Food: The Medicine, The Poison
This is the third article in a series on weight optimization. In the first two, I discussed big picture stuff – the many reasons weight gain has become more common, and some of the psychological factors that may be at play. Now we’re going to look more closely at specific foods and the biological dynamics related to them. This is important stuff to know, and it’s probably not part of almost anyone’s public school education.
Insulin is a hormone everyone has heard of because of type 1 diabetes mellitus, a disease of insulin deficiency. The key function for which we need it in diabetes is the uptake of sugar from the bloodstream into our cells. Without sufficient insulin, glucose builds up in the blood to a toxic degree. With the advent of manufactured insulin for injection, diabetes was considered a manageable disease, and insulin hailed as the hero.
But since the 1980s, the incidence of diabetes in the U.S. has more than doubled, and most of these cases are type 2. In type 1, the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas aren’t working, so there is little or no insulin production. In type 2, the pancreas produces insulin, but the body has become unresponsive to it through a process known as insulin resistance, and the result is that insulin fails to trigger absorption of glucose from the bloodstream. Sugar builds up in the blood and, over time, damage occurs.
While most cases of type 1 diabetes begin early in life and are unpreventable and incurable, many cases of type 2 can be reversed. Among the risk factors of type 2 diabetes are overeating, obesity, certain foods, and a sedentary lifestyle. The reason I’m bringing this up in the midst of a series on weight is that type 2 diabetes and obesity go hand in hand. They’re so common together that a new word has emerged – diabesity – to refer to the combination of these two conditions.
A few simple dietary changes can take us a long way in addressing this. Simple carbohydrates contribute to the development of diabesity in a number of ways. A diet high in simple carbs means high insulin levels, and insulin is not always the hero you might think. Insulin promotes synthesis of fat in the liver. It promotes storage of sugars as fat. It promotes storage of fats. It inhibits the breakdown of fat. And it causes most cells to preferentially metabolize sugars over fats. Therefore, insulin has been referred to as a “fat sparing” hormone. It helps make us fat. And being fat makes us insulin resistant.
Early research focused mainly on the role of very high fat diets in promoting insulin resistance (at least in rats), but this could be explained as a consequence of overeating, since, at 9 calories per gram (versus 4 calories per gram for carbs and protein), a very high fat diet (rats were fed 80% fat) is likely to provide a caloric excess. Interestingly, though, the potential for a very high fat diet to lead to insulin resistance could be completely eliminated if 5 to 10 percent of the fat was in the form of animal-based omega 3 fats, such as those found in fish.
The sugar fructose plays a special role in the development of insulin resistance through numerous mechanisms. It causes an increase in circulating triglycerides, which promotes insulin resistance in a similar fashion to that of a very high fat diet. It promotes weight gain. And it promotes leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that regulates long term energy and, more to our point, reduces appetite in response to increases in body fat. Leptin should make us eat less when we gain weight. But fructose blocks this effect. People consuming lots of fructose are more prone to overeat, gain weight, and mess with blood lipids. Hence, fructose has multiple ways of helping us get fat. So, stay away high fructose sources, such as corn syrup, agave nectar, and concentrated fruit juice. Meanwhile, eat more marine omega 3 fats. They’ve been shown to reduce this effect of fructose also.
I want people to reduce their insulin secretion, not increase it. Interestingly, the dietary changes that reduce insulin secretion also improve insulin sensitivity (that is, they ameliorate insulin resistance). The most effective way to do this is to eat less, and to spread out what you do eat into multiple meals with no snacks in between.
In a sense, consuming a beverage sweetened with corn syrup is overeating even if you don’t get full on it, simply because the sweetener represents more than the body can healthily handle. It’s even more damaging if you do get full. So, I heartily recommend also adopting a practice of not getting full anymore.
When I was growing up, the verbiage around meals almost always involved the word full. “Are you full? Or are you still hungry?” I learned that the way to know that it was time to stop eating was that I felt full. No more room. Either you’re hungry or you’re full – is that true?
The truth is that we can eat enough to no longer have hunger and yet not be full. Full means “at capacity.” Full means likely to have stretched the stomach. Full means probably you’ll be feeling tired and maybe slightly gross for a little while.
As I have explored the feeling between hungry and full, I’ve discovered that it actually takes much less food than I’m accustomed to serving myself in order to feel satisfied. And it’s a good feeling to get up from the table with a sense of lightness in my body. I also have a sense of lightness in my mind, since I know I did the right thing for myself. I encourage you to try it this week. While you do, please keep in mind the advice from my last article – while you practice manipulating your food intake, stay light and avoid guilt. Even if you decide to have a bottle of pure fructose for dinner.
If you’re looking for more health support, please check out our Rituals for Living Dreambook. My wife and I created it based on our years of experience as health professionals, business owners, and parents. It’s a workbook/planner to help people stick to their self-care in all senses – mind, body, family, creativity, etc – and to get to the heart of what you really want to prioritize. I just put the finishing touches on it, which included writing a health challenge for every week of the year. I’d love to have a community of us all doing these challenges and cultivating vibrant health and peace together. You can check out our silly video and pre-order your copy HERE.
Dr. Peter Borten
Copyright 2017 by Peter Borten