Carbohydrates and Insulin Resistance: Finding a Happy Medium

Over 40, apple-shaped (high amount of abdominal fat), struggling to lose weight but continuing to gain, battling high blood triglycerides, low HDLs (the good cholesterol) and high blood pressure.

Do you recognize this woman?

If it’s not you, you may know someone who fits this description. It’s a profile that goes along with a condition called metabolic syndrome (formerly known as syndrome X). It affects millions of women today, and at its core is insulin resistance.

What is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin resistance simply means the cells in your body have become less sensitive to the effects of insulin. That means glucose (blood sugar) has a harder time getting into cells to be turned into energy. To overcome the resistance, your body produces more insulin, which generally works – for a while anyway. At some point, however, the pancreas, which makes insulin, may fail to produce enough. If this happens, glucose builds up in the blood, and you’ve got what’s officially known as type 2 diabetes.

Most people who are insulin resistant, however, don’t develop diabetes because they do make enough insulin. But all is not well in this scenario – a high level of insulin can lead to metabolic syndrome and increased risk of heart disease.

Does Insulin Resistance Make Us Fat?

Although insulin resistance can lead to the health problems described above, many people are more concerned whether high insulin levels causes us to gain weight. There is scientific support that too much insulin may affect the body’s ability to use calories efficiently, thereby causing fat gain, but the real question is what comes first – does excess body fat cause insulin resistance or is it the other way around? There’s good evidence that for many folks, insulin resistance is the trigger for weight gain.

How Do I Improve Insulin Resistance?

Regardless which came first, many weight-struggling Americans are cutting out carbohydrates to control insulin levels, hoping to lose weight and avoid diabetes and heart disease in the future. But this approach can be just as unhealthy as the problem it’s trying to solve. Because carbohydrates are critical to health, eliminating them won’t leave you feeling well. The trick has to do with the type of carbs eaten and how well-balanced your meals and snacks are.

Healthy steps to  improve insulin levels and foster long-lasting well-being

  • Move. We’ve said it before: Just 30 minutes of walking or other physical activity – even in 10-minute bouts – can do wonders for your health and insulin sensitivity. It can also help you lose unhealthy body fat that can exacerbate problems with insulin.
  • Eat well. At least three balanced meals and a snack or two a day is what most active people need to feel well. What’s balanced? It includes a healthy amount of carbohydrates. Check out our Plate Model for healthy eating and Green Mountain’s  FitBriefing on why healthy eating is more effective. If this represents a big improvement in your eating style, you may again see body changes that could positively affect your insulin status.
  • Choose whole carbohydrates more often, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grain breads and cereals, and beans. More refined carbohydrate foods such as white bread and sugar are lower in fiber, which means they may be digested more quickly and therefore impact insulin levels more than higher-fiber foods. They may also be missing nutrients that are important to metabolizing what we eat. But note that we’re not saying you can’t have the more refined choices at all; there’s room for treats in a healthy eating plan.
  • Think positively. How we think plays a major role in our physical well-being. Set yourself up for being your best with a healthy attitude that supports your efforts instead of sabotaging them. For many women who come to Green Mountain, this means being positive about yourself even when our bodies are larger than societal ideals. Remember, the healthy goal is not to be thin, but to be well and enjoy life.

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