If you only remember one point from this article, let it be this: being a healthy weight helps us live longer, happier lives. Losing extra weight is proven to reduce cancer and heart disease risk. It increases focus and energy. Though we often take up weight loss for surface reasons (who doesn’t want to look better?) it’s long-term wellness that keeps us going. Being a healthy weight feels good. Thankfully, we now have a tool to help cut through the confusion built-in to various weight loss plans. Better than even calorie counting, a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) draws us a roadmap so we can choose the best path to weight loss.
Think of our bodies as self-regenerating candles. We burn glucose at the wick. Extra energy gets stored as wax. By eating, we give our wicks the glucose to burn bright. If we eat too much, though, or if we eat too much of the wrong foods, our wicks can’t burn glucose fast enough. We store the extra energy as wax (fat) and we gain weight. Conversely, if we restrict what we eat or burn brighter through exercise, our wicks quickly exhaust our glucose energy. This forces our candles to burn wax reserves and we lose weight
This burning candle metaphor forms the basis of many diets. It’s often referred to as the “Calories in, calories out” (CICO) model. Count the calories taken in through food and subtract the calories burned through exercise. As long as the resulting CICO number is negative—if we use more calories than we take in—we lose weight, right?
Well, not always.
Though CICO works well for many people, our bodies aren’t candles. Bodies are complicated, y’all. Metabolism—the rate at which our candles burn energy—depends on a host of factors. Reducing calories also triggers our bodies to slow metabolism. For our ancestors, restricted calories meant an unsuccessful hunt or a failed crop. Evolutionarily, our bodies reduce metabolism to stay alive.
Also, consider those with metabolic disorders or insulin resistance. The overwhelming majority of people have “less than optimal” metabolic function. For these large swaths of the population, CICO simply can’t provide enough data to facilitate weight loss. Calories do matter. But to lose weight and increase our overall health, we need to know how our hormones affect metabolism. When we look only at calories, we are missing the bigger picture. The key hormone in our metabolic systems that we need to most pay attention to is insulin.
Insulin is the captain controlling our metabolism. It’s what we call an “anabolic” hormone, meaning it contributes to our bodies’ growth. You may recall disgraced athletes caught using “anabolic” steroids to “grow” muscle. Eating prompts the pancreas to release insulin into our bloodstreams. Once released, insulin starts barking orders. It tells our bodies to burn glucose (blood sugar). It shifts our metabolism away from burning fat and toward storing fat.
For a person with a healthy metabolism, say someone eating nutritious foods a few times a day, these insulin releases work perfectly. Their body metabolizes blood sugar and stores just enough fat. But like we’ve said, many people suffer abnormal metabolism. We don’t live in the hunter-gatherer environment of our ancestors. We live in a world with 24-hour fast food on every corner and store shelves lined with processed sugars designed to remain edible even after a nuclear apocalypse.
When we snack and eat these hyper-palatable processed foods (because, listen, sometimes we have to grab whatever food is available between back-to-back meetings), our bodies release too much insulin too often. Our metabolic captain starts barking more orders. It’s voice gets louder. And what does a team do when the captain starts yelling and cussing? They stop paying attention. Too much snacking and low-quality food increases our bodies’ resistance to insulin. The next time insulin asks our bodies to burn blood sugar, our metabolism doesn’t listen. This makes weight loss very difficult.
Keeping a close track on insulin and this metabolic system, then, is a great way to facilitate weight loss.
Glucose is our bodies’ main energy source. Whenever our glucose levels rise, this triggers the release of insulin. We know insulin levels are an excellent metabolic indicator and a key tool in facilitating weight loss. Measuring insulin levels, however, can be difficult. Thankfully, because a rise in glucose stimulates the release of insulin, we can use our blood glucose levels as a proxy. Data from a blood glucose monitor will show us our approximate insulin levels.
Our blood glucose (and in turn, our insulin levels) fluctuate for a host of reasons. When we eat, obviously, our glucose rises. Eating sweet foods high in processed carbohydrates increases that rise. But stress can also trigger increased blood sugar. Not sleeping, for example, increases our stress responses and elevates blood sugar. A lack of exercise sees a similar result. For this reason, we need data beyond just post-meal glucose levels. We need a CGM’s stream of data. That continuous access to data shows us exactly how our glucose levels affect our metabolism, and greatly aids our ability to achieve effective and lasting weight loss.
Different diets tell you to eat different foods. Further, diets often say the foods promoted by other diets are bad for you. Remember, these “diets” are often tied to expensive cookbooks and membership programs; food confusion isn’t a bug in the system, it’s a feature.
To cut through the (sometimes intentional) confusion, scientists created a tool called the glycemic index. The glycemic index assigns foods a value from 0-100, depending on how quickly they increase glucose. The lower the value, the better. An apple, for example, has a glycemic index score of 36. White bread, on the other hand, scores 75. Watermelon is 76. As far as blood sugar goes, apples are better for you than white bread and watermelon. I know, I know, I can hear you from here: “well, duh.”
But the devil is in the details. As we’ve learned time and time again, every body is different. The beautiful, sometimes frustrating part of good science is how it constantly improves. As we gather more data, we’ve come to realize the glycemic index isn’t a universal score. One person can metabolize a PB&J on white bread with barely a blip, but that same meal can send the next person into a Mt. Everest-sized glucose spike. More data, therefore, is better data; and the more personalized the data, the more useful it becomes.
CICO and glycemic index scores provide a starting foundation for building healthy eating habits. For real, lasting weight loss, though, for lifelong health, we need personalized data. That’s where glucose tracking, especially with something like a CGM is key. Even for a nondiabetic, knowledge is power. Knowing exactly how much glucose is in our blood tells us approximately how much insulin is in our blood. Knowing how much insulin is in our body indicates how efficiently our candles are burning.
Even discounting food, our glucose levels change over the course of the day in response to our bodies’ internal clocks. Getting good data is essential. Because we can’t always take traditional blood sugar samples—while we’re sleeping, for example—a CGM is key. A CGM gives you that continual stream of data. It shows blood glucose levels while we’re awake and after we eat. It tells us our actual blood sugar levels when we’re feeling hungry. It also gives data while we’re asleep or while we’re exercising.
Your baseline, fasting blood sugar is the bedrock on which to build your healthy diet. Someone with a relatively healthy metabolism may have a fasting blood sugar level of 90 milligrams of glucose per deciliter of blood (mg/dl). For diabetics, a “normal” baseline blood sugar reading may be 130 mg/dl. With our personal baseline number firmly established, we can drill down and see how our food affects our blood sugar. This data lets us maximize our metabolism and improve weight loss.
Imagine an otherwise healthy nondiabetic who exercises, yet still puts on weight. Their CGM shows a baseline of 90 mg/dl. After eating lunch, however, their CGM shows blood sugar spikes up to 140. As a general rule, we don’t want our blood sugar to spike more than 30 points after eating, especially if your goal is weight loss. Armed with their body’s own data, our metabolically normal person can see how their lunch habits are causing an unhealthy blood sugar spike. Continuous CGM data lets them fine-tune their eating habits to push that post-meal blood sugar spike closer to 30 mg/dl, helping them lose weight and feel healthier.
Data from a CGM can also clue us into habits we didn’t even know we had. Imagine a diabetic who eats well. They use their CGM data to flatten blood sugar spikes to only 30 mg/dl. But even with moderate exercise, they struggle with weight and feeling healthy. Looking at the data from their CGM, they see the culprit: snacking. Though their glucose spikes are small, they aren’t spacing their meals far enough apart to allow their blood sugar to drop to its fasting value. Even with small spikes, if we’re constantly pulsing blood sugar through our bodies, elevated insulin levels will keep our body in building and storage mode. This means our diabetic, despite eating well, will struggle with health.
In any case, diabetic or nondiabetic, the data from a CGM is a powerful tool for creating accountability. We are more likely to act when we have real-time data at our fingertips. As we stated before, diets and meal plans can be confusing, sometimes deliberately so. And even when a specific diet is unambiguous, bodies differ in how they digest foods. A CGM gives you clear, actionable data to back your own insights. “Of course I feel hungry,” the data says, “my fasting blood sugar has dipped below its baseline.”
Again, this sometimes feels like a “well, duh,” discussion. Of course we need to watch our weight, right? But we need to watch our weight for reasons beyond the obvious. Discussions around weight loss often pivot around our looks. Losing weight is so much more than looking good. What good is looking good if we feel awful? The real benefit of watching our weight comes with how it makes us feel. Obesity and elevated blood sugar can trigger a host of diseases and chronic illnesses. Heart disease, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and others have all been linked to being overweight.
Losing weight makes us feel better. Losing weight gives us more energy. Losing weight adds healthy, productive years to our lives. Armed with good, actionable data and even better habits, we can keep a trained eye on our weight and live our healthiest, happiest lives.
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