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Metabolism & Obesity: The overweight person’s metabolism is different

Jade Teta ND, CSCS

We recently posted the following statement on our Facebook page:

“The overweight and obese have metabolisms that don’t behave the same as thin people.”

And of course this set off a firestorm of comments from “metabolism experts” who were very upset at the idea that overweight people have any differences in metabolism from normal weight people. Many of them simply said overweight people are lazy gluttons. It always makes us sad to hear this kind of language about any group of people, and it made the whole ME team frustrated by 1) how cruel people can be, and 2) how completely clueless many are about metabolism.

So, they pushed me to do a blog on the metabolic differences of the obese, hoping to change minds. Well, I think I know better about changing people’s minds. It’s not likely. Human nature is such that normally people will simply dig their heels in further……..this is a result of the two most powerful needs of the human psyche, status and certainty.

Nevertheless, for those that have an open mind and like learning about this stuff I thought I would cover one, and probably the most critical, metabolic difference between the obese/overweight and lean/fit folks. Insulin resistance.

A brief lesson on insulin resistance (IR).

Being resistant to a hormone is like walking into a room with a strong smell. When you first enter you are acutely aware of the smell and may cover your nose. But after some time passes, you will no longer be aware of the smell. This is analogous to what happens when the cells in a particular area of the body become resistant to a hormone like insulin. They stop getting its signal.

The most common misconception about Insulin resistance (IR) is that it is all or nothing. There is the assumption that you HAVE or CATCH insulin resistance. People, and even healthcare providers, talk about it as if it is always a systemic thing. But it is not. You can be resistant or sensitive to insulin in different areas. This depends on your genetics and lifestyle. Insulin resistance is a precursor to diabetes, and one of the things that determines whether you eventually become diabetic or not is the degree of IR and where IR occurs. Usually severe IR in the liver ends up resulting in diabetes.

So, let’s review what insulin does when certain body tissues/cells are sensitive to it (normal function):

  • In the brain= insulin shuts off hunger
  • In the liver= Shuts down gluconeogenesis and increases glycogen synthesis (basically stores sugar and does not use resources to make it)
  • In the muscle= increases glucose, fat and protein transport proteins to increase uptake of these fuels/resources (i.e. causes entry of fuel into the cell)
  • In the fat= increases entry of fat and decreases the exit of fat (makes the fat cell stingy)

Let us review what insulin does when your cells/tissue become resistant to it (not normal function):

  • In brain= insatiable hunger and thirst
  • In liver= Increase sugar breakdown and production (i.e increased blood glucose levels)
  • In the muscle= less uptake of fat, sugar, amino acids, and other nutrients (i.e. muscle cell starvation and increased blood fats and blood sugar)
  • In the fat cell= decreased fat uptake and increased fat released (i.e. high blood fats= high triglycerides)

So, what does it mean?

Here is what to understand about this. If you have IR occurring in multiple areas, which usually is the case in the overweight and obese, you have many detrimental consequences that completely change the way your metabolism behaves.

  • Your body is now constantly hungry and wanting to eat ALL the time. You also don’t satisfy easily for meals. There is a disconnect between how much you eat and the feeling of fullness.
  • On the one hand, you find yourself overeating all the time, but on the other hand you are unable to get fuel into your cells. You are internally becoming malnourished because the cells can’t access the food you are eating.
  • All the blood sugar and blood fats that are unable to feed your cells are forced to hang around in your blood doing damage to your internal organs. Fat that may have been released simply gets restored.
  • Your fat cells are usually the last organ/tissue to lose sensitivity so they start packing away the fat pounds and there is a constant flux of fat being released and restored from the fat cells (many diabetic drugs actually help make new fat cells in a desperate attempt to keep the body insulin sensitive).
  • As a consequence of this mild cellular starvation, you are becoming depleted in brain chemistry, vitamins, and minerals overtime as your body frantically uses resources to attempt to get back to balance. But, this just makes things worse, creating more hunger, more cravings, and energy lows.

This is why many who understand this IR issue often say, “you are overfed, but undernourished”.

This is why we say an overweight or obese person has a different metabolism than a thin insulin sensitive person.

So, now you are probably wondering what’s the fix?

  1. Move more. Movement is an independent mechanism by which you can increase the glucose transporters without the need for insulin.
  2. Eat right. Find a way to lower the insulin impact. Here, the most beneficial thing would be simply don’t eat for a day or two. Easy for our ancestors who had no choice since food simply was not around, but almost no chance for you with those unrelenting, unforgiving cravings and hunger with food everywhere. So, instead eat more protein, water, and fiber and stop eating fat and starch (you have enough floating around in your body as is). This will suppress the hunger and lower insulin more slowly and gently. A few more points here. I have learned that people’s biases get them a little bent out of shape when something goes against their beliefs and the above bit on fat is sure to bother the “fat cures everything crowd”. So a little more detail for them. It is true a very high fat diet would be great here as well, but the issue is for it to work it also has to be very low carb. For those who are now feeling compelled to put me in my place on fat, you will probably find I actually agree with you. Fat is not that bad, but it can be, and if you want to know why, this blog explains some.
  3. Sleep more. Sleep as this will lower cortisol, and too much cortisol can exacerbate insulin resistance.
  4. Supplement. There are some key nutrients that act as insulin mimickers. These are called “insulin mimetics”. They essentially help your body process fuel so that it requires less insulin to do so. This helps the body regain some insulin sensitivity. These are a staple in our fat loss protocols. Some of the best ones for this are lipoic acid, chromium, and vanadium. Green tea extract, green coffee extract, vinegar, and a good mix of B-vitamins are also extremely beneficial. A good metabolic multiple is an essential part of the fix. Want to know the doses we use on these supplements? Find it HERE

Get more on the in-depth science of insulin at this BLOG and this BLOG

[tweetherder]Metabolism is not simple mathematics no matter how much we want it to be.[/tweetherder]