods or you don’t move your body regularly. It’s compounded if you’re eating poorly AND not exercising.
The GREAT news here is that most of us have the power to control our blood sugar, moderate our insulin release, make our bodies highly sensitive to insulin and become a fat-burning machine!
When your body is highly sensitive to insulin, it signals your genes to create more receptor sites for insulin making you even MORE sensitive to insulin! When you exercise regularly, you repeatedly deplete the glucose stored there, allowing your next meal to refill those stores instead of being stored as fat. Your body becomes highly efficient at utilizing nutrients and drawing on fat stores for additional energy needs.
So, the take away? Your diet and lifestyle choices tell your body to get fat and stay fat, or get lean and stay lean. Whatever choice you make, your body is going to compound it. So where to start?
- Eat to control your blood sugar. This means avoiding processed foods and grains. Build your meals around healthy fats, protein and vegetables.
- Aim to get at least 3 high intensity workouts in each week. This will work to deplete your glycogen stores and teach your body how to be energy efficient
Take it one meal, one day at a time. You’ll feel the difference.
For detailed information on carbohydrate strategies for fat loss including more on fruit, wheat, oats, gluten plus strategies for improving your carbohydrate tolerance, check out the comprehensive carbs & fat loss ecourse! Follow the link below and use the coupon code Primal10 to get lifetime access for only $69 (including troubleshooting help from me on demand!)
For more specifics on what carbs are the right carbs as well as the right TIMING for carb consumption, check out episodes 007 & 009 of the Primal Potential podcast via the link below. In episode 007 we talk about carbohydrate timing – the right times and the wrong times for carb consumption to keep you in fat burning mode. In episode 009 we talk about carbohydrate spillover – how and when carb consumption leads to excess body fat.