When I discovered that ‘healthy whole grain carbohydrates’ were causing my worrying weight problem I felt like I’d stumbled across the Holy Grail. That was back in 2012 when I published The Dissident Diet. I wrote it as a healthier version of the ketogenic/Atkins diet with an emphasis on losing weight.
Since then the message has mushroomed (yup, I even use low carb metaphors these days). The negative impact of sugary, starchy foods on your metabolism, and their role in many of our dread diseases, is an accepted fact rather than a zany fad. It’s not hard to find examples of the popular press and mainstream medics recommending we cut our carbs.
It’s fair to say that nutritionists have been talking about the potential negative impact of carbohydrates for decades. Teaching clients how to ‘balance their blood sugar’ is the stock in trade for people like me. We’ve always known that regulating blood glucose helps with mood and hormones as well as weight and energy.
But the more I use low carb principles in practice, the more I see that very low carb diets don’t suit everyone. Despite the fact that people who are dealing with obesity can universally benefit from reducing carb intake, I also meet people whose bodies seem to be operating very-nicely-thank-you with plenty of carbs in their system – which makes a debate about low carb vs low fat pretty meaningless as a general health principle.
With time I’ve realised that the problem isn’t about carbs vs fats, it’s about the ability – or the adaptability – to switch between the two. And it’s critical.
Your body has a mind-blowingly sophisticated engine that is designed to keep you going all day long whether or not you actually eat anything, and regardless of the quality and quantity of your food supply. We refer to it as our ‘metabolism’ and it truly is a miracle – as well as a major evolutionary advantage. Most of us fail to appreciate just how incredible it is. It’s so clever that when you run out of gut fuel you instantly switch to stored fuel, and if you run out of carbohydrate fuel you instantly switch to fats. All without having to give it a second thought!
Or at least that’s what it says in the textbooks.
In practice, it’s not so simple. A growing majority of the population can no longer make the vital switch between carbs and fats. Most of us would need hours, if not days, to adapt – and that is a major evolutionary disadvantage.
This ostensibly simple malfunction is leading to a growing number of health problems – some of them deadly. Abnormally high insulin levels leave us stuck in carb-burning mode, unable to access dietary or stored fats. We call it insulin resistance, and it disrupts cell signalling so that our metabolism can’t function as nature intended.
As you know, insulin is produced when we eat carbohydrates (and to a lesser extent proteins, but not fats). Insulin resistance happens when we habitually eat too many carbs, so that the blood becomes overloaded. The precise calculation of ‘too many’ differs from one body to another, and experience tells me it also differs from one food to another, floury foods being one of the worst offenders. (There’s something about eating food that has been ground to a powder that seems to hit our cells in the wrong way.)
When there’s an oversupply of glucose in the blood, our cells respond by reducing the number of glucose uptake receptors in the membrane, in an attempt to control the inflow. That leads to a dangerous build up of glucose in the blood, so the body produces more insulin to clear the backlog. Over time, the cells also lower their response to insulin, so both glucose and insulin are circulating at higher than healthy levels. When blood glucose finally falls (either as a result of energy production, glycogen storage, fat storage, or urine dumping) the extra insulin left behind means we can’t release fats for burning. We experience this as hunger and start eating again, even though we may have plenty of stored energy.
Please don’t stop reading because you’re not fat – no one is exempt from insulin resistance. Although it’s most visible with people who are overweight, that’s just one of the ways insulin can adversely affect your body. In fact, I don’t know if you can get your head around this, but the health problems of obesity are not caused by being fat, they are the result of being insulin resistant, hormonally unbalanced and wildly inflamed. Excess fat storage is just a side effect. And while the obese population is growing both in size and number, there are lots of other people who have all these problems going on without the extra storage capacity.
Bottom line: we’re all in the same boat here. It’s impossible to tell at a glance if you’re at risk.
When insulin resistance keeps your engine stuck in carb burning (glycolysis) you have access to only one fuel supply, and when that runs low you experience all the associated cravings, energy dips, mood swings and hormonal imbalances that we have come to associate with ‘normal’ life. They happen because we run out of carbs before running out of insulin. If you could switch seamlessly over to fat burning you wouldn’t experience any of those symptoms. You wouldn’t even notice the difference!
Insulin resistance is the reason runners hit the wall, and it’s the reason people become Type 2 diabetic. In fact most of our modern health problems – energy dips, hormonal imbalances, overweight, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer – can be plotted somewhere on the continuum of insulin resistance. That’s how pivotal it is.
If you’re suffering from insulin resistance (and remember there’s no easy way to tell) the only way to reverse it, and get your metabolism functioning normally again, is to sharply reduce your carbohydrate intake for a period of time. Doing so forces the body to reinstate the receptors that respond to both insulin and glucose. If you keep your carbs low enough, for long enough, you will, eventually burn some fat. That’s the beginning of the switch. And the beginning of vastly improved health. Atkins believed it took two weeks, but from my experience it can take as long as two years if you are especially carb dependent.
Once you’ve got the switch working you need to exercise it, which means you need to eat in a way that ensures that you switch between carbs and fats on a daily basis. And that involves finding the ideal balance of carbs and fats (and protein) that works for your metabolism. Finding that sweet spot is a life-changing moment both in the short term – and in the longer term. Avoiding insulin resistance is one of the best ways we know to live a long and healthy life.
If you’d like to find out about the diet – and the simple home test – that allows your hybrid engine to function as nature intended, please get in touch. I’d love to help.