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Aug 9, 2011

Carbs, Insulin and the Paddler

Hello to all my SD teammates! The old saying goes: “Knowledge is power”. This is no more true than in the area of nutrition. So I would like to empower you with knowledge that will enable you to make wiser and healthier decisions when it comes to fueling your paddling machine. If you are like me then most likely you struggle on a daily basis with making the “right” choices about what to eat. I believe the more you educate yourself the easier it becomes to make these right choices since you will not only know WHAT choice to make but you will also know WHY you should make it. Please note that I am not formally educated in the area of nutrition and never claimed to be. I am simply relaying what I have learned through my informal research. I will never tell you what to do. I tell you what I know and you are left to take what you want from this information.

Today I want to discuss what I personally believe is the single most important dietary topic everyone should understand. This is especially true if he or she is interested in effective weight loss/management diets. This of course carbohydrate digestion. We all know that low-carb diets are becoming more and more popular for effective weight loss/maintenance. After reading this you will better know why this is. It all has to do with a little enzyme called insulin.

When you consume carbohydrates, you body quickly breaks these molecules down into glucose molecules and releases them into the blood stream for use as energy for most of your cells (sometimes referred to as a blood sugar spike). This signals the pancreas to produce insulin (referred to as an insulin spike). Insulin is extremely important in making use of the glucose. Four major things occur when insulin is released, two of which are good and two that are detrimental to weight loss/maintenance. First, it replenishes the energy stores in your muscles (good). Second, it replenishes the energy stores in your liver to fuel your brain (good). Third, it signals the body to stop burning fat for energy (bad) and finally it signals your body to store any and all remaining glucose not used by your muscles and liver into body fat (bad).

So now that we know what happens when insulin is released into the blood, we can see the big problem with over consumption of carbohydrates. The average human body can only hold about 400 grams of glucose in the muscles (Rod can store about a gazillion grams) and the liver can store about 90 grams. So once the muscles and liver are full, any additional carbs consumed will be directly converted into body fat because insulin tells the body to do that. So for someone not using their muscle regularly and not using their brain (me) but who is eating loads of carbs, all he or she is doing is packing on more and more body fat. Our bodies are designed to survive famine and do not waste food, which is unfortunate in modern society where food is plentiful. As long as you over eat carbs your body will happily pack on the fat!

Another sad truth about the metabolism of carbs is that it begins a vicious cycle. Your body is in constant struggle to maintain a balance in the body. When carbs are digested, a blood sugar spike occurs, the body releases insulin to bring the blood sugar down. Insulin drops the blood sugar down to real low levels. In an attempt to prevent blood sugar from dropping too far, the brain signals a response known as hunger to tell you to eat more carbs to bring the blood sugar back up. You crave carbs so you eat more. This starts the cycle over again.

So even though your muscles and liver are completely full and you have all the nutrients you need, your brain still tells you you’re “hungry” for more carbs! This is disastrous if you are trying to lose or maintain your weight. This is very unfortunate but it is just something we have to deal with. So the trick is to be strategic about carb consumption. You want to eat enough to keep your muscles and liver full but no more. This keeps the blood sugar and blood insulin levels stable and balanced and you don’t get the carb cravings. Magically, you are hungry only when you need more nutrients to replenish your body...the perfect scenario. So what’s the perfect amount of carbs to eat? Well there is no easy answer for that. All that can be said is stick with natural foods with low insulin response (aka low-glycemic foods) and your body will naturally let you know when and how much to eat.

So now you hopefully know a little bit more about why low-carb diets are effective and why things can go awry on high-carb diets.
One last thing, vegetables are technically carbs, but never avoid eating them. Eat loads and loads of veggies all the time. They have a very low insulin response when metabolized and are packed full of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) that keep your body running in tip-top shape. This is also true but to a less extent for fruits since fruits do have a little higher insulin response.

Thanks for reading and hope you now have something in your back pocket to help you make healthier food choices.