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Insulin: The Hormone of Fat Gain and
How to Manage Your Waist-Line

By Tim Lochhead

If there is one article to read it is this one (but feel free to enjoy the rest 🙂 ).

After reading this article you will have a greater awareness of what insulin is and why this is so critical to you health.

Although the mechanics are quite technical, I promise that I will make this as user friendly as possible – the equivalent of an Insulin for Dummies. Several sections are set up to be ‘skim’ friendly with key take-away points and highlights.

Allow me to guide you through the basic need-to-knows and you will be glad you did. You’ll have a better understanding of what to really consider when making your food choices. I’ll also provide a link to a great resource and offer some quick and easy tips you can take away today!

What are Carbohydrates?

First we need an understanding of what carbohydrates (carbs) are. If you know skip down a paragraph. If not, they are one of the three main macronutrients we eat: carbs, protein, and fat. Each molecule of food basically has to fall under one of these categories.

When you think of protein think of muscle. Proteins basically form the building blocks of all our tissue and are used in a variety of processes from tissue repair and regeneration (bones, tendons, muscle) to helping our liver detoxify harmful substances. From the Greek “pro” meaning of first importance.

I think we know what fat is, often being called the bad guy for what leads to being fat. But read on as this is not necessarily so… High protein and fat foods include meat, fish, nuts, seeds, and dairy products.

Carbohydrates are basically anything else. The popular (non-scientific) sub-categories are sugar, starch, and fibre. However, starches (typically ‘complex carbs’ as you may have heard this term before) break down into sugar as we digest them. All carbs (except fibre) break down into sugars. So unless we are talking about fibre, that good stuff that helps keep us ‘regular’, carbs are basically sugar.

Take-away point: When you think of carbs think of sugar.

Take-away point: My opinion is that food groups as we know them from the ‘food pyramid’ are useless. “You are what you eat”; if you want to look like a pyramid, then eat as a pyramid. Understand protein, carbs, fats and their sub-categories to know what really matters. Learn what real impacts these have on you.

What is Insulin?

Insulin is basically a storage hormone. It mainly gets produced when our bodies have increased blood sugar. How do we get increased blood sugar? You guessed it – by eating carbs. (The effect from protein and fat is negligible).

When you eat a lot of carbs, and certain types, the blood sugar impact is greater. So, the insulin released is greater.

What insulin will do is shuttle off the carbs, as well as amino acids (broken down protein) and fats into our bodies cells for energy. This is a good thing.

Take-away point: Carbs increase blood sugar; Insulin is secreted to lower/stabilize blood sugar.

So What’s the Big Deal?

Well these nutrients, especially the sugar (which will be stored as glycogen, but we’ll say sugar for simplicity) need to be stored in cells somewhere. The major places for the energy stores to go are either muscle, or fat.

Where would you prefer them to go? To replace used energy in muscle cells?  (Please note: this has to be because of strength training, aerobics doesn’t count because you used oxygen as main source of energy and weren’t training your muscles).

Or, for the excess to be stored as fat? And particularly around your waist-line. Well, at least love-handles have a cute and cuddly name, as long as you don’t mind dealing with the adverse effects…

Constantly eating sugar means constant production of insulin. Overexposure is not a good thing and can lead to insulin resistance. Your body’s cells stop accepting the sugar and you have constantly elevated blood sugar.

It’s like getting constant fruit cakes at Christmas. The first, then the second package… until you just stop answering the door.

Take-away: Insulin is the KEY hormone to controlling your body-fat in many cases.

What Does This Mean?

It means more than just extra (and a lot of extra) body fat, which is bad enough.

According to the National Diabetes Clearing House: “Many people with insulin resistance develop other conditions that also increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and damage the heart and blood vessels (also called cardiovascular disease, or CVD). These conditions include having excess weight around the waist, high blood pressure, and abnormal levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. Having several of these problems is called metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance syndrome, formerly called syndrome X”.[1]

Studies have also shown that (excessive) sugar also increases the urinary output of essential vitamins and minerals.[2]

Take-away: Overexposure to carbs and insulin (i.e. high carb foods) can lead to obesity as well as serious health problems.

Help! What Can I do to Control This?!?

Good news! Insulin is the one hormone you virtually have 100% control over.

So how do you control this?

You guessed it – diet and exercise my friend!

A quick word on exercise: Strength or resistance training teaches your bodies cells to become more insulin sensitive.  There are optimal guidelines of course, but that is beyond our scope for today.

Diet is the number one modulator here. Prevention is the best medicine. It is best to know what the impact from your carbohydrate foods are. There is a resource called the glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL). The GI basically measures how fast carbs convert to blood sugar, and the GL adjusts this value to more common serving sizes.

For the GI: 55 or less is considered low, 56-69 is medium, and 70 or more is high.
For the GL: 10 or less is considered low, 11-19 is medium, and 20 or more is high.

http://www.mendosa.com/gilists.htm explains the details and lists the GL for various foods.

The Glycemic Load adjusts for serving sizes because sometime a food can have a high GI, but you don’t eat the quantity they used for testing and quantifying the GI. (For the GI, all foods were set until you got 100 grams of carbs from that food. Sometimes this is normal, but in may cases, like watermelon below, a serving does not yield 100 grams of carbs).

For example, watermelon has a high GI at 72; however, a 4 ounce (120 gram) serving only yields 6 grams of carbs. Therefore, the GL is very low at 4 (72/100*6).

Here are some common “food” items (from 2008 update):

Food GI Serving size (g) GL
White wheat bread 75±2        60 (2 slices) 23           
Whole wheat/whole meal bread 74±2 60 (2 slices) 22
White rice, boiled 73±2 175 (1 cup cooked) 27
Brown rice, boiled 68±2 200 (1 cup cooked) 31
Spaghetti, white 49±2 150 (1 cup cooked) 24
Spaghetti, whole meal 48±5 150 (1 cup cooked) 18
Apple Berry crumble, President’s Choice® Blue MenuTM (Loblaw Brands Limited, Canada) 41±3 165 14
Blueberry (Wild) 10-Grain muffin, President’s Choice® Blue MenuTM (Loblaw Brands Limited, Canada) 57±7 70 22
Coca Cola®, soft drink (Coca Cola Bottling Company, Atlanta, USA) 63 250 mL 16
French Fries 63±5 134 (1 medium) 33
Mars Bar® (M&M/Mars, USA) 68±12 60 27
All-BranTM (Kellogg’s Inc., Canada) 51±5 30 12
CornflakesTM (Kellogg’s Inc., Canada) 80±6 30 21
Instant oat porridge 79±3 150 (1 packet) 24
Power bar®, chocolate (Powerfood Inc, Berkeley, CA, USA) 83±11 65 37
Apple, raw 36±2 136 (1 medium) 7
Apple juice 41±2 250 mL 11
Orange, raw 43±3 136 (1 medium) 6
Orange juice 50±2 250 mL 12
Peas (GI from About.com) 48±6 60 (1 cup) 2

 

Some observations:

  • “Foods” commonly thought of as ‘healthy’ meals or breakfasts are quite high in GL – meaning they are causing blood sugar and insulin mayhem
  • Even ‘healthy’ desserts score pretty high on GL
  • There is not much difference in the GI or GL between a food item and its whole wheat or brown counterpart (so does an extra few grams of fiber make that much difference in the big picture?)
  • Juice is always higher than the raw fruit. Be aware – the juice may not be 100% fresh and contain added sugars worsening the GI and GL impact.
  • Notice which foods have a good/low scoring: all natural and unprocessed

There is also something called the insulin index; however, more studies need to be done and we need to understand the measurements better. (For example, individuals fast for about 12 hours before the measurements for this, which may provide different results compared to a ‘normal’ day of feeding).

The GI and GL are still great tools to use.

“Does this mean I can’t eat my favourite foods anymore?” Not necessarily. The choice is always yours; it just pays to be informed. If this is something you are intersted in, there are ways to manage!

Take-away: Educate yourself and be aware of the impact (high carb) foods have on your blood sugar levels.

Insulin Paradox

I have included this little nugget for the more advanced reader. If you’ve learned a lot today stick with the key take-aways and you’ll be good.

Some background: if, for any reason, we need to keep our blood sugar steady, but don’t have access to food to do it (i.e. we have to go sometime without eating, like a delay in our busy, busy days) then our body relies on it’s store of glycogen (the ‘stored version of glucose) in the liver. Just like blood sugar can be too high – here it can be too low. When we need to stabilize blood sugar by raising it our body first and primarily turns to our livers for a bit of stored glycogen to help out. (The glycogen, when released by the liver, becomes glucose and blood sugar again – recall, we like to keep this at a certain, consistent level).

We consume carbs or produce glucose from our foods; however, most of the glucose from our foods gets digested and released into our blood stream via the digestive system and never makes it to our livers.

This is the insulin paradox.

So how does our liver glycogen get replenished? As mentioned above, glycogen is also stored in our muscle cells. When we exercise, this is where the body turns to for immediate energy. (It takes a little while before we can start using our own fat stores or what we have eaten). Basically, during this process some of the substrates produced from exercise get recycled back to glycogen – and some of this goes to replenish not only the muscle stores of glycogen but the liver stores as well.

Take-away: The Insulin Paradox in another example of why exercise is imperative.

Is that Everything there is to know?

Of course it is not just that simple, but it is a great start.

Carbs are a HUGE part of the question and there is more to it – there is nutrition. Food supplies us with nutrients to live, to repair and take care of all of the bodies functions.

Similar to your time, there is only so much you can do, and there is only so much you can eat. So, we need to consider whether the foods we eat are nutrient dense, and value the positive aspects against any negatives.

However, the purpose here was to educate about the hidden and major impact carbs, especially high carb refined foods have on our bodies – both in health and appearance.

Take-away: There is a lot more to nutrition than just the GI or GL, but this is still a great tool and highlights the key importance of understanding carbs and their effects on our health.

Summary

Now you have a great tool and an understanding of a very important part about diet and nutrition; namely, the effect carbs have on our blood sugar and insulin.

You also have the understanding that high spikes or chronically high levels of blood sugar can be extremely detrimental to our health, not to mention our appearance with excessive loads of body-fat.

Be aware of the impact and purpose food serves, and learn to ask the appropriate questions.  From what you have learned today: what is the glycemic index and load of the food choice? How much am I eating of it? How often? What nutrients does this food offer in comparison to other alternatives?

Thank-you for increasing awareness, learning and showing interest in your health. You can return the favour simply by sharing with others!

When you want real results, get Health and Fitness Solutions that really work
tim@yourmissinglink.ca


[1] http://www.diabetes.niddk.nih.gov/dm/pubs/insulinresistance/

[2] L. K. Massey: Acute effects of dietary caffeine and sucrose on urinary mineral excretion in healthy adolescents Nutr. Res 8(9): 1988