Hormones – Insulin 1

I want to repeat this crucial point:

Hormones control every single activity in our bodies, including our metabolism of fat.

But for now we continue with the superstar – Insulin! I keep repeating that there are many players in this game, and I will introduce them in due course, but by far the most common cause of metabolic breakdown today is insulin dis-regulation.

In my last post I flirted with the idea that from our evolutionary perspective, it was important to make sure that we never end up with a low blood glucose (BG) level because that would kill us. We examined the chart below, and saw that we have a triple redundancy to make sure of that. Back in the day, getting BG up at the appropriate time was lifesaving. Today, however, keeping BG (and insulin) up all the time is quite literally killing us.

Insulin is not toxic. It is a damn handy hormone to have—when your body responds to it properly.


Well, let’s look at the chart again from the perspective of ‘fatty acid’. Three of these hormones—glucagon, epinephrine, and cortisol—all “stimulate fatty acid release from adipose tissue.” You know what that means, right? That’s lipolysis—the breaking down of fat—stored body fat! But now look at insulin. It is the only one—the only one—of these four hormones that “stimulates fatty acid synthesis & storage after a high-carbohydrate meal.” And you know what that means, right? The storing of fat on the body. Indeed, THIS may be the primary role of insulin: inhibition of lipolysis. (Or, anti-catabolism, in general — the building up, rather than the breaking down, of tissue. An anabolic role).

With 3 hormones initiating fat breakdown and just 1, teensy weensy 1, initiating fat storage, why are we becoming a fat world ?!!

For arguments sake, even if we consider that lowering blood glucose is the primary function of insulin ( and not building up of fat tissue), then the method by which this is accomplished sheds a lot of light on what insulin does and explains the rest of insulin’s effects more satisfactorily.

In tackling the role of insulin on the accumulation of adipose tissue, first we need to explore just a few more things about insulin’s biochemical & physiological roles. After that, we’ll see how it all plays out in the real world—that is, in our body.

Think about what happens when you eat a meal. The sugar (glucose) is released and taken into your body through the digestion process, during which it enters your bloodstream. Your body responds to the glucose in your blood by secreting insulin from your pancreas into your bloodstream. Insulin escorts the glucose out of the bloodstream and into the cells. That’s what we vaguely know, right? Let’s see how this happens.

How insulin does this is another story. Insulin doesn’t actually escort glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells. What insulin does is act more like a signaling agent: insulin binds to a receptor on the surface of the cell membrane, and in response to the binding of insulin, glucose transporters (GLUTs) are moved (or “translocated”) from inside the cell to span the cell membrane. It’s the GLUTs that actually suck the glucose into the cell. And, just so we know the full story here, some GLUTs require insulin to stimulate their translocation; others don’t. So insulin is not the only way glucose can get into cells (physical activity is a great way to induce “non-insulin mediated glucose uptake.”)

Insulin: A must for Fat tissue
So, insulin’s action enables GLUT’s to move the glucose from the bloodstream into the cell, thus lowering our blood-glucose levels. What else does insulin do? Well, whereas cortisol, epinephrine, and glucagon are catabolic, insulin is anabolic. The first three break things down; insulin builds things up. What does it build up? At the very least, it stimulates the buildup of glycogen; the synthesis of structural & skeletal protein; and the synthesis of fatty acids via the conversion of glucose into triglycerides. (See, insulin is a hormone, not an enzyme. Again, as a hormone, it’s more of a signaling agent than something that actually does anything, itself. Insulin stimulates or inhibits various biochemical processes by affecting enzymes, which in turn, actually make things happen at the cellular level. So when we say that ‘ insulin does x, y, and z’ it actually means that ‘insulin signals other players to do x, y and z’)

Two of the enzymes insulin affects are hormone sensitive lipase (HSL) and lipoprotein lipase (LPL).

When we look at an untreated type-1 diabetics, it is easy to figure out that (barring any other hormonal complication) it is near impossible to accumulate body fat in the absence of insulin. On the other end, we need only to look at an insulin-dependent type-2 diabetic with poorly managed blood glucose to understand that sustained, elevated insulin levels make it near impossible not to accumulate excess body fat.

The reason is partly this: Insulin stimulates an enzyme that lets fat get into adipose cells, and it inhibits an enzyme that allows fat to get out of adipose cells. Talk about a double-whammy. Insulin is like a prison guard, who helps lock triglycerides into fat cells, and then stands there in order to make sure they never get back out. What the …..!

This requires a bit of explanation. Triglycerides—that is, three fatty acid molecules connected to a glycerol backbone—are too large to enter and leave cells freely. Many of you must remember this molecule if you have ever done a blood panel test!! They can’t cross the cell membrane. Therefore, in order for triglycerides to get into the cell, they have to be broken down into individual fatty acids. The primary enzyme that does this is called lipoprotein lipase. Once inside the cell, the fatty acids reassemble themselves into triglycerides (or TGLs, for short). So you see the problem now? If TGLs are too large to cross the cell membrane and get inside, then we probably need some other enzyme to break them back down into individual fatty acids before they can be released  back out of the adipose cells. After all, that’s what we want, right? Fatty acids to be released from adipose tissue so they can be used as fuel somewhere else, such as in cardiac muscle or skeletal muscle cells—that is, we want to burn fat.

Well, the enzyme that breaks TGLs back down into fatty acids inside the cells is hormone-sensitive lipase (HSL), and, as I mentioned earlier, insulin inhibits the action of this enzyme (there are lots of other things that might influence HSL, but insulin is a biggie). Basically you want this enzyme to be rocking!!

So, you can clearly see how insulin affects both the storage and mobilization of fatty acids. Leaving other potential influencing mechanisms aside for now, you can also see why, in chronically hyperinsulinemic people (people with elevated levels of insulin and inhibited HSL action), it is near impossible to lose body fat. The prison guard is always at the gate, never giving the inmates a chance to escape. And you can see why lowering insulin levels—be that through a low-carbohydrate intake, a moderated protein intake, fasting, physical activity, pharmaceutical drugs, nutritional supplements, or some combination of all of these—can result in fatty acids finally being able to leave the adipose cells.



Going back to the graph above, if we eat 6 times a day, big meals or small meals, insulin will be elevated to move the excess energy (glucose from carbs) to the cells that need it. If the cells say, “sorry Insulin, I am full, not opening the gates”, then insulin moves to other cells and knocks. When our system as a whole is overloaded with energy (as is the likely case when we eat constantly and our muscles and liver can store only a limited amount) and nobody opens the gates, insulin has no option but the move the excess glucose into the fat cells for storage. Besides, a constant state of feeding (insulin influx) means that the prison guard is always at the gate giving the inmates (fats) no chance to escape. A classic double-whammy!!

Bottom line: As long as insulin levels are high (area under the green curve), it will be extremely difficult to lose body fat. 

Insulin, in and of itself, is a good and necessary thing. It promotes the storage of nutrients after all. In our natural, primal state, this was an essential process. Even in our modern lives, this storage process is still vital. (We just have a nasty habit of flooding the system with energy these days.)

“Insulin is vital for lipogenesis. Its role as a lipogenic hormone is underplayed, but we know that without insulin, you can’t get fat.”
–Dr. Roger Unger

Just picture the modified graph below. This is what our ancestors did, this is what we did growing up, until Big Food with the help of accommodating nutritionists and professionals advised us otherwise.



This was the natural cycle of meals when I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. Snacking was taboo. It was during the ‘blue’ periods between meals that we burned our fat reserves. It was during this period that insulin was low and the enzyme HSL was rocking to unlock the fat stores to supply us with endless energy hitting balls until the street lights came on and it was time to go home. Our moms didn’t obsess about us being hungry. This was a normal daily cycle and obesity was rare. 

‘Get back to where you once belonged’ …..John Lennon/Paul McCartney

This is the starting point. First and foremost, we have to make sure that we do not put any edible stuff in our mouths in-between meals (yes, chewing gum does count). May not be the end game for everybody though, but a great starting point.

As a second step, we will talk about lifestyle based adjustments and of course, most importantly, what you put inside your mouth.

In the modern world, when we use our cars to drive around the block to the supermarket, or worse, when we can shop online and get things delivered to our doorstep, when we have smart homes to WhatsApp our loved ones in the other room, even this kind of traditional meal times may lead to excess energy. Excess energy will lead to sustained high levels of insulin (hyperinsulinemia) and lipolysis (inhibit fat burning).

Our ancestors, even our parents a couple of decades ago, used to work much much harder, walk much more, move much more than we do today. I feel, this feeding pattern is fine for growing kids, professional sportsmen, and high physical activity individuals, but NOT for ‘the new normal’ modern sedentary lifestyle.

For sedentary folks, folks sitting behind computers all day, you really need to modify the eating window according to your comfort zone. There is no such thing as the best way or the only way prescribed in some fancy article or by some high profile nutritionist of big star ‘celebs’!! As you can see, your breakfast is the first meal that stops your fat burning. But then again, it is not for everybody to skip it either. I never have breakfast, but that’s me. Believe me guys, if you’ve understood even a little bit of what you have read so far, you need to FIRST induce low levels of circulating insulin at some point in the day to even access your fat stores. There are many ways to achieve it and I will give you a few alternatives in the coming posts.

You can turn from a sugar-junkie to a fat burner in many different ways AS LONG AS you understand the actions of the hormones (mainly insulin) and as long as you understand your energy requirement for your lifestyle.





Life is energy -3 ; Hormones

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. maccaulay-culkin-playboy(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 awaybigstock-feast-today-famine-tomorrow-86473259 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! meal-timing-6x-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. insulin

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.

Life is energy – 2

Which fuel type is our body best suited for? That was the open question from the last post. Just like my friends’ Lexus Hybrid is designed to run on petrol and electric, what is the human body designed to use and when? Just like the hybrid car is designed to switch fuel sources on a steep uphill when it requires extra power, and cruise along on electric power on a flat country road, is our body also designed to use different sources to fuel it’s energy needs? Most definitely !!

For an individual weighing 70.5 kg, let us look at the stored potential sources of fuel. First up – protein.

Fuel comparison Protein

Source: Devlin, T., ed. Textbook of Biochemistry with Clinical Correlations. Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2011

*Based on an individual weighing 155 pounds (approx. 70.5kg)

The muscle mass of this individual has typically about 6000 grams of body protein, which means 24,000 calories of stored fuel (remember proteins and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram). WOW, that is a lot of stored energy! But where is that protein stored? In our muscles, right? And our organs, glands, bones, and other precious tissue that we do not want to break down (catabolize) for fuel. (More on this when we get to weight loss—specifically, why we want to aim for fat loss or “waist loss” rather than “weight loss.” We don’t just want to lose weight; we want to lose fat and hang onto as much muscle mass and other lean tissue as we can.) Proteins are essential nutrients of our body. The building blocks of body tissue, so why would you want to break that down for energy? Proteins are made of essential amino acids which we must obtain from food …therefore ESSENTIAL!! Anyways, protein is not what we want to use as our primary fuel. It has too many valuable jobs to do. Bottom line: those 24,000 calories are awfully tempting, but as a fuel source, but they’re out.

Let’s move on to carbohydrate. (Abbreviated as CHO in the chart below)

fuel-comparison proteins and carbs

Source: Devlin, T., ed. Textbook of Biochemistry with Clinical Correlations. Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2011

Our bodies digest the food we eat by mixing it with fluids (acids and enzymes) in the stomach. When the stomach digests food, the carbohydrate (sugars and starches) in the food breaks down into another type of sugar, called glucose. The stomach and small intestines absorb the glucose and then release it into the bloodstream (blood sugar? anyone?). Once in the bloodstream, glucose can be used immediately for energy or stored in our bodies, to be used later. This is the 20 grams (or 80 calories) of fuel you see above. It’s not much. 80 calories isn’t anything to write home about, so let’s move on to the other form of stored carbohydrate in our bodies: glycogen.

Glycogen is to humans what starch is to plants. It is the form in which we store carbohydrate. (We store it as glycogen, and a potato, for example, stores it as starch.) Since our blood can only hold so much glucose at any given time (even for a type 2 diabetic with sky-high blood sugar), any excess has to be removed quickly and our bodies have to find somewhere else to stick it. This “somewhere else” is our liver and our muscles. Looking at the chart above, the liver can only hold about 70 grams of carbohydrate as glycogen, for about 280 calories’ worth. That’s still not much. So this liver glycogen, like the glucose in the blood, and like the protein in the muscles, doesn’t seem like such a great fuel for the body to rely on.

But the muscles—now we’re getting somewhere. Even a relatively non-muscular person still has a fair bit of muscle mass. The hypothetical 70.5 kg person represented in this chart stores about 120 grams of carbohydrate in their muscle glycogen, for around 480 calories. Not too bad, but nothing to write home about, either. Plus, another mark against relying on muscle glycogen as a fuel for the whole body is that it can only be used to power activity in the muscles in which it’s stored. It does the rest of the body no good. Glycogen stored in, say, your biceps, can’t be released into the bloodstream when your blood sugar is getting a little low.

Only liver glycogen can do that. In fact, that’s pretty much liver glycogen’s ‘reason for being’ — to keep you from getting woozy and feeling faint if you find yourself needing to go a few hours without eating any carbohydrate, or any anything, for that matter.

Remember: carbohydrates supply only 4 calories per gram (in our car analogy it was 4 km/l). We have to keep fueling the fire (refilling the tank) constantly. We will need to have a snack every two or three hours (which is what BigFood wants you to do BTW and you will see endless sponsored research telling you the benefits of snacking). I’d rather use a fuel I don’t have to top off quite so often, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t have to stop often and you wouldn’t get those hypoglycemic symptoms when your tank starts getting low, because your body would be running on a fuel that you didn’t have to constantly put more of in the tank.

Let’s look at fat.

fuel-comparison - all

Source: Devlin, T., ed. Textbook of Biochemistry with Clinical Correlations. Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2011


Do you see what I see? OMG

The hypothetical person, weighing 70.5 kg, stores about 15,000 grams of fat in his adipose (fat) tissue, for a whopping 135,000 calories!! (9 cals per gram for fat) NOW WE’RE TALKING, PEOPLE. And he is of normal weight, not fat, not obese. A normal bloke. This is like a 45 day store of energy for the body. Did you ever wonder how some of our great leaders could go on hunger strikes for days and live to tell the tale?!! (those were the days of our good old fat- burning lean politicians. Can you imagine the jokers today going on hunger strikes after being fuelled by the Sodas, BigMacs and Donuts!! They won’t last 30 minutes!! That’s why hunger strikes are so out-of-fashion!)

Anyway, THAT is some serious fuel storage. The human body has an almost unlimited capacity to store fat and accumulate adipose tissue. Taking this into account, it almost seems as if nature (or evolution, or the big voice in the sky, or Bramha or whatever you happen to believe in) evolved/created/designed our bodies to run on fat, because that is the type of fuel our gas tanks are designed to hold the most of.

The single most fundamental – and simple – way to improve mitochondrial function is to turn away from relying on sugar-burning and transform yourself into a fat-burning beast. See, mitochondria burn fatty acids cleaner than they burn carbohydrates and generate way more ATP as we have seen in my previous post.

We have seen so far that fatty acids are the most preferred fuel of the mitochondria, fatty acids are available in abundance in our bodies, they are the long lasting and produce way more energy per molecule than any other fuel source. Remember this next time you hear some poor, misguided soul say that carbohydrates are the body’s “preferred fuel source.”

How do our bodies know which fuel to use?

Is there a way to prime our bodies so that they’ll run more on fat than on carbohydrate? (Yes.)

Is this fat/carbohydrate debate like the Apple OS/Android thing? (No.)

Is fuel partitioning absolute? If I’m running on fat, does that mean I’m not using any carbohydrate at all? (No.)

Can my entire body run on fat? (No.)

Does my body need some glucose? (Yes.)

HOWEVER – and the big CAPITAL HOWEVER – let me take a moment here to tell everyone that being a sugar- or fat-burner is not a binary thing. It’s not a yes/no, on/off scenario.

Unlike the lovely Hybrid car , it is not the case that the human body—every single cell in every single organ, tissue, and system—is either fueled by glucose OR fueled by fat.

Different parts of the body are running on different fuels concurrently, and the proportions of different fuel types that are used can change, based on the type of activity a tissue is engaged in.

Here are a few examples:

Red blood cells: RBCs have no mitochondria. Therefore, they must use glucose exclusively.Remember, mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of most cells. The energy factories, if you will. And when fats are used as fuel, they are “burned” in the mitochondria. So if a cell has no mitochondria, it can’t use fat, right? (If your stove isn’t a gas stove, then it can’t use gas. It has to use electricity or some other form of energy. Simple enough.) And since we’ve already said fat is our primo, go-to fuel (maximum ATP per molecule), why would there be cells in our bodies that can’t use it? You must love your creator, the ultimate guru: In producing energy, the mitochondria use up a lot of oxygen. But what is the job of RBCs? They transport oxygen (via the bloodstream) to the rest of the body, right? Well, what good would it do if RBCs used up all the oxygen they’re supposed to deliver to the rest of the body? It would be like using the services of the DHL man who keeps all the packages for himself so that none of the cargo gets delivered. If you think you would be dead if your shipment of books from Amazon never got delivered, imagine how dead you’d be if your heart (or gonads) stopped getting oxygen.

Cardiac/heart cells: Your heart is one of the most aerobically active of all your cherished parts and pieces. Think about it: your heart is using energy 24/7/365. IT. NEVER. STOPS. (Well, that is, until it stops for good. But other than that, it is a muscle that is contracting and relaxing every minute, every day of your life.) It never gets a rest. It needs to be fueled all the time, no matter what. In order to make sure this happens, your heart is loaded with mitochondria. Oxygen users like crazy! So since the heart has all these mitochondrial fuel generators available, it might as well use them to generate some fuel—and what did we see ? The nutrient that gives us the most fuel per gram is fat. So the heart uses fat like a champ. But don’t just take my word for it. According to people way smarter than I am, “Between meals, cardiac muscle cells meet 90% of their ATP demands by oxidizing fatty acids. Although these proportions may fall to about 60% depending on the nutritional status and the intensity of contractions, fatty acids may be considered the major fuel consumed by cardiac muscle.” “The heart has virtually no glycogen reserves. Fatty acids are the heart’s main source of fuel, although ketone bodies as well as lactate can serve as fuel for heart muscle. The point is, the heart runs on at least two different types of fuel better than it runs on carbohydrate.)

Brain cells: The brain requires glucose. No two ways about it. Even the most ardent low-carber can’t deny that the brain needs glucose. However, it doesn’t need as much glucose as we tend to think it does, as long as the glucose debt is made up for by fuel coming from an alternative source, like ketones. Fatty acids are generally not used as fuel for the brain. Glucose and ketones are the main players in the upper level.

EnterocytesThese are the cells that line the small intestine. And what is one of their big jobs? To move nutrients (such as glucose) from the lumen of the intestine into the bloodstream, yes? (Yes.) So what good would it do if these cells used that glucose to fuel themselves? The rest of the body wouldn’t get its requisite share. So instead of glucose, the main fuels for these intestinal cells are the amino acids L-glutamine and L-glutamate.

Let us take a look at different activity levels.

Generally speaking, when your heart rate is lower, and your exercise is less intense, it is likely being fueled more by fat than by carbohydrate. (Another way of saying this is that anaerobic activity is fueled more by carbs, and aerobic more by fat. Note: aerobic is the stuff you can do for a long time at a sufficiently slow pace. Anaerobic is the stuff that makes your muscles hurt after just a short time, assuming you’re doing it right).

chihuahuaThat means, the intense stuff require a lot of glycolysis and/or glycogen breakdown – i.e., a lot of glucose. Intense activity—CrossFit, intense lifting, sprinting, running from a chasing chihuahua, for example—that is fueled more by carbohydrate than by fat. This isn’t a binary all-or-nothing deal, just a balancing act where, in this case, the balance leans toward carbs.

43139373-couch-potato-cartoonWhat about the non-intense stuff? What about a nice, comfortable stroll through the park? What about all the stuff I’ve said before we don’t think of as “exercise” or “burning calories,” but which does use energy? Think about it: pretty much anything we do requires at least some energy, even just sitting in your chair reading this blog. (Think about all the postural muscles in your back and neck working hard just to keep you upright the entire time you’re there on your rear end.) All that kind of sitting-around-doing-nothing type activity is mostly fueled by fat ( Yes Guys, tell your wife to read this blog!! ). Again, this isn’t a binary all-or-nothing deal, just a balancing act where, in this case, the balance leans toward fats.

According to the smarties“Fatty acids are the main source of energy in skeletal muscle during rest and mild-intensity exercise. As exercise intensity increases, glucose oxidation surpasses fatty acid oxidation.”

The body is a hybrid engine that can and does run on a variety of fuels concurrently.

We have now 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.

Why is it that in spite of the abundance of fat deposits we are not able to utilize it for our energy needs and keep this source of fuel locked away.

To unlock this mystery, we need to look at another key factor which determines the type of fuel our bodies use and that is the interplay of our hormones. 

Next up in the ‘energy’ series, we will start exploring the hormonal milieu under which different activities take place which in turn determine the type of fuel our bodies use.



Life is energy – 1

I have been slamming BigFood for convincing every one of us , with a bit of help from friendly researchers, that all calories are the same. I have been slamming the nutrition-ism in food, the reduction-ism of food science and the over simplification of the calories number game.

But, I haven’t been slamming everyone – my grandmother, our ancestors, – because I am convinced that they knew so much more, not because they fed mice in laboratories, but just from wisdom passed down from generations. They hardly experienced any food related chronic illnesses, or any lifestyle diseases because of their food habits.

It is impossible to figure out whom to believe with the hundreds and thousands of opinions related to diet and health. Is my slamming of the BigFood, and the modern concepts of nutrition, and the mumbo-jumbo of calories at all justified? Have I lost it?…you might ask.

I started upfront with the topic of ‘calories’ in my previous 3 (I think) posts because we are inundated with that word everyday. I had to set you thinking whether it is all that it is made out to be after all. At least you can ask the right questions to your gym instructor or your ‘eat less/move more’ advisors. In the next few posts, I’ll take a step back and talk about some funda issues about food so that you understand your body. You don’t need to believe me or anybody else nor get confused with the endless advises. When you understand the basics about how the human body really works, you will know why calorie counting, fat slashing, (yes , you read that right), and eating less/moving more is a one-way ticket to a black hole of frustration.

So let’s get cracking at what it is all about..

For the benefit of my friends who bunked the biology and physiology classes (me included, that’s why I had to catch up much later in life) I will just explain some simple fundas to understand what really is the role of food in our bodies. We talk about calories and carbs and proteins and fats and lipids and oils  and hormones and enzymes and micronutrients and vitamins…and…and…and, but do we really know how all of this fits into the whole concept of our being. Why is food such an important part of our lives? Is it just for that tiny little burp which escapes our lips at the end of a satisfying meal or is there more to it? What does it really do ?

SHeldonThere are many theories on the origin of life. Whether God or Sheldon’s Big Bang (take your pick) created the first energy form on planet a few billion years ago, or, as some scientists believe, that in the beginning, there were simple organic chemicals. And they produced amino acids that eventually became the proteins necessary to create single cells.  And the single cells became plants and animals. After billions of years, life on earth has evolved as we see it today. And humans have evolved to be one of the most complex, intricate multi-cellular organism if there ever was one. We have trillions of cells, each of which produce energy. We are a bundle of energy packed into skin and bones of varying shapes and sizes. Our whole existence is the energy we contain. We die because our cells die when they can no longer continue to generate energy. Life is energy.

Your ability to maintain a healthy body temperature, support your breathing, and a host of other functions to keep you alive, is called your basal metabolic rate, and you use more energy for these functions than for any other. Your body also uses energy to build new tissue, repair damaged tissue, and generate new, healthy cells. Even a simple eye movement requires energy.

Energy – our cells need to generate energy non-stop, 24/7, as long as we live. They need fuel to generate energy. This fuel comes from the food we eat. That is why we need to eat. So we see a broad level connection between food and our existence. It provides our body with stuff which keeps us alive. Cool! But why the fuss over carbs and fats and proteins and whatever….How do these different food types matter in the generation of life’s energy?

2015-lexus-ct-200h_100474240_hA beautiful red Lexus Hybrid. Our dear friends just bought this amazing car !! And I thought that if we are to talk about different fuel sources then this would be a great, though oversimplified analogy.

Think of the human body as a hybrid car. Just like a hybrid car, which can run on different types of fuel, depending on the situation, the human body can do the same. We can run on many different kinds of fuel, depending on how much of each type is available at any given time, and also depending on what kind of activity needs to be fuelled, which tissue type is performing the activity, and what messages our hormones are sending throughout our body regarding which fuels to use.

The main types of fuel the body can run on are:

  • Protein
  • Fat
  • Carbohydrate
  • Alcohol
  • Ketones


For obvious reasons, we don’t want to fuel ourselves primarily on alcohol. A little hooch now and then is no problem (hic…), but we certainly don’t want it to be our main source of fuel.

Next up is protein.  Even though protein is a source of energy, and therefore something we can consider as “fuel,” we really don’t want to use protein as our main energy source. It’s far too valuable for the myriad other purposes it has in our bodies. Besides contributing to the physical structure of muscle tissue, here’s just a small sampling of what else is made from protein: Antibodies, peptide hormones (like insulin and glucagon), neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine), organs, and blood vessels. Protein has too many other jobs to do for it to be siphoned off as an energy source under normal circumstances. Sometimes amino acids from proteins are used for this as well, but only when your body doesn’t have enough of the carbohydrates and fats available. .

We’ll table ketones for the time being. They’re actually fantastic source of fuel, but they deserve a much more detailed explanation than I can give here at the outset.  We will talk about this alternative in later posts.

So that leaves us with carbohydrates and fat. These 2 sources of fuel are the most talked about by food scientists, nutritionists, dieticians, the media, doctors, laymen, everyone…..Let’s compare carbohydrate and fat as fuel sources and see if we can tease out which one it makes more physiological sense for us to run our bodies on.

As a general rule carbohydrates contain 4 kcal per gram; proteins are about the same; fats contain approximately 9 kcal per gram. In our analogy of a car, one fuel gives us say 4 km/liter and one gives us 9 km/l. So obviously if we use the 9km/l fuel we won’t run out of fuel so easily. Assuming that we use the 4km/l fuel, we would need to stop more often to fill up the tank as compared to the 9km/l. That’s obvious.

The thing about the human body is that we don’t just burn fuel. We don’t burn “calories,” and we don’t even burn carbohydrate, fat, protein, alcohol, or ketones. You see, the body can’t actually do anything with those macronutrients, per se.  The human body can’t use carbohydrates or fats (or any of the other fuels) as they are. They have to be converted into something called ATP (adenosine triphosphate), —the “energy currency” of human physiology. Our cells can only use ATP. So we can think of pau bhaji, fish fry,  steak, ice cream, chicken, eggplant, or even a well-aged Lagavulin and everything else we might toss down the hatch not as calories, or fuel, or energy, but as potential sources of ATP ( Why potential? – we will see that just because we ingest a food doesn’t mean that food is going to be converted into usable energy). 

Mitochondria, you may remember it vaguely from your biology class, are present in nearly every cell in every organism in the world. It is the energy generating furnace in the cells. What we often call “burning” foods for energy, is really a process of breaking the molecules down piece by piece and transferring the energy that is released during this breakdown. The carbohydrate or fat is destroyed in the process. This breakdown of foods and transfer of energy in mitochondria requires oxygen, which you get from breathing, and results in carbon dioxide and water as waste products. The primary role of mitochondria is to produce ATP, which our body uses to create energy for a whole host of cellular processes. We are constantly using ATP, whether we’re sprinting, walking, breathing, pumping blood through our cardiovascular system, or doing long division. Think of a physiological process, and ATP is probably involved.Without mitochondria, then, we wouldn’t be able to get much of anything done. We simply wouldn’t exist.

Without going into the complex metabolic pathways involved in producing ATP from the food we consume, all that my non-nerdy friends need to know is that molecule for molecule, fatty acids provide way more ATP than carbohydrates do. My nerdy friends can check out the links below.

From Carbohydrates (cellular respiration) – 36ATP

From Fatty acid (ß oxidation) – 131 ATP

Energy Funda # 1: Gram for gram, molecule for molecule, fats give us more energy than carbohydrates. And not just “more,” but longer lasting, slower burning energy—the kind that can keep us feeling fine—physically, emotionally, and cognitively—for several hours without consuming more food, and without experiencing mood swings, irritability, immediate and urgent hunger, lightheadedness, dizziness, or any of the other unpleasant signs and symptoms of hypoglycemia, even if it’s been many hours since we last ate.

In some cases, our cells can also produce energy, in the absence of oxygen, from glycolysis, a fairly old biochemical pathway. This is done outside the mitochondria. It doesn’t require oxygen, which means it could have happened (and, in fact, was happening) way back when, in the very early days of life on Earth, like billions of years ago, when organisms were extremely simple, and the planet’s atmosphere was not oxygen-rich. Without a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere, it’s a good thing organisms had a way of generating energy that didn’t require any oxygen, right? And not only is glycolysis rather old, it’s also very inefficient. 2 ATP per one molecule of glucose. This anaerobic process is called fermentation. In spite of being so inefficient and primitive, this energy generating process is not all useless. For example, when oxygen levels are low, skeletal muscle cells rely on glycolysis to meet their intense energy requirements. This reliance on glycolysis results in the buildup of an intermediate known as lactic acid, which can cause a person’s muscles to feel as if they are “on fire.”

So now we know that some fuel lasts longer than the other. But what kind of fuel is the body designed to hold? If our hybrid car is designed to run on petrol and electric power, we will surely not tank it with diesel or orange juice!!

It’s the same with your body’s fuel tank. It is designed to store and use some fuels better than others.

I will reveal all in my ‘life is energy’ series. Stay tuned.