The Bottom Line: Insulin

Aaaand I’m back. Reconnected to the interwebz after a while moving from one house to another. Been hard not having access to the net, even beyond not being able to put down my thoughts on my blog and such, but now I’m back and I have a lot to catch up on!

We’ll start with what’s freshest in my mind – since it came up yesterday and it comes up fairly often for me. Yesterday I was at the gym and ran into an old friend who was getting ready for his personal training session. His trainer – also a friend of mine – had told him that he needs to reexamine his eating because they had been working together for a while and he still basically looked the same. I asked, “Well you’re stronger, right?” and he said, “I’m definitely stronger. I am, I guess, more able to perform duties at the gym…” We both laughed. “That’s not why any of us is at the gym though,” I said with a smile, and he nodded. So I asked him how he was eating. “Well for breakfast I had a Nutrigrain bar and some almonds…” I stopped him right there (since if that was breakfast, then the rest of the day was probably not making up for it). The answer wasn’t surprising necessarily… I used to eat similarly, thinking it would make me lose weight. But looking back at the conversation I realize that this eating style is endemic: people still eat that way thinking it’s healthy. The truth is that they’re sabotaging themselves.

We have a lot of products that seem healthy and we will eat them thinking they make us healthier in some vague, nonspecific way. But we have to eat for our bodies and we have to eat for our goals. Seems somewhat obvious, yeah? Well what can go unremarked is that we ought to know why our bodies react a certain way to certain things. Not just for former fat boys and endomorphs like me, but for everyone. Weirdly enough? The mechanisms are the same for all of us: they just are stronger or weaker for different types.

sugar-dumb

The bottom line in weight management is insulin. In fact, the bottom line in a long list of metabolic and hormonal processes in insulin. Almost no other hormone regulates the body in such a comprehensive and profound way. Consequently, insulin irregularities are at the root of a host of modern medical problems (the “diseases of civilization”… but I’ll get back to that).

So what is insulin? Insulin is most commonly understood to regulate blood sugar. We usually think of insulin when we think of diabetes. Diabetics have an impaired ability to generate or respond to insulin and so will sometimes need shots of it to regulate their blood sugar. But the role of insulin is much larger than just emergency medication for diabetics. But while insulin regulates blood sugar, the way in which it does so is at the root of weight management.

honeyboobooThink about the ways in which we understand blood sugar. It makes us feel energetic when we’ve consumed a high energy drink, right? We don’t give a lot of soda to children because they’ll spin like Tasmanian devils, or Honey Boo Boo on her special juice (Mountain Dew and Pixie Stix, isn’t it?). Or if we feel sluggish, we say that our blood sugar must be low. We need to eat something to put pep in our step. This is all happening because carbohydrates are the simplest form of energy for the body and the levels of sugar in the blood make us more or less energized. The thing about blood sugar, though, is that it can be toxic. While we may feel sluggish if our blood sugar is too low – because the body is lazy and is having to find more complex sources of energy to function – if our blood sugar is too high it can be deadly. The way that the body regulates it is by secreting insulin, which moderates blood sugar levels by forcing energy in the blood into the cells of the body.

Imagine insulin as a defense mechanism. The body perceives blood glucose as an attack and is looking for ways to defend against it. The body can either metabolize the sugars – making us hyperactive and jittery, thus converting the energy directly into motion – or if there is too much to metabolize quickly the body has to find another way to siphon it out of the bloodstream before it reaches toxic levels. This means storage. So the body sends out insulin which forces energy in the bloodstream into the cells.

This is the key to weight gain and weight loss. Without an insulin reaction telling the body to force energy into cells for storage, there is no weight gain. The body would either metabolize that energy or send it out as waste. And this is why carbohydrate management is the primary concern for weight management because it is actually insulin, released in response to spikes in blood glucose, that commands how we put on weight.

Now while this is true for everybody, we all still have our different body somatotypes as I’ve discussed before. Our somatotype governs how strongly we respond to various kinds of hormones, and the different types respond to insulin differently.

An endomorph like me is insulin dominant. We are very sensitive to carbohydrates and our bodies are ready to rush to our defense at the drop of a hat to guard against blood glucose toxicity. This means that it takes a much lower dose of sugars to get the same reaction that a regular person gets, or that a mesomorph gets. It’s why when I was younger I was eating the same thing my brother and sister ate, but gained weight rapidly. My insulin reactions are always stronger than theirs. It’s also why I will put on muscle more easily. Insulin forces energy into fat cells, but also opens up cells for other nutrients like protein. It’s why a bodybuilder will have higher carbs around a workout: when your muscles are damaged is the perfect time to shuttle nutrients into those cells via carbohydrate reaction.

Keep that in mind as you manage your eating. Dietary fat isn’t your enemy and protein certainly isn’t expanding your waistline. It’s the carbohydrates in what we eat, and our body’s reaction to them, that determine what happens to the energy we consume.

Later on I’ll go into more detail about insulin, because apart from regulating weight, it’s also interesting to explore the relationship between insulin, our epidemic of obesity, and civilization in general.

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