If you’re anything like I was not so long ago… you may have some weight you’d like to lose. The question is how.
Is it enough to run 3 miles every day? Perhaps the secret lies in the old calories in/calories out philosophy. You know… starve yourself a little and crank on that stair master. No pain, no gain, right?
Well, from my personal experience, and the experience of many others in the fitness industry (who weren’t educated in the ways of the Standard American Diet… aka the SAD Diet) I can safely say chronic cardio and counting calories isn’t the answer to long-term weight management.
Instead, if you want to get your weight under control, and more importantly keep it under control for the rest of your life, you must learn to control an extremely important hormone called insulin.
What is Insulin?
To understand how insulin works imagine you just sat down for a nice dinner at your favorite steak house and you’ve just eaten a piping hot baked potato with your steak dinner.
Shortly after dinner your digestive systems kicks into gear and converts the starch from the potato into a simple sugar called glucose.
Once glucose makes its appearance your blood sugar rises and insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, quickly arrives in order to get the glucose out of our bloodstream.
Insulin makes this happen by storing the glucose in your liver and muscles as glycogen. As an aside, this glycogen is the fuel we CrossFitters rely on to power us through that 15-minute AMRAP workout!
So, to review, we eat the potato, which is converted to glucose before insulin shuttles it off to our muscles and liver as glycogen.
What’s the Big Deal?
Sounds OK, right? So, what’s the big deal?
Well, if you’re eating clean, this potato isn’t likely going to cause an issue (even though a sweet potato may have been a slightly better choice due to a lower glycemic index). Sadly, though, the steak house saga continues.
You see, once dinner is over you decide to order a monster piece of chocolate cake that’s been smothered in hot caramel sauce. And let’s not forget that giant side of vanilla bean ice cream.
Well, once the cake and ice cream make its way into your body it’s also converted to glucose. The problem is… once your liver and muscles are full, and can’t accept any more glucose, the rest is stored as saturated fat. Not good.
The irony to this story is it wasn’t the fat from the steak that gets stored as fat… it’s the excess glucose (sugar) from that potato, cake, and ice cream that gets stored as fat!
Now, sadly, the story is far from over… and it gets worse I’m afraid.
You see, whenever we eat too many carbs (or processed sugars) our pancreas reacts by pumping out more insulin. But, as we already learned, once our liver and muscles are full of glycogen they eventually become “resistant” to insulin.
In other words, while insulin is doing its best to move glucose, which can be toxic if it remains in our blood, into these cells… the liver and muscles have essentially “shut their doors” and aren’t allowing anything else in.
So, the glucose remains in the blood and the pancreas starts to pump even more insulin. This is bad since insulin, in excess, is also toxic.
Luckily, insulin is persistent and eventually finds a way to (usually) move that glucose into fat cells.
So, the good news is we don’t immediately die from glucose overdose… the bad news, however, is we get fatter as a result.
Now, in our example we’ve only discussed a potato, some cake, and ice cream… but, obviously, if you’re following the Standard American Diet, which calls for an incredible amount of grains and carbs, and feasting on processed food, fast food, and other sugar filled candy and snacks… insulin resistance is an extremely likely situation. In fact, a 2002 study showed 32% of all Americans were likely insulin resistant.
And, left unchecked, insulin resistance can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.
What Causes Insulin Resistance?
Now, as we learned earlier, once our cells are “full” of glycogen (which is almost all the time for overweight and sedentary people) they may become resistant to insulin. And, as it turns out, this resistance only increases as the pancreas continues to pump out more insulin and causes the liver and muscle cells to “strengthen their doors” in order to keep the excess glucose out. In other words, the resistance gets even stronger.
Then, as if this isn’t bad enough… eventually – after working so hard – the pancreas can get “worn out” and essentially give up the fight and stop producing insulin which then leads to extremely serious health issues including diabetes.
And, while I’ve been pretty tough on carbs and sugars, and for good reason since research shows refined carbs are indeed associated with insulin resistance, there are other potential causes as well.
For example, studies have shown that visceral fat, aka beer bellies, around our organs may lead to insulin resistance. Put another way… while insulin resistance leads to us getting fat… being fat can also lead to insulin resistance!
Next, sedentary lifestyles, where exercise is something you watch others do, has also been shown to contribute to insulin resistance. So, lying on the couch with a bag of chips watching the game is likely hurting you far more than you know.
Finally, chronic inflammation as a result of too much omega-6 fat (and not enough omega-3 fat) coupled with an overly stressful lifestyle can contribute to insulin resistance.
Now, while this isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive treatise on the causes of insulin resistance it’s my hope it will help you better understand why you may be struggling with weight loss.
What to Do?
So, to wrap this article up I’d like to leave you with some good news! Namely many of us are in complete control of insulin resistance. And, no matter how bad things are, there are some specific steps you can take to regain control.
- Stop consuming processed sugar (fructose) on a regular basis (soda, candy bars, sweets, etc.). It’s OK to treat your self every once in awhile… but continuous consumption of processed sugar is very likely going to cause problems.
- Minimize your carbohydrate intake. Instead of eating bread, rice, and pasta throw some extra veggies on your plate and smother them in grass fed butter. And, don’t worry… the grass fed butter isn’t going to cause you issues! Good fat, like grass-fed butter and avocados, don’t make you fat… processed sugar and carbs do!
- Bring your Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats into balance. Omega-3 fat is found in fresh water fish, flaxseed, and things like fish oil supplements. These are good. Omega-6 fat is found in things like processed vegetable oil, sunflower seeds, and most fast food. In a perfect world the ratio of these two types of fat would be 1:1. Unfortunately, today this ratio is closer to 15 (Omega-6) to 1 (Omega-3).
- Exercise. And I don’t mean you need to become an obsessed CrossFitter… although it’s sure worked for me! Instead, take a walk a few times a week. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park farther away and walk a bit further to the store. Just move. But, to be sure, more strenuous strength training is going to move the needle faster!
- Sleep. I didn’t mention it earlier… but lack of sleep has also been shown to contribute to insulin resistance. So, do your very best to get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night.
Now, if these 5 action items aren’t enough… here are a few more. But, if you take my advice (after consulting with your doctor of course) and clean up your diet, exercise, and get more sleep I feel extremely confident you’ll experience weight loss like never before.
Until next time… be holy, eat clean, and do more push-ups!
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