Fit Island: Do calories count?

STOCK PHOTO Although it is an oversimplification, insulin is sometimes referred to as the “fat-storage hormone.”

Although it is an oversimplification, insulin is sometimes referred to as the “fat-storage hormone.”

“Eat Less and Move More” has been the mantra of the diet and fitness industry for the past few decades. So why are so many people still struggling to lose weight despite following this advice? Unlike our fitness trackers, our bodies don’t possess a calorie meter that keeps track of energy in and energy out. A calorie is simply a unit of measure for energy — not completely without merit in the weight loss formula, but limiting.

The answer to controlling weight lies in our hormones. All metabolic processes in the body including fat storage depend on hormones — the body’s chemical messengers. There are 50 different hormones in the human body.  The main players in weight control are insulin, leptin and ghrelin.

However, many other hormones (such as thyroid hormones, cortisol, estrogen and testosterone) can have an influence on weight gain and weight loss.

Although it is an oversimplification, insulin is sometimes referred to as the “fat-storage hormone.” The main role of insulin (which is secreted by the pancreas) is to manage the sugar in our blood.

A healthy blood sugar balance, as anyone with diabetes knows, is a matter of life and death. So let’s not go blaming insulin for just trying to keep us alive! However, we can control blood sugar and insulin with the food we eat and the exercise we do.

All carbohydrates get converted to glucose (a form of sugar) in the blood. Brownies and broccoli are both carbohydrates but brownies get converted quickly and provide a big surge of glucose followed by a huge response of insulin. Broccoli on the other hand, requires more “work” to extract the sugar from all that fiber. The glucose is released into the blood stream more slowly and the insulin response is more normal.

The body (and especially the brain) needs glucose to function. Eating carbohydrates the way nature intended (whole fruits, vegetables and grains) is the healthiest way to provide the body and brain with energy without causing extreme blood sugar fluctuations.

Avoiding or limiting the obvious sources of simple sugars (candy, cookies, cakes and soda) will help limit the production of excess insulin that can lead to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and diabetes. We also need to balance our diets with healthy sources of protein and fat as well. Not all calories are created equal — focus on the quality of your food while trying to meet, but not exceed, your energy needs.

Most exercise helps with blood sugar control but strength training is one of the best. Building muscle will create more cells where glucose can be stored as glycogen for immediate energy (versus being converted to fat and stored). Exercising with weights can regulate other hormones in a positive way as well.

Another excellent exercise for blood sugar control is High Intensity Interval Training. The intensity of this type of training depletes glucose in the blood and glycogen in the muscles much more quickly than steady state cardio exercise and can help promote the use of stored fat. Being active throughout the day is another way to send the message to your cells that yours is a body that needs a continual source of energy (versus fat storage).

This is a very simplistic explanation of the blood sugar process and hormones. I encourage you to speak to your doctor or nutritionist or read any of the numerous books or web articles on the subject. This is an important topic on which to educate yourself in order to maximize your nutrition and exercise, maintain a healthy weight and avoid metabolic illness.