We hear from a lot of people who believe that when blood insulin levels go up in response to a carbohydrate-dense meal, you wind up hungrier than you were before you ate. The idea is then, that eating carbohydrates can make you hungry, which will promote overeating, which leads to weight gain. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Insulin does not cause hunger. Ghrelin, “the hunger hormone,” is produced during periods of low blood sugar, when growth hormone levels are elevated and insulin levels are at their lowest (4). The hormone leptin inhibits the action of ghrelin and tells your brain that you’re full, and glucose metabolism is the primary determinant of leptin secretion in humans (3).
Furthermore, a recent study by Wellhoener et al., has shown that the administration of insulin after feeding curbs appetite. However, it did not have any effect on satiety during fasting when blood sugar was low (2). These data support the idea that insulin can help control hunger.
In short, carbohydrate metabolism makes you feel happy and full (5).
While insulin may play a small role in keeping you from overeating, its job is to open up a channel to transport nutrients into cells.
So Why the Confusion?
A major problem with this whole scenario is that it only works like that when your body is functioning properly and you’re making the right lifestyle decisions. Leptin resistance will confound issues with hunger and make it difficult to lose body fat. Even when you eat an abundance of carbs, your brain won’t get the signal that you don’t need to eat any more. You’ll never feel full and you’ll always be on the hunt for a sugary snack. If you’re insulin resistant, you’ll have a difficult time utilizing glucose, no matter how much insulin you produce. What would normally energize you and satisfy your hunger will ultimately make you sick, as glucose is toxic in the blood stream.
The second problem is that of the blood sugar “crash”. When blood sugar levels rise, insulin springs into action to help cells soak up the glucose. Foods that produce a high glycemic load will elicit an insulin “spike” that will rapidly clear glucose from the blood stream (granted the person is insulin sensitive.) The sudden drop in blood sugar results in a crash that will knock you on your butt. For this reason, many people suggest that you avoid high glycemic index carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, etc.) but these are some of the best foods for replenishing glycogen quickly.
In summary, the real issue is satiety. Foods that are low in protein, fiber and water content, as well as fat, are not very good at keeping hunger at bay. Surprise surprise, foods that fall into the “high satiety” category are foods that aren’t commonly associated with overeating – foods like vegetables, fatty meat, sweet potatoes, and things like avocados. Low satiety foods like white potatoes, rice, bread, and indeed practically everything on a fast food item, are easier to get carried away with. If something tastes good to us, we’re more likely to eat more of it as well, so foods with lots of salt, sugar, and grease can become an issue.
How to Make Carbs Work for You
First of all, you need to engage in high intensity, anaerobic exercise. Second, you should eat moderately large meals consisting of mostly fat and protein during the day, and stick to fibrous carbohydrate sources. Eat starchy, high GI carbs after training, when your muscles will be most sensitive to glucose uptake, and include a healthy amount of fat overall to get a more stable insulin response. Over time, your cells will become more flexible and your metabolism will begin to function properly. When you dial in your approach, hunger and lethargy will become a thing of the past.
Just how insulin itself works is a confusing mess, but my bias is that if your body is running primarily on carbs, a smaller drop in carbs will probably signal your body to consume more carbs.
If you can more effectively use fat, you could argue that instead of triggering hunger, your body would shift to use fat (become more metabolically flexible).
- Many people experience hunger after a high carb meal. They wrongly blame insulin and carbohydrate consumption for their hunger.
- In reality, carbohydrate consumption increases the amount of leptin circulating in your blood stream. Leptin is the “I’m full” hormone.
- Insulin doesn’t make you hungry; it actually makes you feel satisfied.
- Ghrelin is responsible for signaling hunger, and it rises during periods of low insulin.
- Most of the confusion arises when people eat high glycemic carbohydrates like rice and potatoes that generate a strong insulin response and possibly lead to a blood sugar crash.
- Chronically elevated levels of blood sugar, which render you insulin/leptin resistant, screw up your hunger signaling all together. This makes it hard to lose fat and regulate your blood sugar/feeding patterns.
- You can avoid most of these problems by engaging in high intensity activity on a regular basis, eating carbs around training, and eating mixed meals of fat, carbohydrate, and protein to regulate absorption.
1) Katsuya Dezaki, H. S. (2008, May). Ghrelin is a physiological regulator of insulin release in pancreatic islets and glucose homeostasis.
2) Manfred Hallschmid, S. H. (2012, February 16). Postprandial Administration of Intranasal Insulin Intensifies Satiety and Reduces Intake of Palatable Snacks in Women.
3) Peter Wellhoener, B. F.-S. (2000, March 1). Glucose Metabolism Rather Than Insulin Is a Main Determinant of Leptin Secretion in Humans.
4) Tomomi Shiiya, M. N.-I. (2002, January 1). Plasma Ghrelin Levels in Lean and Obese Humans and the Effect of Glucose on Ghrelin Secretion.
5) Woodend, G. H. (2003, October). Consumption of sugars and the regulation of short-term satiety and food intake.
6) Mayer, J. (2009, January). The glucostatic theory of appetite control and the risk of obesity and diabetes.