After Apple released the first iPhone, the brilliant slogan “there’s an app for that” was heard in countless commercials. I’m reminded of this saying when I think of the many hormones in our bodies. Feeling sleepy? There’s a hormone for that. Stressed? There’s a hormone for that.
But are there certain hormones that are particularly influential when it comes to our weight? The answer is yes, and that hormone is called insulin.
Psst… What’s a hormone really?
Hormones are chemical substances we make that act as messengers. Their main job is to control and regulate the activities of our other organs and cells. For example, when it starts to get dark outside, the pineal gland in your brain releases the hormone melatonin, sending a message to your body that it’s time to sleep soon. Melatonin, serotonin, insulin, and glucagon are just some examples of the many, many hormones we make.
Why is insulin so special?
Insulin controls your blood sugar levels by telling the glucose in your blood stream to leave and enter your cells instead, where it can be used as fuel.
Insulin is also the hormone in charge of energy storage; it takes whatever you’re not burning and stores it as fat. Obesity expert Robert L. Lustig puts it quite simply in an interview: “Insulin shunts sugar to fat. Insulin makes fat. More insulin, more fat. Period.”
When insulin becomes a problem
Once insulin is secreted by the pancreas, your cells need to acknowledge the hormone for it to do its job. This process happens smoothly in healthy people people. Think of the fictitious couple Anne and Brian, who have just started flirting with each other. Anne waves at Brian every day at the office, who always smiles back since he’s mutually interested.
It’s a different story for someone who eats sugar all day. In this case, insulin is constantly secreted by the pancreas since there always seems to be excess glucose floating around. Eventually, your cells stop noticing the hormone and become insensitive to it. (Remember, if the cells don’t acknowledge insulin, it can’t do its job.) The result: glucose remains in the blood stream. Your pancreas tries to fix the problem by secreting more insulin in the hopes that your cells will finally notice the hormone and send glucose to your cells. But this only makes matters worse. With abnormally high insulin levels — the hormone in charge of energy storage — your body responds by storing any excess glucose directly as fat. I give you insulin resistance, ladies n’ gents — the precursor to a variety of diseases like type II diabetes and obesity.
Insulin resistance can be exemplified by Tracy and Ben — a couple of 10 years. Tracy is mad at Ben and is giving him the silent treatment. No matter how many times he apologizes, Tracy doesn’t react — just like how cells stop reacting to insulin. Soon, Ben starts screaming at Tracy in the hopes of getting a response, just like how your pancreas “yells at” your cells to respond. Tracy and Ben represent insulin resistance. (Also, only a therapist & nutritionist would use the example of a couple arguing to represent a food concept... lol).
How to control your insulin levels
Since insulin is only secreted when glucose is detected in the bloodstream, the best way to reduce insulin levels is to cut back on carbohydrates.
Remember, not all carbs are created equally; “good carbohydrates” like steel cut oats or brown rice only moderately raise blood sugar levels, making them a great choice for those who are trying to reduce their insulin levels. The biggest culprits when it comes to insulin resistance are the “bad carbs” like white flour, white rice, and refined, processed, high-sugar foods. Stay away from these bad boys and your insulin levels should mellow out. The byproduct of doing this should also lead to significant weight loss since your insulin will stop storing your excess glucose directly into fat.
The Bottom Line
Get more of your calories from lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Also, keep your portion sizes in check and avoid overeating to stop too much insulin from being secreted at once.