Let’s get to the real deal.
This can be a fairly long post, but we are getting to the business end of my FUNDA’s, so stay with me for the next few posts.
Recap from the ‘Life is Energy’ posts (unlike the recap in the Indian TV serials, I’ll just take a few seconds)– we have seen that the type of cells/tissue performing the activity and the kind of activity being performed largely determine which types of fuel our bodies prefer to use.
In the previous post, I mentioned how our bodies use of fuel for energy is NOT an all-or-nothing scenario. Thanks to the fascinating, wonderful, elegant and mind-blowing complexity of the human body we use a few different types of fuel concurrently – carbohydrates, fats or ketones.
However, so often, in spite of the abundance of fat deposits we are not able to utilize it for our energy needs and this source of fuel is kept locked away. To unlock the fat stores we need to look at the role of hormones.
Hormones control every single activity in our bodies, including our metabolism of fat.
Depending on what’s going on with our hormones, different bio-chemical pathways will predominate while others will take a backseat. (Remember how your hormones made chemistry homework take a backseat to the magazines you found in your elder brothers room when you were 16…)
Hormones are powerful regulators of metabolic pathways that make you, overall, a ‘sugar burner’ or a ‘fat burner’.
At the most basic level, the one hormone which governs an overarching use of fat for fuel versus an overarching use of carbohydrate (sugar) is INSULIN. There are certainly more factors (about which I will write later on) than just insulin , but insulin surely is one of the biggest players.
What happens when we eat? How does insulin work? What does it do?
Forgive me for oversimplifying, but for the benefit of many readers, it may be helpful to review normal insulin action, since we will be talking about it – a lot. Insulin is a hormone that is released in response to food.
As we eat, every time we eat, the carbohydrates in food gets converted to glucose and is released in the bloodstream. In response, our pancreas pump out insulin to enable our cells to take up the glucose for energy. Just keep in mind that insulin is necessary for the cells to use glucose. When we eat a meal, we are ingesting much more food energy than our cells can use immediately. Insulin is also required to move the excess flood of glucose out of the bloodstream and into storage for use later on. One of the ways our body can store this glucose is as glycogen in the liver. Our body can convert glucose to glycogen and glycogen back again to glucose quite easily.
But there is a limited amount of glycogen that can be stored in the liver. Our muscle tissues also store up a limited amount glycogen if they have been depleted. After that, any excess carbs/glucose will be turned into fat and stored in our fat tissues as triglycerides. Fat is harder to access but is in unlimited supply. We have seen here that our fat cells can store unlimited amounts of calories compared to liver or muscle tissue.
Just remember this much for now.
Take a look at this cool chart below:
Do you see what I see? A quick glance at the right-hand column tells us we have at least three hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, and glucagon) that “stimulate fatty acid release from adipose tissue.” English translation: those hormones get fat out of our fat cells so some other cells (muscle, most likely) can burn it. Nice! I mean, using our fat stores is pretty much what we’re all after, right? (At this point, you might be a little confused about cortisol. I mentioned in my last post how prednisone, a cortisol, makes us fat, right? Look for the ‘note’ at the end of this post for an explanation. For now, let’s stick with the insulin story.)
So there are three hormones that help us get fat out of our fat stores. And there is one—ONE—whose job (among other things) is to “stimulate fatty acid synthesis and storage after a high carbohydrate meal.” Do we need another translation here? Synthesize and store fat after a high-carb meal? That means: make fat and lock it away on your butt, belly, hips, and thighs. Bad!!!
Insulin gets a very bad rap in the low-carbohydrate health circles. But is it really all menace? Yes, it can be a roadblock to utilization of fat, but it can be your best buddy when it comes to building muscle. Agreed, it is a double-edged sword but if used the way evolution designed it, it is an asset. Consider a type-1 diabetic, who, without insulin, is wasting away to death by breaking down his fats, muscles, and organs for fuel (since he is unable to metabolize glucose in the absence of insulin). Insulin is his saviour.
Let’s think about it from an evolutionary perspective. Summer was the time of abundance of fruits, vegetables and most food sources. Summer also meant that autumn and winter was approaching, more specifically winter famines (shortages of food). Evolution designed our bodies to store the excesses of summer (by insulin’s action of moving excess energy to fat stores) to overcome periods of shortage when energy sources would be scarce. Not just seasonal, even on a daily or weekly basis, insulin would help store excess energy for the ‘rainy day’.
It’s fantastic! Without this mechanism, most of us wouldn’t be here right now, because our ancestors would have starved to death during periods of scarcity. This super-duper ability to stock away excess carbs/sugar/energy as fat in our adipose tissue is only a ‘problem’ in the modern world where we have an over abundance of energy rich food all the time.
Our present genome is in fact an ancient one and natural and cultural selection has built it to last under stressful conditions. Under optimal nutritional conditions, such as those our genome evolved on, we can live healthy and long lives.
Today, in 2017, the famine never comes. You can go to any super market in freezing winter and buy coconuts, papayas and litchies for godssake ! You can go to the remotest corner of the world and still find a Chinese take-away! These are not optimal nutritional conditions on which our genome evolved ! We do not have the chance to tap into our fat stores and activate the fatty acid releasing hormones, unless….unless, we impose the conditions that will enable us to balance periods of fat storage with periods of fat utilization on a day-to-day basis.
In the 21st century, we have endless summer: lights on all day and night, 24/7 super markets, cafe’s open all night and highly processed foods (insulin stimulating) all around us. We are pumping out insulin to remove the excess energy consumed (glucose) into storage zones (liver, fat tissues) like there is no 2-moro.
Going back to the chart above, I can’t help but think that:
The Main Purpose Of Insulin Is Not To Lower Blood Sugar.
If you see the counter-regulatory hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, glucagon) to insulin, all are designed to increase (mobilize) blood sugar not decrease it. I believe our genome evolved throughout most of our ancestral history to keep sugar in our blood from falling too low since there was not that much sugar to be had. The major source of sugar was fruit, and that was mostly available only seasonally, and even then we had to work and exercise to obtain it (try climbing a coconut tree for your sugar fix). The hormones cortisol, epinephrine and glucagon are three fall-back options to make sure that we always have some glucose available to the tissues that need it (Our brain cells come to mind. How important is that!!).
Aretaeus’ classic description of type 1 diabetes “Diabetes is … a melting down of flesh and limbs into urine”. That is, in spite of whatever calories you try to eat, the untreated type I diabetic is not able to gain any weight. Until the discovery of insulin by Frederick Banting, this disease was often fatal. Insulin’s main role was to prevent breakdown of muscles, organs, fat tissues for energy and enable the cells to take up glucose for energy (thereby removing glucose from the blood).
High Blood Sugar Was A Rarity.
However when our blood sugar did become elevated after a feast, it was a sign that we had more energy available than we could currently burn and thus it would be a good idea to store the extra. “Waste not, want not.” Food was not always available; feast or famine was the rule. When blood sugar becomes elevated it is a signal for insulin to be released to direct the extra energy into storage. Thus, in this regard insulin’s major role is not to lower sugar, but to take the extra energy when available and store it for future times of need. Insulin lowers glucose as a side effect of directing the extra into storage.
Our bodies are essentially designed to prevent low blood sugar. It is the modern day excesses that has created the problem.
Interesting thought, makes a lot of sense to me.
Anyway, going back to the main story….
So we can stop pretending that the maintenance and accumulation of body fat stores is driven solely by excess calories, and if we can just get people to ingest fewer calories or expend more calories, all will be well. Well, good luck with that. We can talk in 2 years time after you have semi-starved yourself and hit the gym everyday day for 2 hours, and then slipped back to square one. Worse still you may have screwed up your thyroids or adrenals or digestive system as a side-effect and you are probably struggling to get out of bed every morning. If you belong to the ‘been-there-done-that’ category, it will be worth your while to understand why your body is not so stupid and that a reset of your hormonal imbalance is the key.
Okay, so just like gigantism or acromegaly is a hormonal issue related to growth hormones, gaining body fat is (for many people, not all) also a hormonal issue related to insulin’s actions. So you might say it’s ‘Fait accompli’ ! I am unlucky! I have a hormone problem! It’s my genes!! Nothing I can do about it!! End of story , let me go back to my couch.
Not so soon,
Speedy Lazy Gonzales!!
BIG DIFFERENCE here is that, unlike individuals with gigantism, who cannot control their levels of growth hormone, we can control our insulin levels. Some people’s bodies do this better than others naturally, while others among us have to work at it.
Yes, folks, insulin isn’t just for regulating blood sugar nor does it have to be a subject of discussion for diabetics only. A hugely important mega-starring role is inhibition of lipolysis (breakdown of stored fat). Doctors know this. Endocrinologists know this.
Insulin inhibits (stops) breakdown of stored fat! And if insulin inhibits the breakdown of stored fat, and someone wants to lose stored fat, then perhaps reducing insulin levels should be a primary strategy for fat loss.
The part I just can’t figure out is how someone can reduce their circulating insulin levels when the medical and nutrition professionals insist that they consume several servings of grains and starchy foods each day – precisely the foods that raise insulin the most- six times a day!
Does it take an exceptional IQ to figure out that if we eat 6 times a day, even small meals, our pancreas are constantly pumping out insulin (the green hills) to remove the resultant excess glucose from our blood into our fat stores. And while it is doing that, we cannot simultaneously breakdown our fat stores for energy. That would be stupid, right? I mentioned in my previous post that our bodies are not stupid. They won’t breakdown fat stores while they are also making new fat stores. Duh!!
It is that simple, and so many scholars have written a zillion papers on this.
Do I make sense when I say that insulin is the main hormone that flipped the switch over time? I say main, but it is not the only one.
High insulin levels result in the accumulation of body fat. We know this. All doctors know this. In essence, insulin is the signal to the body to gain weight. If we give insulin, the body will gain weight. If we take insulin away, we will lose weight.
I can only imagine that the entire breed of experts are taught the same lie because we know that BigFood and BigPharma have totally infiltrated the system. Someone makes money if we eat 6-times a day, more people make money when our pancreas can no longer pump out insulin 24/7 and we need pills to remove the toxic glucose from our blood, still more people make money when we need to do a thousand blood tests, yet more people make money when we need specialists to tell us exactly how many grams of what to eat, even more people make money when you need a cool place to run several miles and an expert to tell you how many miles to run. That’s how Donald Trump can create jobs!
I feel sad for the folks caught up in the web of ‘current dogma’. They are blamed for their lack of willpower and discipline. Your certified BigFood nutritionist will say ,“Lay off the fatty mutton ribs and order a salad, you fatso. You need to show some willpower and make sure you hit the gym and run a few miles (make that several miles) on the treadmill before you eat the salad. BTW keep eating those energy bars as well every 2 hours. Don’t pig, just keep grazing the whole day”. I thought cows were meant for grazing.
NO, no , no. That will never ever work. You can do that all your life, in the process burn your adrenals, but that will never work. It has never been like this since evolution. Your super lean grandpa never exhausted himself running aimlessly. He never grazed. He just knew what and how the hormones (insulin included) would be in balance and automatically regulate fat metabolism. He was handed down the wisdom by his ancestors.
Unlike your certified nutritionist, what I would tell you is this, “Right now, your body is a ‘sugar-burner’. You are unable to access your fat stores so your body depends on frequent infusions of carbohydrates (frequent meals) in order to give you energy. But since all those carbs and the frequent meals have wreaked havoc with your insulin levels, and high insulin levels mean directly inhibit fat breakdown, we need to find a way to keep the insulin levels lower. But because you are dependent of frequent carbohydrate infusions, in order to break this dependence, you need to be strong and say no to probably some of your favourite stuff: cookies, pasta, bagels, sodas, sandwiches, jelly, bread, muffins and and and…. You need a bit of willpower for a few days and you’ll find that you crave those things less and less, and once your basal insulin levels get lower, your body will be able to access your stored fat for energy and you will actually have more energy than you ever had. BTW, I forgot to mention, while you have the willpower to resist those things, feel free to eat bacon, burra-kebabs, ribeye steaks with melted butter, ham& cheese omelets, prosciutto, lamb chops, butter chicken, fish and vegetables”.
It is about calories in a way, but essentially the type of calories (not so much the number).
…. and as we will see in the subsequent posts : WHEN you eat !!
We don’t control our body weight any more than we control our heart rates. This goes on automatically under the influence of hormones. Hormones tell us we are hungry. Hormones tell us we are full. Hormones tell us when to increase energy expenditure. Hormones tell us when to ‘shut down’ energy expenditure.
I hope this post helped you understand the basic physiology related to fat metabolism. I will cover a lot of sciency details in forthcoming posts to make things more clear, but I hope you have an idea (at least a bit) about why low-carb or high fat or high protein or any other diet might work. It’s the Insulin, yaar!
Note: Cortisol is a tricky one: Cortisol breaks down fat, BUT it also breaks down muscle and converts the resulting amino acids into glucose. It’s primary purpose is to raise glucose levels quickly in response to a stressor. From our evolution perspective, this stressor would have been a real emergency (like being face-to-face with a Royal Bengal tiger in the Sundarbans), and you would need a lot of glucose flooding your system to give you quick energy to stay and fight or RUN FOR YOUR LIFE (Hence the term ‘flight or ‘fight’ response). I presume you would run. Cortisol gets released, blood glucose goes up, muscles are fed this load of energy to make sure you can run as fast as you can.
Cortisol flooding your body with glucose is biologically a protective mechanism to keep you alive in very threatening situations.
Problems arise in the modern world stressors. We are normally not chased by tigers (dogs, yes), but our bodies are not designed to differentiate between physical and mental stressors. The response is the same. If glucose floods our bloodstream because our bodies perceive the traffic jams, work deadline, daughters boyfriend or the disagreements with our partners as emergencies, and since we are just sitting at home or in our car or in our office, insulin levels go up too, to move the excess glucose from the bloodstream into our fat stores. So you have broken down your muscle stores and added your fat stores...that’s a metabolic double disaster !! Just imagine a state of constant stress, day in and day out……you get an idea why we have stress-induced diabetes or why stress can derail your weight loss efforts even with the best of diets.