Nutrition: April 2009 Archives
Elaine Boulder Pull-Ups @ Death Valley
Understand this: every change in the composition of the body is hormonal in nature. When we eat and when we workout, we are setting in motion a chain of events that culminates with the brain instructing various glands to manufacture and release a specific cocktail of chemicals into the blood. It is therefore vital to our training--regardless of whether our goal is fat loss or muscle gain--to understand just what these chemical concoctions are, and what choices we can make to manipulate them to our desired ends. All of these hormones fulfill vital roles in the body, so none of them are inherently "good" or "bad" - they're all "good" in the sense that without them, you'd die. However, you can have too much of a good thing.
Case in point: Insulin
Insulin gets such a bad rap. It's like the Jabberwocky of the CrossFit community, with articles and lectures and books all dedicated to warning you of its jaws that bite and claws that catch. And we'll get to that, too. But first: what does it actually DO?
What insulin does
When you eat, your stomach and intestines break down the food and glucose molecules (remember them?) are absorbed into the bloodstream. This is what "blood sugar" means - literally sugar in your blood. Now, blood sugar is actually toxic, so in response to this stimulus the pancreas releases insulin into the blood stream to clean it up. You see, although your cells need the glucose for fuel, growth and repair, they can't absorb it without insulin to unlock the gates.
If the cells don't really NEED the glucose, however, or if you just ate way too much of it, then the insulin opens the gates to your body's storage shed: adipose tissue, or fat cells. Simply put, this is how carbs make you fat.
But wait: it gets worse. You see, the insulin receptors on your cells can stop working if they are repeatedly exposed to very high doses of the hormone. Picture it this way: if you are in a room and somebody sprays some very strong perfume, at first you will be overwhelmed by the scent....but gradually, over time, you will become accustomed to it until you can't smell it any more. Now, what would it take for you to smell that perfume again? You either need to leave the room for a while and come back in, or you need to be exposed to a stronger dose. If you never leave the room to reset and simply soak up more and more perfume, eventually you will never be able to smell it, no matter how much gets sprayed right in your face. (Disclosure: I stole this analogy straight from Robb Wolf.) Insulin resistance works the EXACT same way - if you continually spike your blood sugar by consuming high-carb foods without protein or fat (big-gulp sodas are the worst culprit here), then your cells require increasingly larger doses of insulin in order to get the glucose they need, until eventually your pancreas just flips you the bird and gives up. And, since your fat cells are the last ones to protect themselves by becoming resistant, nearly everything you've been eating has been going straight to storage. Congratulations, you're fat and you've got diabetes.
This is a simplified model, but as more research comes out, more and more evidence points to insulin resistance as the root cause of MANY problems, not just the obesity epidemic: lowered immunity, higher cholesterol and blood pressure, even aging itself. Insulin is vital to our health, yes, but too much of it will kill you.
I should note that it works the other way, too. The lower your insulin resistance, the more of that blood glucose is going to go into your liver and muscles, where you want it, and less into your fat cells, where (presumably) you don't. This makes for faster recovery, better muscle growth, a stronger immune system, and a sharper brain. Not to mention a longer life.
So what can I do?
Diet is your best defense against insulin resistance, and there are a number of things that you can do to keep the beast at bay:
- Eat low-carb. Bet you never saw this one coming. Although some folks are genetically predisposed against insulin resistance (Hi Elaine), most of us don't tolerate carbs very well, particularly as we get older and our metabolism slows. You need to find what works for you, but I find a diet of 20/50/30 carbs/fat/protein works really well for me. You can go as high as 40% (Zone is 40/30/30), but be sure your carb sources are from healthy, whole foods and not processed junk.
- Time your carbs. Peak insulin sensitivity comes in the hour after working out, so if you're going to have carbs, have 'em then (but you knew that already).
- Have protein with every meal. Protein stimulates glucagon release, which acts as a check against insulin, and it slows digestion, which prevents an insulin spike.
- Don't eat fat and carbs without protein. This is the worst combination you could ask for - a lot of sugar to spike your insulin, and a ton of calories with nowhere to go but straight to your fat cells. French fries, potato chips, rich desserts...keep your grubby paws off!
- Avoid sugar. Again, pretty self-evident. Sugar is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and causes a spike in insulin.
- Stay the hell away from High-fructose Corn Syrup. Really. It's bad, bad shit.
- Eat real, unprocessed foods. The glucose in real foods is tied up with fiber, which makes them slower to digest, once again blunting the spike of fast sugar absorption. So if you're going to have bread or rice, make it whole-grain or brown, and if you want something sweet, have an apple.
- Exercise. Resistance makes muscles more sensitive. Especially short-duration, power-oriented workouts. Any idea where you can find those?
- Fast. Remember the perfume analogy? Intermittent Fasting is the dietary equivalent of leaving the room for a little while. It resets the body's sensitivity triggers, ultimately leading to lower insulin resistance.
- Take fish oil. It creates and repairs the insulin receptors on your cells, as well as reducing overall inflammation.
- Eat cinnamon and turmeric. We're not sure why, but they help.
- Don't worry, be happy. Chronic stress and anger are correlated with higher insulin resistance, so put some Enya on the car stereo and quit yelling at assholes that cut you off. Also, get eight hours of sleep of night, go ahead and spring for the mani/pedi and massage, meditate and do things that make you happy.
There you have it. Originally, my plan for this article was to cover several hormones, but apparently I have a lot to say on this subject, so I think we'll call it a day with just insulin. I'll cover the medical marvels of glucagon, cortisol, testosterone and other hormones in future installments.
I am not a dietician. CrossKitchen articles come from my personal experience, observations and research, and should not be construed as professional medical advice.