Low Carb and Hormones
Learn some of the common pitfalls of transitioning to a Paleo diet.
Low Carb, Paleo and Your Hormones
The carbohydrates, proteins and fats that makeup food are called macronutrients.
These macronutrients come in the measurement we call calories, are measured in grams and milligrams, and are used as fuel by your body.
Without macronutrients, your body won't work.
Your body doesn't work without macronutrients.
You probably don't think about this often, and when you read it, it's not going to strike you as anything groundbreaking.
After all, of course your body runs on food. Duh.
Not so fast there cowboy...
I think we all need this reminder from time to time. If we remember that our body would stop working if we went without carbs, protein and fat, it might remind us just how important calories are to life.
Then, maybe/hopefully, we'll think about and respect the calories we choose to keep us alive.
Then (hopefully) we'll think about how calories come in different shapes, sizes, and flavors, and how different calories make us feel different ways.
For example, when you eat certain foods—especially if you overeat them—you may end up feeling bloated, stuffed, sick.
When you eat other foods, you might feel energized and alive. (And some foods, even if you overeat them, you still might feel good or average.)
And so on.
Food for thought.
Now that I have you thinking about calories, let's look at how this little form of digestible energy—the kcal—interacts with your human body.
Is a calorie just a calorie?
When you eat calories, food is absorbed into your bloodstream and filtered by your liver.
The two predominant hormones in this process help regulate glucose levels. They are insulin and glucagon.
Insulin lowers the abundance of glucose in the bloodstream by allowing other tissues to store glucose, first as glycogen in yours muscles and liver, then as body fat if there is extra glucose after your glycogen stores have been maxed.
Glucagon is released when glucose levels in the bloodstream are too low, and signals the liver to covert glycogen into glucose.
Both of these hormones are designed to keep your blood sugar levels stable, which keeps you healthy, your bodyweight maintained and your appetite optimal.
The problems arise when you have too little or too much of either of these hormones, which are dependent on the types of food, and how much food, you eat.
This hormonal interplay is the process behind the health crisis of our modern industrialized society—too many processed foods that throw human hormones out of whack, which in turn promote inflammation and lead to an increased risk of disease.
The Troublesome Carbohydrate
When you eat a carbohydrate, your body quickly converts it into glucose.
Glucose is the sugar molecule in your blood that serves as your primary form of energy.
Glucose is an integral part of a normal healthy human being... if it is at optimal levels.
When there is too much glucose in the bloodstream on a chronic basis, you get a nation with a 60% obesity rate.
Extra glucose in the blood is the human body's way of storing fat.
Our ancestors lived in the wild as hunter gatherers with an inconsistent food supply and so the mechanism of storing body fat was necessary for survival.
Without fat, and the body's ability to store it, no human, and most mammals, wouldn't be able to survive in the harsh wild where food is often scarce and always inconsistent.
This is why, when our ancestors came across food, they ate as much as they could so they could convert it into body fat, the human body's first form of food preservation.
Biology allowed us to store fat so we could take those calories with us. Then our metabolism would utilize these body fat stores for energy when there was a lack of food (glucose) present in our bloodstream.
Starting to see how all these natural mechanisms work? And how they are based on how our ancestors lived in the wild before we had access to food 24 hours a day?
Biology designed us to eat a ton of food all at once so that we could store fat for later. Then biology made us good at burning fat stores when we went without food for long periods of time in-between feedings (see Intermittent Fasting).
What this means is this: You and I and every human alive is biologically designed to gain fat.
We are good at putting fat on our body when we signal to our body that we have plenty of food. Snacking, overeating, drinking calories, eating fast, are all signs that we have plenty of food and tell our body to store fat for later.
Our hunter gatherer ancestors would have welcomed fat gain whenever they could get it because it increased our chances of survival.
Nowadays, this is not the case for humans.
And this clearly showcases the mismatch theory.
You struggle to keep fat off your body because you have access to food whenever you want.
Your body is designed to gain fat, and your brain is designed to make you want to.
Gaining fat is how the hunter gatherer genes in your body have survived for hundreds of thousands of years. No wonder it's hard to control them!
Back to the Hormones
Your body stores glucose in fat cells via the hormone insulin, which is secreted by your pancreas when you have extra glucose in your body after filling up your liver and muscles in the form of glycogen.
Your body uses glycogen as it's first source of energy for fueling performance. The more muscle mass you have, the more glycogen you can store.
After your muscle and liver glycogen levels are full, insulin shuttles the rest of that glucose into body fat, which we saw above, is nature's way of taking those calories with us.
These biological processes are what kept our ancestors alive in an environment with an inconsistent food supply, before the advent of agriculture, for hundreds of thousands of years.
This system of complex hormonal processes was necessary to survival for our ancestors and the thing that makes it so hard to survive today.
This is why you often hear insulin being blamed for diabetes, weight gain and the multitude of weight-related health issues facing our society.
The thing is, insulin is just doing the job it was made to do.
Nearly all animals secrete insulin, but it's only the human animal—and certain overfed domestic pets—that has access to a limitless food supply.
Think about this a bit.
In the wild, food is not readily available. You can't just walk to your fridge or to a nearby restaurant.
In the wild, you'd sometimes come across a ton of food, like when you had a successful hunt. The thing is, you wouldn't be able to take all that food with you because it would soon go bad and you had no way of preserving it.
Imagine you and your tribesmen hadn't eaten much in a month, maybe some berries or leaves here and there. Then your tribe has a successful hunt: you take down a large gazelle or water buffalo.
What do you think you and your tribe would do at that point?
You would eat until you couldn't eat anymore so you could store as many calories as possible for later by converting the extra glucose in your bloodstream into fat cells through the hormone insulin.
After gorging on a fresh kill, your body would fill up your glycogen stores before filling up new fat cells. You would then have an increased chance of survival because you would have more stored calories in fat cells and they would would keep you alive until you could take down another hunt.
Our hunter gatherer ancestors were pros at gaining fat when they found food and burning it off when they didn't have food.
(Which is why Intermittent Fasting is so good for us.)
Gaining fat as a hunter gatherer was like refilling your gas tank, and often after running on fumes.
Now compare that to today.
We eat every single day and usually more than once.
Some people eat all day long, constantly snacking and drinking calories.
And what happens?
This happens: The body has more than enough glucose to fill up the liver and muscles and so the body stores body fat.
Not only will eating too often and too much of the wrong foods make your body store body fat, but it'll train your body to constantly release insulin throughout the day, which leads to a whole host of health problems—hypoglycemia or hyperinsulinemia, and general inflammation that leads to nearly every modern Western disease we know of.
Based on this information, here are a few nutrition-related takeaways:
- Certain foods convert faster to glucose in the blood, resulting in a faster insulin "spike." These are carb-dense white starches, breads, sugar, milk and other refined and processed foods.
- The more you eat, the more likely you are to produce too much insulin and store too much glucose. The whole "eat to stoke your metabolism" is nonsense.
- Our ancestors went for long periods of time with little or no food. This is why Intermittent fasting (meaning irregular, broken up) is so healthy for humans.
Now, let's simplify these into a simple eating plan you can use in your modern life based on the human hormonal makeup our ancestors passed down to us.
#1. Avoid carb heavy processed and refined foods.
Opt for low glycemic foods and avoid high glycemic foods, especially sugar, legumes and grains.
*Glycemic index measures a foods effect on blood glucose levels. The lower GI of a food, the smaller rise in glucose levels. 55 or less is considered Low GI, 56-69 is considered Medium GI and 70+ is considered High GI.
Examples: Nuts/seeds and most vegetables are Low GI, white sugar, rice, bananas, raisins, ice cream have a medium GI; white rice, potatoes, high fructose corn syrup, white bread, and other processed foods have a High GI.
#2 Eat less often. Skip meals regurarly and Don't Snack.
As we saw above, snacking is not something our ancestors did.
And even if they did eat some berries and twigs while roaming through the wild, their snacks were low calorie, required a ton of chewing, and was Real Food found in small quantitates. Compare that to the snack food of today that is processed, refined, and calorie-dense.
See more of our fasting tips in the later section Intermittent Fasting.
#3 Eat slow.
The faster you eat, the faster glucose is shuttled into your body, which creates a larger insulin spike. Chewing also improves digestion and helps break down the food you eat, reducing the strain on your gut.
Finally, eating slower gives your stomach more time to signal your brain that it's full.