Insulin: Why 500 calories is better than 400 calories

You’ve probably heard about insulin; especially in relation to diabetes.  What you may not know is insulin is also the main hormone in charge of energy use in the body.  Understanding how insulin works makes it clear, all calories are not created equal.

Controlling blood sugar is job #1

When you eat, your body starts pumping out insulin to control the surge of blood sugar on its way.  Actually, your body starts producing insulin as soon as you think about food.  (Which you’re probably doing right now) 

Insulin takes the sugar (glucose) from your meal out of the blood and moves it into the cells so it can be used for energy immediately.  When glucose goes into fat cells it is converted to fat to be used for energy later. 

Fat is an energy source

One of the main functions of fat is to provide energy between meals.  Sugars (which are carbohydrates) are much easier for the body to burn for immediate energy after a meal.  Fat is used when those sugars are gone to provide our body a steady stream of energy. 

How insulin regulates fat

The sugar surge from our meal is gone.  Insulin did its main job of moving glucose so it could be used immediately or stored as fat.  Now it’s time to use that stored energy. 

Insulin interacts with two main enzymes to make this happen:

Enzyme #1 (Lipoprotein Lipase(LPL))- LPL is found on the outside of cells.  Its job is to bring fat (certain fats called fatty acids) in the blood into the cells for storage. The more “active” LPL is, the more fat comes into the cell.  The more insulin is present, the better LPL stores fat.

Enzyme #2 (Hormone-sensitive Lipase (HSL))– HSL lives inside fat cells.  It breaks down fat stored inside the cell into forms that can leave the cell and be used for energy.  The more insulin is present, the less HSL breaks down fat.

This is all interesting (um, kinda).  What does it have to do with my diet?

The levels of insulin in our bodies respond to the amount and types of carbohydrates in our diet.  Taking in lots of crappy carbs (read: processed sweets and snacks) causes our blood sugar to skyrocket and fall dramatically.  Insulin doesn’t like this. 

As blood sugar levels skyrocket, we pump out huge amounts of insulin.  Then blood sugar plummets, and there’s too much insulin around with nothing to do.  Except keep us from burning fat as we should (see above).

Um, my diet?

Alright, alright.  Geez.

Excess carbohydrates cause too much insulin to be released.  Decreasing fat burn.  I don’t advocate for eliminating carbs from the diet.  They’re essential.  Good carbs like fiber keep insulin steady.  Instead, eliminate those processed carbs made from refined white flour. 

Processed carbs not only add empty calories, but they work against our body’s natural fat burning mechanisms.  Therefore, you’ll ultimately burn more fat by eating a 500 calories meal made up of whole foods like grilled chicken breast and veggies, than a 400 calorie bag of chips.

Make sense?

 To learn more, check out these books by Gary Taubes: Good Calories, Bad Calories or Why We Get Fat. (Why We Get Fat is written in more user-friendly, lay person style)

 

 

 

 

 

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