Could your hormones be making you fat?
A common belief is that weight loss/gain is predominantly determined by the number of calories you
consume (eat) compared to the number of calories you utilise (use) i.e if
calories in are greater than calories out you will gain weight, and vice versa.
This is a very very very simplistic way of looking at weight loss/gain and not
strictly true. There are so many other factors that come into play. I believe one of the biggest factors is your
Your hormones affect EVERYTHING your body does/doesn’t do. There are hundreds of different hormones
in the body, each one responsible for something different, and that can include
your body composition.
To some extent you are in control of your hormones and hopefully this article will explain how you
can make one of the key hormones work with you, not against you.
When talking about hormones in bodybuilding, the number one hormone that comes to mind is
Testosterone. Another common one that often pops up is Growth hormone, and
probably the third most talked about is Insulin. But it’s this third hormone
which I am going to focus on. Why? Because out of the three, it is Insulin that
can have the greatest effect on fat loss, or rather, as the case may be; lack
of fat loss.
What is Insulin?
Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas. It is released when there is an excess of
glucose in the blood caused by eating.
What does Insulin do?
Insulin causes the uptake of glucose from the blood into the cells where it is either metabolised
to provide energy, or stored as glycogen to be used later on. It does this by
binding to cell membranes and ‘opening the door’ so to speak, to allow the
glucose to pass through. Without the presence of Insulin, this process would
not occur which would mean your body would not be able to use the energy from
food for movement, growth, repair, or any other function that requires energy.
However, Insulin may be one of the reasons you’re finding it hard to lose fat.
Insulin is often referred to as having the effect of turning OFF the fat burning switch
(theoretically speaking, there is no switch!) This refers to the fact that whilst
Insulin is in action, your body will not be using fat as a fuel source. Why?
Well why would it when the only reason Insulin is present in the first place is
because there is an EXCESS of energy, and our bodies are designed to be very
efficient at storing excess energy. This comes from our ancestors who had to
hunt and search for their food and who may have gone long periods of time
between meals; unlike now where we have easy access to high calorie food,
especially sugar. Our bodies haven't adapted to this change (and neither have
our lifestyles!) and so our bodies will still save any excess fuel for a rainy
day, even though in the Western world, starvation is pretty much unheard of
When blood sugar levels rise quickly, there will be what is referred to as an ‘Insulin Spike’.
This is the common term used for when a large amount of Insulin is released by
the body soon after a high sugar meal. There can be a positive side to this
effect (which is mentioned later on), but a negative effect of this is that
your body can overreact and too MUCH Insulin is released, and blood sugar
levels then fall too LOW because too MUCH glucose has been removed from the
blood, leaving your blood sugar levels too LOW. This results in you feeling
HUNGRY and LOW IN ENERGY, even though you now have plenty of energy stored in
your cells. The danger here is that you will reach for something else high in
sugar and the cycle will continue. This ultimately means that you are more
likely to consume even more calories, and this extra energy, if not needed will
be stored as fat.
So how can Insulin help build muscle?
Insulin is listed in the same group as Testosterone and Growth hormone because it is classed as
an anabolic hormone. The word Anabolic means it promotes the building of cells,
which hopefully, in the case of a bodybuilder means the growth of muscle.
Insulin itself doesn’t build muscle, but it creates an environment where it is
more likely to occur. This is because your body will only build muscle when it
believes there is sufficient energy to do so and the presence of Insulin tells
your body that there IS sufficient energy available and so protein synthesis is
likely to occur; assuming you also provide a sufficient amount of protein via
your diet for this to take place, after all, muscle is protein.
When is the release of Insulin beneficial for muscle growth?
Without doubt, the most Anabolic time of the day is post workout. This is when you have just
worked your muscles (the stimulus for growth) and depleted your energy stores
of glucose. If you now consume a (relatively) large amount of sugars along with
your protein shake, a release of Insulin will not only help replenish your now
depleted muscles with glucose to stop any catabolism that may be, or about to
start, but you will also be providing the protein necessary for growth whilst
your body is in the belief that it has sufficient energy to do so. Do not fear
about fat gain in this post workout period, research has shown that after an
intense workout, an excess of calories will be used for recovery and protein
synthesis NOT fat gain.
Another time of the day when a reasonable amount of Insulin release will not do any harm is first
thing in the morning. This is because you have just fasted (not eaten) for 8-12
hours. At this point your glycogen stores will be low and so you want the
transfer of energy from your blood into your cells/muscles to occur. A
breakfast containing a mixture of fast and slow release carbs alongside protein
will kick your body back into an anabolic state and keep your body going for
the next few hours. If you try and go about your daily routine having not eaten
breakfast, your body will be low on energy and so will BREAKDOWN muscle for
fuel. At all other times of the day, you want Insulin levels to remain fairly
low, with no spikes. This will create the optimum environment for fat loss.
How do I keep Insulin levels low during the rest of the day?
You have control of Insulin release by controlling the food you eat. At times of rest, inactivity
or low level exercise, e.g. walking, you do not want Insulin levels to rise
(Just to make clear, eating of any sort will cause the release of Insulin; this
is necessary and unavoidable, but how much is released is dependent on WHAT and
how much you eat.) You can keep Insulin release low by limiting the amount of
sugar in your diet. When making food choices, have a look at the sugar content
of the food. The higher the sugar content, the quicker the rise in blood sugar
and the higher the release of Insulin. Aim to eat complex carbohydrates which
release energy slowly over a greater period of time and this will help avoid
any energy 'spikes' and 'crashes'. Also have a look at the GI Index of food.
This is a measure of how quickly food is broken down into glucose and therefore
the effect it has on the release of Insulin. The higher the sugar content/GI of
the food, the quicker/greater the release of Insulin.
Dangers of not controlling Insulin release
If you fail to keep your Insulin levels in check, you risk becoming ‘Insulin Resistant’. This is
when your body produces Insulin but your cells do not respond properly and so
blood sugar levels remain high which can have adverse health effects such as
causing Type II diabetes and heart disease.
- Insulin is necessary for providing your cells with
energy, including that needed for protein synthesis, but too much Insulin can
result in fat gain.
- Use Insulin to your advantage by controlling when
it is released by controlling the food you eat.
- Keep to low GI foods for sustained energy release
during the day, and high GI foods after your workout to replenish your cells.
- Successful weight loss requires the accurately
timed release of Insulin, not the counting of calories.
Referring back to the first paragraph, I said that weight loss/gain was not simply a case of
calories in verses calories out. Hopefully now you can see why you may not lose
weight, even when on a calorie deficient diet, due to the effect Insulin can
have on fat burning.