Few things are more frustrating than reaching a weight loss plateau. You’re doing everything correctly: eating less, moving more, and generally following The Plan. But no matter what you do, the scale will not budge. What exactly is going on? Why is your body refusing to cooperate? The answer could be that the “right” eating and activity routine is simply not compatible with your biology. Consider blood sugar and weight loss.
When it comes to losing weight, you must consider your individual makeup as well as how your body uses the fuel you provide it. While that may appear to be overly complicated, it isn’t when you consider continuous glucose monitors (CGMs). These devices allow you to look beyond the number on the scale to gain a better understanding of your overall health and how your body’s hormones regulate blood sugar (spoiler alert: big swings and crashes can make it hard to shed pounds). This may be especially true for women in their forties, when hormonal changes caused by menopause can interfere with the body’s ability to burn fat (more on this below). “Our reactions to food, exercise, sleep, and stress change all the time.” To complicate matters further, no two people react the same way to the same food,” says Maziyar Saberi, PhD, systems physiologist and Chief Scientific Officer of January AI. “However, we are now in a very fortunate position because CGMs have taken the guesswork out of dialing our routines.” It’s a very effective tool.”
Bottom line: You are not hallucinating. It’s possible that your scale is stubbornly stuck at the same number because you have yet to discover a new way to understand how your body stores fat. That’s where CGMs come in, so let’s get started.
Blood Sugar And Weight Loss: Why Counting Calories Isn’t Enough
If you’ve ever used a weight loss program, chances are you had to count calories. That makes logical sense: burn more calories than you consume, and presto! The weight simply melts away. Sounds simple, but anyone who has tried to lose weight knows otherwise. The issue with calorie counting is that it oversimplifies the complex processes that occur in your body.
While getting an overall sense of how much you’re eating is beneficial (there’s nothing like seeing what several handfuls of chips really amounts to! ), it’s not enough to ensure you’ll lose weight and keep it off. You must consider your own body’s reaction to food as well as exercise. Other factors, according to Saberi, are also important. “We must not overlook the negative effects of chronic stress and inadequate sleep on weight and overall health.” It is impossible to eliminate stress entirely, but we can mitigate its effects by establishing a routine that includes regular exercise and relaxation techniques. We can’t do it all at once, and it won’t happen overnight, especially with fad diets and workout plans. But if we address nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress, and hydration one step at a time, our chances of success skyrocket.”
The first step is to understand what’s really going on inside, beginning with the big picture of metabolic health.
What Does It Mean to be Metabolically Healthy?
First and foremost, what exactly is metabolic health? It’s a term used to group together five major factors that are thought to represent overall health: blood sugar (or glucose, read more about what is glucose), blood pressure, triglycerides, cholesterol, and waist circumference. You can read more about each metric here. You are considered metabolically healthy if your levels for all five factors fall within a certain range. When you exceed the limits for these categories, you are more likely to develop metabolic syndrome, which increases your chances of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Having just one of the factors, such as high blood pressure, does not automatically mean you have metabolic syndrome, but the more of these conditions you develop, the higher your risk. According to research, if you are above the healthy limits in three or more of the five categories, you are at a significantly higher risk of developing the entire spectrum of disorders. And far too many of us are on our way: according to a 2019 study published in the journal Metabolic Health and Related Disorders, only 12% of American adults are metabolically healthy.
To be considered metabolically healthy, you must meet the following criteria, according to the study:
- After an overnight fast, blood sugar should be less than 100 mg/dL.
- Blood pressure less than 120/80
- Triglycerides less than 150 mg/dL
- Waist measurements must be less than 40 inches for men and 35 inches for women.
- HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind) of 40 mg/dL or higher for men and 50 mg/dL for women
What role does your weight play in all of this? Obesity and being overweight are risk factors for developing metabolic syndrome. A 2016 study published in the journal JRSM Cardiovascular Disease by British researchers discovered that simply losing five to ten percent of one’s body weight could significantly lower all metabolic factors and reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. So, while many of us have lofty weight-loss goals, we may be able to make significant gains in our health long before we reach our target weight or fit into those old favorite jeans. Isn’t it motivating?
How Hormones Affect Weight Loss
To understand how metabolic health affects weight gain and loss, you must first understand the critical role that the hormone insulin plays. When sugar enters our bloodstream as a result of eating, insulin is required to transport that sugar into our cells, where it can be converted into energy. When our bodies don’t need as much energy (for example, when we’re sleeping, sitting at a desk while working, or, let’s be honest, collapsed on the couch watching Netflix), the excess sugar is stored in the liver and muscles as a substance called glycogen. If those stores are depleted, glucose moves on to our fat cells as triglycerides.
Insulin levels fall between meals and snacks because they aren’t required to shuttle bursts of blood sugar into cells. However, your body still requires a consistent source of fuel to power basic functions (your heart, lungs, brain—every system requires energy), so when insulin levels fall, it taps into glycogen. When glycogen is depleted, your body turns to fat stores for energy. Bingo! You notice weight loss.
Losing weight, on the other hand, becomes much more difficult when your insulin levels are chronically high, which occurs when there is too much sugar circulating in the blood. This can result in insulin resistance, a condition in which your cells stop responding normally to insulin. “Think of a lock and key,” Saberi suggests. “Insulin is the key that unlocks a lock in your cells called the insulin receptor.” Once the cells are open, glucose can enter and be converted to energy. However, if the key and lock do not work well together, the cells do not open and the glucose remains in the bloodstream. That is what we call insulin resistance.” As a result, your body produces more and more insulin to force cells to unlock and absorb circulating sugar, exacerbating the problem. Insulin levels remain high, and the body never receives a signal to run through glycogen and then burn fat stores for energy, making weight loss difficult, if not impossible.
In other words, if we don’t control our insulin levels, our bodies are constantly in fat-storage mode rather than fat-burning mode. The key to regaining control and losing weight is to keep our blood sugar levels stable and our insulin production from going into overdrive.
A continuous glucose monitor (GGM) can provide critical information about this process. It provides a detailed picture of the impact of the foods you eat and when you eat them on your blood sugar levels because it constantly tracks your glucose levels throughout the day and night. Certain foods, at certain times, will cause blood sugar to spike, and your body will respond by producing insulin. Avoiding those foods helps to control insulin production, giving your body an advantage in fat-burning.
A CGM will also show you the effect of activity and why it is important. “Identifying multiple approaches to lowering glucose without the use of insulin is critical,” Saberi says, “and this is where exercise comes in.” Muscle contraction during exercise assists the body in utilizing glucose without the use of insulin. It’s known as insulin-independent glucose disposal. This is why exercise is so important for managing blood glucose levels.” When you combine activity, healthy food choices, and calorie counting, you ensure your body will work with you, not against you, on your weight loss journey.
Women & Midlife Weight Gain
Maintaining a consistent weight may become an uphill battle for women approaching menopause around the age of 50. Even if you maintain your current exercise and eating habits, it is not uncommon to begin gaining weight.
So, what exactly is going on? During the transition from perimenopause to menopause, your hormones undergo a series of changes that cause your metabolism to slow, owing to a decrease in estrogen levels, which drags down muscle mass with it. As a result, your body must burn fewer calories to keep you alive and active, and more of the excess glucose is stored as fat. So, while your doctor may simply tell you to “eat less,” the real solution to your midlife weight gain is to eat smarter. When you eat foods that keep blood sugar levels stable and lower, you reduce your insulin spikes and the risk of developing insulin resistance.
This makes monitoring blood sugar levels extremely beneficial for women in their forties. Monitoring your glucose levels at each meal allows you to track your body’s response to food as it changes. Modifying your diet to fit your new reality is easier when you can choose foods that work well with your body’s need to burn fat rather than against it.