Like many men, when I hit my early thirties I started to get a little fat. At my heaviest I was just a little chunky. I think that at a certain point I started to become less sensitive to the hormone insulin, which in turn led to a host of other negative health effects. I’d like to share my experience of reversing this trend. With changes to my diet and lifestyle, I regained my insulin sensitivity.
The day after Halloween seems like an appropriate day to write this post — for one thing I need to fortify my own willpower so I don’t eat too much of the leftover candy.
No American would have called me fat, but a European from ten years ago might have singled me out as being able to lose a few pounds (these days Europeans are almost as chubby as Americans). It was a slow kind of weight gain, evenly distributed throughout my body, so it wasn’t very noticeable. I had been lean my whole life — all the way into my late twenties, so it took a few years to actually notice that I was getting heavier (and not from muscle). I remember one moment in particular when I was sitting down and caught my reflection in the mirror. My midsection was just too wide. When I asked for the brutal truth, my wife confirmed that I could lose a few pounds. That was it — I needed to get skinnier.
I thought my diet at the time was “healthful,” but in fact it was horrible. I was eating a lot of “natural” breakfast cereals with soy milk. I rarely ate meat, chicken, or fish, and got most of my protein from beans, dairy products, and nuts. I ate plenty of fruit but not very many vegetables.
My metabolism was a mess. I couldn’t go two hours without having a snack. Sometimes my snacks were fruit or nuts, but other times I might eat cookies or just grab a handful of chocolate chips. I was probably on the slow track towards Type 2 diabetes.
What Is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin is the hormone that lowers your blood sugar, and shuttles glucose (sugar) into your fat, liver, and muscle cells to be stored later. When your body is flooded with too much insulin too much of the time, your cells can become resistant, or desensitized, to its effects. This can lead to Type 2 diabetes. More recently, scientists who study metabolic physiology have learned that insulin response may be linked to the expression of genes that control aging (links to PubMed abstract). This article in the Daily Mail explains the research in layman’s terms.
In short, losing your insulin sensitivity may not only lead to weight gain and problems with controlling your blood sugar levels, but may in fact accelerate aging on every level. On the other hand, becoming more sensitive to insulin may be a fountain of youth, at least to some extent.
Insulin resistance is a modern epidemic. The probable suspects are as follows:
1) A diet high in refined foods (white flour, white sugar) and low-fat dairy products (which have relatively higher amounts of both lactose and casein).
2) A diet high in fructose, especially high fructose corn syrup.
3) A diet high in gluten and lectins (neolithic foods — especially grains).
4) Sedentary lifestyle (a lot of sitting, lack of exercise).
Item 3 is probably the least substantiated by well designed scientific studies, but this article outlines some intriguing research. Looking at population studies, Type 2 diabetes is non-existent among populations that eat traditional paleolithic diets (absent of grains, dairy products, and refined foods). Some of these traditional groups, like the Kitavans, have a diet that is high in starchy foods and low in protein, so a high carbohydrate diet may not be a problem in and of itself. Problems may occur when the carbohydrates are separated from naturally occurring fiber, vitamins, and minerals (foods like white bread, soda, or sweetened soy milk), or gluten (found in grains like wheat and rye) may trigger neurological pathways that lead to overeating.
Gluten (found in wheat) and casein (found in milk, cheese, and yogurt) can be broken down into peptides (proteins) that have opioid-like effects on mammalian brains. The proteins have been dubbed exorphins, and are addictive in nature. Consider this; most people would find the idea of giving up bread and cheese more distressing than the idea of giving up chard or yams. Exorphins produce a mild euphoria and may even provide pain relief. Going cold-turkey off of bread and dairy can produce withdrawal symptoms like joint pain, headache, and irritability, even if dietary carbohydrate levels are kept the same.
Not every addictive food is damaging to health. Coffee and tea are highly addictive, as are alcoholic beverages, but moderate consumers of both seem to enjoy superior health. The same is true for dark chocolate. Dairy products may not be good for everyone, but whole-milk, non-homogenized, organic dairy products may offer more health benefits than drawbacks to growing children and nursing mothers.
In my own experience, not eating grains and dairy led to fat loss, heightened awakeness (especially after meals), and increased muscle gain. Psychologically, I feel more driven and less passive when I abstain from exorphin foods. This could be psychosomatic, or it could be a sort of lifting of a narcotic veil. If I feel too edgy, I can come down easily by eating grain and dairy based “comfort foods.”
How I Lost Twenty Pounds of Fat Over Five Years, and Regained My Health
At my heaviest, I was suffering from moderate asthma and was having trouble sleeping. My interest in nutrition led me to explore how changing my diet and taking different supplements might improve my health.
The First Five Pounds
Cutting out “naturally sweetened” breakfast cereals (evaporated cane juice is still sugar), sweetened soy milk, white flour (mac and cheese anyone?), and daily desserts was relatively easy and very effective. I started to get lighter and leaner. In terms of supplements, I added moderate doses (2oo mcg a few times a week) of chromium picolinate, which some studies have shown has a positive effect on insulin sensitivity.
The Second Five Pounds
Going on a lower-grain diet, and eating some meals that were entirely free of grains or other starches, led to continued weight loss. My business partner at one point noted that my metabolism had changed — I no longer needed a snack break every hour or two.
Intense food cravings largely dissipated, and my health improved in a number of ways. My breathing improved, my allergies became much less severe.
I added fish oil and cod liver oil as supplements, and noticed an additional weight loss effect. Both of these supplements also improved my mood. I simply felt happy more often (sometimes unreasonably so), and sad/demoralized less often.
The Third Five Pounds
My “default” meal eventually switched to grain-free instead of “pile o’ starch.” Breakfast might be an omelet with vegetables or fruit. Lunch might be a salad with canned salmon, nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil and vinegar dressing (high fat, but all good fats). Dinner might be chicken or meat with vegetables like leafy greens and squash. I’ll usually have a beer or glass of wine with dinner. I drink black coffee in the morning and sometimes tea in the afternoon. If I get hungry in the afternoon I’ll eat some fruit or (very) dark chocolate. Sometimes, though, I would “cheat” and eat whatever I wanted. I don’t beat myself up when I eat less healthful foods — but I do try to always observe the effects certain foods have on my health.
Going more-or-less “paleo” meant eating more animal products. I have mixed feelings about eating other animals, especially animals that I guess to have some level of sentience (like pigs and cows). I’ve written about that topic here if you’re interested. I do, for the most part, only eat animals that are humanely raised and slaughtered (restaurants and dinner parties sometimes excepted).
I also added 5K IU vitamin D3 on most days. The effects? The last of my asthma symptoms went away, I got even leaner, and I stopped getting colds. I recently mentioned how much vitamin D I was taking to my new doctor at Kaiser, and he immediately said that I was taking too much. I pointed out the professional medical opinions vary a great deal on this topic, and requested a blood test. After taking my supposed “megadose” of vitamin D almost daily for a few years, my blood levels were 63 ng/mL. This is considered just slightly above average. I think I’ll continue my current supplement regimen unchanged, especially through the winter.
Edit: read this post for my more recent thoughts on fat soluble vitamins.
I continued to get slimmer and more “insulin sensitive” by eating more slowly and being careful not to overeat. I also reduced my drinking, cutting out hard alcohol for the most part (I’ll drink good Scotch maybe once a month now, instead of several times a week). Since this entire process happened over a number of years (I’m 41 now — I was 35 at my heaviest), it never felt difficult and I never felt deprived. At the moment my waistline fluctuates between 28″ and 29″, and my weight between 150 and 155 (I’m about 5’8″). If I want to slim down I’ll be more strict about my diet (no grain or dairy products, no refined foods) and also cut back on beer, sweet fruits, and other high carb foods.
What It Feels Like
The biggest subjective difference (besides feeling thinner) is that I no longer have to eat as often. If I miss or meal or two I’ll get hungry, but my energy won’t flag and I won’t get crabby. I’m not an expert in human physiology, but I imagine this means:
1) My body can convert fat into glucose easily and efficiently regulate my blood sugar.
2) I’m no longer as addicted to “exorphins” so I don’t experience opioid withdrawals if I go without food for awhile.
There’s also a subtle emotional difference. My emotions are probably a little closer to the surface than they were — I may be less “drugged” or “numbed out” by the effects of a high carbohydrate, high exorphin diet. Life tends to feel fairly intense for me now, even though I’m happy most of the time. It’s a good feeling — I feel alive!