Whether you want to lose weight or gain muscle, insulin plays a significant role in our life. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas in response to the food we consume. Since our body likes our blood glucose (sugar) to stay within a specific range, insulin is released to help bring an elevated glucose back into a normal range. For a variety of reasons, we can become less efficient at this process with time. We can become insulin resistant. Insulin resistance will lead to weight gain and if present for long enough diabetes. For more on insulin, see our article Hormones Part 3.
Insulin sensitivity is simply how efficient your body is at using insulin to control blood glucose. Our bodies can malfunction and begin to secrete too much insulin when we eat. On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates can have a roller coaster effect on our blood glucose causing a rapid rise and fall in this level multiple times in a day. This roller coaster effect causes the pancreas to over work and “wear out” over a long period of time. Prior to this happening though, we can spend years slowly becoming insulin resistant resulting in weight gain and feeling poorly. I want to talk today about some steps we can take to recover our insulin sensitivity, help us to lose weight and improve our health.
So how does insulin play a role in weight loss? Insulin is known as the storage hormone. While insulin is necessary for life, insulin also inhibits our body from breaking down fat for energy production. When insulin is high, we will not burn fat. As insulin drops back down along with blood glucose, we will start burning fat again for fuel. Therefore, when wanting to lose weight, it is important to keep our blood glucose steady and preserve our insulin sensitivity. Creating this internal environment will help improve body composition and overall health.
There are a number of steps we can take to help our body utilize insulin more efficiently and here are a few.
All exercise improves insulin sensitivity. It does this by improving insulin signaling which is how glucose is transported from outside to inside cells for use as fuel. Anaerobic exercise is one of the most efficient at improving insulin sensitivity-strength or resistance training and sprinting are examples. Walking after meals helps to lower glucose and is especially beneficial if done regularly. It is important to exercise as we grow older as the aging process lends itself to insulin resistance. Here is our article on NEAT.
Carbohydrates are either simple (quick) or complex (slow). The difference being how quickly they enter the bloodstream after breakdown. This is important because the faster they are broken down, the higher the spike in blood glucose. Simple carbs have no fiber attached to them. Simple carbohydrates are most processed food, candy, cookies etc. Complex carbs have fiber attached. Complex carbs are most vegetables, fiber filled fruits like berries and steel cut oats for example. Saving starchy carbohydrates such as potatoes and rice for after your training session helps as well by quickly restoring necessary the stored fuel in our muscles and liver known as glycogen. This helps to improve our performance at our next training session. Every meal should focus first on protein and vegetables rounded out by either starchy carbs or healthy fats.
Vinegar, green tea, spices and nuts are beneficial foods that promote insulin sensitivity. Nuts provide magnesium, which is an important mineral for insulin sensitivity. Before eating a high carb meal, try having a tossed salad with vinegar based salad dressing. The fiber in the salad will help fill you up and the vinegar will help control the glucose spike from the carbohydrates. Drinking green tea with your meal will also help. Resistant starches are foods that feed the good bacteria in your gut plus lower the glucose response in our bodies to these carb based foods. Cook, cool then reheat your carbs like potatoes to create resistant starch. Spices such as cinnamon, turmeric, ginger and garlic help improve our sensitivity. Add cinnamon to coffee, sweet potatoes or oatmeal. Turmeric is wonderful in eggs but add in some black pepper to increase its bioavailability. Garlic makes everything taste more delicious plus it keeps vampires away!
You can be doing everything correctly and still not lose weight if you do not make sleep a priority too. Sleep is just as important for insulin sensitivity as exercise and food. Try to be consistent with the time you go to bed and get up each morning. This helps support our circadian rhythm. Limit screens (TV, computer and phone) leading up to bedtime. Turn them completely off 1 hour prior to sleep. Establish your own sleep routine like a relaxing bath or quiet reading that helps wind you down for the night and strive for 7-8 hours every night.
There are many reasons why we might develop insulin resistance, some we can control and some not. Implement these steps to increase your insulin sensitivity. It certainly will help with weight loss. More importantly, you could avoid becoming one of the 29 million people living with diabetes not to mention the 86 million who are prediabetic in the world today. Creating the best internal environment in our body can lead to better health and vitality.