There are thousands of reasons people struggle to lose weight, but at our personal training studio in Chiswick, one reason stands head and shoulders above all others. I'm talking about blood sugar and insulin resistance.
Although most people know that blood sugar and insulin plays a part, how many of us really know what blood sugars role in causing weight gain really is. Why does blood sugar becomes too high, why does it get too low, why is this important and crucially, how we can regulate it. This an extremely complex and vast topic but I'm going to simplify the subject as much as possible.
BLOOD SUGAR EXPLAINED
Whenever we consume any form of starch or sugar carbohydrate, this becomes available as blood sugar, otherwise known as blood glucose, in the bloodstream. How quickly it converts to blood glucose depends on the glycemic index of the carbohydrate. Glucose itself would have a profile of 100 which means it is all instantly available as blood sugar whilst lentils can have profile of as little as 21 which means the carbohydrate becomes available as sugar more slowly.
When our body detects blood sugar, it releases a hormone from the pancreas called insulin. This increased level of insulin in the bloodstream enables energy from glucose to become available to the muscle and liver cells as energy; see insulin as a key that unlocks the cells to allow the glucose in.
So, if a person who naturally releases too much insulin, eats a high glycemic food like pasta, they will have an oversupply of the hormone. If this same person were to eat a low glycemic carbohydrate like lentils, they would have a much better chance of releasing the sugar more evenly into the blood stream as the insulin released would be lower.
It is important to note that Muscles and the liver only need enough glucose to replenish the stores, and liver stores glucose as glycogen which it makes available in times of crisis. An over production of insulin makes all the glucose instantly available but the muscles and liver cells will only take what they need.
Fat cells, on the other hand, are eager recipients of any blood sugar made available to them by excess insulin, consume the remainder up and thus expand. Fat cells are essentially our emergency stores of energy, for when we run out of food, but only once all the glycogen stores are gone from the liver. As you will see, that's unlikely to happen when we continue to eat refined carbohydrates.
Now, the real problem that has been caused by eating a high glycemic carbohydrate becomes evident. The energy from the pasta has now been utilized by the greedy fat cells, so your blood sugar has dropped too low, the insulin spike caused all of the sugar to become available at once and there is none left.
Your liver is stubborn and doesn't like giving up its stores unless it has to, but we need energy on a constant basis, even while sleeping, and as we discussed your fat cells are not giving up a bean of energy until all the glycogen is gone from your liver.
So your body is faced with a dilemma, it needs some more sugar urgently but the liver is unwilling to release any and the fat cells won't be releasing any until the liver is depleted of glycogen stores. The message is sent to your brain loud and clear. You are hungry. EAT! But you only just ate, how can it be possible that you're hungry again.
Not only has the pasta potentially increased the size of your fat cells, it hasn't even sorted out your hunger levels, because the glucose is no longer available to the muscle cells and liver which need a slow but constant supply. The fat cells had all the glucose and because you're hungry you eat a source of carbohydrates which relieves the hunger quickest. A starchy or sugary carbohydrate. It's a catch 22 in the very truest sense.
This internal message to raise the blood sugar is so overwhelming that seldom will we manage to overcome the craving.
WHAT CAN YOU DO ABOUT IT?
Some people release less insulin naturally and so can tolerate higher glycemic foods, meaning a larger consumption of carbohydrates is not such a problem, in others it can have catastrophic effects on their body composition.
Everybody suggests working on the glycemic index, which is great for some people, but for others the fat cells have grown to such a point where the insulin keys no longer fit the cells to receive the sugar, which is essentially type 2 diabetes.
The ultimate goal is to not have any fluctuation in blood sugar at all.
Think about this for a second. We do all need carbohydrates if only for brain function, anybody who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something. Fortunately, we know that carbohydrates come in 3 forms.
- Sugar - which we need to avoid at all costs.
- Starch - Although it varies on the GI scale, ultimately becomes glucose which will cause some insulin release and therefore blood sugar variations
- Fibre - Which has no impact on blood sugar whatsoever.
What I believe to be the most effective strategy in those with significant blood sugar related weight issues and certainly in type 2 diabetics, is a diet which is very high in fibrous, low starch vegetables. I will often suggest carbohydrates come almost exclusively in the form of green cruciferous vegetables in the early phases of a dietary regime.
Of course, if you are going to take this approach you will also need to consider your intake of good quality fats as an alternative fuel source, but that's a whole new conversation.
In taking a less extreme path towards long term blood sugar balance for those with less pressing blood sugar issues, we can implement a simple intelligent carbohydrate 'swapping' strategy.
Eat only whole natural carbohydrate sources like sweet potato, brown rice, quinoa and lentils in place of white rice, ALL bread and pasta.
Eat fruit as a carbohydrate with some natural Greek yogurt instead of desserts like chocolates and ice creams.
If you really do struggle with complete elimination of refined sugars from your diet then the only instance when eating foods high on the glycemic index could be considered a good idea is post exercise, where the spike in insulin can be beneficial as your muscle cells are more agreeable to receiving the available blood sugar to replenish and repair.
We are a leading personal training studio in Chiswick, London.
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