In early 2003, I was in my late twenties. I gained six pounds as a result of the increased appetite that had accompanied a course of medication. At 140 pounds, I was heavier than I had ever been. While I was not officially overweight for my 5’6″ frame, I felt sluggish, had trouble fitting into my clothes and knew that I had to do something about it. Attempting to lose weight by counting calories, I tried the highly advertised Slim Fast Diet: “a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch and a sensible dinner”. I bought two cases of those cans of creamy shakes, and stuck to the diet strictly. Instead of losing weight, after two weeks I had put on another two pounds.
I was determined to get back to my normal size, so it did not take me long to re-discover the low-carb road to weight loss. I jumped on the Atkins diet bandwagon and lost ten pounds in only a few short weeks. I permanently banished the morning pilgrimage to the bread shop and I removed sodas, fruit drinks and pasta from my diet for good. I also cut out the daily takeaway lunch loaded with rice and peas, macaroni pie, potato salad and ground provisions. I missed the taste of these delicious foods, but I didn’t miss the effects. My after-lunch, afternoon blahs were gone. I felt alert and energetic all day.
Since then, I have adopted the low-carb approach as a lifestyle. I don’t count calories, but I am vigilant about consuming excess sugars and starches. There have been occasional periods where I have over-indulged. I have gained weight, suffered the accompanying sluggishness, and then forced myself to get back on track. However, over the years I have consistently maintained a healthy average weight and BMI. Today, at age 37, I have maintained the weightloss and stayed trim. I also have enviable blood pressure, blood sugar, triglyceride and cholesterol levels.
Update: After finally giving up all wheat products 363 days ago for specific health reasons, I now weigh 115 lbs—20 lbs less than I did in high school. I am planning on taking up yoga to gain flexibility and a bit more muscle.
The Truth About Weight Gain
I learned that gaining weight doesn’t mean that you are over-eating, that you are greedy, or that you lack self-control. It simply means that you have habitually eaten the wrong foods. Maintaining a healthy size is less about how much you eat, and much more about what you eat. Here’s why carbohydrates matter, not just for weight control, but for overall health and well-being.
What Happens When We Eat Carbohydrates
Of the three types of energy sources available from our food (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), carbohydrates are the easiest to break down. Through the process of digestion, which starts in the mouth, our bodies quickly convert carbohydrates into simple sugars. When we eat a high carbohydrate meal, such as a large bowl of white rice or a plate of pasta, our blood sugar levels spike, and we have almost instantaneous energy available as glucose. The downside of this quick and efficient source of energy is that too much glucose in the bloodstream is highly toxic.
Insulin: The Fat Storing Hormone
The pancreas works to keep blood sugar levels stable through the process of homeostasis. As soon as the blood sugar level is higher than ideal, insulin is secreted to remove excess glucose from the bloodstream. First it tells the muscles and liver to convert excess glucose into glycogen and store it. These glycogen stores have limited capacity, and so next, it makes sure that the remaining glucose from your rice or pasta meal gets converted into fat. This fat is stored in both the liver and throughout the body. These excess fat stores are easily seen as the “spare tire” around your waist line.
Glucagon: The Fat-Burning Hormone
Glucagon is the other hormone secreted by the pancreas. It is essentially a glucose-releasing hormone. When blood glucose levels begin to drop, such as between meals or when you are sleeping, glucagon sends the message to the liver and muscle cells to release the glucose stores from glycogen. When these glycogen stores are depleted, it also starts the fat-burning process, where the “rainy day” fat stores also get converted into glucose for energy.
The Carbohydrates We Eat and Drink Make Us Fat
All carbohydrates, both starch and sweets, are converted to simple sugar in the digestive process. The more carbohydrates we put into our mouths, the more sugar gets released into our bloodstreams. The more sugar in our bloodstreams, the more insulin that is secreted. The more insulin secreted, the more fat that is stored. In an unending cycle, carbohydrates are turned into fat by our bodies. As we continue to overload our bodies with carbohydrates, the insulin-receptors in our cells don’t respond as quickly, and the body begins to secrete more and more insulin just to deal with even small amounts of sugar in the bloodstream. Excess insulin is produced and secreted and converts more and more glucose into stored fat. An ever-expanding waistline is the result, and is a sure sign of excess insulin secretion.
Why Modern Society Keeps Getting Fatter and Fatter
Studies show that the most commonly eaten food in modern western society is white flour in the form of bread, crackers, pasta, pretzels, bagels, pita, roti skins, batter and a host of other foods. The second most commonly consumed food is the white flour plus sugar combination found in cakes, pies, cookies, muffins, pancakes, waffles and donuts. The problem is that our bodies were not designed to be inundated by a constant supply of carbohydrates, and particularly not huge volumes of high-glycemic load carbohydrates which spike our blood sugar levels and keep them spiked. Continually snacking throughout the day makes the situation worse, as our bodies’ fat storing mechanism never gets turned off.
The process of quick carbohydrate to fat storage was designed to be for emergency storage purposes. Our hunter-gather ancestors consumed very few carbohydrates, and got most of their energy through the digestion of protein and fat from animal sources, as well small amounts of carbohydrates from foraged root vegetables and berries. In such times, we consumed only a small fraction of the grains and sugars we eat today. An estimated 58% of dietary protein and 10% of the fat we eat can be converted into glucose within the body. There is really no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, and our bodies can do just fine with just a limited supply of carbs.
Other Effects of Excess Insulin Production
Excess insulin production creates an imbalance in hormonal secretion and sends delicate organ systems off kilter. Your liver manufactures cholesterol from carbohydrates when there are high levels of insulin present. This is why even vegetarians on a low-fat diet who consume no dietary cholesterol often have very high cholesterol levels. Even if you are successful in keeping the extra pounds at bay through exercise, you may still find yourself developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases.
Whether you are overweight or not, and whether you exercise or not, if you are eating too many carbohydrates, you are slowly forcing your body into an unnatural state of being. The solution to better overall health and fitness is to break the harmful chain reaction by reducing the carbohydrates we consume.
1. Start by eliminating empty processed carbohydrates such as bread, rice and pasta. Your body does not need them. They are a source of empty calories which make you unhealthy. Processing strips natural foods of their fiber, vitamins, flavonoids and other nutrients. Choose unprocessed fresh veggies instead, and fill your plate with green and brightly colored vegetables, fruits and salads.
2. Don’t drink sweetened drinks. Just two sodas or fruit drinks per day equates to consuming a five-pound bag of sugar every month. Get into the habit of drinking two liters of water per day. Drinking water helps to counteract the harmful imbalances created by insulin over-secretion and can help set your body in fat-burning mode.
End Note: Recommended Reading
These books have kept me on track over the years and I highly recommend them:
‘Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It‘ by Gary Taubes
‘Suicide by Sugar‘ by Nancy Appleton, PhD
‘Sugar Shock!: How Sweets and Simple Carbs Can Derail Your Life– and How YouCan Get Back on Track‘ by Connie Bennett
‘Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health‘ by William Davis, MD
‘Enter The Zone: A Dietary Road map‘ by Barry Sears, PhD
‘Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution, Revised Edition‘ by Robert C. Atkins, MD
‘Eat Right 4 Your Type: The Individualized Diet Solution to Staying Healthy, Living Longer & Achieving Your Ideal Weight‘ by Dr. Peter J. D’Adamo