Can’t we just control our calories?
Calories are a man-made measure of the energy contained in our food. Our bodies have no idea what a calorie is, they manage energy through an intricate combination of hormones and energy production pathways. The biggest player in hormones for energy storage is insulin.
Insulin enables our bodies to push glucose into cells, store energy (fat) for later use and keeps our blood sugar (glucose) levels within normal limits.
In someone with Type 1 diabetes, there is little to no insulin production, so all energy from food stays in the bloodstream, out of the cells that need it for energy, and all stored energy (fat) empties out of cells in an attempt to create more energy. Blood glucose levels skyrocket and the person with Type 1 is thirsty, hungry, and loses 10s of pounds, quickly.
In obesity and Type 2 diabetes, the opposite happens. Insulin levels are high and pushing all available glucose into cells to be used, or more often, to be stored as fat. When the pancreas can no longer produce more insulin, blood glucose levels rise and a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes is given. Symptoms of Type 2 diabetes may be similar to those of Type 1, but may also include darkened patches/rings on the skin, tiredness after eating, infections, and nerve damage.
Why do insulin levels rise?
Every time we eat, insulin is released by the pancreas to keep our blood sugar levels within very tight limits. The normal amount of glucose within our whole blood volume is only 4g (about 1 sugar cube).
There are 3 macronutrients in foods: protein, fats, and carbohydrates.
- PROTEIN – there are 9 essential amino acids that we must get from our food – protein is used to build and repair tissues, in enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals
- FAT – there are 2 essential fatty acids that we must get from food – fat is used for both energy and for building – fat is a must for proper hormone and brain function, it keeps our skin soft and helps our immune system
- CARBOHYDRATE – there are no essential carbohydrates that we must consume – carbohydrates are used for energy – our bodies can produce all the glucose we need, really!
These macros have very different effects on how much insulin is secreted after a meal.
As you can see from the graph, carbohydrates raise insulin the most, protein has a moderate effect, and fat raises insulin the least.
How does this affect how our body manages energy?
Unfortunately, there are factors which can cause insulin levels to remain elevated, staying in the “fat storage” range all the time.
- Eating processed high carbohydrate foods vs protein and fat
- Years spent doing the above (long-term habits vs aging)
- Tendency towards high insulin levels (genetics, PCOS)
- Low muscle mass
- Insulin increasing medications or injected insulin
- Increased cortisol levels from stress, lack of sleep, or oral steroids
What happens when most of our food energy goes directly into (fat) storage?
- We’re tired, both physically and mentally (brain fog)
- Our body can’t access that energy for the day to day repair and building it does to keep us healthy
- We get hungry again, soon
- We crave carbohydrates for quick energy
- We eat more at meals because insulin drives appetite up
- We gain weight and have a hard time losing it, despite our best efforts and extreme willpower
High insulin levels also cause or make worse a number of chronic conditions:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol levels
- Heart Disease
- Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
- Chronic Inflammation
- Neuropathy (nerve damage)
- Nephropathy (kidney disease)