How Low Insulin Opens a Way to Escape Dieting Hell

Salvation from diet hell is very different from salvation from a supernatural hell, but in this post I want to make the analogy. On the supernatural side of the analogy, let me stick with the Mormon theology that I know best from the first 40 years of my life when I was a Mormon. (I am 58 now.) The Mormon theory of being saved by Jesus centers on a great sacrifice by Jesus, which allows mercy power on a par with justice. There is a fancy word for a theory of salvation: “soteriology.” Here are some key passages of soteriology from the Book of Mormon. (Also see my post “The Mormon View of Jesus.”)

For it is expedient that an atonement should be made; for according to the great plan of the Eternal God there must be an atonement made, or else all mankind must unavoidably perish; yea, all are hardened; yea, all are fallen and are lost, and must perish except it be through the atonement which it is expedient should be made. …

And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption. …

And thus we see that all mankind were fallen, and they were in the grasp of justice; yea, the justice of God, which consigned them forever to be cut off from his presence.

And now, the plan of mercy could not be brought about except an atonement should be made; therefore God himself atoneth for the sins of the world, to bring about the plan of mercy, to appease the demands of justice, that God might be a perfect, just God, and a merciful God also.

Alma 34:9, 16; 42:14,15

In other passages in these chapters, it emphasizes how unusual it is that someone else (Jesus) can pay a price for one of us. In the area of weight loss, without supernatural aid, you will have the pay the price for weight loss yourself. But salvation from being overweight has a two-part structure like this Mormon doctrine of salvation from hell: there is a key sacrifice (analogous to “an atonement”), and then there is some other effort as well (analogous to “repentance”).

From here on, I’ll give you my views about weight loss without further apology for the lack of certainty that all of us should have about an area where the evidence is not fully conclusive. But in this one post, I’ll tilt my views as much as I feel I reasonably can toward the calories-in/calories-out conventional wisdom. It can be reasonable to go further away from the calories-in/calories-out conventional wisdom, and I often do. But I don’t think it is reasonably to go any closer to the calories-in/calories-out conventional wisdom than in this post.

With that tilt toward the calories-in/calories-out conventional wisdom, the analogy to “an atonement” is keeping your insulin levels low, while the analogy to “repentance” is keeping calorie intake low. Without keeping your insulin levels low, keeping your calorie intake low will seldom do much good. There are a lot of dieting failures to back up that claim. (Throughout this post, let me assume that you do not have Type 1 diabetes. In Type 1 diabetes, your insulin levels will be too low without medication. If you have Type 1 diabetes and you don’t get insulin injections, you would be likely to lose so much weight that you would die.)

What usually trips people when they attempt to lose weight is that if their insulin levels are even moderately high, their body fat will be (for the most part) locked into their fat cells. If your body fat is locked into your fat cells, reducing the calories you eat will make you feel starved and miserable, and your body will also try to reduce the rate at which it burns calories, which will make you feel sluggish. With your body fat locked into your fat cells, you won’t lose much weight to begin with, and feeling starved, miserable and sluggish will make you want to quit going down that road as soon as possible.

One of the ways people keep their insulin levels up enough that their body fat is locked in their fat cells is by eating foods each day that have a high insulin index. (See “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid.”) But another force keeping insulin levels high is having chronically eaten food that has a high insulin index in the past, which makes cells less sensitive to insulin (“insulin resistance”) which makes the insulin-producing cells produce more insulin to get the message through when blood sugar is too high. So the great sacrifice that can open the gates and let fat out of your fat cells is (a) to give up sugar and otherwise switch to foods that have a low insulin index and (b) to fast—that is, go for at least substantial chunks of the day, and possibly longer periods of time without eating anything, while continuing to drink water, unsweetened sparkling water, coffee and tea as desire.

Once you have your insulin levels low enough through switching to low-insulin-index foods and having big chunks of time with no food at all, your body will be open to the possibility of burning body fat. Then and only then will you get the results people naively think they will get based on the usual calories in/calories out logic. But what you will find is that with your body open to the possibility of burning body fat, you won’t suffer from having substantial chunks of time with no food and having your total calorie intake from the outside world low. The reason is that a calorie from burning your own fat is just as good as a calorie from food you are eating now in keeping you well nourished and feeling good.

People don’t realize how easy fasting can be, because they think reducing calories in will lead to burning their own fat. It doesn’t work that way. If you have only a few calories, but many of those few calories are from sugary food and other food that produces a strong insulin response, your fat will stay locked in your fat cells. Low-calorie intake of high-insulin-index food leads to misery, not fat burning. It is low insulin levels combined with low calorie intake that will give you the fat burning that keeps you feeling well-fed from your internal fat stores even when you are not taking in much from the outside world.

Of course, the one measure that both keeps insulin levels low and keeps calorie intake from the outside world low is fasting—periods of time without food. That is why fasting is the grand key to weight loss. However, if, in between your periods of fasting, you are eating a lot of sugar, easily-digested carbohydrates and other foods that generate a big insulin kick, it will both interfere with your weight loss and making fasting much, much harder.

Many people build substantial chunks of time with no food into their day by eating only within a limited “eating window.” Other people sprinkle sprinkle into a week or a month fasts that are longer than 24 hours. Before you do that, you should heed some cautions. In “Don't Tar Fasting by those of Normal or High Weight with the Brush of Anorexia” I gave these cautions:

  • If your body-mass-index is below 18.5, quit fasting! Here is a link to a BMI calculator.

  • Definitely people should not do fasting for more than 48 hours without first reading Jason Fung’s two books The Obesity Code (see “Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon” and “Five Books That Have Changed My Life”) and The Complete Guide to Fasting.

  • Those under 20, pregnant or seriously ill should indeed consult a doctor before trying to do any big amount of fasting.

  • Those on medication need to consult their doctor before doing much fasting. My personal nightmare as someone recommending fasting is that a reader who is already under the care of a doctor who is prescribing medicine might fail to consult their doctor about adjusting the dosage of that medicine in view of the fasting they are doing. Please, please, please, if you want to try fasting and are on medication, you must tell your doctor. That may involve the burden of educating your doctor about fasting. But it could save your life from a medication overdose.

  • Those who find fasting extremely difficult should not do lengthy fasts.

  • But, quoting again from “4 Propositions on Weight Loss”: “For healthy, nonpregnant, nonanorexic adults who find it relatively easy, fasting for up to 48 hours is not dangerous—as long as the dosage of any medication they are taking is adjusted for the fact that they are fasting.”

A key element of many soteriologies, or theories of salvation, is the fruitlessness of efforts that lack the key element. Similarly, weight-loss efforts that lack the key element of keeping your insulin levels low are likely to fail, and cause you a lot of misery on the road to failure as well as the disappointment of failure as the destination. If you do what it takes to keep your insulin levels low, people might well say “Of course that worked! You were avoiding sugar, refined carbohydrates and processed food, and going substantial chunks of time without eating!” But if they keep to the conventional wisdom that only focuses on calories-in/calories-out (and in the usual approach, inevitably ignoring many subtleties even about the calories out and about the detailed genesis of temptations for calories in), they won’t have as good an explanation for why what other people try doesn’t work in the long run.

Don’t miss my other posts on diet and health:

I. The Basics

II. Sugar as a Slow Poison

III. Anti-Cancer Eating

IV. Eating Tips

V. Calories In/Calories Out

VI. Sleep

VII. Wonkish

VIII. Debates about Particular Foods and about Exercise

IX. Gary Taubes

X. Twitter Discussions

XI. On My Interest in Diet and Health

See the last section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life" and the podcast "Miles Kimball Explains to Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal Why Losing Weight Is Like Defeating Inflation." If you want to know how I got interested in diet and health and fighting obesity and a little more about my own experience with weight gain and weight loss, see “Diana Kimball: Listening Creates Possibilities and my post "A Barycentric Autobiography.