The New Science of Energy and Health: Insulin & Glucagon, Metabolic Hormones
What to Know In Modern Times About Eating, Metabolic Hormones and New Ways to Understand Over Eating and Weight Changes
How We Make Energy, Burn Energy, and How We Store Energy Despite…
What happens to the actual food we eat at a meal? Like where does the sandwich we ate for lunch actually GO? Where is it 5 hours later?
Think about a tank of gasoline in a car. Where does the gasoline GO as the engine is running, and the tank is emptying? The engine extracts the energy from the gasoline and vaporizes it. The remains are the emissions, released into the air.
Food, like gasoline, is also made of carbon-carbon bonds, and these bonds miraculously hold the sun’s energy! If we burn the food off for energy, we cleave these carbon- carbon bonds, releasing the suns energy into our cells. We then exhale and that carbon, which formed the structure of that solid food (the sandwich), is released through our breath as CO2. In other words, when food gets into our cells, we have a mechanism to extract the sun’s energy directly for our own life force, then exhale the sandwich atoms as they are converted to vapor!
Or, we store the food as fat, keeping the carbon-carbon structure intact, storing the sun’s energy in our bodies in case we need it later to survive.
Or we convert the food to make needed body parts, such as cell components or organ regeneration, which is an ongoing process.
When we speak of the calories in food, what are we actually describing?
The calories in food are an expression of units of potential ENERGY in the food. The ENERGY stored in the food, is from the sun. Calories have sadly became associated with a perceived ‘fattening’ level of food instead of how much energy a food could give us.
What affects our ability to make maximum energy from our food?
Many factors within our physical health affect energy production. We will be discussing how the hormones insulin and glucagon affect the channeling of food to either be stored as fat or to be sent down the road toward combustion for energy production. Energy production physiology is dependent on mechanisms within the cell that act like the “car engines”, converting the sun’s stored energy into ATP—the energy our body can use.
Mitochondria are one example of these intra-cellular engines. In order for these to work well, vitamins, minerals, adequate protein and fats are needed along with many other nutrition factors to keep these engines at tip top working efficiency. Also physical activity stimulates more of them to exist in muscle cells. The more mitochondria we have in muscle, the more we feel strong and energized.
Is a calorie a calorie, as the saying goes? (In other words, does a calorie of any kind of food have the same value as a calorie of another kind of food?)
A calorie is NOT a calorie when it comes to weight gain and weight loss. No longer do we say, you’ll lose weight if calories in are less than calories out. What we do with our food depends on the amount and the ratios of insulin and glucagon, alongside other metabolic factors. Just like gasoline varies with regard to fuel efficiency, ones diet can influence the level of these hormones, which then affect whether a proportion of the diet is more likely to be stored as fat versus burned for energy. Also we can’t burn off stored fat if insulin levels are too high.
How much energy we get from a given amount of food eaten depends on the proportion and quality of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in those calories. The ratio and types of carbohydrates, proteins and fats affect the levels of insulin and glucagon that we secrete throughout the day, and also affect appetite regulation hormones as well.
Most everyone will begin over-producing insulin when over eating is persistent, as can happen with an overeating disorder. The additional body fat stores can drive an increase in insulin production in general, which then throws general appetite and weight regulation systems of kilter.
Who is responsible for our current epidemic of weight problems and disordered eating?
The 3 industries driving powerful physiological changes in the US –those agri-business and food processing companies, alongside the advertising media utilizing body image focused adds, alongside the dieting industry, offering a myriad of diets, which backfire and drive disordered eating. Over eating disorders abound, with numbers far surprising just binge eating disorder. The misery and loss of life potential in children, teens and adults with a range of overeating and restrictive disorders around food and exercise is devastating.
Much can be done individually and collectively to change the course of these disorders!
What is glucagon?
Glucagon is a metabolic hormone that encourages the body to burn off the foods eaten, to burn off stored fat, and utilize stored carbohydrates (glycogen stored in liver and muscles). In doing so, it provides a natural feeling of alertness, well-being, and appetite suppression. Glucagon keeps blood sugar levels up and steady through parts of the day and night when we are not able to eat or are not needing food.
Its job is to keep us active and alert between needed meals so we can focus on living life fully. In some ways we can think of glucagon as a metabolic hormone that puts us in “burning mode”, burning off the foods we ate recently or in the more distant past as fat.
Glucagon is a great hormone, when it comes to energy production, lack of nagging hunger, concentration and sense of well being.
What stimulates glucagon?
- NOT eating until physically hungry is a powerful glucagon stimulant. During the time between meals when not hungry, glucagon levels begin rising, and will keep rising to optimal levels throughout the 3-5 or 6 hours between meals and throughout the 10-14 hours from dinner to breakfast. If food is eaten when not hungry, the “glucagon run” where the hormone is activated will abruptly end, replaced by insulin.
- Foods high in protein directly stimulate glucagon. Fish, poultry, all varieties of meats, eggs, whole milk dairy from sheep, goats and cow. Plant sources of protein such as tempeh, all legumes, nuts, and seeds need to reach a critical level of protein for optimal glucagon secretion.
- Protein levels need to be higher than grains and sugars at most meals. For example, with a sandwich, or a burrito, or pizza…The amount of protein has to be at least visibly larger than the amount of grain. That may mean a very highly stacked pizza, with meats, cheese, vegetables, seeds/nuts, or very thick sandwich, or a burrito that has no rice, more beans, meat, vegetables and cheese with some tortilla left on the plate. Some meals don’t have to have grains at all, if not desired, such as a vegetable omelet with side of fresh fruit.
- Physical activity directly stimulates glucagon! For problems with exercise resistance syndrome, consider my podcast and request e-book proposal: https://franciewhite.com/women-in-depth-podcast-episode-69-exercise-resistance-syndrome-with-francie-white/
- Having significant fats within meals and snacks helps keep glucagon levels up relative to insulin. Since fats do not stimulate insulin, they inadvertently help the balance of lower insulin, and higher glucagon. In addition, they add flavor, key satiety (satisfaction) value, nutritional value, and are delicious. Fats got a bad name through the 1970s and 80’s when in fact it was all the processed grains and sugars, being added to the low fat foods, which were setting off an epidemic of weight problems. These low fat, or fat free diets had soaring levels of sugar and refined wheat, which sent insulin levels way up, driving the production of body fat way up in many people.
Fats that are not over processed, ideally from cold pressed oils, like coconut oil, olive oil, a variety seed and nut oils, fish oils (especially wild caught salmon, sardines, anchovies), nut butters from almond butter, cashew butter, peanut butter, avocado and guacamole, and high quality mayonnaise made from cold pressed oils are examples of great fats to use in cooking, pesto’s, sauces, etc.
Animal fats from cheeses (sheep and goat cheese best, then cow), meats, especially free range, grass fed meats, ghee, butter… all contribute to a lower insulin level when these fats replace some not all) of the highly refined grain foods like breads, crackers, pretzels and other processed grain snacks and sugary desserts.
What is insulin?
Insulin is a metabolic hormone, which is directly required for many cells to take in carbohydrates in the form of glucose so that it can be utilized or stored for the future use, after meals are eaten. Insulin is a hormone that can be thought of, as a “storage mode” hormone, helping carbohydrates get into cells or get stored as fat. (Protein and fats don’t need insulin to get into cells).
Insulin is normally secreted in proportion to the carbohydrates eaten, since too much insulin is not a good thing, and too little or no insulin is very dangerous (diabetes). Only in the last few decades have we become aware that our relatively high intake of refined carbohydrates and sugar are driving insulin levels higher than normal in more and more people. This results in the body getting stuck in “storage mode” without the balance of being in “burning mode”.
What causes chronic over production of insulin?
- First of all, genetics and epigenetics dictate individual differences in over production of insulin.
- Weight gain from fat, especially through the waist and tummy can drive over insulin production, such that individuals that, for whatever good reason, end up with an overeating problem, the weight gained can increase insulin production in response to eating. This is fixable!
- Diets that have a high proportion of sugar, refined wheat, processed foods and high levels of refined grains, in general, result for many in over production of insulin. Individual habits that include enjoying dessert now and then, or high protein, plant based diets rich in fats CAN include grains. What stimulates chronically high insulin levels are diets with persistent higher proportions of processed grains, sugary foods, and sugary drinks. Even the supposed “healthy snacks” like granola bars, protein bars, sweet chai beverages, or vegan cookies, eaten alongside refined grains at meals can add up.
- Liquid sugary drinks are one of the most insulin stimulating food sources, such as sugar soft drinks, sugary coffee drinks and fruit juices, when consumed regularly.
- Diets that are lacking in plants of all types—legumes (black beans, pinto beans, edamame, peanuts), nuts, seeds and nut butters, all types of vegetables and fresh fruits. Plants do not require insulin in the same way as refined wheat and sugar. Even “starchy” vegetables and the seemingly starchy legumes do not stimulate insulin in the same way when eaten regularly as part of a high plant diet.
- Over eating on a regular basis in and of itself drives disproportionate rise in insulin. (Over eating means regularly eating when not hungry, and/or bypassing satiety signals, eating more than the body physically signals for, in an otherwise healthy person.)
Why do we need insulin and glucagon secreted in the right proportion or ratio?
Our bodies were designed to enjoy eating, to put foods eaten into our ‘checking account’ for ready use or our ‘savings account’ (fat storage) for use when needed. Insulin is the food storage hormone, as well as the body manufacturing/repair hormone that puts foods into construction mode (during pregnancy and healing or growing).
Glucagon and insulin work like a see-saw, so that once insulin is finished putting food into cells after a meal or snack, glucagon rises and opens up our “checking account” of stored glucose from the liver, and our “savings account” of fat cells to release stored energy for us to utilize.
When insulin is over produced, it silences glucagon and the body can become stuck in ‘storage mode’. Being stuck in ‘storage mode’ one can feel groggy, have vague food cravings and a nagging of sense of hunger, brain fog, loss of energy, loss of sense of well being and loss of mental attention.
Children, teens as well as adults are all vulnerable to drastic imbalances where insulin is dominant, and glucagon becomes buried under insulin’s storage power. With ongoing high insulin: glucagon levels, metabolic syndrome problems can begin building. Metabolic syndrome is a disorder that often comes straight from our big business of processed foods, resulting in diabetes, heart disease, inflammation problems, fatty liver (not related to alcohol) and IS NOT THE FAULT of the individual. Once these symptoms begin with higher insulin production, a cascade of physiological changes begin, which alter appetite and weight regulation and alter our health, well- being and energy production. It is treatable!
What exactly does chronic over production of insulin DO within a given individual with weight, quality of life, energy production, and psychological well being?
Many things. There are too many neurochemical and physiological implications to name, but simply stated, for one, high insulin levels suppress glucagon, and can cascade along to negatively affect the appetite regulation hormones leptin and ghrelin, meaning that the whole body weight and energy regulation system veers off track. The body becomes stuck in storage mode, meaning a tendency to direct the food eaten AWAY from energy production, and TOWARD fat storage instead! This is why a calorie is not a calorie, or “calories in must be lower than calories out to lose weight.” Not true with over insulin production.
Gut microbiome evolves to contribute toward a vicious cycle of cravings to eat more food than the body needs. Cravings and false hunger nagging at us are annoying. Foods are specifically manipulated to bypass satiety (fullness) centers in the brain so that we over eat them. The metabolic imbalance of high insulin and lack of glucagon secretion causes a loss of sense of well being, increased over all fatigue, brain fog, depression, food cravings, loss of normal hunger/satiety signals and loss of connection to ones former motivation levels for school, work, exercise—lets say life in general! Is this fair to have occurring in our children, not to mention teens and adults?
No wonder great exercise habits are so very difficult to develop and maintain. High insulin: glucagon ratios mean little energy gets made in mitochondria, and those key little powerhouse centers begin disappearing. We end up with fewer mitochondria to make energy. This too, is fixable!
What does insulin and glucagon have to do with healing over eating problems? Where does disordered eating come in to the picture, such as binge eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia?
Due to the big businesses of food processing and agricultural conglomerates, the foods that have been heavily marketed in the last half-century in the US have drastically affected our insulin production, gut micro biome, our neurochemistry through dopamine reward centers, dysregulated our appetite instincts and our body weight regulations systems. What these means is that all of us, together in one boat, have been affected by the foods that we have come to enjoy because they are delicious treats, or are convenient, and we got used to the way they taste.
Those of us well trained in treating over eating disorders have had a tendency to consider the many emotional eating issues as THE problem, without knowing that the foods often over eaten, in and of themselves drive over eating!
Now we can ferret out, what is emotional/psychological driven over eating versus what is a physiological response to an intake of highly processed foods, touted by big agriculture and food industries that use low prices, have long shelf lives, contain little real food within the fancy packaging, and marketing techniques used to manipulate vulnerable consumers.
The epidemic of weight gain that began from the 1970s, soared through the 1980’s had much to do with advertisers promoting fat free and low fat eating. The dieting industry fed off of the advertising industry’s use of ultra thin models, and directly set off an eating disorder epidemic. Dieting and health food trends when taken too far result in loss of control with food, in highly intelligent, otherwise successful individuals.
The shame and confusion about what to do, and the often named “obesity crisis”, has been blamed on the public’s inability to control themselves. Not true. We now know that calories in and calories out is no longer a scientifically relevant conversation when it comes to the overeating problems of the majority of our culture.
Each type of eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder is part of a spectrum of disordered eating, with restrictive eating problems on one end and rebound overeating problems on the other. The topic is too large for this writing, except to say that the above triad of industries—agri-busness and food processors, the dieting and health fad industry and advertising industry– infiltrated into the attitudes, belief systems and health habits of our country, and throughout the world.
What to do?
Know that one can get their metabolic hormones back into a healthy range. For some it may be more of a project than for others, but it is fixable!
Evaluate whether there are other over eating problems in addition to the higher insulin stimulating, metabolic syndrome driven over eating. Usually people have several drivers for over eating going at the same time.
See ‘types of overeating’ section on website www.franciewhite.com or email me at email@example.com to better understand the various aspects of over eating, and to better imagine a profile for any given person with a combination of these drivers to overeat:
- Deprivation Driven Over Eating, which is rebound eating from any restrictive dieting history. Evolutionary psychology levels the playing field for all of humanity: If food becomes limited, whether it is due to actual food insecurity from a lack of access or monies for food, or whether it is because certain amounts and types of food are considered “bad”, or fattening, we will obsess about food and eventually lose control with it, if foods are restricted. It is a normal response to food restriction, to eventually over eat despite willpower.
- Emotional Over Eating – that stress eating done to cope with emotions in an attempt to escape the way we feel. Some individuals are hardwired to experience stress relief through eating and others are not. Life’s circumstances also deeply affect our fundamental sense of safety, coping strategies and the likelihood toward using food as medicine, to cope.
- Addiction-Neurochemistry Driven Over Eating, describes where our genetic hardwiring creates pathways of dopamine and endorphin reward systems within the eating department. Some of us have more reward-pleasure center activation with eating per se, while others have high reward-pleasure activation in other areas (gambling, discipline, shopping, drinking, drug use, tobacco and sex to name a few!)
- Metabolic Syndrome Driven Over Eating—described here, that over eating driven by the insulin and glucagon hormone imbalance and the cascade of appetite increase, weight increase, mood problems and lack of energy regulation, related to these hormones.
- Take the blame and stigma off of consumers. Become advocates and activists for the business of food and agriculture, to provide healthful delicious foods to all socio-economic levels.
- The short answer is to seek help, treatment from knowledgeable eating disorder dietitian, psychotherapist and physician.
- On a psychological level, find a therapist and dietitian specializing in eating disorders, and someone that understands metabolic syndrome-like problems (this is a new field). Consultations are possible with myself, firstname.lastname@example.org.
- See the food/eating recommendations below to target the over insulin/under glucagon production. These recommendations need to be included in a whole, comprehensive treatment plan, which addresses all the types of over eating problems in any given individual!
How to begin healing insulin & glucagon problems…
What helps decrease insulin stimulation and increase glucagon?
- Thinking in terms of what to ADD IN or have more of, versus just what to have LESS of. See below
- Instead of thinking of carbohydrates as one category, think of PLANTS versus REFINED GRAINS & SUGARS.
- Add IN more PLANTS, while decreasing refined grains and sugar, helps decrease insulin.
- “Plants”? Yes plants are any food that still look like themselves, as a plant, or mashed up plant. These include all of the legume family (lentils, black beans, pinto beans, garbanzo beans, humus, edamame, peanuts), as well as all nuts, nut butters (yes! more almond butter, cashew butter, peanut butter), seeds and seed butters (sesame tahini, more flax, sesame, hemp heart seeds of all types), all fruits (including avocado and guacamole!) and all vegetables including starchy and non starchy.
- Despite the literature on starchy vegetables and legumes being starchy like bread, its not true. Add IN foods that are plants, of all types!! This means sweet potatoes, purple potatoes, corn, lima beans, and all fruits, yes even bananas. Yes variety is fantastic and the wild version of plans, heirloom varieties are more fantastic.
- Also not eating when not physically hungry, keeps a phase of glucagon’ calorie burning influence going, something that the body “likes” due to evolutionary physiology.
- Add IN more fats! New research is contracting the fat scare of past decades since fats do not require insulin to process into energy. High quality oils, pesto, mayonnaise, aioli, nut butters, seed butters alongside more nuts and seeds, with enough fish, especially highly oily fish, and if you enjoy meats, (ideally grass-fed and free range) meats and varied cheeses.
- Keeping desserts and primary sugary foods as a special treat, or work your way off of them, rather than having them regularly IF insulin levels need to come down. Sugary foods are easy to wean down from, when other foods are delicious and rich in fats. Fruits can be used as desired, but not fruit juices.
- Keeping the meal proportions so that protein is higher than grains and sugars, and plants abound. For example in a Mexican dish, rather than chips, and rice, and tortillas in a meal, choose one or the other, and then have more of the beans, meat, rice, and plants (lettuce, guacamole, salsa, grilled veggies).
- Sweet coffee drinks and sweet smoothies are very insulin triggering. Basically anything liquid and sweet is very insulin stimulating. Alongside a good dose of protein and fat…less so! Also they are easy to wean off of!
- Rotate whole grains … from just refined wheat products multiple times per day. Move toward brown rice, whole wheat bread, to quinoa, corn tortillas to steel cut oats (consider raw, soaked overnight recipes!)…. Try to rotate from one type of grain one meal, to another type the other. Potatoes or sweet potatoes, or starchy vegetables or legumes can substitute beautifully for grains.
About the Author
MS RD, PHD CANDIDATE IN CONSCIOUSNESS & TRANSFORMATIVE STUDIES
Francie White is a theorist and practitioner in the science and art of nutritional psychology as well as a creative force investigating and teaching about philosophies of consciousness. She has a 35 year history at the forefront of treatment for all types of disordered eating, which parallels her abounding interest in the deeper questions about the nature of reality, and the importance of resurrecting wonder within the journey of human life.