Insulin is a major factor in weight loss many people overlook and several myths hurting people on their weight loss attempts, some of which deceptively help in the short-term. There are some simple (but often difficult) habits we can adopt to help change our patterns of obesity.
The following explanation of science-based weight loss comes from the book The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung. He’s respected in the field and backs his arguments with research. I’ve seen similar themes crop up in blogs I follow: Ben Greenfield, Tim Ferriss, Charles Poliquin, Dr. Rhonda Patrick, amongst others. These principles may not be perfect, but they are a superior means of achieving lasting health and weight loss, all other factors (disease, sleep disorders, genetics, job hours, etc,) being tabled for another discussion. I’m not an expert on the topic so I can’t speak authoritatively on this, but Dr. Fung presents a strong argument. I’m presenting this information as Dr. Fung does, not as myself or my own personal opinion. It’s worth hearing his opinion out and researching on your own. Get the book. It’s good.
His hypothesis is that 70% of obesity can be explained by insulin and our resistance to it.
Insulin is a hormone that controls blood sugar. We eat foods. They release glucose (sugar) into our blood. The pancreas releases insulin to message cells to take this blood glucose and use it for energy or fat storage. Once functioning cells of our body have enough energy, insulin brings glucose to be stored in fat cells and as fat in our liver.
As we eat more carbs, refined sugars, and to a slightly lesser extent proteins, our insulin levels go up. Due to the excess sugar and insulin, our cells become resistant to the insulin, because it’s trying to bring in excess glucose. Because the body always wants to stabilize its blood sugar levels , this resistance causes the need for more insulin to be created. As insulin levels increase and cells are rejecting it because they already have enough glucose, more glucose is transferred more quickly to fat cells and the liver, increasing obesity.
A person who is insulin resistant will more easily gain fat than someone who eats the same meal but is not insulin resistant. This is because their non-fat cells are slower to accept insulin signals. Excess glucose it quickly swept into fat cells for storage.
The vicious cycle: even if an insulin resistant person switches their diet, their pancreas is still accustomed to set levels of insulin at a high level because their cells are still resistant to the insulin. An insulin resistant person prioritizes fat storage compared to an insulin sensitive person. The secret is to reduce insulin levels and insulin resistance to allow your body to relearn how much insulin it needs to maintain a healthy metabolism.
Foods and Habits to Help
The foods that promote insulin reduction are fats. Protein does spike insulin a bit. But, carbs are the biggest culprit in insulin levels. The more processed the carb, the worse it is. Quinoa is a prime example of a decent carb, all the way to white table sugar, which causes pure insulin level spikes with almost no feeling of satiation.
Fasting allows our bodies to recover from high-insulin periods and “reset” to lower healthy insulin levels. Going from low to high insulin levels was very common in the history of mankind, but is now lost on us through constant snacking. If we want to train our bodies to not store fat, we need to get them in a state where the pancreas isn’t constantly producing insulin, and healthy non-fat cells aren’t constantly pushing away glucose to fat stores in the liver and elsewhere. This can be greatly aided by giving our bodies frequent breaks from food when possible.
Weight Loss Myths
There are dangerous myths in popular culture about weight loss. They are slowly being dispelled. But they still persist.
- Fat is bad for you. (causes weight gain and heart disease)
- Cutting calories will help you lose weight long-term.
- Artificial Sugars help weight loss.
- Exercise is good for longterm weight loss.
- Breakfast is a necessary meal (blood sugar, energy for the day, etc. )
- Snacking improves weight loss.
- Fasting causes muscle loss.
- You are fully in control of how much you eat.
Fat is bad for you
Dietary fat is not associated with cardiovascular disease or obesity. Healthy fats like coconut oil, avocado, and fatty fishes like salmon fill you up and provide micronutrients. Even fats like olive oil, nuts, and beef tallow are much less associated with obesity than carbs.
Calories are the metric of food that causes weight gain, but they aren’t the internal metric our bodies use to set our weight, that is insulin. Cutting calories will cut your weight. But, it won’t control your hunger. It won’t control your metabolic expenditure. It won’t control how much energy you have. While cutting calories works short-term, your body will always try to reach the homeostatic state that your insulin and insulin resistance levels and metabolic state indicate. Ultra low-calorie diets will leave us under-nourished.
Ideally you want to fuel your body to maintain your alertness, energy, sleep, and hunger.
Over the long-term (12+months) your body will compensate for a purely low-calorie diet and hormonally (through hunger & a lowered metabolic rate) gear you up for weight gain. While watching calories is helpful, it is only part of an intelligent long-term weight loss plan. We also need to cut out refined sugars and probably eat less often.
Cutting calories works. The calories in/calories out theory is not wrong. But it doesn’t show us the whole picture of our bodies response to decreased energy intake. Dr. Fung points out this is why almost all diets work for 12 months, then fail. They cut calories , but fail to train our brain and pancreas, to set our metabolism and cells up for a new sustainable normal body fat level.
Artificial sugars like Splenda and aspartame are just as linked to obesity as real sugar. They trick your body into thinking it’s getting sugar, and thus promote the same hormonal pathways that cause weight gain from sugar. While they do help cut calories, they don’t provide satiation. They spike insulin just like sugar. Thus, they promote the conversion of preexisting blood glucose into fat.
They make us hungrier and more prone to fat gain through insulin spikes.
Unless you’re running 3+hrs a day, you cannot out-exercise food from a calorie perspective. Exercise is great for cardiovascular health, but it’s not linked to weight loss. Some exercise (weights and low-intensity cardio) does decrease insulin. But, this is not enough to rely on it for fat loss.
Exercise is good. But we can’t rely on it to beat a bad diet.
Breakfast is not magical. Blood sugar can be stable for days without food (unless you’re diabetic where insulin is pulling your blood sugar into your cells too rapidly or inappropriately, causing low blood sugar (faintness, dizziness, shakiness, slight nausea, etc.). We don’t need breakfast for energy or health. If we’re not hungry, don’t eat it. Breakfast only forces us into insulin/glucose processing mode for a larger percentage of the day.
The more times we eat, the fatter we get. Snacking is not associated with weight loss. Snacks are notoriously unhealthy and loaded with empty refined carbs. detailed source. It seems like the exception may be if you’re doing bodybuilding and need to get tons of calories into your body. But for the median person, limiting food intake to two or three meals will be helpful in reducing calories and giving our bodies time to sit at lower insulin levels.
Fasting allows the body time to process food. Hormonally it gives us time with low insulin to process fats and sugars. The contemporary 3-meal system is not what the human body was built for. For the majority of human history, humans ate when they could find food, which gave us a lot of time when we weren’t eating regularly set meals.
If you’re constantly eating, your body will naturally think it needs to be constantly producing insulin and storing fats, especially when those calories are coming from refined sugars like bread, pasta, chips, bagels, candy, etc.
You are fully in control
Your body is built for homeostasis. It controls when you feel hungry and full through hormones. If you eat refined carbs and sugar, you will be tricking your body into thinking it’s not getting enough food, so it will keep allowing you to be hungry. This is why we never feel full on cake or ice cream.
On short bursts of time, we are able to cut calories. But our bodies adapt to burn less and hunger more. This is why, after 12 months, all diets stop working. They are crafty ways to cut calories. But, they don’t address the long-term hormonal nature of obesity.
If we’re going to keep weight off, we need to adopt more intelligent and sustainable eating habits that promote lean mass gain while burning fat. This is primarily done through eating a diet high in fiber, fat, with a balance of whole natural carbohydrates (brown rice, quinoa, sweet potatoes) and proteins. This is becoming increasingly difficult when even our “healthy” vegetables like corn, potatoes, and lettuce are being bred to maximize sugars and size at the expense of fiber and nutrition.
- Eat only when you’re hungry. Try to occasionally take 24+hrs between eating.
- Substitute meal times when you’re not hungry (if they exist) with coffee, tea, bone broth.
- Eliminate sugar and refined carbs (bread, pasta, cakes) as foods in your diets. Treat them as special celebration items. If you do eat pasta, rice, potatoes, eat them with fibrous vegetables to reduce the insulin load. If you’re exercising more than 45mins/day, it becomes OK to up your clean carb intake.
- Add more fat to your meals to fill you up (butter, coconut oil, olive oil). Fat does not affect insulin levels.
- Drink at least 2 L of water per day.
- If you do have a big splurge meal :), take 2 tsp of vinegar with it to reduces it’s insulin load.
- Find a good meal plan for your situation here.
- Try to eat grass-fed and wild caught animal products. Conventional farming relies on corn feeds that jam animals plump full of sugars.
- Be aware of your caloric intake, but don’t obsess over it. If you’re following a clean diet, it will be hard to eat too much. Most overeating comes from lack of fiber and refined sugar intake.
For more info do check out The Obesity Code by Jason Fung. This isn’t a wild and contentious theory. Reducing carbs and eating more fiber has been the classic advice of grandmothers for generations. Dr. Fung explores the social impacts of food subsidies, mass-produced carbs, and changing eating patterns in the 1950’s and how they made us fatter than any generation in history.