High Carb Backlash: Insulin Packs a Punch!
by John Romano
As much as I tried, my eyes could barely open up all the way Monday morning, the edema in my face was pushing them shut. My entire body felt bolted to the mattress and as battered as if a truck had run me over e few hundred times in both forward and reverse. My head hurt, my joints hurt, and all my movements felt absurdly laborious and slow. I had just slept for 12 solid hours yet I felt as weak and as exhausted as I if I had just done the Eco Challenge.
It took me almost two hours to finally drag my tortured remains out of bed and into the bathroom and prop it up on my elbows in front of the mirror. What I saw when I pried my eyes open was weaving side to side and could have scared the pigeons off a statue. Ee-gods, John! (as my mother would say), how many bottles of tequila did you drink? Ha! If only I had drunk Tequila! At least then I wouldn't have minded living.
This "condition" in which I had found myself the morning after wasn't the fault of anything I drank - it was the fault of what I had eaten. In fact, this wasn't the first time I've had such a morning and I'm not alone. I know lots of bodybuilders who have had at least something similar to this experience from time to time - usually the Monday morning after not placing too well at a contest - and it truly is something remarkable if you have ever experienced it.
As I stared at my distorted reflection and bitched about how bad I felt, I recounted an article I had recently read discussing something called "carbohydrate sensitivity," and all of a sudden it dawned on me that the reason why I might feel this way every time I go overboard on my cheat day and binge on high-carb junk food, is because I must be carb sensitive, i.e., my body reacts radically and abnormally to carbohydrates. But, you know something?, I wasn't borne this way - I got it from my diet!
The high carb consumption that bodybuilders swore by in the 70s and 80s must have made those of us who followed this "logic" sensitive to carbohydrates because this sensitivity is not uncommon, lots of bodybuilders suffer from Hyperinsulemia - or hypoglycemia, as it is most commonly known (low blood sugar from an oversupply of insulin). I can remember having such blood sugar swings that if I went an hour past a meal my eyes would actually start shutting from the wave of fatigue that washed over me, and so irritable some kind of fight was surely imminent. When you hear about bodybuilders being assholes, it's usually because they're hungry. As soon as I put down 600 calories worth of pasta it would go away.
These days, an eating binge can have such catastrophic consequence due to the profound effect carbohydrates seem to have on us after the paradigm shift to high protein, higher fat diets. We ate so many carbs back then - six, eight hundred, a thousand grams a day or more, much of it coming from high glycemic refined flour, white potatoes, pasta, etc. - that we certainly seem to have become "carb sensitive" because of it.
By virtue of this evolution, it's not uncommon among those who used to subscribe to high-carb eating that even a little bit of highly refined carbohydrate now can cause such a blast of insulin to be released; scavenging the blood of glucose so quickly that within an hour they get racked with hunger, dazed, irritable and lethargic -exaggerations of the body's normal signals that the tank is getting empty, and classic symptoms of hypoglycemia.
In fact, a recent study demonstrated that rats secreted abnormally more insulin to control their blood sugar after several weeks on a high sugar diet (67% sugar). The rats regained normal glucose tolerance after some time on a normal diet, but permanent damage was done because it only took a few days for Hyperinsulemia to reappear when sugar was given again. The high sugar diet made the rats carb sensitive - permanently!
After a Sunday-long binge on pizza, ice cream, and assorted high carb junk, my body really freaks out and, no exaggeration, it really is hard to get out of bed the next day. I'm positively exhausted and retaining so much water that my eyes don't open all the way, my fingers are so puffy I can't make a fist and the sheets leave lines and indentations in my skin that look like a topo map of Yosemite Valley. Obviously this is the result of low blood sugar after all the surging insulin and the subsequent over stuffing of muscle and fat cells because of it. I don't feel normal again for a full day, sometimes more, even though I go right back to my normally low carbohydrate diet.
This is something I never experienced before the days of super high carbs. This leads me to wonder if diabetes is next. Diabetes is a group of conditions in which sugar levels in the blood are abnormally high. It can occur when the pancreas can't produce enough insulin or when the body is unable to use the insulin the pancreas produces. Sugar then collects in the blood and in the urine......... Suffice to say it goes downhill from there.
Insulin is one of the most powerful and important hormones the body produces. It is made by the beta cells of the pancreas and is responsible for transporting blood glucose to the various tissues of the body to be used for energy, or stored as glycogen in liver and muscle cells, or converted to lipids and stored in fat cells for later energy needs. Too much insulin in the bloodstream at any one time can rapidly deplete blood glucose levels causing hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar.
What happens after a long period of abnormally high insulin production? Could the insulin hyperactivity mitigated by high carb eating tax the system so much that over time the pancreas just burns out and stops or significantly slow the production of insulin? Only time will tell, but I have a feeling that my ability to inject myself is going to come in handy again someday.
There is no denying that the old high-carb diet has had some deleterious effect on my body, and I get the same story from many of my contemporaries. If only we had known...... However, since the diet pendulum has swung, now favoring higher protein and fat and much, much less carbohydrates, I can't help but wonder if a variant owe of high carb living doesn't lie down the road for the other extremes. What will be the result after 20 years of high fat dieting? Will our gall bladders become unable to produce the bile salts that break down fats? What about the high protein diets? Will consuming extremely huge portions of animal protein screw the body up some other way years down the road? For all the worrying about the long term effects of steroids and other diet drugs, more attention should be paid to the possible long term effects of just plain food when it is taken out of the "normal" context and reapportioned in extreme amounts to satisfy some weird diet. It's something to think about the next time you open up a bag of pork rinds.
I'm beginning to think that it really isn't nice to fool with mother nature. Man evolved as an omnivore, which means he can eat all that the good earth provides - both plant and animal. This lends credence to the well balanced diet theory since man is adept at consuming and utilizing various macronutrients while other animals have evolved to favor only one food source.
For example, in the animal kingdom there are animals totally geared for eating one kind of food or another. The monitor lizard, or kimono dragon as it is also known, is the perfect protein eating machine - so perfect in fact that it will shake the stomach content out of its herbivore prey before it eats it as not to ingest a single bit of carbohydrate. This animal was built to attack, kill and eat meat. From its jaws and teeth, to its digestive system and its disdain for anything that grows out of the earth, this animal is protein specific. A cow, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. It is built specifically to eat only carbohydrates - from its second stomach to its cud chewing and ability to graze for days on end this animal is, by contrast to its predator (yes, a Kimono Dragon can kill a cow), the perfect carb eating machine.
Then there are the true omnivores - both plant and animal eating - such as certain species of primates, some bears, and of course, man.
Whether it is all protein, all carbs or a little of both, these animals exemplify the norm in the animal kingdom, which, in a sense, have an advantage over man because, left in the animal kingdom, they usually don't have weight problems, nor suffer from diabetes, hypoglycemia, etc. They pretty much just eat the same thing every day with little variety and they all pretty much look the same. Next time you see an animal show on the Discovery Channel try and spot one that looks obese out of the gazillions of animals on the Serengeti Plain. They don't exist.
When food became something so highly refined that you could buy it through your car window, micro wave it in five minutes, or pay seventy-five bucks a plate for at Lez Benase, it transcended the bounds of sustenance and became a huge issue in many peoples lives because that's when it started making us fat and sick. Then It then became the fodder to fuel the fads that were supposed to slim us back down and make us well again - an even further departure from the animal world. You're never going to see the cow switch over to the dragon diet in order to lose weight.
The next time you see an eighteen-wheeler with Wonder Bread stenciled on the side in big blue letters think about how far evolution (or perhaps de-evolution) has removed us from the animal kingdom. Then you can perhaps reckon why over half of America is overweight and reports of new cases of diabetes and other insulin related disorders - hyperglycemia, hypoglycemia - are at an all-time high. A slice of that Wonder Bread causes the body to secrete more than twice as much insulin than what it would if you ate the wheat kernel whole - like we used to.
So now, because everyone's body is so fat and screwed up from the high degree of refinement and processing that goes on along the food chain, the diet wars rage. Atkins wants you to stop eating carbs while Ornish wants you to eat lots of complex carbs and the Juice Man begs you to drink everything. You may have found yourself in the Zone, or busting sugar, or at Weight Watchers, or eating Mediterranean, Veegan, or microbiotic, and god only knows what the next bushel of research papers is going to tell us and how many infomercials will pop up at three in the morning to sell you a new way to fix it. Zebras don't have these problems! Either would we if we just ate what we were supposed to. But, is that possible today? Have we evolved ourselves right out of the food supply we were designed to consume and into one so highly refined that it will eventually cause us harm? How much of an effect could highly refined carbohydrates really have? Try this simple test, and you'll find out.
For one month try not to eat anything that has been refined past it's natural state - particularly carbohydrates. To make it practical, you can cook the food and it can have undergone just one step of processing. For example, rolled oats are okay - whole oats would be better - but instant oatmeal is not; white rice is okay - brown rice would be better - but Minute Rice is not. You can forget about pasta - even whole wheat - and vegetables don't come out of a can nor frozen in cheese sauce. Since you'll be washing lettuce, I don't expect there will be much time to hunt, so buying a steak at the butcher is okay, but Hungry Man frozen Salisbury steak in mushroom gravy is not. It doesn't even matter if you are already on Atkins or doing some other diet that doesn't require you to eat their food, you can still try eating absolutely nothing processed.
This amounts to some mighty clean living if you can manage it. Some of you may have to learn to cook first, but so too did our predecessors - drive up windows came way later. What you will definitely notice, if you eat enough calories and space your meals evenly throughout the day, is a much more sustained energy level and better workouts. You may also notice that you don't get tired after a meal, you are less likely to become irritable and feel - in general - pretty damn good - the tell-tail signs of stable blood sugar, and definitely not hypoglycemia. You'll also, more than likely, be a few pounds leaner.
Then after a month of pure eating, pick a day and go ahead and indulge every sinful taste - eat as much junk as you want, lots and lots of sugar and highly refined carbohydrates. Alcohol is a plus - especially those froofy blended drinks with the little umbrellas poking out of the straw. Order pizza too, and while we're at it, tell the driver you'll tip him five bucks if he'll stop at Seven-Eleven and pick up a pint of Chubby Hubby and a liter of Coke on his way over - just like any self deprecating bodybuilder would do after a contest diet. Then call me in the morning.
See?, that's what I've been trying to tell you! Even if you are not as carb sensitive as I am, you are still going to feel pretty crappy when you wake up. Now assuming you can honestly say you didn't drink too much, from where do you think your hang-over came? It wasn't from any of the fats or animal products you may have eaten. Copious amounts of either, or both, food groups would not render you in such a state the next morning as would the refined group. They could have some adverse effect down the road, but not as instantly as a refined carbohydrate, however, who really knows what the long term effects would be of a high fat or high protein diet? There are no studies to date.
What we do know is that this country is experiencing an explosion of insulin related diseases such as diabetes and hypoglycemia. According to the American Diabetes Association, between 1995 and 1997, the number of persons with diagnosed diabetes increased from 8 million to 10.3 million, with total direct and indirect cost to US health care of $98 billion in 1997 alone. These are the highest figures to date. The only factor in our diets that could possibly account for this is the infiltration of highly refined carbohydrates into the food supply and eating way too many of them. That's a scary thought, especially when you look at all the super refined, high sugar, low nutrition junk foods marketed to our kids.
A recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention study found that 10 to 15 percent of US teenagers are overweight, 80 percent of whom will grow up to be obese adults and experience all it has to offer them - diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, etc. Other than lack of exercise, the study pointed to a diet packed with sugar and highly refined carbohydrates as the cause. Judging by how significant an effect a high carb diet - a supposedly healthy high-carb diet - had on me, even long after I stopped, I can only imagine what's in store for them.