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Can u burn stored fat if insulin is high?

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created April 12, 2012 at 8:41 PM

Let's say based on my level of activity I "burn" 3500 calories worth of energy each day.

Let's say I only eat 1750 calories of low-carb paleo chow.

Does that mean I'm "burning" 1/2 pound of body fat to make up the difference?

Now consider what would happen if I ate 1750 calories of high carb chow: I would not be in ketosis. I would have elevated insulin levels (a storage hormone).

Would my high carb food choices prevent me from burning stored body fat, even though I only ate about half my energy requirements?

From reading the Taubes book, I have the impression that the first priority be to sweep the 1750 of carbs into my fat cells? What happens next confuses me: if I still had energy demands (above and beyond what I ate), would I be burning stored body fat, despite the elevated insulin?

Or, would my metabolism slow down so my new daily energy needs is about 1750 calories?

Any thoughts would be appreciated.

Thanks, Mike

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 15, 2012
at 03:49 PM

There are some advantages to ketosis, one of which is that some things run better on ketone fuel. Your heart, kidneys, and parts of your brain can run more efficiently on ketones. They just use sugar first because that's a way to get the toxic sugar out of your blood quickly (burn it). The best is to be able to switch between fuels easily. I can go on a 12 hour hike with no food because I can pop into ketosis when I need to. Also, there are ways around ketosis breath but I forget what they are, you could probably look them up.

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on April 15, 2012
at 02:41 AM

BTW, and just to clarify: if I'm not diabetic, and insulin is behaving normally, and I'm low-ish carb (maybe 100g), in-between meals, my insulin falls and I burn fat. If that's the case, is there any reason I would try to achieve ketosis? (I remember from 20 years ago when I tried the atkins diet, that ketosis breath is terrible!).

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on April 14, 2012
at 01:55 AM

Simple is simply fine with me and much appreciated. Mike D's answer helped me get a better handle on this. I'm only 2 months into paleo and I find this site to be enormously helpful. Thanks to all who share their knowledge!

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 13, 2012
at 03:57 PM

Again...simple physical picture...KGH does a great job of explaining dynamic equilibrium (I have a chemical kinetics background, so I understand this very well), and how it applies to insulin and fat. But I simplified the story so that I could describe the big picture. If you want every answer on PH to be a 15,000 word essay covering all possible nuances, then PH will become as useless to the average person as reading a scientific journal. We have to become more lenient with levels of abstraction that cover the topic at hand.

A968087cc1dd66d480749c02e4619ef4

(20436)

on April 13, 2012
at 03:32 PM

@miked - I think you are incorrect when you state that energy cannot be obtained from fat cells when insulin is around. Best explanation is here: http://www.archevore.com/panu-weblog/2010/3/15/insulin-is-a-doorman-at-the-fat-cell-nightclub-not-a-lock-on.html

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 13, 2012
at 02:44 PM

I gave a simplistic view on insulin because it was all that was needed to illustrate the answer to the original question. There's no need to go into all the details here. Sometimes, to be clear you have to be simple and then hit the details later. Taubes covers all of the details of insulin in GCBC, I'm not going to rewrite 1000 pages here to answer a simple question. I understand that insulin is a signalling hormone to get sugar in lots of different cells, not just fat cells. But it still doesn't change the fact that you can't get energy OUT of fat when insulin is around.

A968087cc1dd66d480749c02e4619ef4

(20436)

on April 13, 2012
at 02:23 PM

The answer to your question is yes. Assuming you are relatively normal and healthy. I'm not sure the same rules apply for a type 2 diabetic.

07243c7700483a67386049f7b67d90a4

on April 13, 2012
at 02:20 PM

why the overly simplistic view on the actions of insulin ? Insulin doesn't just force sugar into fat cells. If its only function was to fat storage why would bodybuilders and Olympians take it?

A968087cc1dd66d480749c02e4619ef4

(20436)

on April 13, 2012
at 02:20 PM

However, low carb IS useful for two reasons. Protein reduces hunger (many studies show this effect). Low carb is usually higher protein and therefore blunts hunger. Low carb diets can be ketogenic. Ketogenic diets also reduce hunger in study after study. It is also theorized that low carb diets have less 'food reward' value and therefore do not stimulate overeating and are thus helpful in weight loss. While it may be possible that insulin (or the lack of insulin on a low carb diet) plays into some of these effects, such as reduced hunger, the "locking fat away" idea has little merit.

A968087cc1dd66d480749c02e4619ef4

(20436)

on April 13, 2012
at 02:13 PM

You lose 1/2 a pound of fat either way. (+/- a little glycogen/protein). Firstly, if you are eating fewer carbs than you are burning, you're glycogen would be replenished first prior to any carbs being stored as fat. Secondly, fat is ALWAYS being released by adipocytes - even in the presence of insulin. Don't be misled by a theoretical discussion of what's happenning in the fat cell. It's what's being burned in cells/mitochondria all over the body that really counts. And (as much as I hate to admit it) Carbsane is usually correct. The Taubes theory sounds good, but is probably incorrect.

A968087cc1dd66d480749c02e4619ef4

(20436)

on April 13, 2012
at 01:57 PM

Oh please don't tell Evelyn to read Taubes! I much prefer her focused on Dr. Kruse. @Evelyn, ever tried looking at Ray Peat's stuff? (There's at least 6 month's worth of blogging right there.)

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 13, 2012
at 01:36 PM

Uh, no evidence? Go read (and I mean read, no skim) Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes spends about 1000 pages showing evidence of this.

24df4e0d0e7ce98963d4641fae1a60e5

on April 13, 2012
at 12:27 PM

Unfortunately, there's no evidence that supports this scenario.

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on April 13, 2012
at 12:51 AM

Wow! That is an excellent answer! Thank you! That ties together a lot!

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 13, 2012
at 12:01 AM

That's the whole derangement part of metabolic derangement; things don't work like they're supposed to. A healthy person will burn up muscle and liver glycogen (which lasts about 48 hours and why you get the low-carb flu about 2 days in), but that's not the case in the obese.

B4e1fa6a8cf43d2b69d97a99dfca262c

(10255)

on April 12, 2012
at 11:35 PM

but if you are eating at a deficit doesn't the glucose stores in your liver get depleted? and if you are burning up 3500 calories a day surely your muscle glycogen would be somewhat deplete wouldn't it? i think in the scenerio the OP proposes most of the high carb calories would be used to replete muscle and liver stores; no?

286a4ff7c362241c5c4b020df4972212

(1288)

on April 12, 2012
at 10:37 PM

Yep good answer

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6 Answers

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510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 12, 2012
at 09:44 PM

You're on the right track. The short answer is: insulin moves energy into fat; lack of insulin allows energy to move out of fat.

In a healthy individual, this isn't a problem, like kenckar says, between meals, your insulin will come down and you'll burn that fat you stored. What Taubes is most concerned with is in the metabolically deranged / insulin resistant person. In these people their insulin is chronically elevated so basically they never get that energy back out of their fat cells and just keep putting on weight. That's also why someone who's insulin resistant can be ravenously hungry and feel like they're starving even if they have the fat; they can't use it, so their brain is panicking and telling them to eat more.

This is why Taubes has come to the conclusion that insulin is the one hormone to rule them all (for fat loss). If you can control the insulin, you can control your available energy. That's a hot topic on PH, so I'm not going to argue either way.

On to your example, If you need 3500 cals to be as active as you are and you ate 1750 as low carb: you're right, you'd just pull the extra out of your fat for the day, losing about 1/2 a pound.

But if you ate 1750 of carbs, some of gets used for fuel right away, the other part gets shunted to your fat cells because your insulin goes up. What happens next is the question. If you're a healthy individual, your insulin will come back down and you'll pull what you need out of fat and essentially lose another 1/2 pound or so. If you're insulin resistant, then you're out of luck. You can't pull that energy out, so now you get crazy hungry. If you don't ever get around to eating, then your body has no other choice but to slow its metabolism because there's no energy around to use. This is where Taubes says "you're not fat because you're lazy, you're lazy because you're fat". I.e., you just can't move because the energy isn't available for you to use.

You'll also notice something in that example above with the insulin resistant person:

  • They need 3500 calories
  • They eat 1750 calories
  • They use (say) 875 calories immediately from blood sugar; the other 875 gets stored because insulin was/went up

That means, they took in what they thought was 1/2 of their caloric need, hoping to lose 1/2 of a pound, but they ended up storing 1/4 of a pound worth of energy and only getting 1/4 of their need for the day actually used. That's the kind of thing you see when insulin resistant people try to diet (by cutting calories but keeping the carbs up). In this case, they effectively only got 1/4 of their daily need for energy from their food, they gained some weight, and they had to slow (sometimes irreversibly) their metabolism down. I think that's why the food quality matters more than food quantity when losing weight (of course, you do have to know the difference between your mouth and vacuum cleaner).

286a4ff7c362241c5c4b020df4972212

(1288)

on April 12, 2012
at 10:37 PM

Yep good answer

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on April 13, 2012
at 12:51 AM

Wow! That is an excellent answer! Thank you! That ties together a lot!

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 13, 2012
at 01:36 PM

Uh, no evidence? Go read (and I mean read, no skim) Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes spends about 1000 pages showing evidence of this.

A968087cc1dd66d480749c02e4619ef4

(20436)

on April 13, 2012
at 01:57 PM

Oh please don't tell Evelyn to read Taubes! I much prefer her focused on Dr. Kruse. @Evelyn, ever tried looking at Ray Peat's stuff? (There's at least 6 month's worth of blogging right there.)

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 13, 2012
at 12:01 AM

That's the whole derangement part of metabolic derangement; things don't work like they're supposed to. A healthy person will burn up muscle and liver glycogen (which lasts about 48 hours and why you get the low-carb flu about 2 days in), but that's not the case in the obese.

07243c7700483a67386049f7b67d90a4

on April 13, 2012
at 02:20 PM

why the overly simplistic view on the actions of insulin ? Insulin doesn't just force sugar into fat cells. If its only function was to fat storage why would bodybuilders and Olympians take it?

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on April 15, 2012
at 02:41 AM

BTW, and just to clarify: if I'm not diabetic, and insulin is behaving normally, and I'm low-ish carb (maybe 100g), in-between meals, my insulin falls and I burn fat. If that's the case, is there any reason I would try to achieve ketosis? (I remember from 20 years ago when I tried the atkins diet, that ketosis breath is terrible!).

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 13, 2012
at 02:44 PM

I gave a simplistic view on insulin because it was all that was needed to illustrate the answer to the original question. There's no need to go into all the details here. Sometimes, to be clear you have to be simple and then hit the details later. Taubes covers all of the details of insulin in GCBC, I'm not going to rewrite 1000 pages here to answer a simple question. I understand that insulin is a signalling hormone to get sugar in lots of different cells, not just fat cells. But it still doesn't change the fact that you can't get energy OUT of fat when insulin is around.

B4e1fa6a8cf43d2b69d97a99dfca262c

(10255)

on April 12, 2012
at 11:35 PM

but if you are eating at a deficit doesn't the glucose stores in your liver get depleted? and if you are burning up 3500 calories a day surely your muscle glycogen would be somewhat deplete wouldn't it? i think in the scenerio the OP proposes most of the high carb calories would be used to replete muscle and liver stores; no?

24df4e0d0e7ce98963d4641fae1a60e5

on April 13, 2012
at 12:27 PM

Unfortunately, there's no evidence that supports this scenario.

7fc82eebafd44badc73c520f44660150

(3275)

on April 14, 2012
at 01:55 AM

Simple is simply fine with me and much appreciated. Mike D's answer helped me get a better handle on this. I'm only 2 months into paleo and I find this site to be enormously helpful. Thanks to all who share their knowledge!

A968087cc1dd66d480749c02e4619ef4

(20436)

on April 13, 2012
at 03:32 PM

@miked - I think you are incorrect when you state that energy cannot be obtained from fat cells when insulin is around. Best explanation is here: http://www.archevore.com/panu-weblog/2010/3/15/insulin-is-a-doorman-at-the-fat-cell-nightclub-not-a-lock-on.html

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 13, 2012
at 03:57 PM

Again...simple physical picture...KGH does a great job of explaining dynamic equilibrium (I have a chemical kinetics background, so I understand this very well), and how it applies to insulin and fat. But I simplified the story so that I could describe the big picture. If you want every answer on PH to be a 15,000 word essay covering all possible nuances, then PH will become as useless to the average person as reading a scientific journal. We have to become more lenient with levels of abstraction that cover the topic at hand.

510bdda8988ed0d4b0ec0b738b4edb73

(20888)

on April 15, 2012
at 03:49 PM

There are some advantages to ketosis, one of which is that some things run better on ketone fuel. Your heart, kidneys, and parts of your brain can run more efficiently on ketones. They just use sugar first because that's a way to get the toxic sugar out of your blood quickly (burn it). The best is to be able to switch between fuels easily. I can go on a 12 hour hike with no food because I can pop into ketosis when I need to. Also, there are ways around ketosis breath but I forget what they are, you could probably look them up.

3
24df4e0d0e7ce98963d4641fae1a60e5

on April 13, 2012
at 12:26 PM

Before you go buying into Taubes' theories, consider this. There's nothing like exercise to lower insulin levels, yet Taubes is adamant that exercise is useless for weight loss because it will only make you hungry.

I've not read WWGF in its entirety, but I'm aware that it contains a scenario whereby insulin makes you hungry and causes overeating (oh I know, that's inane!) starting on p. 122 (Google books). You think about carbs, secrete insulin, eat carbs, secrete more insulin that locks the fat away making you hungrier so you eat more and more. Yet insulin lowering exercise makes you hungry.

3
Fdf101349c397fbe1ecb98b310fb3737

(358)

on April 12, 2012
at 09:26 PM

In between meals your insulin would go down and you could release the fat. Also, your metabolism would drop, but probably not so much that 1750 would be maintenance.

Even if you had a slow steady 24 hour drip of carbs going into your system, presumably your insulin would not raise so much beause you would be in a continual caloric deficit with the calories going to fuel your body.

You have to think through what happens through the cycles, not simply taking a day as a unit.

1
A72f969e98fb82fbaae341d29230b881

(195)

on April 13, 2012
at 01:13 PM

Unless you are eating ultra-high levels of protein, fat will not be the only thing you are burning. That much of a deficit over more than a few days will put you into a muscle consuming state which consumes your muscles for the necessary amino acids your body requires. So looking at such a deficit as only fat-burning will ignore the effect of muscle loss, regardless of the effect of insulin. Personally, I think if you were that active and your metabolism was not deranged, none of those 1750 calories would be stored, since they would be used for your body's energy needs.

1
E12ead3bf63c94b5b619b03722ef554f

on April 13, 2012
at 12:50 PM

If you are eating a low-calorie high-carb diet, you will be in deficit and your will eventually burn some body fat, although probably not as much as if you consumed the same amount of calories from a lower carb diet. Your insulin levels won't be as high if your calories are restricted.

The real question though is whether this is a sustainable approach in the long-term! Many studies have shown that a calorie-restricted diet rich in carbs (and therefore low in fat) is not satiating at all compared to a lower-carb higher-fat diet.

0
Medium avatar

(10611)

on November 08, 2012
at 12:26 AM

miked linked this skeleton from the cave. It was interesting so I'll add my N=1 response.

The answer to your question is YES.

I was insulin resistant (A1C=8 fasting) and had no trouble losing 2-3 lbs/week for 3 months in this condition. I did not run % body fat, but the loss of visceral fat was obvious in my waistline, and in my thinning round face and thighs. I ate carbs during this period, but less in both dietary % and absolute level than I did before I started losing weight. Certainly nowhere near VLC level - at least 150 grams per day.

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