When talking about diet plans and general health, the word "Insulin" gets used ALOT. People speak about it as if it is the very secret to life. There is NO question that Insulin is a critical part of our normal day to day functioning. But like everything else, its role must be kept in perspective.
Insulin is critical to our health because it is a key player in the control of our blood levels of sugar, or more specifically, a specific kind of sugar called glucose. There are actually lots of different sugars and the word sugar itself is used to refer to a whole group of molecules that share certain characteristics. I will NOT get into the chemistry of sugar and covalent bonds and double helices and carbon nanobots and black holes and ...
In any case, Insulin exerts a great deal of control on the level of sugar in our blood. The key role of Insulin is to make it possible for our cells to "eat" the sugar that floats around in our blood. This is SO important that when Insulin does not function properly, people die.
There is a disease that is specifically related to problems with Insulin and it is called Diabetes Mellitus, but often just called Diabetes. There are basically two types of Diabetes. In one type, a person's body does not produce any Insulin. This is VERY serious and can cause a relatively fast decline in a person's health and lead to death. More frightening is that this kind of diabetes is (or actually used to be) more common in children. Before Insulin was produced as a medication that could be injected, these children suffered and died. It was horrible. Since the time that Insulin is available, these children can live long lives and have their own children AND grandchildren. It is nothing short of a medical miracle.
There is another type of Diabetes where the basic problem is that a person's body becomes resistant to Insulin. In other words, their bodies are producing Insulin but their own cells are not able to respond to the Insulin.
Think of it as a door on the top of each cell in your body. This door only opens when there is Insulin, and when it opens, it lets sugar into the cell. Now imagine that the door slowly gets jammed and becomes resistant to opening. This "Insulin resistance" is responsible for the development of a condition called "the Metabolic Syndrome" and yes, it would make a great name for a movie. What happens is that in order to "push the door open", our bodies produce more and more Insulin. It is equivalent to more and more people pushing against a jammed door until it finally gives way. The problem with this, is that too much Insulin floating around has other side effects, like high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Eventually, no matter how much Insulin is produced, it can barely open the "door". More sugar stays in our blood and causes "hyperglycemia" which is latin for ... (I am Googling it) .. "too much sugar in our blood". This is what your doctor sees when they test your blood and say that you now have Diabetes. And now you can understand that the real problem is that your cells cannot get to the sugar and they become starved and sick. So, unless you find a way to fix this problem with Insulin, a person's health begins to quickly deteriorate.
There is one other effect of the Metabolic Syndrome that catches everybody's eyes - weight gain. It seems that, as luck would have it, our fat cells still manage to respond to Insulin even when there is Insulin resistance and they interpret all this extra Insulin as a signal to store energy, i.e. to sop up the extra sugar in our blood and to store it away for a rainy day.
IF this is the case, then the theory goes (read my last blog about "theories"), if you can overcome Insulin resistance, then your body's Insulin levels will go back down and your fat cells will stop being exposed to super high doses of Insulin and they will stop storing fat. In fact, they may start releasing the fat - which means LOSING WEIGHT !!
So, let's now take a BIG jump over to the low carb dieters and see why Insulin is talked about so much in this camp. The idea is that constantly EATING (or drinking) sugar constantly stimulates our bodies to make Insulin. This constant exposure to Insulin causes our cells to develop Insulin resistance and thus all the things I discussed above. So, IF we stop eating sugar, much less Insulin will get produced and we will never develop resistance. THAT is the theory.
Here's the problem. If we protect ourselves from developing Insulin resistance, then we can see that we will not tend to gain weight. But even if do not eat sugar, and even if Insulin is never over produced, why should this make us LOSE weight ? More so, if we eat lots and lots of other foods without sugar (like meat and eggs and fish), how come we don't gain weight from all the calories in them (and yes, they have calories) ? Many in the low carb group make it sound as if we will shrink away to nothing if we simply never eat sugar, NO MATTER how much other food we eat.
It is in THIS point that there is SO much controversy. Some people argue that without stimulating Insulin, our bodies effectively ignore most of the non-sugar calories we eat. Others challenge this and say, that a calorie is a calorie. So NO MATTER what calories you eat, if you eat too much, you will gain weight. And believe it or not, for ALL of the research on this matter, there is still a huge difference of opinion about the real role of Insulin, sugar and weight gain.
MY perspective on the research is that there IS something very real to the argument that low carb is an effective way to lose weight and to even fix Insulin resistance and cure Metabolic syndrome. It is less important to argue WHY low carb diets work. It is MORE important to recognize that there is sufficient evidence to accept low carb dieting as an option for people with various health problems. And if so, then for people with Metabolic Syndrome, the option of starting a low carb diet should be discussed with their doctors. Will it magically fix everything ? There is no magic. But it may still be very helpful for at least some people struggling with their weight and other medical problems.
In my next entry, I will talk about the idea that low carb dieting actually DOES reduce your intake of calories even though low carb dieters believe that they can eat as much as they want.
Thanks for listening