Have you ever noticed that you can eat a massive meal and still be really hungry a short time later? You could, literally, sit down and eat 1,000 calories and still be hungry again within just a couple hours. Why is that?
The Insulin Response
Anytime you put food in your mouth, you are potentially going to stimulate an insulin response. Whether you will or won’t is determined by what TYPE of food your shoveling in your mouth and the AMOUNT of food you consume. Choose the wrong type of food or in the wrong amounts and your insulin levels shoot sky high. But, why should you care?
Well, first off, the more frequently you force your body into this massive insulin response, the more likely you will end up becoming diabetic. So, that’s a biggie. But, let’s table that issue for now. Let’s just focus in on what that insulin response is doing to you right NOW.
One Primary Function
Understand that insulin has one primary function, to remove excess sugar (glucose, specifically) from your blood. It performs this function either by causing a glucose STORAGE reaction or by moving the glucose into a cell for use as immediate energy.
Your body knows how much glucose should be passing freely in the bloodstream at any given moment, and it works VERY hard to keep that level constant. The maximum amount of total glucose that should ever be traveling through your bloodstream at any given moment is about 2 teaspoons, and that would be HIGH. A normal, healthy blood sugar level would be more like ONE TEASPOON – in your whole body – at one time.
In other words, if you have more than 2 teaspoons of sugar in your body at any one moment, that’s too much for your body to handle, so it has to DO something with it. Extended periods above this level of blood glucose can actually have serious consequences, so maintaining this strict level of blood sugar is important. THAT is insulin’s job.
How Hard Is Insulin Having to Work?
And, just to put that into perspective, ONE Snickers candy bar contains about 27 grams of net carbs (total carbs minus dietary fiber). A teaspoon of glucose is about 4 grams. So, this is, approximately 7 teaspoons of glucose (once your body breaks the carbs into the smaller glucose molecules).
In other words, ONE Snickers bar has 5 teaspoons of EXTRA sugar that your body has to do something with. It can’t be circulating in your bloodstream. And, in reality, it really has 6 extra teaspoons of sugar, because, ideally, your body would rather be at about 1 teaspoon of glucose (total) in your bloodstream at any given time. That’s the level it is TRYING to maintain.
Interestingly enough, a MEDIUM order of fries at McDonald’s actually has 47 grams of carbs (which your digestive system will break down to nearly 47 grams of glucose). Add to that a medium coke (about 12 ounces of actual soda), and you add another 40 grams of carbs. Oh, and your burger bun is at least another 25 grams.
In other words, a relatively benign trip to Mcdonald’s (not even the Super-Sized version) is throwing about 47 + 40 + 25 = 112 grams of carbs at your body over about a 15 -20 minute interval. How much of that do you think your body is using for immediate energy while you sit on your butt eating it? How much does it have to transfer out of your bloodstream?
About a HALF CUP OF SUGAR from one reasonable meal at McDonald’s (basic burger, medium fries, medium coke). You didn’t even super-size anything. You didn’t really order anything EXTRA. And the fries had more sugar in them than the coke did. What do you think your body is going to do with all that sugar?
How Does Your Body Get Rid of the Sugar?
Well, first, ANY TIME there is any glucose in the bloodstream, insulin is performing the function of moving that glucose from the bloodstream and into your body’s cells by passing it through the cell walls. At that point the mitochondria in those cells turn that glucose into energy (just like a car engine turns gas into energy for motion). Insulin is constantly moving blood glucose through cell walls and into your cells for energy.
But, only so much glucose can be transferred into your body’s cells for immediate conversion to energy, which is why insulin is also tasked with managing the movement of EXCESS glucose into storage for future use. Once blood glucose levels climb above that level of 1 to 2 teaspoons of glucose, insulin will begin the process of directing that additional glucose to be stored.
So, Where Do We Store Excess Sugar?
Glycogen is one method of storage that insulin can trigger. Glycogen is simply an “easy access” storage form of glucose which your body stores in the liver and in your muscles. But, how much glucose can be stored as glycogen in the body at any given moment?
A normal, healthy adult will be storing a maximum of 500 grams of glycogen (sugar) at any given moment in their muscles and liver. That’s approximately 2000 calories of energy, or about enough calories to sit around in your comfy pajamas and watch TV all day. Of course, even if you’re a relatively active individual you’ll probably only burn 2500 to 3,000 calories each day, at most.
But, What Comes After Glycogen?
If you maintain consistent and regular carbohydrate consumption, and you do not do much extremely vigorous exercise (which describes most of us), then it is reasonable to expect that most adults maintain nearly maxed out glycogen stores.
Thus, after a meal such as the McDonald’s example, there is NO reason to believe that all, or even most, of that excess glucose will be stored as glycogen. The reality is that our continuously maxed out glycogen stores and high carb intake is resulting in massive transfers of glucose to body fat.
When the body receives an excessive amount of dietary carbohydrates (sugar), it first uses it for fuel. What it can’t immediately use for fuel it will store as glycogen, and every high carb meal that isn’t followed by significant exercise is topping off those glycogen reserves.
So, once the glycogen reserves are full, the dreaded fat storage response is triggered. Insulin begins the process of converting all remaining excess glucose to fat storage. Now, because this is not a very efficient process, your body would prefer not to do it. But, if it has no place else to store the glucose, it has no choice.
For every 100 calories worth of sugar (25 grams of glucose), you expend about 25 calories doing the conversion to fat. So, you’re left with about 75 calories worth of fat. So, that converts to more like 8 grams of fat, since fat is much more calorie dense than carbs or protein.
The silver lining in that, I suppose, is that for every three pounds of excess carbs you consume, you’ll only gain about a pound of fat. However, the bad news is, for every three pounds of excess carbs you consume, you’ll gain about a pound of fat.
What Exactly ARE “Excess” Carbs?
If every pound of excess carbs equates to about 1/3 pound of body fat, it might be helpful to know how much excess carbohydrate you’re getting in your diet. But, it’s also important to note that it’s not just about the quantity. It’s also about the timing.
Remember, as soon as your blood glucose levels climb above that teaspoon, insulin is being produced and the work of using that glucose for energy or storing it as glycogen or fat begins. So, if you eat too much carbs within too short of a period, it will likely be stored as fat.
Let’s put it into perspective. Let’s say your daily activity requires a total of 2500 calories of energy. Even if you eat less than the total number of calories you need for your daily activity, you could STILL increase body FAT.
Now, if you’re at a daily calorie deficit over numerous days, then timing might not be as much of an issue, since, once you’ve depleted your glycogen stores enough, your body will have enough room to make use of this temporary glucose storage method. But, a day here or a day there of a calorie deficit MAY not actually cause you to lose ANY weight, and you COULD actually gain.
How to ADD Body Fat on a Calorie Deficit
It shouldn’t actually be that surprising. Look at it this way. You’re body doesn’t have some giant vat that it can place all of your daily calories in to draw from as needed. Your body has to do something with calories AS IT RECEIVES THEM.
So, here’s an example of how you could eat about 1,500 calories today, burn off 2,000 with daily activity and STILL put on extra body fat:
“Reasonable” Calorie and Carb Intake:
“Healthy” Breakfast (455 calories / 145 grams of net carbs):
- Bowl of raisin bran and low fat milk (225 calories / 45 grams of net carbs)
- 1 piece of toast with jelly (170 calories / 40 grams of net carbs)
- A banana (100 calories / 25 grams net carbs)
- A cup of coffee with 1 cream and 1 sugar (35 calories/ 5.5 grams of net carbs )
Subway Veggie Lunch (490 calories / 89 grams net carbs)
- Subway 6″ Veggie Delight (230 calories / 40 grams net carbs)
- 7 oz Bag of Whole Grain Cheddar Sun Chips (140 calories / 17 grams net carbs)
- Fuse Raspberry Iced Tea (120 calories / 32 grams net carbs)
Hearty Dinner (670 calories / 97 grams net carbs)
- (2 Serv) Whole Wheat Spaghetti Pasta (350 calories / 60 grams net carbs)
- (2 serv) Newman’s Own Marinara (140 calories / 18 grams net carbs)
- (1 serv) Pepperidge Farm Garlic Bread (180 calories / 19 grams net carbs)
TOTAL CALORIE AND CARB INTAKE: (1615 Calories / 331 grams net carbs today)
Calories & Carbs Burned for Energy:
Assume we’re talking about Dave, a 150 pound, reasonably fit, 43 year old male, with a desk job who runs a few miles every morning before work.
Basal Metabolic Rate – Approx. 1500 calories burned today
- Number of calories burned doing nothing buy lying in bed
Moderate 3 Mile Run – Approx. 300 – 400 calories burned today
- Calories burned depends on intensity of the run
8 Hours at a Desk Job – Approx. 250 calories burned today
- Desk jobs typically burn an additional 250 calories per day
Miscellaneous Walking & Daily Activity – Approx. 300 calories burned today
- Difficult to say, but, maybe another 300 calories per day
TOTAL CALORIE EXPENDITURE: (2400 calories burned today)
Here’s Why a Calorie Deficit Might Not Equate With Weight/Fat Loss
Based on the above numbers, Dave would have had a total daily calorie DEFICIT of about 800 calories. You’d think that would be an opportunity lose weight, but, there are a number of problems here:
- Very High Carb Percentage Means High Insulin Levels: Not only does insulin direct the body to STORE extra calories as fat, insulin also signals the body NOT to release any stored fat from within your body’s cells. So, in essence, even if you’re cutting calories, if you’re still eating significant carbs it can be nearly impossible to lose weight/fat because the insulin circulating in your blood is signaling your body NOT to release any fat from within your cells, which is where all your fat is stored. So, the only thing left for energy is glycogen stores and blood glucose.
- Timing Can Also Be a Problem: If Dave had spread out his carbs over twice as many “meals”, he might have a chance (although the carbs are still a problem). However, since they are consolidated to such small blocks of time (maybe a half hour to eat most meals, at most), there is a massive influx of glucose over a really short window. The result will be that some of this massive over abundance of glucose will be stored as fat, even though the body is in a state of overall calorie deficit.
Now, breakfast may not be as much of a problem, since glycogen stores are depleted as we sleep. Generally, by morning, the liver glycogen stores will be mostly depleted. Some muscle glycogen stores may also be depleted, but not to a large degree. However, I think it’s safe to say glycogen stores have been depleted by maybe 200 grams after 7 or 8 hours of sleep, even if your glycogen stores prior to bed were completely topped off (which is likely if you’re a carb eater).
So, there’s ROOM for about 200 grams of glycogen synthesis. However, Dave’s body can only synthesize that glycogen so quickly. Even following rigorous exercise, when glycogen synthesis is CONSIDERABLY higher than normal, research seems to indicate you can only synthesize about 1.2g of glucose per kg of body weight per hour. So, Dave, who’s 150 pounds, could only synthesize about 80 grams of glycogen per hour following a serious workout (or, about 40 grams per half hour).
Glycogen synthesis is dramatically slower outside of this limited window following rigorous exercise, but, even if it was not, that means that, at most, your body could synthesize about 40 grams of carbs during your half hour meal. So, if you eat 145 grams of carbs for breakfast, even though your liver and muscles might have ROOM for 200g of glycogen at breakfast, they can only synthesize AT MOST 40 grams during a half hour meal (and, probably, much less if you didn’t exercise beforehand).
What happens to the rest of the carbs you just consumed? Your body can only keep up to 8 grams of it in your bloodstream, and it would prefer that number to be 4. That means you’ve got AT LEAST 100 grams of carbs that your body still has to do something with. Some of it will end up being excreted in your urine just to clear it out, but the rest of it? Your body will begin storing it as fat.
By lunch, some of your glycogen stores will have been replenished from your breakfast, but you’ve still probably got more room. So, of your 89 grams of carbs, MAYBE you can synthesize another 40 grams while you’re eating. But, again, even in the best case scenario, that leaves another 49 grams of carbs unaccounted for from lunch – more fat deposits.
It IS true that some carbs take longer to digest than others, so ALL of the glucose isn’t immediately present in the blood. But, it is a MUCH faster process than most people think it is, especially if the fiber content of your meal is low (and I’ve already accounted for fiber in the calculations of carbs for the three meals).
Dinner will be no different. You may still have some room for some additional glycogen stores, but, even if you eat really slowly and extend your dinner over the course of an hour, you can still only synthesize AT MOST about 80 grams of glycogen (and that is doubtful). So, in the best case scenario, that’s another 17 grams of carbs unaccounted for from dinner – another round of fat deposits.
That’s a total of at least 166 grams of carbohydrates that your body will have to store as fat because it can’t allow it to remain in your blood and it can’t get it synthesized to glycogen fast enough. And, lest you think that the transition from “carbs” to actual glucose will be a slow one for the bread, pasta, bananas and cereal in the above menu, note that the glycemic index (rate of conversion to glucose) of most of those items is nearly as high as table sugar). It’s not a slow process.
But, What About the 800 Calorie Deficit?
What happened to that deficit? If it didn’t result in any appreciable fat loss, and more likely resulted in fat GAIN, how do we account for it? Well, the reality is, it makes much more sense if we think of it as an ENERGY deficit. In the end, your body did not have enough energy to complete your daily tasks in the most efficient and productive way possible.
So, your body simply slowed down. In fact, there is solid research showing, when your body is used to running on glucose all the time and insulin levels are chronically high, if your body doesn’t have enough energy from dietary calories it simply chooses to set a lower metabolism to burn fewer calories.
Meaning … news flash, lack of energy, clouded thinking, poor memory, etc. There’s simply not enough AVAILABLE energy to perform optimally. With all that insulin coursing through your veins from sunrise to sunset, your body is always receiving the signal to MAINTAIN fat storage (so it can’t release any fat stores for energy to replace that 800 calorie deficit).
Not Just Fatter, But Still Hungry Too
Remember I started this article by asking the question, “why are you hungry so soon after eating“? I want to return to that for a moment. Based on all that you just read, why do YOU think you might be hungry again so soon after eating?
I submit that the reason is, you’re eating WAY too many carbs. Your body can only use so much of it in the short term, and then your body is forced to store much of it away as fat. Thus, much of the carbs that you are eating are not available for energy, especially on a sustained basis following a meal. But, since your insulin levels are always sky high, your body is simultaneously being signaled NOT to release your fat stores for energy.
As a result, when your body is hungry for ENERGY, it becomes hungry for more food, since that is the only source of energy you’re offering it – in the form of carbs.
Stop using carbs for energy. Switch to fat. Eliminate the hunger pangs. Decrease your insulin production. Release your fat stores. Lose weight. It really is that simple.