Cortisol and Weight Loss: Are You Eating Enough Carbohydrates?

Chicken and Vegetable Shish Kabobs on the Grill
Are you eating below
your carbohydrate tolerance?

Did you know that you can actually stall your weight loss when you eat too few carbohydrates?


Most of the low-carb world won't tell you that.

If you've corrected any protein deficiency you might have and are still not losing weight, the next thing to look at in the Atkins tweaking process is your carbohydrate level.

Most low-carb dieters think about eating too many carbs, but you can actually be eating too few.

Since stress hormones interfere with weight loss, in this post, I'm going to share what you can do to get the scales moving downward again!

Finding your correct carbohydrate tolerance is important because anything that stresses the body will increase your levels of:
  • cortisol
  • adrenaline
  • noradrenaline
  • glucagon
  • and other stress hormones
These stress hormones are counterproductive to weight loss, especially when the situation becomes chronic, so in this post, I'm going to clear up some of the misconceptions about insulin and carbohydrates that are rampant within the low-carb community.

I'll also try to help you get the scales moving downward again by showing you how to find your personal carbohydrate tolerance level.

[This is part 11 of a multi-part series on how I lost over 100 pounds tweaking the Atkins Diet. If you haven't read part 1 yet, you can find it by clicking on the above link. At that post, you'll find links to all of the other posts in the series, as they become available.]

Low-Carb Dinner with Lots of Vegetable Carbs

How Stress Hormones Interfere with Weight Loss

The presence of stress hormones signals the liver that you are in an intense and physically dangerous situation.

The liver reacts by dumping glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates) into the bloodstream. This gives you the energy you need to fight against a physical invader or run for safety.

The unconscious mind doesn't know that the threat is coming from inside the body. It can't tell the difference between an emotional emergency, a nutritional emergency, or a physical one.

No matter what type of emergency you're facing, the body reacts in exactly the same way: It mobilizes and provides you with plenty of energy (in the form of glucose) to take care of business.

Woman Screaming
Stress hormones always result in insulin secretion.
If you don't USE the the excess energy they provide,
your blood glucose level will stay elevated.

If you don't take care of business because it's just nutritional or emotional stress, your blood glucose level will stay elevated.

As blood glucose level goes up, insulin is secreted to keep the situation in check, even if you haven't eaten anything. Fat mobilization stops, but NOT because your insulin level went up.

Fat mobilization stops because you don't need body fat for fuel when there's plenty of glucose around.

The whole idea that insulin “locks” the doors to your fat cells is a gross oversimplification. It's a kindergarten story, a metaphor for helping you understand that the body chooses between glucose and fatty acids for fuel, but it's highly inaccurate.

While it's true that fat isn't used for fuel when glucose is high, once your glucose level falls and glucose is in short supply, the body will use body fat, as needed. The only way fat stays stored is if the amount of energy coming into the body is equal to or greater than the amount of energy you use.

It doesn't matter if you have insulin resistance, or not.

When there's a shortage of energy, the body will use fat to make up the difference.

However, when stress is chronic, as in malnutrition or consistent worry and emotional stress, the body will use its glycogen stores to handle the emergency, instead of using fat that's already stored. Insulin resistance stresses the body, keeping you in a chronic state of emergency.

Decorative Mound of Whipped Butter
When stress hormones are elevated,
the body stores ALL incoming dietary fats!

When cortisol is high, the liver stores all incoming fat and once drained, puts forth a greater effort to refill its glycogen stores because glycogen is faster to mobilize than body fat is.

Since low-carb is relatively high in fat and moderate in protein, when compared to a standard low-calorie diet, you can actually end up gaining weight if you keep your carbohydrate level too low.

This is exactly what happened to me when I tried to do zero carb and Jimmy Moore's version of Nutritional Ketosis a few years ago. My carbs were too low and my fat intake was too high.

As a result, the energy balance went in the wrong direction. 

I stored the dietary fat I was eating because the body couldn't use it with so much glucose around. And since your cells go insulin resistant if your blood glucose rises too high, even if you aren't normally insulin resistant, gluconeogensis will never shut off as long as the body is under stress.

Why Was There So Much Glucose on Zero and Very Low Carb?

Insulin's job is to bring your blood glucose level back within a tight margin as quick as possible. 

It does this in two ways:

1) It attaches to insulin receptors on the cell's surface, which tells the cell that extra glucose is available for use.

Insulin is not necessary for the cell to pull glucose in from the bloodstream, but its presence encourages the cell to pull the available glucose in faster. Metabolism increases until the excess glucose has been used.

2) Insulin's presence signals the liver that there is plenty of glucose around, so it doesn't need to break down any more glycogen into glucose.

However, if you are insulin resistant, the liver won't see the insulin, so it will continue to drop more and more glucose into the bloodstream, believing that your life is in danger.

The liver cannot see the amount of glucose in your blood. It gauges the amount of glucose available by the amount of insulin that's there. If it can't see insulin, it believes your blood sugar is low.

The key seems to be the stress hormone glucagon.

Green Grapes are Mostly Glucose
The body will always give top priority to glucose
whenever it's available.

Glucagon's job is to keep your blood glucose level from dropping too low. Since insulin works to keep glucagon in check, some low-carb experts sing praises to glucagon and insist that insulin be kept as low as possible for health.

But low insulin raises glucagon, and the liver interprets that to mean the blood glucose level is too low. It honestly believes you're having a hypoglycemic attack.

Elevated glucagon tells the liver to break down glycogen into glucose and dump it into the bloodstream. The only time it doesn't work that way is if your glycogen stores are empty.

When your blood glucose level drops too low, this is seen as an emergency situation, so glucagon's presence is essential to avoid hypoglycemia. When elevated, glucagon also tells the liver to be ready to mobilize fat stores, but this won't actually happen until the body runs out of liver glycogen.

The liver can store about 80 grams of carbohydrate as glycogen, so in a true emergency situation, those 320 calories can be burned through rather quickly, which is why glycogen alerts the liver to prepare for fat mobilization, but that body fat isn't used unless absolutely needed.

The body always gives preference to glucose.

Insulin, on the other hand, tells the liver there is plenty of glucose already, so DON'T break down glycogen into glucose. Hold off for now. This is why insulin is secreted when blood glucose rises after a meal.

Which state is better to be in?


Insulin and Glucagon are counter-regulatory hormones. They work in harmony to keep your blood glucose level within a tight margin.

When out of harmony, when insulin is too low or when you are insulin resistant and the liver can't see the insulin you're producing, the liver believes your blood glucose is low, so glucagon will continue to work with no resistance.

Your blood glucose level will stay elevated until the body secrets enough insulin to get the liver's attention. Only then will gluconeogenesis be shut down until your blood glucose level drops too low again.

The name of the game is always balance and harmony.

What is a Healthy Insulin Response After Meals?

Many low carbers do not know that the body consistently secrets insulin into the bloodstream every few seconds.

This insulin is known as basal insulin, and it works in harmony with glucagon to keep your blood glucose level within a tight margin between meals. This is completely independent of your carbohydrate intake.

In addition to basal insulin, the pancreas stores some of the insulin it makes in its beta cells. When blood glucose rises above 100 mg/dl (5.5 mmol/L), some of the stored insulin is secreted to deal with the extra glucose.

This is referred to as First Insulin Response, and what most low carbers mean when they talk about insulin spikes.

In individuals who are not diabetic, the amount of First Phase insulin released is based on what you ate at your last meal and peaks within only a few minutes.

If enough insulin was secreted to cover the amount of carbs you ate, your blood glucose will reach its own peak within 30 minutes after you started eating.

If blood glucose is still over 100 mg/dl, additional insulin will be secreted to help bring your blood glucose back down.

This second dose is generally smaller than the first one, and in a healthy individual (a non-diabetic), blood glucose will be back to normal within 1 to 1-1/2 hours after the meal. By 2 hours, it should be at fasting level.

In a healthy individual, blood glucose never goes higher than 140 mg/dl. Ever.

When blood glucose control is impaired due to some type of failure of Phase 1 or a sluggish-to-respond Phase 2, blood glucose will stay elevated. If blood glucose reaches 200 mg/dl after several meals, you can be diagnosed with diabetes.

How the Body Responds to a Low-Carb Diet

When you are insulin resistant, you might have normal Phase 1 and Phase 2 responses, but the body won't react to the presence of insulin until it reaches higher-than-normal levels.

In this case, the second phase response can be quite prolonged, due to the amount of insulin needed to overcome the resistance. Blood glucose will stay elevated, and blood glucose control may be further comprised if gluconeogenesis is involved.

A low-carb diet helps to control the amount of insulin needed by the body because available glucose coming in from meals is small. This rest gives the pancreas time and resources to grow new beta cells that can better handle the resistance.

As time goes on, you can also become more sensitive to insulin.

The body responds to a low-carb diet by dropping basal insulin levels, but if that level goes too low, the liver can interpret that as being a drop in blood glucose and begin breaking down glycogen for fuel.

This is more likely to happen if you don't eat enough carbohydrates to keep insulin in normal range.

During the first few days of a low-carb diet, if carbohydrate is restricted enough, this is exactly what you want to happen. Liver glycogen will go down and within a day or so, the lack of glycogen will trigger the beginning stages of ketosis.

The liver uses the level of insulin in the blood to determine the body's need for glucose, so if insulin is high, there is no need for glucose. If insulin is low, there is. When you don't eat enough carbohydrate to keep your basal insulin level in a normal range, your liver will continuously break down glycogen into glucose.

This is also what happens when you are insulin resistant. The liver can't see all of that insulin, so it reacts as if your insulin level was super low or non-existent.

The original Atkins Diet was designed to severely limit the carbohydrate content of the diet for only one week.

This was plenty of time to go from predominantly burning glucose for fuel to burning fatty acids and ketones. At each week thereafter, you added 5 to 8 total carbs until you reached your carbohydrate tolerance.

Dr. Atkins discovered that if he added carbs back into his diet slowly enough, he could eat as many as 35 to 40 carbs a day without his weight loss slowing down.

Many of his patients had the same experience.

In 1992, when the carbohydrate allowed on Induction was raised slightly, Induction was extended to two weeks. This practice continued when the 2002 version came out as well.

At the end of the Induction period, you started returning carbs to your diet, as before. However, in 2002, Dr. Atkins also said that if you were seriously overweight, you could stay on Induction for a bit longer than two weeks.

Some of the comments made by Dr. Atkins about extended Inductions in the 2002 book has given many dieters the idea that it's safe for everyone to stay on an Induction level of carbs throughout the entire weight-loss phase.

However, many dieters who have tried to do it this way have found out the hard way that eating well below your carbohydrate tolerance can have serious health and physical ramifications.

Not only does the body interpret that level to be starvation if you are not seriously insulin resistant, but staying too low in carbs for too long a period will cause your stress hormones to stay elevated and never return to normal levels.

This will keep your liver breaking down glycogen for fuel, which competes with your weight loss efforts.

The idea behind finding your individual carbohydrate tolerance is to find the level where your stress hormones don't interfere with your effort to drop the weight.

And while a calorie deficit is what drives fat loss, the body can do all sorts of crazy things to bring your energy output into balance with what you're eating. Some individuals have even experienced weight gain.

Will Upping Your Carbohydrates Cause You to Gain Weight?

For the most part, low-carb dieters are extremely afraid of carbohydrates. This is one of the reasons why so many stick to 20 net carbs and never venture out of what they consider safe territory.

You may be doing the same thing.

But, this fear is as limiting as being afraid of insulin. While carbohydrate does break down into glucose during digestion, even on a low-carb diet, the brain needs a certain amount of glucose every day because it cannot use fatty acids for fuel.

The body doesn't need carbohydrate in the diet to get that glucose, but just because carbohydrate isn't essential for life, that doesn't mean that everyone can function optimally without an adequate carbohydrate intake.

Pan-Fried Pork Chops
Going zero carb caused my blood glucose level
to go sky high!

I learned this lesson when I tried to do zero carb.

With no carbohydrate in the diet at all, my blood glucose levels after meals began to deteriorate. By two to three months into the diet, they measured over 200 ml/dl after meals, and I had gained 10 pounds of belly fat.

Returning to an Induction level of carbs didn't help the situation any. I continued to experience ultra-high blood glucose levels and continued to gain weight. I think this was because I had already triggered a starvation response by going carb free.

The only thing that returned my blood glucose level to normal was to move to a maintenance level of carbohydrate for several weeks.

Once the body stabilized, I tried a Nutritional Ketosis Diet – or what I thought was Nutritional Ketosis. I ate 20 net carbs, what I would call very low protein, about 60 grams a day, and very high fat.

Within two months of starting to do this, I had packed on another 30 pounds. Blood glucose was out of control, and I had to move to a maintenance level of carbs to get it to come down. This time, for a much longer period.

Do you see the pattern here?

Each time I drastically lowered my carb intake, my blood glucose went out of control, and I gained weight. Each time I ate between 60 and 120 carbs a day, the weight gain stopped, and I was able to stabilize easily at that carb level.

Why Do People Say They Gain Weight When They Return Carbs to Their Diet?

I've been participating in the low-carb community for over 10 years now, and throughout all of those years, I've seen many dieters try to return carbs back to their diet without a lot of success.

These people really did gain weight when they returned carbohydrate foods to their diet, so what's going on?

Why did they gain weight, and I did not?

The majority of the low-carb community does not believe that calories matter. When the average dieter returns carbs to their diet, they add those additional foods to what they are already eating.

Since this drives up their calorie intake, returning carbs to their low-carb diet resulted in weight gain.

How much weight gain?

If glycogen stores are partially filled when you try to do this, the body will use those extra carbs to replace the glycogen that is missing. This is glycogen and water weight, emergency stores for the brain, and amounts to part of the weight you originally lost during the first week of your low-carb diet.

In the average dieter, gaining five pounds of glycogen and water at maintenance is quite common. Keep in mind that this is not body fat. It is glycogen that must be replaced.

Even if you continue eating at 20-net carbs, the liver will convert some amino acids, lactate, and the glycerol backbone of triglycerides to glycogen to refill its stores. This is a safety net. The body won't let you keep your glycogen stores completely empty.

Cut down on protein to prevent the liver from doing this and your body will either strip the protein it needs from your muscles or liver, or it will slow down your metabolism, so it doesn't need to use as much glycogen.

You can't get around it.

What matters is that you maintain your calorie deficit. You don't just add carbohydrate foods back to your diet without subtracting something in return.

On Old-School Atkins, protein would go down a bit to compensate for the space that another carb food took up on your plate, but if you're already eating at a moderate level of protein, you will need to cut back on fat instead.

Are You Eating Too Many Carbs?

Super-Large Tuna Salad with Tomatoes, Olives, Eggs, Red Pepper Strips
Eating too many carbs is stressful on the body.

Most of this post has been about those who are not eating enough carbs, and how the body reacts when you eat under your personal tolerance, but you can also be eating too many carbs, which will be just as stressful on the body.

As you age, your carbohydrate tolerance level will go down.

During times of stress or illness, your personal carbohydrate tolerance level will change, as well. If you are pre-diabetic or diabetic, your carbohydrate tolerance will not stay the same from year to year. Carbohydrate tolerance fluctuates.

While many like to assume that low-carb products and processed foods are harmless since they are, well, low in carbs, that really isn't true.

Look at the ingredients of a handy Atkins frozen dinner, and you'll see what I mean. They are loaded with the same types of chemicals and additives you'll find in all processed foods.

In addition to your carb level being too high, you could also be getting hidden carbs in the form of spices, non-glycemic carbs manufacturers don't want to count, or super-small serving sizes on products like heavy cream.

The maltodextrin in bulk sugar substitutes contains calories and carbs. It is extremely glycemic. In fact, it's the most glycemic ingredient there is and will raise your blood sugar if you are pre-diabetic or diabetic.

Even powdered soft drinks like Crystal Light are not carb free.

If you're eating well above 20-net carbs, you'll need to check out everything you're eating to make sure that you're actually eating at the level you think you are.

How to Find Your Personal Carbohydrate Tolerance Level

For those fairly new to Atkins, using those urine test strips can sometimes help you pinpoint your best carbohydrate level for losing the weight, as they will turn tan (negative) for several tests in a row once you reach your upper limit for carbs.

Keep in mind that according to Atkins Nutritionals, Inc., the ketone testing strips won't register ketones if your intake is 50 grams, or more. I have no idea if that is true for most people.

It wasn't true for me.

I turned the sticks pink at 60 carbs in 2007.

If you have been at this for several months or years now, the sticks might not work any more, even at Induction levels. From my current understanding, fat adaption drives your acetoacetone ketones down to undetectable levels.

If so, to discover where to set your new carbohydrate level, you'll have to go by:
  • how you feel
  • the amount of energy you have
  • the weight on the scale
  • your general level of hunger
  • and your cravings for sweets
The idea is to stay just this side of ketosis or find the level at which you feel your best, but a level that will still allow you to lose the weight without a lot of discomfort.

While calories drive fat loss, the amount of carbohydrate you eat will affect your insulin resistance, if you have that. It will also affect your hunger and cravings for sweets.

If you are not insulin resistant, you'll be able to eat quite a few more carbs than someone who is resistant to weight loss, and still easily lose the weight, provided your calories are set low enough.

In general, the closer you are to goal weight, the less insulin resistant you are, but I'm talking about starting weight here. Not what you've dieted down to.

Once you have been severely overweight or obese, your metabolism will always respond differently to food than those who have never been overweight.

Atkins starts you off at 20 net carbs on Induction, which forms the foundation for your new lifestyle. If you've been eating less than that because you thought fewer carbs would make the weight come off quicker, move to Induction and do that for a full two weeks before going on.

For those at 20 net carbs already, move to 25 net carbs and see how your body reacts to this new level. Dr. Atkins recommended that you spend those 5 extra carbs on either:
  • another salad
  • half an avocado
  • another cup of cooked vegetables
Half an Avocado is 5 to 8 Carbs
Half an Avocado is One Serving

But if you're sensitive to the sugar in produce, you can actually use any low-carb foods you like. Induction consisted of choosing between 1 cup of vegetables or a salad for lunch and dinner, this new level simply allows you to have both.

Level 2 of the Atkins Diet can be simplified:
  • meat, eggs, and/or dairy
  • 1 cup vegetables
  • 1 nice-sized salad with full-fat dressing
This is approximately what you'd eat for lunch and dinner in the initial stage of Phase 2 of the Atkins plan.

Since another salad will increase your fat intake by 100 to 200 calories in dressing, you'll need to keep that in mind when planning out your meals. If you adjusted your protein as recommended in my last post, you'll have to trim the fat a bit, so you don't overeat.

Carbohydrate = 4 calories per gram

Fat = 9 calories per gram

So, to add 5 grams of carbohydrate (20 calories) to your diet, you'll need to cut your daily fat intake by 2.2 grams (20 calories).

That's not much, I admit, but when you consider the extra fat that normally goes along with adding those extra carbs, it's easy to see how quickly additional fat calories can interfere with what you're trying to do here.

After a week or two, sit back and evaluate what's going on:
  • Did you lose weight or inches this week?
  • How do your clothes feel? Are you bloated?
  • How's your energy level? High or are you tired and worn out?
  • Is your mood stable or erratic?
  • Are you craving sweets?
  • Are you hungrier than before? Or do you feel satisfied?
Insulin sensitive people will feel better and better as they increase their carbs, while insulin resistance folks might feel worse.

If you're using low carb to control your cravings and hunger, or even food binges, then hunger and cravings is the more important factor to consider when setting your optimal carbohydrate level.

Most people can eat more than 20 net carbs a day, but not everyone can. It's okay if you honestly can't.

No weight loss doesn't mean you've reached your carbohydrate tolerance. Weight loss depends on your calorie intake, so what you're actually looking for right now is signs of insulin resistance or sensitivity.

The body often tucks water away in your fat cells if it thinks that the diet might end soon, especially if you're offering it a few additional carbs, so don't assume that no scale movement automatically means you've found your tolerance level.

If you've been eating at 20 net carbs for a long time, the body will have to start making extra enzymes to digest those extra carbs you're adding. You'll need to be patient and do a bit of detective work.

With no weight loss, stick with that level for another week or even two. As long as you aren't gaining weight at an alarming rate (more than a pound or two of glycogen total) give your body time to adjust to the new carbohydrate level before attempting to go higher.

At this point in your journey, you don't want to do anything that will completely refill your glycogen, but at a higher carb level, you can expect your glycogen reserves to partially refill.

If the weight starts to come off again, or even if it doesn't, you can move up to the next level of 30 net carbs. Keep your calories the same. Stay at 30 net carbs for a week or two, and then evaluate, using the same questions above. If you maintain, do it for another week.

If you lose, move up to 35 net carbs.

Keep doing this back-and-forth routine until you find your personal carbohydrate tolerance.

As long as you aren't gaining weight, you can move up the carb ladder even if you're not losing weight. This is because your problem is more likely to be overeating in general, rather than eating too many carbs.

When trying to pinpoint your carbohydrate tolerance, don't try to cut calories at the same time. Focus on just carbs right now.

At the point where you start to gain body fat, eating at the same calorie level you ate at before, you simply dial back those carbs by 5 or 10 per day, and use that number for the majority of your weight loss.

Most low-carb experts recommend that you don't go higher than 50 grams during the weight-loss phase, even if you're insulin sensitive. This carb level enables you to stay in ketosis without effort. However, I've never had problems dropping weight at 60 carbs.

You'll also want to take how you feel into the equation.

For example, I feel my best at 60 carbs a day, but I can eat up to 120 or even 150 without gaining weight, provided my calories are the same at all carbohydrate levels. Your carbohydrate tolerance might not be as high as mine. This is just an example.

If you honestly feel better at a lower carb level, then you are likely insulin resistant and being very low carb is not why you are not losing weight.

Very Low-Carb High-Fat Diets Do Not Work for Everyone

When insulin sensitive people go low in carbs, they tend to feel absolutely horrible. They feel:
  • tired
  • lethargic
  • bloated
  • hungry
  • dizzy
And their mind and body doesn't function well. If you are not genetically predisposed to increase your ability to burn fatty acids for fuel, or you don't digest fats well for whatever reason, you'll feel even worse.

This is because going very low in carbs creates internal stress if you are insulin sensitive.

When insulin resistant people go low in carbs, they feel energetic, alive, and better than they have in years. Their hunger disappears and often, they lose interest in food altogether. If their genes are such that fat burning comes easy for them, low carb can drastically improve their quality of life.

This is because very low carb relieves the physical stress that insulin resistant people have when overeating carbs.

Along with the two extremes illustrated above, there is also a third group of low-carb dieters that do well on very low carb and equally well on a more moderate level of carbs. Actually, they thrive on any carb intake. These individuals have the ability to adapt to their environment without a lot of effort, so for them, low carb is a choice, rather than a necessity.

If you happen to fall into this category, just pick the carb level you enjoy best.

Very low-carb diets do not work for everyone, so it's extremely important to find out which category of low-carb dieter you are before you tackle the topic of calories and dietary fats.

Don't just assume that you are insulin resistant.

Since I fall into the category of obese, even at a size 14, and had glucose issues before going gluten free, I used to think that too. However, my body's reactions to low carb says otherwise.

Put forth the effort to find your carbohydrate tolerance level, and you just might be surprised at what you discover about yourself.

Part 12: How to Tweak Your Fat and Calories to Get the Results You Want - This is the final post in the series. Once you have set your protein at an adequate level and found your carbohydrate tolerance, dietary fat is how you dial in your calories to get the weight-loss results that you want.


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