Insulin 🙂, Glycemic Index and Weight Loss: Not so simple?

“Lord Walder let me choose any of his granddaughters, and promised me the girl’s weight in silver as a dowry. So I have a fat young bride.” – Game of Thrones


I wonder what the glycemic index of ALL THE CAKE is?  Probably pretty high.

One thing I love about writing this blog is that I always learn something.  My favorite times writing are when, in the middle of the research that I’m doing that I find out something new that changes my conclusion.  Or, like today, when I think I’m pretty up on a subject but I end up finding out something that doesn’t change my conclusion, but changes the way I got there.  So, spoiler alert – I learned a lot, but my conclusion didn’t change.

When it comes to weight loss, it still comes down to what you eat.  For the last two and a half months(!) I haven’t been practicing what I preach – I strayed pretty far from the Paleo®/Primal©/Atkins™ low-carb type diet.  I’d give you my reasons and excuses, but I’m not in junior high anymore and am not really worried about stuff like that.  I’ve mentioned plateaus (LINK) before, and have decided to research the whole diet mess in greater detail.

Like junior high, it’s all about hormones.  Just not exactly the same ones as junior high.

The first and most critical hormone when it comes to weight loss appears to be insulin.  What is insulin, besides expensive?

Let’s take a step back before we answer that.  What’s a hormone?  A hormone is a messenger chemical that the loose agglomeration of organs that your body is made of use to signal each other.  They probably don’t have as much information as, say, a text message.  Think of hormones as the emoji’s of your body.  Keep in mind, these emoji’s don’t just go to one place – they go everywhere.  And do different things in different combinations.

The primary triggering mechanism (but not the only one, as we will see) to flood your body with insulin is the blood sugar level.  Your body actually can see the quality of your blood as it goes through your veins, probably through telepathy.  When the blood sugar level increases, the pancreas releases insulin.  Insulin is the 🙂 of your body.

So, let’s pretend you’re six years old, and the idea of eating a cup of sugar appeals to you.  Your blood sugar content rises, your body sends out a batch of insulin 🙂 .  This insulin allows the sugar (specifically glucose) into the cell to be converted into energy – unless your cells have plenty of energy already, in which case the glucose is converted into glycogen for storage in the muscles for when it’s needed.  If the cells and the glycogen storage are full?  Game over.  Let’s turn all that spare sugar into fat.

So, let’s eliminate insulin 🙂.  That seems easy enough.  No insulin, no fat.

Without insulin 🙂, your cells wouldn’t allow the sugar through the cell wall, and the sugar would continue to increase in concentration until your blood took on the consistency of maple syrup.  Just kidding – your body would dump the sugar through the kidneys, which the kidneys totes do not like – the ancient Greeks even had a name for this:  diabetes, from the words for “pass through” and “sweet.”  Really.

This is actually what happens with type one diabetics:  their pancreas stops making insulin 🙂 and then they get really skinny.  And then, if not diagnosed and given injections of life-giving insulin 🙂, they die.  Elevated blood sugar for long periods of time is really bad for you.  The Mrs. is a type I diabetic.  I tell her that she should stop being dependent upon drugs.  She hits me.

Insulin 🙂 is anabolic – it signals the body that it’s time to build stuff – in this case, fat or glycogen.  Fat is an especially potent storage form, it has about twice the thermal energy per pound or gallon (I could say gram, but I’m not a communist) as sugar does.  But, we should all recall that a calorie is not a calorie – your body uses them differently (LINK).

So, the insulin 🙂 wants to do something with your blood sugar – it has to or else it will kill you.  Part of the choice is yours – eat a batch of potato chips and lounge on the couch?  Right to the fat conversion.  Eat a batch of potato chips and go exercise?  Creating that caloric deficit is required to lose weight, but remember, you can’t outrun your teeth (LINK) even on a low-carb diet.

This forms the basis for the strategies in the Paleo®/Primal©/Atkins™ diets.  In Atkins™ the focus is entirely on elimination of carbs.  In Paleo®/Primal©, the focus is on eating things that are in tune what a hunter gatherer would have consumed back in the day, and a greater understanding of “insulin 🙂 reality” is a component of the diet.

It turns out that there is a list (a very long list that you can find here (LINK)) of what the Glycemic Index (I’ll just call it Index) of food is.  In this case, the Index is a comparison of how the food compares to just drinking 100 grams of glucose, the sugar that goes straight into the bloodstream without alteration.  So, glucose has an Index of 100.  White bread?  70.  Baked potato?  69, nearly the same as bread.  Carrots?  35.  Rocks and twigs?  0.  The Index tells you how much your food is going to go immediately to your bloodstream as sugar.

It’s a complicated system, and there appears to be no evidence that glycemic index values by themselves are a very good basis for a diet.  It does, however, provide a clue as to what causes an insulin response in your body.

A nice, juicy ribeye is composed of protein and fat (along with some garlic . . . mmmm).  The glycemic index of a ribeye is zero.  It doesn’t raise your blood sugar at all.  Let’s say you ate nothing but ribeyes and water for a week.  Wonderful idea!!!  You would not die, but you’d probably start to get sick of ribeyes.  After a year.

But when you ate the ribeye, your body would toss out insulin 🙂.  Well, it wouldn’t do just that.  It also tosses out glucagon (another hormone), which allows amino acids (protein) into the liver to be turned into . . . glucose.  It’s an example of how one hormone does many things, and, in combination with other hormones, does yet a different thing.  Maybe instead of emoji’s, hormones are more like a Rubik’s Cube® which each hormone turns the cube a different way and nobody understands except for Eastern European kids who have no social life.  Limiting this to just insulin 🙂 or even insulin/glucagon can’t tell all of the story, but it is a start.  If you overeat while on Atkins®?  Yeah, you can gain weight.  Thanks, a lot, insulin 🙂.

In a person who hasn’t developed diabetes (type II, the kind that old people get) this insulin/glucagon situation balances itself out.  And our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t have a Dairy Queen™ to go get a Blizzard© at.  So, they ate their mammoth, some nuts, and berries.  Pretty low carbohydrate load and the insulin/glucagon balance didn’t create too many fat cavemen.

But we have Dairy Queen™, so modern us uses a lot of insulin 🙂 dealing with that sugar.  And the pancreas keeps pumping it out.  The response to that is that the cells start to ignore the insulin.  Oh, him again.  And then the sugar is stored as fat . . . and the negative cycle repeats, and the person slowly develops diabetes (type II).

But low carb diets improve insulin 🙂 sensitivity.  Working out hard and sleeping well increase sensitivity.  The best cure of all is to lose weight, though that’s not a guarantee to remove all negative aspects of loss of insulin 🙂 sensitivity.  Mark over at Mark’s Daily Apple® has a big list of suggestions on how to increase your insulin 🙂 sensitivity (LINK).

But it’s still a question of thermodynamics, and you’d have to eat a bucketful of broccoli to get to 2,000 calories a day.  Low carb diets just help you not be as hungry and are (in one respect) natural portion limiters, especially if you throw in lots of low carb vegetables as would be common with a Paleo® or Primal© diet.  (Fruits are harder, since we’ve bred them to be much sweeter over thousands of years.)

In the end, my advice is to treat life as you grow older like you treated life in junior high – work out hard, don’t ignore your hormones, and get used to hair showing up in weird places, like your back.

John Wilder is not a doctor.  Do NOT the take advice of anyone without first consulting with your physician, swami, healer, metaphysician, lawyer, and guru.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.