A calorie is a calorie, is a calorie, right? Can’t you just lose weight by reducing calorie intake?
I don’t think it’s as simple as that and here’s why.
It boils down to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when cells in the body, particularly the muscle, fat and liver cells, don’t utilize insulin as effectively. Insulin is a hormone that helps glucose get into the cells for energy. The body compensates for insulin resistance by making extra insulin, a condition called hyperinsulinemia.
If someone with high levels of insulin eats a diet high in carbs, then more of those calories are going to be stored in the body because insulin is the gatekeeper to the utilization of digested carbs. The more insulin in the body and the more glucose from digested carbs, the more will be stored in the body. This is my opinion, and it’s based on experience.
It reminds me of a person I knew who tried to lose weight by lowering her calories to 800 a day (way too low) and her diet consisted mainly of carbs. Her weight didn’t budge an ounce. Part of that may have been due to her body thinking she was in starvation mode, and really slowed down metabolism. But I believe the other reason is she also had hyperinsulinemia and all those carb calories were being stored. This doesn’t mean you should avoid carbs. However it does indicate, in my opinion, the importance of eating a balanced diet with adequate protein, healthy fat and fiber. I’ll go more into that in the next blog.
For a while the insulin-producing pancreas can keep up with the increasing demand for insulin and blood glucose levels stay in a healthy range. But eventually, the beta cells of the pancreas stop producing enough insulin and blood glucose levels start to rise leading to prediabetes, and eventually type 2 diabetes.
This period of hyperinsulinemia may go on for years before blood sugar levels rise. And what’s behind it is most likely a genetic component that makes someone prone to insulin resistance and a diet high in quickly digested carbs.
Genetics of type 2 diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is thought to be due to the “thrifty gene”. Certain cultures historically were exposed to periods of food scarcity and their bodies compensated by slowing down metabolism. And then these same cultures over time were exposed to a higher carb diet with foods like processed grains, fried foods, and sweetened drinks. Not what you want to be eating when your body is on the slow burn road. According to the National Institute of Health, these cultures include Pacific Islanders, African Americans, Native Hawaiians, Asian Americans, American Indians and Hispanic or Latino.
Since genetics plays a role, ask your relatives about any family history of type 2 diabetes. Be aware, that out of the 26 million people in the U.S. with type 2 diabetes, there are 7 million who don’t know they have it. Indications that someone may have undiagnosed diabetes include:
- Excessive thirst – high glucose levels cause dehydration.
- Frequent infections including yeast infections in folds of skin that are slow to heal.
- Blurry vision that comes and goes – glucose and fluid collects in the lens of the eye when glucose levels are high causing swelling that distorts vision.
- Extreme fatigue – glucose is not getting into the cells sufficiently to provide the body with energy.
- Hunger – people with type 2 diabetes are constantly hungry, even right after eating probably due to changes in other hormones affecting digestion like Leptin and partially due to the cells “starving” for glucose.
Other indications you may have insulin resistance
There are other conditions that may indicate that you have insulin resistance. If you have any of these then you most likely have insulin resistance.
- Gestational Diabetes
- Were a large baby at birth, > 9 pounds
- Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
- Low (good) HDL and high triglycerides
- Over age 45
- Have a skin condition called acanthosis nigricans, dark, velvety skin around your neck or armpits
- Overweight or carry excess weight around your middle
Symptoms of insulin resistance can be very subtle
Perhaps you may notice that you’re more tired and hungry than usual. Perhaps you’ve been a bit down and depressed. Maybe you’ve gained a few pounds. You might chalk it up to stress at work, but perhaps your body is shifting to a more insulin resistant state and you’re developing hyperinsulinemia. Maybe your just don’t want to think about that right now because you’ve got too much on your plate.
Danger of hyperinsulinemia
Insulin makes our body store more calories which contributes to weight gain.
The increased work load on the pancreas eventually exhausts the beta cells of the pancreas and leads to diabetes.
But most people are not aware of the link between high insulin levels and cancer. As I’ve mentioned many times before, insulin is like fertilizer to our body. It does get glucose into the cells for energy, but it is also feeds the “weeds” in our body, those cancerous cells our body is always making but not always destroying. Getting insulin levels down reduces the risk of cancer.
I’ll never forget a patient I worked with who developed type 2 diabetes and eventually used an insulin pump to better manage her blood sugars. Her A1c was at a healthy range, but she gradually gained weight. She was eating pretty much whatever she wanted, and doing an awesome job adjusting her insulin dosage, but over time she was requiring more and more insulin to keep those blood sugars under control. She gained over 30 pounds over that period, despite good blood sugar control, but she was requiring a lot of insulin. She ended up passing away not from complications of diabetes, but from cancer. I always wondered what all that insulin was doing to the other hormones in her body, setting herself up for cancer.
A calorie may be a calorie, but I believe the type of calorie counts
Losing weight is not just about calories. High insulin levels in conjunction with a high carb diet will make weight loss difficult. However, I also don’t believe in a ketogenic diet like Dr. Adkins; it’s a radical way of eating that isn’t sustainable and it omits a lot of vitamins, minerals and cholesterol lowering fiber that grains can provide. But I do believe reducing carbs, and making them whole grain and adding more enough protein and fiber will reduce your insulin levels, improve your insulin resistance, help you lose weight and ward off diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
If you enjoy my tips, please share with your friends and family. You can get healthy on your own with good information and a desire to live a healthier life. Please make a donation to the Saint Vincent De Paul Soup Kitchen. They are in great need of your financial support while they provide over 10,000 meals a year to Portland, Maine’s neediest population.