A Few Facts:
- A high sugar/carbohydrate diet leads to high levels of blood glucose and a corresponding high level of insulin production. A high level of insulin in the blood often leads to an ongoing cycle of fat storage. It also exhausts our “fight or flight” stress response and can lead to emotional difficulties related to eating, body image and a long-term battle with weight moderation.
- A high sugar/carbohydrate diet promotes systemic inflammation and free radical damage in the body. This accelerates the aging process and leads to a host of health problems.
- There is no requirement for dietary carbohydrates in the human diet. Human’s can live on minimal and even no carbohydrate intake for long periods of time and have done so for throughout our history. Our bodies can produce the glucose we need internally and can run quite effectively off the by products of fat metabolism.
- That’s not to say that carbohydrates don’t play a welcome and tasty role in our diet, but it need not, nor should it, play anywhere near as large a role as it does in the Standard American Diet.
- The conventional food pyramid has done a fabulous job of creating a dietary environment that has made us dependent on a level and a frequency of carbohydrate consumption that has lead us down the path of epidemic levels of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity and more!
- Your brain and organs need about 150 grams of glucose a day. Unfortunately far to many of us are eating more than double that. In fact that 150-gram requirement does not need to be met by our daily food intake. We have plenty of energy stored in our fat cells, muscles and other organs to meet that need. These internal storage depots can provide more than enough energy regardless of our dietary intake, as long as the mechanisms to unlock them are working.
If sugar and processed carbohydrates are so bad for us, why the cruel joke? Why do we crave them so much? It’s almost like there is an involuntary mechanism that drives so many of us to eat more and more! It’s true! From an evolutionary perspective carbohydrates, especially sugar, were quick sources of energy that were relatively hard to come by. Fruit, for example, was seasonal for the most part. It was also much smaller and a little tarter than the fruit we eat today. But biologically it was an easily digestible form of calories/energy that helped our bodies in the short term. Whatever we didn’t use up got stored away as fat for the winter when fruit and vegetation in general were scare. Those fat stores were then used as energy depots when we needed it most.
Our hormonal response naturally motivates us to want more when we can get it, and why not? Early in our evolutionary history, this type of dietary energy wasn’t abundant. We didn’t have breads, cookies, candies, and chips sitting in a bag just waiting for us. The scenario of chronic over eating of these foods wasn’t an issue like it is today. Unfortunately we are biologically wired to like these foods and when we allow our bodies to become dependent on them, we are biologically wired to crave these foods.
So how does this all work? Or rather how does it all go so horribly wrong? Let’s take a high level look at how our bodies respond when we eat. (Disclosure: this is a very basic overview for the purposes of keeping this easy to understand.)
- When you eat a meal and it makes it’s way through the digestive process there are myriad of processes that go to work. From the point of view of understanding fat storage vs. fat burning the master hormone at work is Insulin.
- When you eat a meal, that meal impacts the level of blood glucose in your blood stream. The higher the carbohydrate content of that meal the higher your blood glucose level will rise.
- With a rise in glucose level comes a corresponding secretion of insulin from your pancreas. (Actually insulin secretion starts even before you take your first bite to get your digestion process going.)
- Insulin has the extremely important job of taking that glucose where it needs to go, because it needs to go somewhere. If there is too much glucose swimming around in your bloodstream without being used for energy needs or being stored away for future energy needs, bad things happen. Just ask any type 1 diabetic. (That’s a whole other article)
- So, the glucose (carbohydrates), amino acids (protein) and fatty acids (fats) from your meal are now in your blood stream and need to go somewhere. Insulin puts the amino acids and fatty acids aside for the moment to let glucose burn first.
- After your immediate energy needs are met the remaining glucose gets converted into glycogen and stored in your muscles and liver. Once those are both full the remaining glucose is turned into triglycerides (the storage form of fat)
- When insulin levels are high those triglycerides get locked into your fat cells.
- When insulin levels are healthy and your body needs to tap that stored energy from your muscles, liver or fat stores to meet your energy needs until your next meal, then all is well.
- It’s when insulin levels are chronically too high that you get this negative feedback loop and the troubles begin.
- With insulin levels chronically high, you end up in this perpetual “fat and energy storage mode” rather than “fat burning for energy-usage mode.”
- After a while your body and your brain begin to crave more and more carbohydrates because high insulin levels deplete your bloodstream of energy (because it is doing it’s job, constantly shuttling nutrients into your cells.)
- This causes an increase in your appetite, especially cravings for quick energy. Your brain thinks you’re starving when in actuality you have tons of energy stored up but because insulin levels are perpetually high you can’t unlock that energy from its storage depots.
- When this goes on for too long eventually your cells become deaf to insulin’s signals to continue storing nutrients and you become insulin resistant. If this pattern keeps up, you may find yourself on the road to Type 2 Diabe
This nightmare is just the tip of the ice burg! This addresses only the issue with weight gain. The good news is this, for those of us who are genetically predisposed to store excess glucose as fat, that weight gain is a highly noticeable sign of this probelm. It’s a symptom of this underlying toxic by-product of eating too much sugar or processed carbohydrates that is obvious to everyone. For the unlucky ones who don’t gain weight and think they are impervious to the unhealthy effects of chronically high insulin levels, too much sugar consumption acts as a sneaky, silent, yet toxic invader wreaking all kinds of havoc!
Another side effect of chronically high insulin levels is it’s impact on your fight or flight response. When blood glucose drops too low and is not replenished quickly your body reacts with a stress response. Some people experience feeling jittery, shaky, edgy, clammy, racing heartbeat. Cortisol is released (a stress hormone released by your adrenal glands) and begins to covert amino acids into glucose in a process called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is not a bad thing but under healthy conditions but under these stress response conditions with chronic cortisol production, it can contribute to adrenal fatigue.
Excess Insulin also causes disruption in other hormone functions. These disruption include:
- Problems with your other appetite hormones like leptin and ghrelin, making it difficult to regulate your appetite.
- It can interfere with your body’s production of Dim Light Melatonin production making it difficult to fall asleep.
- It binds with your cell receptor’s for Insulin-like Growth Factor keeping it from doing its job.
- It also interferes with thyroid function. When your liver becomes insulin resistant it’s ability to convert T4 to T3 declines dramatically and slows down your metabolic rate, increases fat storage, brain function is compromised and energy levels drop.
- When insulin and cortisol levels are high it suppresses testosterone, DHEA and other hormones leading to that tell tale belly fat and accelerating the aging process.
Phew! As long and involved as that was, there is much, much, more. My hope is that by reading this you are a little more aware of the “Why” part of my recommendation to keep sugar and processed carbohydrate levels to a minimum. The benefits of doing so go beyond just weight loss. Keeping your insulin levels in a healthy range will help you maintain a healthy weight, keep stress hormones in check, allow your cells to get the nutrients they need from the food you are eating, and keep your thyroid and brain function healthy.
My next post will dive deeper into the major hormones in this process and how what you eat and how you live affect your hormonal system. Until then, chose wisely my friends, at the end of the day, the buck stops with you. No one has the ability to make a difference in your well-being than you do. Take that power, use it to your advantage.
Until Next Time,
Laura, MGP and (R)evolution Health Coach