The operation of the human body is truly magical because it has built-in backup plans. If only we weren’t so good at overriding the magic.
I’m the kind of a gal who hates a crisis. Half of my automobile trunk is taken up with an actual spare tire on an actual wheel rim. Why? Because I don’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere with a donut tire. I had guests coming for dinner a few weeks ago and I had a terrific menu plan. I went to the grocery store two days before the big day instead of the day before. Why? Because once that store didn’t have what I wanted, creating a bit of an emergency. Everything for this dinner went just fine but I was ready, just in case.
We all know what happens when we don’t have a plan B. The car has a flat and you have NO spare. You are out of gas without a nickel to your name. Your cell phone battery is dead and you need to make a call RIGHT NOW. The grocery store doesn’t have the essential element required for your recipe. The guests you invited for a last minute party have previous commitments. On “the horns of a dilemma” as my mother used to say. What to do?
In the grand scheme of things, these are minor dilemmas that you have to consciously deal with yourself. But what goes on in your magical body is major stuff and it is prepared to handle whatever happens in some pretty amazing ways without your conscious involvement at all. In fact, one of the remarkable things about the human body is the number of plan B’s, alternative strategies programmed in to assure that stuff essential to our daily operation is available at all times.
As It’s All About the Food explains, certain nutrients like vitamin B12 and vitamin A are essential on a daily basis. The source of vitamin B12 is meat and the infinite programmer did not expect meat to be readily available at all times. So the body was designed to include substantial storage of vitamin B12. In other words, there is a backup supply to accommodate a shortage of meat.
Vitamin A is another essential nutrient also available in meat but, in this case, the backup plan is different. Beta carotene in plants is readily converted by your clever body into vitamin A. But perhaps the most amazing plan b has to do with energy. This is actually plan b, c, d, e, etc. because without energy the party is over pretty quickly.
Primary Energy Sources
There are just two primary energy alternatives, glucose (as in sugar) and fat, but lots of ways to get both. The most obvious source of glucose and fat is food. The body maintains some glucose, say about a day’s worth, in storage. So if you don’t eat today this backup supply keeps you going. If for some reason there is nothing but fat (as in meat) available, not to worry. Dietary fat works just as well to provide energy to your body cells.
In fact, you can alternate energy from glucose to fat and back throughout the day and night. If necessary your body can convert some of the protein you eat into glucose and, in a real crisis, will convert the protein in your muscles to glucose. This is what happens during starvation of any kind, whether that is lost on a desert island or all of your body resources are being consumed by cancer. These are not things you want to have happen, of course, but your body will always do whatever is required to keep you alive longer.
Back-up Energy Sources
And then there is the ever not-so-popular back up supply of energy (fat) layered onto your body. That fat got there in two simple ways.
- When the amount of sugar (all forms) in your diet exceeds what the body cells will accept for energy and glucose storage, the excess gets turned into saturated fat by your liver and delivered to your fat cells for storage.
- When the amount of fat in your diet exceeds the fat and energy requirements of your body cells. The excess fat moves straight away into your fat cells.
In other words, everything we consume has to go somewhere and body fat is the destination of last resort when it comes to energy.
Note here that the body uses lots of different fats (fatty acids) which may or not be consumed in your meals. But another backup plan accommodates those needs. The liver just converts saturated fat into whatever kind of fat it needs. The one exception to this rule is two forms of essential omega 3 fatty acid found only in animal sources like meat, fish, milk, eggs, etc. You have to eat these.
Can we just burn up body fat?
Yes, indeed, if the circumstances are right. Your body uses body fat for energy when you are in a “fasting” state, when not eating AND the amount of insulin in your blood stream is low. The liver calls out body fat and converts into the third, less common and final source of energy, ketones. The ketones are available for a defined period of time and any not used disappear in the form of oxygen and water. So if you ever wondered where body fat goes when you lose weight, now you know. It just vanishes. Poof!
You must admit this is downright magical. However, the system breaks down very quickly when the amount of body fat grows by leaps and bounds and the amount of insulin in your blood remains high. Body fat stays firmly in place, ketones are not created. In other words, the limiting factor in weight loss is insulin.
Insulin and Insulin Resistance
Insulin is the storage hormone manufactured by your pancreas. Glucose, fat, and protein all require insulin to move them into the body cells for storage. Trouble actually starts when insulin levels are too high, a condition that results from insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is just like it sounds – body cells are resistant to insulin and blocking entry. This can happen for a variety of reasons.
- A primary reason is consuming more “energy” than your body needs. The body cells don’t need that extra energy and refuse to let the glucose in. “Don’t need anything right now, come back later.” This is Insulin resistance in action. In today’s world, excess energy consumption is usually the result of a high carbohydrate, processed food diet. This is explained in It’s All About the Food in some detail.
- Thus begins an ugly cycle. In the presence of excess insulin, the body cells develop even more resistance in direct response. In truth, the body abhors an excess of anything.
- Troublesome commercial dietary fats, trans fats, clog cell insulin receptors, creating resistance. What about fructose? Fructose in the diet does not create energy or trigger insulin release; rather it is processed by the liver into fat. The amount of fructose in fruit is usually no big deal. But commercial processed sources come in excess, resulting in too much fat in and around the liver and nearby organs. So while the fructose does not create resistance by itself, the resulting fat does. This is when diet becomes particularly important as commercially processed food products are the sources of both.
- As explained in the book, diet frequently creates illness. Illness of any kind generates inflammation as the immune system tries to fix the problem. The body sends out a signal, “Glucose will be needed here at this inflammation point (like your kidney, or even a broken leg, as examples) so don’t be using up any glucose elsewhere.” Bang, the other body cells refuse to accept glucose, insulin resistance and higher levels of insulin in the blood stream.
- Auto-immune conditions like lupus, arthritis, Crohns disease, etc. (conditions where the immune system goes rogue and attacks some part of the body) need to be treated, most commonly with steroids. Steroidal treatments, and in fact most medications, increase insulin resistance, driving blood sugar to sometimes extraordinary levels. High blood sugar always results from insulin resistance.
- Cortisol, the stress hormone, also does a fine job of increasing insulin resistance. Crisis! Energy required quickly. This is the stuff that surges forward in your body when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, with a flat tire and no spare. Or when you are awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of breaking glass. Or you are going through a nasty divorce. Consequently, ongoing levels of stress will result in surging blood sugar and insulin. So, of course, stress and weight gain go hand in hand.
So there you have it.
Two things you can probably count on. Folks with ongoing levels of excess insulin will gain and not lose weight until they bring their insulin levels under control. Folks with ongoing high blood sugar are or will become diabetic. Put these folks together and you find that 80% of diabetics are overweight and plagued with the conditions causing insulin resistance listed above.
Obviously a divorce doesn’t (usually) have anything to do with food. But for most people, this is mostly a diet thing. I encourage you to read It’s All About the Food and learn more about how to avoid diet related illness. Let the magic happen for you again!