Exercise and Carbohydrates: the Road to Nowhere

(Illustration by Melanie Hosoda)

Insulin is like a prison guard keeping our fat cells locked away, never to be set free, and exercise won’t help unless we also cut our insulin-spiking sugar/carb intake.

by Amy Berger

The recurring theme of this series on weight loss and psychology has been that carrying extra weight is not a character flaw. It’s not a sin, and it’s not a personal failing.  Contrary to what we hear in mainstream media, overweight people are not lazy, greedy, and undisciplined. In many cases, the very opposite is true.

Add together all the miles you’ve racked up on treadmills, bikes, and elliptical machines, and you could have gone around the world three times, right?  You practically live at the gym and you’d need a microscope to see the amount of fat you eat.  By your calculations, you should have lost so much weight you’d be invisible by now!

But what if you’ve been misled?  As we’ll see, remaining at the same weight despite being a regular fixture at the gym is simply the result of following the wrong information. Trying to lose body fat through exercise while eating a low-fat (and by default, high carbohydrate) diet is like trying to get at the money in a bank vault while there are ten armed guards in front of the door.  You ain’t gettin’ to the goods, no way, no how!

Think of insulin as the armed guards.  Insulin is big, he’s burly, and he is not going let you get past him to take the money (fat) out of the vault (your cells).  It is critical that you understand this: as long as insulin levels are high, you will not be able to burn your stored fat as fuel.  And what keeps insulin levels high?  Sugar and refined carbohydrates–exactly the kinds of foods you’ve probably been eating specifically because you thought they would help you lose weight:  fat-free muffins, low-fat yogurt, cereal bars, and “energy bars.”

Our bodies can run on a few different kinds of fuel, but the ones it likes best are glucose and fat.  The body can run just fine on either of these.  In fact, it’s constantly running on both.  We’re like hybrid cars that shift back and forth between gas and electricity:  we never run solely on glucose or solely on fat.  But, like hybrids, running on one generally means we aren’t running on the other.  So when we’re burning glucose for fuel, we’re not burning fat. If you had a brand of gasoline that got you 4 miles per gallon and one that got you 9 miles per gallon, which would you want to put in your car?  The one that gets you 9 miles a gallon would keep you going longer.  You’d have to fill up less often.  It’s more efficient.  That’s fat!

While our bodies are capable of running on fat or glucose, glucose is the “preferred fuel.”  It’s not that the body likes it better, or that it’s a more efficient fuel, but that our bodies will always choose to run on it first. Our bodies will use fat only when enough glucose isn’t available.  Indeed, our bodies like to run on fat. That’s why we’re so darn good at storing it–so we always have a ready supply.  We’re not good at storing glucose.  In fact, once our glycogen stores are full, excess sugar in the diet is actually converted to–you guessed it–fat!  The stuff on your hips, belly, and backside may very well be coming from the fat-free cereal and skim milk you had for breakfast.

So how can we get past the insulin gatekeeper?  We have to switch from being sugar burners to fat burners.  The way to gain access to those rich reserves of efficient, 9 miles-per-gallon fuel–the ones we store so conveniently on our thighs, hips, backsides, and bellies–is to deprive our bodies of glucose.  When we deprive the body of the fuel it “wants” (glucose), we give it no choice but to use the one it has–and it has plenty: FAT.

It should be evident by now how to make the switch from sugar burning to fat burning:  limit carbohydrate intake.  Once you become a fat burner, not only will your time at the gym be more productive, but you’ll be burning fat even when you’re not working out. Fat will be the fuel your body runs on most of the time, even when you’re just sitting around!  This is key, because working out is a temporary activity.  A one-shot deal.  You’re in the gym and you’re out.  But all the other things your body does all day long–even while you sleep–have to be fueled as well.  Just staying alive–breathing, digesting, blinking, sitting upright, your heart beating–constantly burns fuel.  So what’s more important: how much fuel you burn during your one, hour-long burst of a workout, or the fuel your body’s running on the other 23 hours of the day?

If the idea of hitting the gym–or even just getting up and going for a short walk–seems like a monumental hurdle, you are probably stuck in sugar-burner purgatory.  But when you switch to being a fat-burner, you’ll finally have access to all your fuel and you won’t be able to stop being active.  In fact, when people cut back on carbs, one of the first things they report is a huge boost in energy.  The truth is, you won’t burn fat because you’ve gotten active; you’ll get active because you’re burning fat! You’ll have the energy to exercise and move around because you’ll finally be allowing your body to run on its most powerful fuel! (Gary Taubes explains this beautifully in his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories.)

If you’re at your wit’s end, if you could win a Nobel Prize for calorie counting, and you’ve spent endless hours working out but haven’t seen any results, don’t despair.  It’s not that you’re doing anything wrong; you’re just reading the wrong instruction manual.  Whip out the new playbook I’ve been talking about.  By limiting carbohydrates, you’ll prime your body at a cellular level to use fat as fuel regardless of your activity–whether you’re out running or simply reading a blog.   

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 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 berger.amy1@gmail.com.

One comment

  • Wow, very very intense post. I had to read it a lucpoe times to digest it all, but hm I have mixed feelings about this.Yes, I avoided carbs. But my eating disorder story is not yet over yet (haha, it was such a long process) and there was actually yet ANOTHER stage when all I ate was carbs I binged on carbs and sugar because I had deprived myself of that for sooo long. And because I was lacking in carbs, I craved sugar and carbs all the time. Even while I was bingeing on low-carb foods like nuts, what I really wanted was a big hunk of white bread. So later on there was a time when I just ate carbs, carbs, carbs. I think my recovery really came from starting to eat balanced foods. That means a good amount of carbs, but also with a side of fat and protein. That kind of balanced diet really helped me diminish weird food cravings. But then, I’ve never really had any sort of health issues with sugar and blood levels, so I’m willing to see that some people might have different experiences as me. Plus, I did notice that every person’s body is different. For me, I thrive on a high-carb diet. It makes me feel much better than a high-fat, high-protein diet. That’s the beauty (and the difficulty) of determining what your perfect diet should be like. It’s different for everybody.

    March 5, 2012

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