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“Does Insulin Make You Fat?” An ongoing debate on an interesting topic

Is there a direct cause-and-effect relationship between endogenous insulin spikes and fat gain? In other words, ‘does insulin make you fat?’

One thing that can’t be denied by even the most skeptical of those asking the “does insulin make you fat” question: Excess calorie intake can cause both fat gain and higher-than-normal insulin levels. Thus, even if insulin is not the most direct culprit responsible for overall fat gain – the condition that causes its endogenous spikes (too much food intake) is a big factor in acquiring body fat. Therefore, even if one’s motive is to reduce insulin spikes in a “mistaken” belief that “insulin makes us fat”, the means to the end of reducing insulin will likely result in the desired outcome – reduced body fat.

This doesn’t stop the “does insulin make you fat” debate from raging on. At one side of the argument, authors such as Gary Taubes contend that diets high in refined carbohydrates cause repeated blood sugar and insulin spikes that eventually lead to a bodily breakdown that results in obesity and higher risk of disease.  In rebuttal, some nutritionists, such as highly credentialed James Krieger, claim that “insulin gets a bad rap.” This opposing view basically says “a calorie is a calorie”… “protein raises insulin levels as much as carbohydrates”… and “the sole cause of fat gain is excess caloric intake; in short, that “insulin doesn’t make you fat.”

 

Insulin_Molecule_Model 

'Insulin Molecule': We know it's a vitally important hormone. But does too much insulin contribute to higher body fat?

 

‘Does Insulin Make You Fat?’ The gist of the debate

Years ago, I was at a book store buying a copy of ‘Good Carbs, Bad Carbs’ by Johanna Burani. As the young clerk at the checkout counter took the book from me to scan it, he glanced at the title and let out a chuckle:

All carbs are good carbs” he said, defiantly expressing his natural affinity for the body’s preferred energy source.

I nodded with a smiling “I hear-ya, man”, acknowledging to myself how good a large thick-crusted pizza would be at that very moment.

I’ve never been into carbs elimination; never fell for the Atkins Diet craze. But since the days that I started to shed the fifty pounds that I eventually lost, I’ve instinctively monitored my carbs intake. Whenever I begin to gain back fat, a quick reduction of carbs along with a simultaneous ratcheting up of protein and increased movement always does the trick in shedding it off again.

Similarly, many of those who’d answer “yes” to the “does insulin make you fat” question have never recommended banishing carbohydrates altogether. Most have merely adopted and advocated a “moderation approach” to quantities and a “selective approach” to types of carbs consumed. These practices are used under the hypothesis that high insulin does indeed contribute to fat accumulation and that controlling insulin levels helps with shedding body fat and preventing its resurgence.

Contrastingly, Mr. Krieger, in his article titled ‘Insulin… An Undeserved Bad Reputation’, claims the insulin blamers have been barking up the wrong tree in attributing it to the amassing of body fat.  He subscribes purely to the “energy in/energy out” hypothesis; that fat gain and obesity can be blamed almost entirely on the long-term daily intake of a higher number of calories than are being burned off.

To sum up the difference of opinion: James Krieger and the like think excess calories lead to obesity, which leads to insulin resistance, which results in hyperinsulinemia (too much insulin).

Those of the opposing opinion think that excess carbohydrates (especially sugary ones) lead to insulin spikes, which leads to hyperinsulinemia, which leads to insulin resistance, which results in obesity.

  

Bad_Carbs 
Is a "calorie just a calorie" or do some carbs alter hormone levels to cause body fat to accumulate more easily with their consumption?

 

Those who’d say “no” to the ‘does insulin make you fat’ question would most often approach an obesity problem by putting a person on a calorie restrictive diet while paying little attention to carbohydrate ratios or types.

Those who’d say “yes” to the ‘does insulin make you fat’ question would take the approach of restricting carbohydrate intake to a much lower quantity of a very select type of carbohydrates (mostly complex and/or low glycemic) in an attempt to first lower insulin levels of an obese person.

‘Does Insulin Make You Fat’: Some Anecdotal Evidence?

Seemingly between these two opinions is the one claiming insulin is a factor in fat gain – but only after a person has become insulin resistant.

Personally, I think it’s a factor before that, and I’ll present some anecdotal experience to back it up.

Whenever I want to get super lean, bringing my body fat level down to around 5 to 6 percent, I can observe a microcosmic example of the effects of two different types of carbohydrates. The difference is plain to see because it occurs between two measured and specific amounts of meal replacement powder. One powder uses maltodextrin as its primary carbohydrate source. The other uses oat and brown rice derivatives as the carbohydrate source. They both contain about an equal amount of protein, fat, and sodium. However, I invariably find it easier to lose body fat using the ‘oat and brown rice’ product – despite the fact that this one has more grams of carbohydrates and about a hundred more calories than the maltodextrin-carbed meal replacement.

Of course, the maltodextrin carbohydrate source is more of a simple, sugary type carb. And I can actually feel the difference after mixing and drinking each of these powders respectively with only water. My blood sugar rises slowly with the oat and brown rice-containing powder. But I feel it shoot up within minutes of chugging down the maltodextrin-containing stuff. I’m sure my endogenous insulin responds with significant difference to each of these introductions of glucose to my system. And while I admittedly don’t have clinical evidence or double blind testing to back it up, I notice differences in the level of ease with which fat leaves my body when consistently using the complex carb-containing product versus the sugary-carbed product.

My experience isn’t unique in bodybuilding. Competitive bodybuilders typically avoid dairy products as they attempt to get body fat levels into the lowest single digits for contest preparation. Many know from experience that lactose (milk sugar) intake is not conducive to maximal leanness. So, while it might not be accurate to juxtapose bodybuilding contest preparation with obesity-fighting in the general population (lactose might only cause water retention in bodybuilders), the experiences of “elite fat fighters” (competitive bodybuilders) might be worth considering in this whole “does insulin make you fat” debate.

And this I know: James Krieger might contend that “a carb is a carb” and it’s only “energy in/energy out” that determines body fat levels – but many-a-bodybuilder would beg to differ.

Does Insulin Make You Fat?’ Interesting Responses from Experts

For any of you who’d like to read some detailed information on this issue, I suggest visiting Jimmy Moore’s ‘Does Insulin Deserve a Bad Reputation.’  His entry includes extensive responses to Mr. Krieger’s three-part article by many “low carb experts.” The responses – along with James Krieger’s article – create an educational synopsis of this very interesting subject.

Comments

Frances Frank

Great article, intelligently written. Thanks!

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