About one-third of U.S. children and more than two-thirds of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese, according to the National Institute of Health.
It’s no secret that Americans are suffering an obesity epidemic, but a solution to the problem remains elusive. Since 1980, obesity rates among adults have more than doubled. And for children, they have more than tripled.
We’re told that if we just eat less and exercise more, the weight will come off, but for many it’s not so easy. Millions of people restrict their calories for months or years, only to gain it all back and more. We are a culture obsessed with dieting, yet people just keep getting fatter.
According to Dr. Charles Nguyen, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Lorphen Medical Weight Loss Clinic in California, the secret to sustainable weight loss is actually more about understanding chemistry than exercising willpower. He says that one chemical in particular, insulin, can make all the difference between burning fat and packing on the pounds.
With insulin as the focus, Nguyen has developed a new weight loss-program with his brother, bariatric specialist Tu Song-Anh Nguyen. Their new book is called “The Thinsulin Program.”
“Thinsulin” is a hybrid word that combines “thin,” “think,” and “insulin.” The program pairs the physiological science of weight loss with the psychological aspect necessary for lasting change. The idea behind the Thinsulin Program is that once we truly understand the hormonal mechanism that makes us fat, we will be motivated to make better choices.
The Epoch Times talked to Dr. Charles Nguyen about his weight-loss program and why most diets are doomed to fail.
Epoch Times: Why should people think about insulin if they want to lose weight?
Dr. Charles Nguyen: From a physiological perspective, what we learn in medical school is that if you increase your insulin level, your body is forced to store fat, and it can’t burn that fat. If you lower your insulin level, your body will burn fat, and that’s the best way to lose weight—not just water weight, but fat weight. This is basic science.
What I’m teaching is not something new. Every doctor, nutritionist—they all know about this—it’s just that no one has been able to develop a therapy that focuses on insulin and a therapeutic process to change your way of thinking.
Epoch Times: Maybe doctors already know that insulin levels regulate our weight, but I’d say that most of us are not familiar with this concept. Why don’t we hear more about insulin’s influence on weight gain?
Dr. Nguyen: We hear this all the time, and it’s so frustrating. Most of the weight-loss advice is backward. They tell you what to eat in hopes of changing your way of eating, but you can’t change a habit just by telling a person what to do.
For example, if you see a miserable, negative person you might tell them, “If you want to be happy, just be positive.” There’s a lot of truth to that statement, but we all know just saying that won’t work because in order to be happy, they have to change their way of thinking.
There is a huge psychological component to weight gain and loss. When you’re stressed, you turn to food. But when your doctor’s advice is just “eat less, and exercise more,” it’s exactly the same thing as telling a negative person to just be positive.
Believe it or not, every diet form you see out there—from Paleo to Atkins, to other low-carb programs—insulin is the thread that connects them all. All these diets promote lowering insulin, and yet no one actually teaches that.
This is an opportunity for us to educate the public to really change our way of thinking about calories and focus more on insulin. Thinsulin combines the psychological with the biological. This is why the program is so effective.
Epoch Times: How do we control our insulin levels?
Dr. Nguyen: First, let me share a little about the science. Insulin is a hormone produced by an organ in the body called the pancreas in response to blood sugar. Whenever you eat foods that break down into sugar, it causes blood sugar to rise and your pancreas produces insulin to try and bring it down.
These are what we call the red-light foods: sweets, grains, and starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, carrots, or beets. When you eat foods that are very rich in carbs and which will ultimately break down into sugar, your insulin will go up, your body will start to store fat, and you cannot burn fat.
On the other hand, if you eat what we call the “green light” foods such as meat, chicken, fish, turkey, and egg whites, these are really high in protein and don’t have any carbs. When you don’t eat carbs, your pancreas will not produce insulin. And over time, your insulin level will fall. When it lowers, your body will burn fat. When you eat protein, your body will naturally lower its insulin level, allowing your body to burn fat.
The other green light foods are the green leafy vegetables. I’m not talking about starchy green vegetables like peas and green beans, but things like kale, spinach, broccoli, and asparagus. These foods are very rich in fiber that does not break down into sugar in your body. They do not spike your insulin, and eating these foods over time can lower your insulin level.
“Yellow light” are the foods that require some caution. If you eat more than one portion of these foods, they will also spike your insulin. So you only want to eat these once a day. These include dairy and fruit.
If you only eat an apple, orange, or a handful berries, you’re not going to increase your insulin. But if you eat more of these fruits a day, it will spike your insulin.
Another yellow-light food is nuts. They’re high in protein, but they also have a lot of carbs, so if you eat more than a handful, that will spike your insulin as well.
A lot of people say: “Well, what about brown rice, whole wheat bread, and oatmeal. They are so healthy. Why are you telling me I can’t eat them?” They may be healthy, but they will not help you lose weight. I want you to think in terms of insulin. Do healthy grains spike insulin? That’s the question you should ask.
Let me give you an example. Beer is made out of barley, a very healthy grain, but it spikes insulin, causing you to store fat in the belly. That’s why people get beer bellies.
But have you ever seen a wine belly? No. Grapes are a yellow-light food, so if you drink a glass of wine, which has the same calories as one bottle of beer, you won’t gain weight. You see, it’s not calories, it’s really about insulin.
Epoch Times: One of the examples you give in regard to the influence of insulin are dieters who starve themselves for weeks or months and then give into a craving as a reward. Just one treat spikes their blood sugar, and they seem to gain back an unfair amount of weight as a result. Does this mean that there is no room for cheating at all?
Dr. Nguyen: Well, let’s look at why dieting sets us up for failure. The whole concept of dieting is that you have to suffer. You punish yourself by starving yourself or taking away certain foods. Once you do a good job of punishing yourself, you have to reward yourself. That’s where the concept of cheating comes in. When you cheat, you feel guilty and have to return to the cycle of punishment.
Dieting takes so much time, effort, and energy that we just start putting it off. But then there is some event or wedding that you have to go to, so you find the energy to punish yourself, only to set yourself up for the cycle of failure again.
If you move away from this punishing and see this as journey, you can recognize that there will be times when you will be successful at lowering your insulin, and other times when you will let yourself eat sweets.
But you need to know that if you do that, you will increase your insulin, and your weight loss will be slowed down by three weeks. Once you stop eating sweets and carbs, your body does not produce as much insulin, but it takes time to drop—anywhere between one and three weeks. I typically see about three weeks.
You can try this for yourself. You change your diet and drop your insulin. You lose 5 or 6 pounds, and then you eat something sweet and your insulin spikes. Even if it’s just one cupcake or a single soda, your weight loss will stop. There’s a rush of sugar in the bloodstream. Your pancreas hasn’t seen this much sugar in a long time, so it’s going to push out as much insulin as it can to bring it down.
Once it brings down the blood sugar, your body doesn’t trust you anymore. It doesn’t know when you’re going to eat something sugary again, so it stores insulin in reserve. Your insulin level rises above where it was before you cheated, and it takes time to bring it down again. Once you raise that insulin level, your body will store fat.
Epoch Times: Once you learn about the drawbacks of a single cupcake, it no longer seems like much of a treat.
Dr. Nguyen: That’s the beauty of Thinsulin. If I tell you, “don’t eat this, don’t eat that,” but you don’t understand the science, you will think of a way to rationalize or get around my recommendations, or just flat out not listen.
But if you understand the science, it doesn’t have to be so emotional. There’s no “I did right” or “I did wrong,” good or bad. It’s a journey.
For example, if I’m on vacation, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience to eat crème brûlée, I’m going to eat it. And I’ll accept that I’m not going to be able to lose weight in the next week or so because of the jump in insulin. But I’m going to go right back on track because I want to lose that weight, and the only way I can do that is to lower my insulin.
If I raise my insulin, my body will gain fat. If I lower my insulin, my body will burn fat. It becomes a choice. Because it’s a journey, you will mess up sometimes. You may do it intentionally, or you may not know because a sauce or some other food slows you down until you discover that it has a lot of sugar. So you learn from this process.
In Weight Watchers, you have a lot of pressure to lose a certain amount of weight every week. People take off their shoes and go to the bathroom to empty their bladder before they get on the scale because it’s all about meeting that goal.
There’s no pressure to do that here. You understand the science. You understand that it’s a journey. If you reject the whole concept of dieting, and you think in terms of insulin, you will have a much better chance of losing weight and learning the skills to keep it off in the long term.
We have to move away from this dieting model where you’re told what to do, but yet you don’t understand the why. We need to know the why because the truth will set us free. It gives us more freedom in the long term.
Epoch Times: Most of the time, when we hear about insulin, it’s in the context of diabetes, where people are treated with supplemental insulin in order to overcome cell resistance to the hormone. Is an insulin-restrictive diet safe for diabetics?
Dr. Nguyen: Yes it is, but I strongly recommend, especially in insulin-dependent diabetes, you will need to do this with a physician because you need adjustment in your insulin injections, or else you’re going to get hypoglycemic, and your blood sugar will drop to a very dangerous level.
That’s my recommendation for anyone injecting insulin, but if you’re taking medications such as metformin or other diabetes medicines, you should still be under a doctor’s supervision. At least let them know what you’re doing.
The whole Thinsulin concept of what I’m teaching is actually a low-carb approach, very similar to what a person with diabetes should be eating. Unfortunately, the American Diabetics Association diet still includes so many foods that increase insulin level. This may give you some glycemic improvement, but sometimes the weight loss doesn’t improve as quickly as you’d like.
Sometimes people see that our book is about insulin, and think: “I’m not a diabetic. Why should I be concerned about this?” But what they don’t realize is that there is a huge relationship between insulin and obesity.
You know that as Asians and Hispanics, we grow up with a lot of rice and carbs in both populations. But yet the generations before us never had diabetes, so why now? Why is there such a huge explosion of diabetes in Asia and Mexico? It’s because the American diet was exported there.
It’s not just that the food is fried and processed, it’s because everything from sodas to the high fructose corn syrup in the hamburger buns and the biscuits—all these foods spike insulin.
And when you spike insulin so much, when you overwork your pancreas, eventually it will fail. When it fails, it will not produce insulin. That’s when your blood sugar gets out of control, and you need to inject insulin.
Before you get to the point where your pancreas fails, if you continue to increase your insulin to such a high level, your insulin receptors will also break down. When that happens, what we call insulin resistance, that’s when you get diabetes.
If we don’t change the way we eat, it’s not a question of if we’re going to get diabetes, but when. If you change and start thinking about what’s going to raise your insulin, and choose foods that minimize that insulin spike, you are able to lose fat around your waist.
Abdominal fat actually predicts diabetes. So if you have a gut, and you start limiting insulin, you actually will have a better chance of losing that gut weight and also, more importantly, reduce your risk for developing diabetes later on.
Epoch Times: That sounds very encouraging, but what about our desire for sugar? Even when we do understand the science of which foods raise our insulin levels, it can still be hard to resist the cravings. Sugar is like an addictive drug, so do you have any tools to address this addiction?
Dr. Nguyen: There are a couple of things I recommend, and we have great success in doing these things.
Number one, you have to detox yourself off of sugar as much as you can. So any sweets—soda, cake, cookies, ice cream—try your best for one week to not eat any. If this is too much, do it for one day, and take it one day at a time.
You should stay away from artificial sweeteners too. A lot of diet programs use a lot of these sugar substitutes, because it doesn’t spike insulin (there’s no glucose). But unfortunately it will make you crave more sweets and carbs. You may initially give up cake, cookies, and ice cream, but if you regularly drink diet sodas, your craving for sweets is going to be so high that you’re going to cheat.
So to kill the sugar craving, I strongly recommend to drink water, unsweetened tea, or unsweetened coffee. After one week, you will notice a significant reduction in your cravings.
The second thing is that you have to eat more, not less. If you eat more green-light foods, proteins and green leafy vegetables—let’s say you eat 20 meatballs—will you want any spaghetti noodles after that? No. Would you want any cake or cookies for dessert? Most likely not, because you’re full already.
It’s when you’re hungry, that’s when you crave sugar and carbs the most. So if you satisfy your hunger with a lot of green-light foods and intentionally make an effort to get rid of the sweet craving by staying away from them for a week, you will notice your craving will reduce significantly.
Epoch Times: So if we don’t leave room for the red-light foods, they’re not going to tempt us.
Dr. Nguyen: Exactly, but so many of us are still operating on a diet mentality where we restrict our portions. But if you eat a pound of fish, won’t you be full? Of course. It’s healthy, it’s low in calories, but most importantly, it does not spike insulin. That’s the nice thing about picking green-light foods.
If you only focus on calories and restrict yourself to say 500 calories a day, you may also lose weight. But what if you only eat 500 calories of ice cream? Are you going to be able to sustain that weight loss? No way. Don’t think about calories. Just think what foods won’t spike your insulin, and eat those until you’re full.
People typically lose about 3 to 5 pounds in the first week of the Thinsulin program, so they get very motivated because for the first time, they’re eating five times a day. They’re not hungry. They can eat at a friend’s house or even a buffet and still lose weight, because they’ve learned to choose green-light foods that will lower their insulin level.
Epoch Times: What about vegetarians? Can this program work if you don’t eat animal protein?
Dr. Nguyen: It’s slower, but it’s not impossible. A lot of vegetarians already eat a lot of grains and carbs, so their insulin often starts out higher. They don’t eat green-light proteins, but they can eat the yellow-light proteins. Yes, these will still raise insulin, but a lot less relative to what they ate before.
Epoch Times: So these principles apply to anyone?
Dr. Nguyen: Right. If you want to lose 100 pounds, if you want to improve your blood sugar because you have diabetes, if you want to lose your pregnancy weight, or even if you just want to lose 5 to 10 pounds because you want to have a six pack, it all goes back to insulin.
When you start to think in terms of insulin and your body starts to burn fat, you will reach your goal.
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.