How Carbohydrates Fool the Body

Written By:

A woman is sitting on a bench with a coffee cup and her purse. A bicycle with a written Coffee sign in the background.

There’s so much talk these days about low carb diets, high carb diets, the evil effects of carbohydrates, the drawbacks of sugar – and it can often get pretty confusing. It’s time to simplify what has become a complex conversation, and detail the simple and elegant evolutionary biology of how carbohydrates impact the body in both positive and problematic ways. In this informative video from IPEtv, Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, discusses how carbohydrates can fool the body into overeating, binge eating and weight gain – and what to do about it. We think you’ll come away with some great information that will empower and inspire you.

Here is a transcript of this week’s video:

Hi, I’m Emily Rosen, Chief Operating Officer for the Institute for the Psychology of Eating.

Today’s Topic: How Carbohydrates Fool the Body

One of the strange challenges of the excessive amounts of carbohydrates that we have available to us is that they can fool body and brain into thinking that we exist in an endless state of summertime. Oddly enough, the result can be the gain.

Let’s dive into the facts of this fascinating topic:

Our distant ancestors evolved an exquisite mechanism to take advantage of the abundance of food in the summer and the lack of it in the winter. They stayed up for the long daylight hours, loaded up on all the sweet fruits and berries they could find, and stored those foodstuffs as fat. Because winter is generally around the corner after the summer months and lean times are ahead, it’s best to eat as much as possible while the goodies are available.

Evolution, therefore, figured out a way to stimulate our appetite to unusual lengths when the carbohydrates were available and to help us store them on our bodies. Insulin is the key substance we produce to accomplish this feat. Normally, insulin helps send carbohydrates in the form of sugar into our cells to provide us with energy. That’s a good thing. When we consume an excess of carbohydrates, and the body accordingly produces too much insulin, we become insulin resistant; the body responds as if there’s no insulin available and stores those excess carbohydrates as body fat. That’s also a good thing. You wouldn’t want to keep sending sugar into the cells as you ate excessive amounts.

Your cells would explode.

So as we evolved over eons of time, the chemistry of the body became radically different in the summertime as we prepared for colder months. The availability of carbohydrate foods stimulated our hearty desire to consume them even more. By the time winter came, we’d be well padded with body fat. We’d also have excess water weight from a high-carbohydrate diet, and our cholesterol level would be high because the body also turns carbohydrates into cholesterol to serve as an energy source and to plug up leaks in the cardiovascular system. Blood sugar levels should be quite high from this evolutionary perspective, because sugar in the blood literally functions as an antifreeze for the cold months. If you tasted the antifreeze in your car, by the way, it would taste sweet.

We can observe this physiologic pattern in hibernating mammals. A bear loads up on fruit in the summer, gets fat, has high cholesterol and high blood pressure – basically, the bear is in a high blood sugar diabetic state. And all these “diseases” – which are really helpful and necessary in the short term – are naturally resolved in the winter months as the bear burns its fat stores and its blood cholesterol, loses its water weight, sheds its diabetic antifreeze state, and comes out of hibernation looking svelte and feeling hungry and ready for action.

Now here’s the problem:

Even though modern humans aren’t attempting to fatten up in the summer, many of us consume sugar, candy, cookies, crackers, cake, pasta, bread, donuts, rice, potatoes, and wheat products in great quantity day in and day out throughout the year. And by doing so, our system goes into rhythmic meltdown. The body thinks it’s in an endless summer; we are forever in a pre-hibernation state. Couple this with lack of sleep, excess exposure to artificial light, and increased stress, and fat storage is multiplied.

So if you’re the kind of person who’s had difficulty losing weight, then it may be a great experiment to try something different. In this case, it means eating less poor-quality carbohydrates and getting more sleep. I’m not saying staying up late is bad, nor am I saying that sugar or carbohydrates are bad. I’m just alerting you to the fact that if these features dominate your lifestyle, you won’t come very close to your true metabolic potential. So the sooner you stop preparing to hibernate, the better.

I hope this was helpful. This is Emily Rosen, Chief Operating Officer for the Institute for the Psychology of Eating. In the comments below, please let us know your thoughts. We love hearing from you and we read and respond to every comment! Thanks so much for your time and interest.

A woman is sitting on a bench with a coffee cup and her purse. A bicycle with a written Coffee sign in the background.

Become a Mind Body Eating Coach

Make real, lasting change - in your life and the lives of others using eating psychology coaching tools.


Subscribe to The Psychology of Eating Podcast

Get notified when new episodes go live.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Listen to The Psychology of Eating Podcast

Follow Us

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.