Click to listen on:
PSA: Hormonal signals will override willpower every time!
“I just need more willpower to stop eating.” Well … actually, willpower doesn’t work and, in this episode, we discuss one of the reasons why.
Hormones—aka chemical messengers—operate outside conscious control and drive the balance within our bodies. One in particular (insulin), impacts hunger, food-cravings and whether or not the body uses or stores fat.
Listen in to learn:
- why insulin matters to those of us who struggle with binge eating or feeling out of control around food, and
- some easy tricks to help balance insulin (and NO, IT DOESN’T MEAN HAVING TO GIVE UP ALL SUGAR AND CARBS!)
View the full episode transcript
Welcome to the YoYo Freedom Podcast.
This is the place to learn actionable, step-by-step tools and strategies to help you stop bingeing or overeating and start feeling relaxed and confident around food,
so that you can show up for your life on your terms.
I’m Gemma Keys and I know first hand what it’s like to feel out-of-control around food and trapped in the pain of binge eating and body-shame.
There is a way out.
Keep listening to discover your path to food freedom.
Hello and welcome — I know I always say this, but it really is wonderful to have you here.
I want to start out by saying this isn’t an episode telling you to do anything or dishing out new rules. Instead, it’s an overview of another reason hunger and cravings can arise which is when one hormone in particular is out of whack, along with some steps you can take if you want to, that can help you rebalance.
So it’s really not about giving you new food-rules. Because, I wonder how many food-rules you have in your head already. I still seem to have loads of old ones knocking around—I guess because I’ve lived a few decades now and absorbed all these different messages, including in the 4 years I spent at uni and working in hospitals while I studied nutrition & dietetics back in the 90s — and ideas and the science have DEFINITELY moved on since then!
If you’re listening to this podcast my guess is you’ve been exposed to many, many rules surrounding different ways of eating that are supposedly optimum.
Just off the top of my head, examples are,
- low-fat, which is still really prevalent, especially in mainstream slimming clubs.
- then there’s the low carb high fat,
- Or high protein
- Or no sugar or flour or refined foods at all
- Or paleo or vegan or whole food plant based and endless more
And how many conflicting messages and rules are mushed up in that lot?!
At the same time, maybe you’ve found some of those ideas helpful or supportive and others not so helpful in the past. So today isn’t about following one and not another, but it’s about understanding a little bit of what’s going on inside your body so you can notice more of what does feel supportive and keep moving toward it.
We’re gonna look at what happens inside our bodies when we eat, starting with the hormone, insulin. Now, I’m not a doctor and I’m not going to try and get super-sciency and technical here, but still this is really valuable information.
So, what are hormones? Well, hormones are a type of chemical messenger that travels around in the body to control our internal physiological processes. Everything about human metabolism, or the chemical processes that occur inside our bodies in order to maintain life, is regulated by hormones.
We’re going to start with a look at the hormone insulin because it’s a great one to understand as it’s linked to hunger and fullness, to cravings and also to body fat storage.
The next question then is, what does insulin do?
Well, insulin is essential to life. It converts much of the food we eat, in particular carbohydrates like pasta, bread, potatoes, and also cookies, ice-cream, chocolate, sweets & crisps—into energy that our bodies can use—the energy we need to do things like moving and breathing and thinking and pumping blood and generally being alive
After we’ve eaten, the food is broken down and a large proportion enters the blood stream as sugar in the form of glucose. Rather than that sugar continuing to hang around in our blood not doing much useful, insulin helps move it into other cells in the body where it can be transformed into energy to perform all those critical tasks.
I like to think of it as a bit like a school bus. There’s a pretty huge secondary school or high school in the town I live in and there are always tonnes of kids milling around at 8am in the morning, and they need to get to school. So, you can imagine it can be useful if school buses arrive to pick them up and take them into school so they can actually get down to the serious business of learning.
Blood sugar is a bit like those kids hanging around and waiting for a ride—chatting and kicking the curb and maybe still half asleep. And insulin is like the school bus. It picks them up and takes them to school which is where they need to be so they can engage in their lessons and do do exams and all the things.
The more kids are waiting, the more buses are needed to take them into school. And it’s really similar with insulin. The more carbohydrates we eat, especially ones that are in the foods you might feel more out of control around (like the bread or chips or cookies or ice-cream), the more glucose is in our blood, so more insulin is released to transport that glucose out of the blood and into cells.
The next question is, why does insulin even matter to people who’re struggling with binge eating or feeling out of control around food?
Well, if there’s a big sugar dump into our blood—usually due to eating lots of the foods that are so commonly binge-foods, like cake, cookies, bread, crisps & chips, chocolate or sweets—we’re much more likely to have an insulin spike. So, going back to the school bus analogy, the more kids that flood out of their houses at the exact same time, the more buses are needed to scoop them all up.
And, when insulin levels are high, as I touched on earlier, it can affect hunger and cravings, and how we store and utilise fuel in our bodies.
So let’s start with hunger and cravings
When insulin levels are low, we feel hungry and then start accessing fuel or energy from our body’s reserves—aka fat stores. When that energy is accessed, the hunger levels go down again. That’s one of the reasons that, if hormones are balanced, hunger comes in waves.
But when there’s a big dump of glucose or sugar into the blood, and insulin levels increase, there’s also an increase in hunger.
It’s more difficult to feel full because another hormone that registers satiety or fullness—that hormone’s called leptin—is blocked by insulin. In other words, when insulin is high, our brain doesn’t get the hormonal messages to stop eating.
Along with more hunger and less of a sense of having had enough food, more sugar and insulin in our blood also increases levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine which leads to increased cravings—cravings for more sugar or refined and processed carbs.
I won’t go into that too much here but if you’d like to hear more about dopamine and cravings, go back and listen to episode 8, how to cope with an urge—Part 1. I’ll link to that episode in the show notes at yoyofreedom.com/17
And the final impact of high insulin that I’m gonna mention here is that it switches the body into storage mode. That means that, rather than using the stores of energy already in the body, high insulin causes you to seek out more food.
So, high insulin or insulin spikes lead to more hunger, fewer messages to stop eating when you’ve had enough, and prevents access to energy stores already held in the body.
That’s a lot, right? And I’m guessing you can kinda see why high levels of insulin is one of the things that makes feeling out of control around food more likely.
In fact, hormones have way more power than willpower over what we eat. They literally drive the balance inside our bodies in a way that’s outside our conscious control.
So sometimes, rather than beating ourselves up — well, actually ALWAYS instead of beating ourselves up!! Because mean, critical, blaming self-talk very rarely has any positive outcome — But instead of thinking it’s our fault and there’s something wrong with us, there actually might be something else going on at a physiological level.
And that “something” could be to do with out of whack hormones which throw your body out of balance and toward seeking out more and more food.
Because insulin spikes are often caused by eating lots of our go-to binge foods, we can put so much pressure on ourselves to just stop eating them. But … it’s not quite as simple as that, right? If it was easy to stop—if information was all we needed to stop bingeing and to feel in control around food—then we’d have done it already.
The first time I discovered all this information about the impact of insulin I thought, right—no more sugar or flour or processed food—-I’m changing EVERYTHING and resetting my insulin level to low and I’ll have fixed my eating and my weight and life’ll be all round peachy.
I wonder if that strong pull towards an all-or-nothing, perfectionist, 180-degree about turn sounds eerily familiar to you too? It’s just so common when food has been or continues to be a struggle.
As you can probably imagine, my complete about turn worked for a while but one slip—which was probably a mars bar or bag of chips after a night out—and the house of cards slowly came tumbling down. It was as if the“all” switched back over to the “nothing” and before I knew it, I was back bingeing again—as so often happens when we impose these food-police style rules on ourselves.
My guess is you might’ve tried going cold turkey on sweet things, refined carbs, processed food or anything else that gets a bad rap, more than once in the past. And maybe you’ve also found those types of switches to end up being just another ‘rule’ that lasts for a short time but ends up layering on more diet shame and feelings of failure. I totally know how tempting it is to go down that route, but it’s also worth taking a moment to notice whether it’s a strategy that’s lasted in a sustainable way that’s created ease for you.
If the answer to that question is no, then instead, I’m going to make a few suggestions that will help you begin to ease down those high insulin levels without having to make All The Changes at once to everything you eat.
The following tips can help rebalance insulin levels without having to cut loads of food out, so that you can begin to tune back into your body and trust the signals it’s sending you. It’s all about gradual steps, without an expectation of perfection. Because awareness without judgement or critique, but with time for reflection, tuning into your body, and gentleness & kindness toward yourself is what really works to change your eating in the long term.
I suggest you listen to them all and start by picking one to try that feels appealing to you.
This first tip can be really effective. It is to choose something that you might binge on or overeat often, and swap it for something similar but that contains more whole-food ingredients with names that you recognise and fewer ingredients that look like a list of chemicals from a laboratory!
This option offers a tweak so that, even as you continue to eat the food—perhaps in just as large quantities as before—the insulin spikes are a little bit lower, you’re likely to feel less hunger and more satiety, and there’s more chance of supporting your body that little bit more in easing off the cravings rollercoaster.
As an example, one of the things I used to binge was chocolate brownies, and one of the early changes I made was to make myself raw brownies—and I chose raw brownies because there was no cooking involved so it was super-easy for me. They were still sweet and delicious and moist and just amazing, but the recipe had more nuts and dried fruit and was just a few more nutritious and whole foods in there. To start with, I still overate them BIG TIME. But I noticed it was a little different from my old brownie-binges. I felt fuller more quickly and for longer. There was less brain fog and exhaustion. My mood didn’t plummet in the same way. It really helped me become that little bit more aware of what was going on in my body and it gave me a bit more space to reflect rather than having so many of those desperate, nothing-will-get-in-my-way cravings for more chocolate and cake.
So, if your thing is bread or crisps or ice-cream or cookies, have a look around. See if you can find an easy replacement, either to make at home or something that’s already available in the shops. See if it helps you feel just a little more balanced.
The next tips are from the brilliant scientist Jesse Inchauspé and they each offer a simple and accessible way that you can reduce those insulin spikes without having to suddenly stop eating any sugar or carbs at all. Again, you might like to just experiment and see if any land well with you. Because if they’re easy and they feel good, well, that’s the very best way to keep going.
These are my favourite 3 techniques from Jesse to even out insulin:
- Number one is that the order you eat your food in makes a difference. By eating veggies first and sugary food or bread or cake last, insulin levels won’t spike so high. So, no matter what you’re eating, starting with veggies or salad, will help you ease hunger and cravings.
- The second is to have a little something extra with dessert or sugar or refined carbs. So examples herer might be having chocolate cake with greek yoghurt, or bread with butter or cheese, or doritos with hummus. Jesse calls it “clothing you carbs” which is a really quirky way of thinking about it that’s kind’ve fun too.
- And this last one I absolutely love as it has the double whammy of evening out insulin levels AND creating a time of transition after eating—because switching from eating to stopping eating is often a particular challenge for binge eaters. So her tip is to take a walk after eating. Because your body is moving and energy is being used by your muscles and in your body so, even with a short walk, insulin levels will even out.
And notice—none of those suggestions involved radically changing what you eat, cutting anything out forever, or being perfect all the time.
But they do offer ideas of things to experiment with so that you can begin to tune into the foods that make you feel good vs those that create more hunger or cravings or energy flags—(and that’s also something I talked more about back in episode 5, finding foods that work for you)
So there you have it. A basic overview of how one hormone in particular—insulin—can influence your hunger, cravings and feelings of physical satisfaction.
And I really invite you to side-step my automatic reaction when I first found this information, which was to say “right, I’m going to change everything … I’m never going to so much as look at a birthday cake EVER again”
Maybe this can be a fresh beginning, a continuing and unfolding process of tuning back into your body, watching out for how different foods make you feel, and just noticing what helps you feel slightly better.
Try something, see how it goes for you—how it fits in with you & your life—and if it feels good, do more of it.
And if you’d like more ideas of different ways to help you pull away from binge eating or feeling out of control around food, check out my free guide, 8 essential skills to change your eating.
You can download your copy in the show notes or https://yoyofreedom.com/17
That’s it for today’s episode. Thank you for listening.
I hope you’ve found this episode helpful. Subscribe to The YoYo Freedom Podcast for more insight, tools and support as you pull back from bingeing, overeating or yoyo-dieting and step into your most authentic, vibrant life.
And, if you liked what you heard, it would be wonderful if you’d take a moment to rate this podcast on whichever platform you listen on.
Thank you so much! And Bye-bye for now.
Links mentioned in the episode
- FREE Guide: 8 Simple Strategies to Break the Binge Eating Cycle
- Podcast episode 005: How to find the foods that work for you
- Podcast episode 008: How to cope with an urge—Part 1
- Jesse Inchauspé
Disclaimer: The content in the podcast and on this webpage is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical or psychological condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have heard on the podcast or on my website.