Isn’t working out five times a week enough to avoid weight gain? And what is setting off that midnight (and morning, and after lunch, and before dinner… ) heat?
Susan hadn’t changed her calories—or her workouts—since graduating college. But there it was: that pudge, bulge, and mid-section ten starting in her late 40’s. Why?
Anne just wouldn’t lose weight no matter how hard she tried. After learning that midsection fat is the most likely to be associated with chronic inflammation and other health problems, she was ready to change and tried every diet—but her weight wasn’t. Why?
Hormones out of whack
Well, of course; it is hormones and menopause. But what does that really mean? Here’s what most women miss (and men going through “andropause”):
Insulin, specifically: insulin resistance is a crucial reason women and men experience weight gain in menopause.
Insulin is the hormone that moves sugar out of our blood and into all the cells of the body where it is burned for energy.
As long as insulin is present (in other words, as long as dietary sugar and starch keep coming in) it is impossible to burn fat for energy.
Sugar trains cells to burn nothing but sugar
But sugar is a fast burn—sugar is like using paper to start a campfire, you keep having to add more paper until the log catches (which would be fat). Except there is no log, insulin makes sure that fat cannot be burned: as soon as the paper runs out…
As your blood sugar drops low (from being pumped into your cells), and because your body is being prevented from burning fat because of insulin’s presence, your body tells you to add more paper to keep the fire going (sugar).
Any excess sugar not used for energy right away (think desk job) is converted to fat, moved into the blood as triglycerides and stored in fat cells.
By living on a sugary or even grain-based diet, you have made you cells into a fat-manufacturing plant as a means to keep your blood sugar low; for a while. Fat gain begins, but there is more to this. You can be skinny and athletic and also suffer serious consequences from a dependence on sugar burning.
What you’re not being told…
Anyone who takes a conventional course in nutrition—whether in dietetics school, nursing school, even chiropractic or naturopathic schools (medical school doesn’t include nutrition per se, but medical doctors are taught this same concept in physiology)—is taught that their brain, organs, and all cells depend on enough blood sugar to fuel energy. We are taught that “blood sugar” is important—critical, even–and that it must be sustained and regularly managed for optimal health because we can’t store sugar for future use, except very small amounts in our liver and muscles in a specialized form called glycogen.
When blood sugar drops, since the amount of insulin being released prevents burning fat for energy, your adrenal glands release cortisol to tell your liver to convert some of its stored glycogen as a stop-gap for low blood sugar. Cortisol also tells your body to break down some of its protein mass for energy.
Meanwhile, you crave more sugary starchy foods
Sugar is toxic—cells begin to resist insulin
But unlike what most health and wellness blogs robotically spew, sugar is not the best source of energy for cells. It is very hard on the cells of your body to constantly burn off extra blood sugar. MANY more free radicals are formed converting sugar into energy compared with fats that ALL cells in your body (except red blood cells) can use to create energy—much more energy than sugar ever dreamed of.
Yes, that’s right, your cells including your brain can derive much more energy—and it is much longer lasting—from fats than from starchy, sugary, carbohydrate foods.
When cells produce free radicals (hydrogen ions) they have to be pumped out to keep the internal cell pH stable. You’re taking internal waste and dumping pollution into the external space outside each and every cell—in fact this may be a major cause of cancer.
While no one fully understands how cells begin to resist insulin—we know that a constant excess of sugars and starchy food in the modern diet is the most common cause.
Insulin resistance means that the glucose cannot move out of the blood stream and into cells; self protection. Many consequences; two key points:
- Blood sugar now runs too high after a starchy meal—in the prediabetes or diabetic range
- Blood insulin levels also rise; not just because it isn’t being cleared but also because the pancreas will make extra in order to force sugar out of the blood stream and into your cells.
And because high blood sugar gets cells turning unused sugar into triglycerides, your blood lipid profile begins to look unhealthy. Worse, high blood triglycerides also triggers insulin resistence
Blood sugar and blood fats: the decadent a feast
To the body, elevated blood sugar is a feast, an excess, “nutrient abundance” because it is a very concentrated form of immediate energy.
And elevated blood fats (triglycerides) tell the body that each cell is satiated (even if you are not) because they are pumping out triglycerides to send to fat cells for storage.
While you may not yet be gaining weight, you are beginning to gain body fat.
What has this got to do with weight gain in menopause or andropause?
During your thirties, you can get away with a lot. Although we tend to remain more active, each year the tendency to slow down, to gain fat, to lose muscle mass increases.
Eventually it catches up.
As we reach “perimenopause”, the years just before menopause when estrogen levels become more erratic (in men too), we also tend to experience more hunger. No one knows exactly why—it could as easily be the years of sugar training as it could be shifts in hormones. Both are likely.
But we do know that the very first place insulin resistance can be detected is the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that influences appetite and also regulates steroid hormones like estrogen and testosterone, as well as thyroid hormones. Hormones that influence the hypothalamus come from three major sites—fat cells, the gastrointestinal tract, and the pancreas.
Middle-age spread: A spider’s web of hormone loops
During menopause, as your ovaries begin to stop making estrogen, your body looks to other estrogen sources. Because fat cells produce estrogen, your body will try to preserve what it has and even, in many cases, begin to shift to making more fat to increase estrogen levels.
It becomes much harder to lose weight when the fat is seen as a valuable source of estrogen.
The type of estrogen also changes; ovaries create estradiol while fat produces estrone. Estrone shifts the fat storage pattern to primarily abdominal fat. The abdominal fat produces more estrone which just leads to more belly fat.
And while you may not like your changing figure, abdominal fat is associated with higher rates of type 2 diabetes and cancer—although we don’t know which caused which.
Does estrogen also cause middle age spread in men?
Testosterone levels decline after men reach middle-age and are largely to blame for middle-aged men’s smaller muscles and declining strength. But falling levels of estrogen regulate fat accumulation in men also. According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, estrogen is a major factor in male midlife woes. Both estrogen and testosterone are needed for libido.
Today’s processed and sugar-added-to-everything foods plus our habitual sweet rewards for every good grade and job well done set us up for becoming fat in a way that has nothing to do with calories.
Excess sugar and avoiding healthy fats in our diet (replacing with seed oils—corn, canola, soy…), and also our absurd fixation on lowering cholesterol—cholesterol is the starting material for testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol—these dietary excesses and phobias have led to serious disturbances, not just in insulin balance but also in our sex hormones.
As we go through life, we rely on all of our hormones to work in balance and keep our body running the way we want.
But given the confusion regarding nutrition and quick-fix answers, it’s no wonder why women and men are experiencing infertility problems and early menopause / andropause. The best way to fix this is to restore balance by eating a heritage diet. That’s what we learn to do in my Eating to Restore Balance group.
Coll AP, Farooqi IS & Orahilly SO. The Hormonal Control of Food Intake. Cell. 2007 Apr 20; 129(2): 251–262. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2007.04.001 PMCID: PMC2202913EMSID: UKMS1389
Finkelstein JS et al. Gonadal Steroids and Body Composition, Strength, and Sexual Function in Men N Engl J Med 2013; 369:1011-1022, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1206168
Pagotto, U. Where Does Insulin Resistance Start? The brain. Diabetes Care. 2009 Nov; 32(Suppl 2): S174–S177. doi: 10.2337/dc09-S305 PMCID: PMC2811464