The Cannoli Incident
A few weeks ago I went to an Italian market and got a few things for a great Sunday night dinner. In addition to getting some meat, cheese and bread, I picked up some great looking pastries including crème puffs and cannoli. It turns out no one in my house really likes either of those deserts, so over the next few days I took it upon myself to polish them off. In total it was about 8 Timbit sized crème puffs and 6 full sized cannoli. A few days later I jumped on the scale…
After sticking at the same weight for 2 years, I found my weight had shot up 6lbs in 1 week! It wasn’t just a dose of reality, but a great illustration of what we now know about weight gain and obesity. Fat doesn’t make you fat, sugar makes you fat. Although there are not enough calories in a couple cannoli to pack on 6 pounds of fat, I believe this little binge is a great illustration of how weight gain can get out of control in a short period of time.
We know now it is sugar and refined carbohydrates that cause people to get fat. Gary Taubes argues this point in his book, Why We Get Fat. The cycle goes like this: 1. We eat sugar and highly processed carbohydrates. 2. Those carbs are broken down very quickly in the body, causing a spike in blood sugar. 3. The spike in blood sugar causes the pancreas to produce and release insulin which is responsible for grabbing blood sugar and shuttling it from the blood to the muscles and fat tissues to be released as energy at a later time. 4. After insulin regulates blood sugar, the level fades (since it has done its job) and the fat cells and muscles are left with energy to burn until the next meal arrives. The problem is, when you constantly eat sugary or overprocessed food, your insulin level is not able to drop. There are 2 problems with that. First, when insulin levels are constantly elevated, the receptor cells get used to that level and desensitize, requiring higher and higher concentrations of insulin in order to clear blood sugar. This “insulin resistance” is the issue type 2 diabetics face. The other problem with increased concentrations of insulin in the blood is in the presence of insulin, the fat tissues that have absorbed the sugar from the blood are reluctant to release their contents, causing them to remain full. This means fat cells enlarge and show up collectively as a paunch, muffin top, beer belly, or double chin. The worst part of this? Since cells aren’t releasing glucose in the presence of elevated levels of insulin, they are not providing any energy and the body signals you to eat to get more energy! And the cycle continues.
OK, back to the cannoli. Again, I didn’t gain 6 lbs of fat from them, but they obviously disrupted my body in some significant way. By consuming these delicious desserts consistently over a 3 day period, I was consistently spiking my blood sugar, followed by a spike in insulin. The repeated spikes may have caused elevated levels of insulin in my blood which forced fat cells to hold onto the glucose being stored there, causing me to gain weight and crave more sweets. After I noticed the extra weight, I snapped myself back to my typical diet that is relatively low in sugar and flour and was back down to my regular weight within a week.
I use this story to illustrate the cycle that leads to fat gain over the period of months and years. The most dangerous thing about eating sugary and refined foods is that they make you crave more sugary and refined foods. This leads to consistently heightened levels of blood sugar and insulin which can lead to more fat storage. This cycle can spiral out of control if you aren’t aware of it. For me, the cannoli incident drove home an important point. If I get on a track of eating sweet processed foods, I crave more and eat more of them. The more I know about this, the easier it is to get back to eating well. Bottom line, you should understand how the cycle works so you can recognize when you are getting off track.