One of the most common complaints one hears about from friends and family these days is not having enough energy. Energy drinks, bars and supplements, not to mention the ubiquitous presence of coffee shops on almost every corner in every city are a testament to these complaints and they are also BIG business. Of course, when it comes to so-called “energy drinks” and caffeine we’re not talking about generating real lasting energy so much as we are talking about adding a jolt to the system in the form of a stimulant that provides the short-lived illusion of energy. That said, one thing virtually all these products has in common is that they can dramatically spike your blood sugar levels.
So…that’s a good thing, right?
Anyone who takes a conventional course in nutrition, medical school, nursing school or any chiropractic or naturopathic school today will likely be taught that their brain, tissues and organs greatly depend upon sufficient blood sugar to fuel energy, maintain their day to day energy supply and fuel all their metabolic processes. We are taught that “blood sugar” is important—critical, even–and that it must be sustained and regularly managed for optimal health. Unfortunately, this is only a conditional truth at best and one that conceals a rather mammoth sin of omission that is overlooked by nearly everyone. The fact is that we are all one of two things: we are either a “sugar burner” or we are a “fat burner”. Perhaps since fat is (erroneously) assumed to be inherently evil, nothing about its potentially vital role in all aspects of health or primary energy production is ever discussed. We are encouraged to avoid it at any cost and not ask any questions.
Blood sugar management is big business, too. VERY big business.
We are taught that complex carbohydrates—up to 11 servings a day of grains, beans, rice, potatoes, pasta, etc should form the very basis of our daily food supply, with only honorable mention given to (what they insist should be) LEAN meats and fish, lots of fruits and veggies and next to no fat of any kind (other than perhaps a dollop of olive oil). Alongside the lonely morsels of fat at the top of the food pyramid lie the sugary snacks…to all be eaten sparingly. We are also taught to “eat a large breakfast” and many nutritionists admonish us to eat a small snack every couple of hours between meals “to keep that blood sugar up”.
So is the need for “blood sugar” for our energy real and valid…or is it just like its initials would suggest: “B.S.”?
As with many things the answer is “it depends”. But what if the basic essentiality of blood sugar for our brains, organs and day to day energy was really a myth? In fact, what if that dependence on “blood sugar” for our day to day energy actually did more harm than good? What if there was an alternative? Not only this, what if that alternative were the very fuel we were actually designed to depend upon nearly all the time from the very beginning and that very fuel were the one you actually had the hardest time using… all because you are too busy fueling yourself with sugar?
Come closer…and fasten your seat belt. You are about to undergo a bit of a paradigm shift.
As with many things, certain things can be conditionally true, within a certain context. Case in point: IF you are metabolically adapted to depending on sugar as your primary source of fuel (and all non-fiber carbohydrates are sugar once they hit your bloodstream) then you must of necessity continue to refuel yourself with foods that keep these blood sugar levels elevated so there is no interruption in the energy supply. Many people experience these interruptions of steady blood sugar supply as mood swings, brain fog, fatigue, irritability, jitteriness, problems thinking, and cravings for anything that will boost those sugar levels back up. For some people this is experienced as more of an extreme urgency than others. Either way, the dependence on sugar as a primary source of fuel is more or less the same in those adapted to it with a variable manifestation of consequences
So what does this mean?
If we are to look at the macronutrients in our diet (carbohydrates, protein and fat) strictly from the standpoint of the energy they provide our “metabolic fire”, then carbohydrates in this context can be viewed as a form of metabolic “kindling”. Brown rice, beans and whole grains could effectively be viewed as “twigs” on our metabolic fire. White rice, cereal, potatoes, pasta and bread would be “paper” on the fire and substances like alcoholic beverages would readily constitute “gasoline” on that metabolic fire.
Now I’m from a very cold place called Minnesota originally so wood stove analogies work well for me. If you have ever had to heat your living space with a wood stove you know that the fire in it has to be fed. If all you had to feed that fire was kindling (twigs, paper and gasoline) you could certainly do it. The problem is that you would be able to think of or do little else but stay perched in front of that stove, loading it up with handfuls of twigs and wadded up paper all day long just to keep it going. The flames would flare and die down relatively quickly and you’d need to add more fuel with fairly constant regularity. God forbid you should need to take a bathroom break or run an errand. By the time you returned to the stove the fire would be nearly out and you might need to resort to some gasoline to shock it back to life again, just so the process could continue. Good luck sleeping, too. Even if you could attach an alarm to the stove to awaken you when the fire got too low you would be awakened well before you were fully rested in order to feed the hungry flames (hmmmm…there’s an analogy here). In essence you would be enslaved to that wood stove and your preoccupation with it would of necessity be relatively constant. The flames would rise and fall like a roller coaster ride. Much as I love a good wood stove fire, though (or carnival ride) that would be anything but my idea of a good time.
What if instead you were to place a nice big “fat” log on the fire? All of a sudden you would…have a life! –What a concept!! You could leave the house and run errands. Heck–you could even get a good night’s sleep! By morning if the fire was burning low all you’d need to do is grab another big log and toss it in. You wouldn’t need to think too much about it most of the time and your fuel wouldn’t take up too much space, either.
Sugar is best described metabolically as “rocket fuel”. It burns best anaerobically (in conditions of low oxygen—as while sprinting or extreme exertion). Far from being a steady, lasting or reliable fuel, sugar burns very hot and very fast. How badly do you need rocket fuel in your car to go most of where your car takes you day to day? Do you really want to have your engine burn that hot all the time? Don’t racing cars need a lot more maintenance in part because of that? Increased metabolic heat also makes for a very hungry engine.
Sugar’s presence additionally attracts what is termed “free radical activity” which leads to unhealthy oxidation (damage) of tissues. Sugar also undergoes a process known as “glycation” in the body where molecules of sugar combine with proteins and fats there and cause them to become sticky, misshapen and start to malfunction. This in turn leads to even more free radical damage and basically fuels the degenerative aging process. The brain and nervous system are particularly susceptible to all this as they don’t respond much to insulin and are therefore more likely to be bombarded with all the dangerous stickiness. In diabetics and alcoholics this can result in accelerated forms of neuropathy, organ damage and degenerative brain conditions. In others, glycated tangles of amyloid proteins eventually lead to a diagnosis of Alzheimers…technically a form of “brain neuropathy”. Advanced glycosylation end-products (A.G.E.’s) lead to mutations in DNA and help potentiate cancerous processes which blood sugar additionally feeds the growth of. In short, it ain’t pretty.
Most people feed themselves as if there were no alternative to running their metabolic fires other than kindling. Food advertising consistently supports this. Told to eat “low fat”, many people instead eat diets high in addictive sugar and starch in order to feed (and feed) themselves. Those that don’t care about “low fat” eating often eat large amounts of sugar and starch along with dietary fat, which has its own brand of consequences. Dietary fat in the presence of carbohydrates (sugar and starch) behaves very differently than dietary fat in the absence of carbohydrates. The dietary fat in the presence of sugar and starch is far more likely to be stored as excess and also to become damaged through peroxidation, as the body looks to preferentially burning off the sugar to get the excesses out of the bloodstream quickly and as sugar combines with the fat to damage it and make its presence more problematic than it otherwise would be. And as long as insulin is present (in other words, as long as dietary sugar and starch keep coming in) it becomes impossible to burn fat at the same time. Weight gain is the most common consequence, but there is more to this. You can be skinny and athletic and also suffer serious consequences from a dependence on sugar burning.
Depending on blood sugar for your primary source of fuel means you will be hungry more often and that you may experience regular cravings. It also means you must eat regularly or else suffer energy and mental and physical performance loss. Consider the animals that are natural (what I term) “carbovores” (herbivores and ungulates). What do you see them doing ALL day? Their faces are on the ground and in the bushes continually. Eating for them is constant. I, for one have far better things to do with my time!
It additionally means the quality of your moods and thinking are often hugely dependent upon that steady supply of fuel. You might also require caffeine to boost your kindling supply first thing in the morning if that supply gets too low, or you may crave alcohol in the evenings. If you manage this balancing act poorly by regularly eating high glycemic foods then over time the swings can become greater, along with more symptoms typically associated with blood sugar lows: fatigue, anxiety, irritability, explosive anger, jitters and more cravings.
Addiction to the fastest form of this rocket fuel is called “alcoholism”. This is why recovering alcoholics are never considered “fully recovered” even after stopping their alcohol use. Most are still suffering from constant sugar cravings, using things like caffeine and even nicotine to boost their blood sugar in the absence of alcohol. They often crave sugary sweets and beverages, but the craving for alcohol never fully goes away because the underlying condition has never actually been addressed: an addiction to sugar. In others, the tidal waves of insulin needed to lower excessive blood sugar would over time lead to either something termed “reactive hypoglycemia” or deeper states of clinical hypoglycemia. –Or (taking it in the other direction) the same bombardment can eventually lead to insulin resistance, obesity and metabolic disorders.
Insulin resistance occurs whenever there is a breakdown in communication between blood sugar and insulin. Through unrelenting bombardment of insulin the cells eventually become resistant to its constant message. It starts to take more and more insulin to get the same message across. Eventually blood sugar that can’t go anywhere creeps up in the bloodstream and other tissues to a point where finally one becomes diagnosable as type 2 diabetic. On the way there, obesity is basically often the price you pay for avoiding becoming diabetic…at least as long as your pancreas is willing to continue supporting the effort. It is possible, however, to be skinny and be diabetic also. Being slender is not necessarily synonymous with optimal health (see my “Top 10 Nutritional Mistakes” on my web site: www.primalbody-primalmind.com).
Who benefits from diets based in carbohydrates? Certainly not the people who are forced to live this way. The food industry, diet industry, big agribusiness, the pharmaceutical companies and ultimately the petroleum companies (upon which big agribusiness and others are dependent) all make out like bandits, though. For them it is immensely profitable to have the entire world depending upon carbohydrates—particularly addictive grains—as their primary source of fuel. The vast majority of advertising dollars spent are designed to support these interests. And schools of all kinds are, in turn, encouraged to teach whatever maintains the profitable status quo.
If, instead, one elects to metabolically adapt ones-self to becoming a fat burner—someone who uses sufficient dietary fat to satisfy one’s appetite (while simultaneously avoiding sugar and starch) this forces the body to adapt to fat as a primary source of fuel for their metabolic fire. What is the result of this basic metabolic change?
You have now become free. You have effectively removed the constant need for “blood sugar” for your primary energy, mood or cognitive functioning.
All of a sudden eating becomes more of a choice rather than a constant necessity. Energy levels maintain more constancy and an even-ness that allows for clearer thinking and stable moods. Your Ice Age-forged body no longer is in the business of greedily storing fat from the carbohydrates you were eating and is freer to burn stored fat for fuel, both away from constant presence of insulin and recognizing that as long as there is “enough” fat at mealtime that “hunting must be good”—therefore stored fat can be comfortably spared and utilized for energy. Not only this, but you suddenly find your food bills lessening considerably. The natural dietary fat you eat quickly fills you up and leaves you less hungry, with cravings rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Insulin sensitivity becomes gradually restored, and all that this implies. Sleep becomes more restful. Aging slows and becomes more graceful. You begin to look and feel younger. Energy is never in short supply.
In becoming a “fat burner” one comes to depend instead on something called “ketones” which are the energy units of fat, as well as using free fatty acids for fueling almost everything sugar did before. –The big difference here is that fat fuels it all longer, better, more consistently, reliably and more evenly. And also far more cheaply. Our body still maintains the ability to utilize sugar in the event of an emergency (as sugar still constitutes our best “rocket fuel”) but is able to make use of supplies of ATP, existing blood glucose and stored glycogen to easily meet this more episodic demand.
I write much more about what it takes to make this metabolic conversion in my book, Primal Body, Primal Mind. It’s far easier that you might think (or than certain corporate interests might want you to know).
But don’t we still need blood sugar all the time?
Well, it turns out that the only tissues in the human body that MUST have a small amount of blood sugar at all times in order to survive are our red blood cells. They feed anaerobically in order to spare their precious cargo, which is oxygen. Every other tissue in the body—including the brain—can run beautifully and far better on ketones. As it turns out, one can manufacture all the glucose your body needs from a combination of protein and fat in the diet. In fact, the only macronutrient for which there is no actual dietary human requirement is carbohydrates. We never have to eat them at all! And if we want to be optimally healthy and live longer, cutting out the carbs (all the sugar and starch) can only improve your health and well being in the long run. Low insulin levels are the single biomarker that most consistently characterizes all the longest lived individuals.
Good thing, too. If Nature had been so stupid as to design us to be dependent on sugar as our primary source of fuel we likely never would have survived the extremes of the Ice Ages.
Either that, or we’d still be swinging in the trees.
For more information about this and much more look for the book: Primal Body, Primal Mind: Beyond the Paleo Diet For Total Health and A Longer Life and go to www.PrimalBody-PrimalMind.com.
~ Nora T. Gedgaudas, CNS, CNT