Insulin Spikes, not Calories, Drive Weight Problems

by Amy Berger

In part one of this series, I introduced the notion that being overweight is not a character flaw. Finding sweets and starches nearly impossible to resist has much more to do with what goes on in our bodies than in our minds.

In the current age of rising rates of metabolic syndrome and what doctors have come to call “diabesity” — the double whammy of diabetes and obesity — insulin is steering the ship, and unless you’ve got it under control, it’s likely steering you right into the rocks. But what exactly is insulin?

Insulin is a hormone that enters our bloodstream for many reasons, but the most significant is to help us handle a meal containing carbohydrates. (Protein raises insulin too, but not as much as carbohydrates.) While we may have come to see insulin as the enemy, the fact is we need insulin to stay alive, to build muscle, and to help fuel our bodies. Problems only arise when we have suboptimal amounts of insulin in our bodies–either too much or too little. Too little (or none, really) is Type I diabetes. And the essential roles insulin plays can be seen in an untreated Type I diabetic: without insulin, the body wastes away. The body can’t burn sugar for fuel, and in a desperate attempt to get at any fuel it can, it actually breaks down its own muscles and organs.

But overweight people usually have way too much insulin, not too little. Why is this? And why does insulin spike after a big meal–especially a high-carbohydrate meal?

All carbohydrates–pasta, rice, crackers, bread, potatoes, candy bars, pancakes–break down into sugar in our bodies. A bowl of spaghetti might not look much like a sugar cube, but upon digestion, they become basically the same thing.  And too much sugar in our bloodstream is dangerous. So after we eat these foods, insulin comes along to take the sugar out of our blood and push it into our cells, where it can be used as fuel. The thing is, insulin is so good at its job that it overcompensates–it takes too much sugar out of our blood, and when that happens, we feel hungry again even though we just ate! And what do we crave when our blood sugar gets low? More sugar. No wonder they call it a rollercoaster!

We’ve all experienced this. We’ve gone to buffets, eaten to our hearts’ content, and felt like we needed to be rolled out into the car. We’ve eaten so much we’re certain we won’t be hungry again for at least a week. But what happens? About two hours later, we feel hungry! It defies logic. How could we possibly be hungry after all that food?! If this doesn’t prove that hunger and satiety have nothing to do with calories, I don’t know what could. Take a Chinese buffet: are you hungry just a little while later because the thousands of calories of rice, noodles, sweet and sour chicken, sesame beef, and dumplings were somehow not enough to fill you up, or is it more likely that the carbohydrate in the rice, noodles, and sugar-laden sauces have sent you careening up and down the blood sugar thrill ride?

So you see, it’s not about calories in and out. It’s not about using some fancy app to track every single molecule of food you eat and then doing penance at the gym. Racking up miles on the treadmill won’t get you wings and a halo, and it likely hasn’t gotten you a smaller waistline, either. (More on this in an upcoming post on carbohydrates and exercise.)

In most cases, being overweight isn’t about the quantity of food we eat, it’s about the quality. It’s about what those foods are, and their effects on our body chemistry. And bringing our body chemistry back into balance is the key to ending sugar addiction, raising the safety harness, and stepping off the one ride no one should line up to go on.  

The way to do this is to avoid sugar as much as possible. To break the cycle. And maybe this is where there is a place for willpower, because avoiding sugar isn’t easy. It means ignoring the office candy dish. It means refusing the donuts at the morning meeting, declining the brownies at the church pot luck, and passing up the bread basket at the restaurant. But when you know why you should avoid certain foods, doing so becomes easier. And the why of avoiding refined carbohydrates is simple: they set us up to want more. And more. And more. Abstaining completely is difficult, but it’s easier than having “just a little taste,” because it never stops at one little taste–something we’ve all learned the hard way.

If you’ve been beating yourself up for your inability to stay away from sweets, if you’ve ever questioned what was “wrong” with you, or if you’ve seen your inability to lose weight as some kind of cosmic commentary on your self-worth, stop. Stop now. The truth is, the temptation, the cravings, and the nearly all-consuming drive to reach for something sweet are your body’s natural reaction to the low fat (and high carb) foods we’ve been conditioned to stick with.

The voices you might think come from your head come very much from your body. So all the tricks you might have turned to to battle cravings are the wrong tools for the job. Mantras (“nothing tastes as good as being thin feels”), tips (go for a walk; chew a piece of gum), and mind games have little influence on the physical process that’s causing you to think you need sugar. After a high-carbohydrate meal and the subsequent insulin spike and lower blood sugar, it’s not a matter of wanting more sweets; it’s that your body has been tricked into feeling like it needs them. Using your mind to fight your body is like assembling your troops in New Jersey when the enemy’s camp is actually in Utah. You’re simply on the wrong battlefield.

Take discipline out of the picture. Nobody thinks people are weak-willed for wearing coats in the middle of winter; they’re simply listening to their bodies’ needs. Reaching for carbohydrates when your blood sugar is low is also listening to your body’s needs. The trick is to reprogram your body to not need sugar, and that has a lot more to do with physiology than with psychology.

It makes sense, then, that to keep insulin in check, we should keep our carbohydrate intake in check. And the longer we do this, the better our bodies get at burning other fuels and the quieter those voices that have us reaching for sweets become. Pretty soon we don’t even hear them.


Amy Berger is earning a master’s degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport. A proud U.S. Air Force veteran, Amy struggled for years doing “all the right things,” but failed to see any improvement in her health and physique. Through shifting to nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods and intelligent exercise, she has transformed her body and self-esteem, and plans to share the lessons learned with those still fighting the battle. She believes weight loss is not a moral issue; it’s not about willpower, but restoring balance to our bodies and minds so that we don’t just survive, but thrive. Amy is especially interested in helping young women heal their relationships with food and serving as a source of common sense and sanity in the sea of nutritional madness. She can be reached at

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