In a recent post, Seriously Now – How Much Can I Afford to Weigh?, my message was that the fat capacity of any individual, the point at which fat cells are full and cannot store more fat, is the key to the many inevitable manifestations of ill health associated with obesity.
As that post describes, it isn’t how much you weigh. It’s not if you are obese or even if you are thin. Its how much more you can weigh without getting sick.
Your fat capacity (technically called fat threshold) is genetically defined; it is what it is. The question is how does exceeding that threshold make you sick and what can you do about it? In the end, it all boils down to understanding insulin.
The symptom of diabetes is high blood sugar. Just the symptom. But the cause of diabetes is excessive insulin (technically called hyperinsulinemia) followed by the inevitable insulin resistance. And excessive insulin has many more health consequences than diabetes.
Insulin is a hormone like cortisol or estrogen and many others. Under normal circumstances each and every hormone in your body increases and decreases as required over time and isn’t supposed to stay persistently high. Anytime one hormone stays high for a long time, body cell receptors recognize the error and resist accepting the hormone. It might be floating around in your blood but it isn’t doing its job.
Consider cortisol, a stress hormone.
Quoting from WebMD, “Cortisol receptors — which are in most cells in your body — receive and use the hormone in different ways. Your needs will differ from day to day. For instance, when your body is on high alert, cortisol can alter or shut down functions that get in the way. These might include your digestive or reproductive systems, your immune system, or even your growth processes.”
“— (once) the pressure or danger has passed, your cortisol level should calm down. Your heart, blood pressure, and other body systems will get back to normal. But what if you’re under constant stress and the alarm button stays on?”
When stress and cortisol levels remain persistently high, receptors resist. Consequently all those happy things that are supposed to happen from the normal body use of cortisol get whacked up.
Now let’s consider insulin.
At the simplest possible level, when everything is working as intended, three things are of particular importance.
(1) Insulin permits glucose in the blood to deliver to body cells for the production of energy. It also allows the liver to store a small amount of that energy in backup glucose storage (glycogen).
(2) When excess energy is available (beyond that required for energy production and glucose storage in the liver/) the liver converts the extra into fat and insulin permits that fat energy to be stored as body fat.
(3) And because glucose and fat are not supposed to wandering around in the blood at the same time, insulin also stops fat cells from releasing fat freely into the blood. When insulin is low fat cells are permitted to release fat, also used for energy as plan B.
Here is how resistance starts.
The occasional higher insulin demand attached to a meal (or a piece of cake) is not a problem. But when the diet (or some other factor like stress, illness, medication) results in a persistent amount of insulin in the blood stream, resistance first build up in the body cells, muscles as an example. The message from the cells is “I have all the energy I need and I don’t want any more.”
The resistance fails to permit the delivery of the glucose. Hiding behind all that glucose in the blood stream is an increasing level of insulin working to compensate for the excess glucose. And it works, at least for a while.
Eventually the high blood sugar levels damage the pancreas (the maker of insulin) and its ability to generate insulin is compromised. Then blood glucose goes even higher. Understand that the persistently high blood sugar alone (without consideration of the insulin effect) also damages the kidneys, the eyes, the brain, the blood vessels, nerves, etc.
In the face of insulin resistance in the body cells, the liver is working hard converting the excess glucose into fat, which is then permitted to go into fat storage. Note that the last place that insulin resistance develops is in fat cells.
Excess insulin, excess fat. So you can conclude all on your own that obesity is the result of excess insulin.
NOW, when you reach the fat capacity of your fat storage, there is a new problem. The fat cells now develop their own insulin resistance. “Nope, there is no more room here either, do something else with that stuff.”
And it’s not just an ability to store more fat that is blocked. One of the jobs of insulin was to keep fat in the fat cells when the blood stream is dealing with glucose. But in the presence of insulin resistance, the fat cells don’t hold on to the fat already there. It starts to spill over into the blood. Fat and glucose are not supposed to be present continuously at the same time.
Remember that the look and feel of a person’s body fat may not reflect the capacity problem. There are examples in my previous article. But the problem is exactly the same, obviously obese (diabetic or not) or looking fine (but diabetic). The fat has to go somewhere. Nothing just disappears in the human body.
When your capacity for subcutaneous fat is reached, energy is already not storing properly. Blood sugar goes higher and higher. Your cholesterol and triglyceride levels get too high. You start to have heart trouble. Your blood pressure goes up. Your (other) hormones get messed up and you have lots of symptoms. And your liver has to figure out where to put that excess energy that can’t be stored in your fat cells.
The only option open is to stuff the fat in and around your muscles and body organs like the liver, pancreas, kidneys, and heart. So you have non-alcoholic fatty liver and then the doctor gets really excited.
We have now arrived at the end of the journey that started with continuously high levels of insulin and ended in a very bad place.
The fix for this problem has to come from where it started – with high insulin. What usually starts accumulation of body fat from high insulin is diet.
It sometimes takes only a small reduction in body fat to get below your fat capacity threshold. This may not take extraordinary effort. Rather, even just a reduction in carbohydrate foods that require a lot of insulin may be all that is required. These are invariably processed foods in sacks and boxes, primarily including sugar (pies, cakes, cookies) and starches – starches like grain (wheat, corn, etc as in flour and cereal) and root vegetables (potatoes).
It is actually remarkable how quickly body fat can disappear with that dietary change.
Sometimes we hate changing. But considering the long term health implications of high insulin described above, it is certainly worth a shot.
Just remember that whatever dietary change you employ, it needs to be permanent and not a one-time shot. Otherwise you just put the fat back on and the cycle starts all over again.
Pat Smith is the author of “It’s All about the Food,” a book that guides nutritious food choices as the way to avoid illness and maintain a healthy weight. Pat is a resident of Montgomery County, AR, president of Ouachita Village, Inc. board of directors (Montgomery County Food Pantry); chairman of the Tasty Acre project; and member of the Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors. Her website is http://allaboutthefood.org/