Are You Insulin Resistant?

Do you feel tired and sluggish all the time? When you try to lose weight, do you get so hungry that your hunger defeats all your efforts to stay on a diet? Have you been gaining weight and can’t seem to get it off? If these conditions apply to you, you could be Insulin Resistant. And if you are insulin resistant, you are at risk for both morbid obesity–that’s weight gain so extreme that it threatens your life–and developing Type 2 Diabetes.

What is “insulin resistance?”

Insulin is the hormone “key” that unlocks your body’s tissues, enabling them to utilize as fuel the glucose or sugar that is in your blood from digestion of the foods you eat. This ability to remove sugar from the blood and convert it to fuel is vital to a healthy body. Your muscles need sugar to function, and so does your brain. When you are insulin resistant, your body’s tissues “resist” the insulin’s attempt to metabolize the sugar into a usable fuel. Even though your body is starved for the sugar it needs for fuel, it is unable to use the available sugar in your blood. So instead of being used as fuel, the sugar builds up in your blood, which causes many serious health problems.

What causes insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance develops over time from an unhealthy lifestyle and bad eating habits. Too much fast food and chemical-laden processed food, combined with stress, insufficient sleep and a lack of exercise, starts to take its toll. A diet lacking in fiber, complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits and vegetables further deprives your body of the resources it needs to recover from the poor diet and unhealthy habits.

Why is insulin resistance a problem?

If your body is unable to get rid of the sugar in your blood by burning it as fuel, blood sugar can rise to dangerously high levels. Prolonged levels of elevated blood sugar cause “bad” cholesterol to soar and your blood pressure to shoot up. Left uncorrected, your body’s inability to use insulin can bring on the onset of diabetes, causing nerve and circulatory damage that may lead to heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure and blindness.

When your body tissues become resistant to insulin and blood sugar levels begin to rise, your pancreas responds–as it is programmed to do–by producing and releasing still more insulin. Too much insulin in your blood has two very undesirable side effects: it makes you feel hungry (because your body is literally starving for fuel), and attempts to neutralize the excess sugar by causing your body to store it as fat! No wonder your every attempt to lose weight ends in failure!

Worst of all, if this “insulin resistant” condition continues for too long, your pancreas can simply become exhausted from producing all that insulin and greatly reduce its output, or stop altogether. When that happens, it causes the condition known as diabetes. Diabetes simply means your body does not produce enough insulin. Without insulin or medication to activate the processing of sugar in your body’s tissues, the sugar simply builds up in your blood–causing the destructive nerve and circulatory effects described above.

What can I do to reverse insulin resistance and prevent diabetes?

The good new is that just because you’re insulin resistant doesn’t mean you are doomed to become a diabetic. If you make changes to your diet and lifestyle now, you can reverse the process and your body will again accept and utilize insulin the way it should to keep your blood sugar levels within safe, normal range.

Diet and exercise are the key to making this happen! (You knew I was going say that, didn’t you?) Exercise is the number one, best way to increase your body’s sensitivity to insulin! Your muscles are fueled by sugar. When you exercise, your muscles are less resistant to the action of insulin and allow the sugar to be utilized as the fuel they need to meet the demands placed upon them by the exercise. A combination of aerobic exercise–such as walking–and strength training–working with small weights to increase muscle mass–has proven to be the most effective combination to combat insulin resistance or lower your blood sugar levels, if you are already diabetic.

And yes, diet is important, but how you diet is even more important! Simply cutting calories or eating less just doesn’t work, if you are insulin resistant, because that does nothing to correct the over-supply of insulin. What DOES work is paying attention to the “glycemic index” of the foods you eat, to avoid dumping a large amount of sugar into your blood all at once. Since the presence of too much sugar in your blood is what triggers the excess insulin –starting the hunger/fat storing cycle all over again-the key is choosing foods that digest more slowly and release sugar more gradually.

What is the “Glycemic Index?

Put simply, the “glycemic index” of a given food is a number assigned to that food, based upon how fast it turns to sugar in your blood, when it’s digested. Most foods, when digested, are broken down to sugar, since that is your body’s primary fuel. But the conversion to sugar happens much faster with some foods, than with others. In general, “white” foods have a high glycemic index, meaning they will very quickly turn to sugar in your blood, triggering the undesirable flood of insulin. These white foods include white bread, potatoes, white rice and (go figure!) white sugar. All of these are “simple” carbohydrates-meaning they are easily digested.

The “glycemic index” is an excellent tool to help you learn what foods to eat to avoid the excess insulin that will sabotage your efforts to lose weight. Once you get the hang of it, though, you won’t need to count “glycemic points” for the rest of your life to make this work. Just remember that instead of simple carbohydrates that will quickly turn to sugar in your blood, you need to eat complex carbohydrates that digest more slowly, thus slowing the accumulation of blood sugar and avoiding the excess insulin trap.

Instead of white pasta, eat whole wheat pasta. (It looks “brown” before it’s cooked, but once it’s cooked and paired with sauce, it’s hard to tell the difference!) Instead of white bread, find a good, whole-grain bread you like, and eat that, instead. Instead of orange juice–which is high in sugar and is transformed almost instantly into sugar in your blood–eat the whole orange. The fiber in the orange will slow the arrival of the sugar in your blood. So: eat complex carbohydrates like whole-grain pasta, whole-grain breads, beans and lentils. (Like split pea soup with a little ham for seasoning? That’s an excellent choice of a lower glycemic index food! Fresh fruits and veggies are good, too.) Mixing these more complex foods with protein slows the breakdown into sugar even more.

And here’s the best part: If you follow this method of eating, you’ll find those hunger pangs will soon fade and disappear. You’ll stop storing fat and start losing weight, and you’ll feel great! If you simply must have one of those “bad” high glycemic index foods, combine it with one of the complex foods described above. This will help to slow down how quickly the sugar from that “bad” food will hit your blood, thus avoiding the unwanted “insulin spike”.

Moreover, this is a very healthy diet–one that’s safe to use indefinitely–and one that’s so easy to live with you can stick with it! You need not starve yourself or live on lettuce leaves and celery. You’ll find that you can eat real food in reasonable quantities and still lose weight! A couple of cautions, though: One thing you will want to count is how many grams of fat you’re consuming. To lose the fat you’ve accumulated over time, you need to eat less fat than your body needs, so it will be forced to start burning up the fat you’ve stored. Portion size is important, too. Regardless of what the ads for some “diet aids” tell you, you can’t eat unlimited amounts and expect to lose weight. But if you stay on this diet for a week or two, you’ll find that you can eat smaller portions and still feel satisfied. Add exercise to your diet plan to lose weight even faster, and further reduce the “insulin spikes” that sabotage your efforts.

If you want more information, there are numerous books on the subject–many containing recipes using low gycemic index foods, and providing much more information about the subject.

Note: This article is a general guide to healthier eating. It is not offered as medical advice, nor should it be used as such. Please consult your physician before starting any diet or exercise program.