Diet trends seem to change every month or at least every year, and now that low-fat diets are “out” (for good reason!), you’ve probably heard over and over again that carbohydrates are perhaps the WORST thing you can eat when trying to lose fat or transform your body.
I’ll save the fascinating facts on fats and why they’re important to consume for another article; for now, let’s focus in on carbs and their effects on your body and weight-loss efforts.
It all starts with a hormone known as insulin.
To keep it simple, when you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into simple sugars, which are then released in your blood. In response, your pancreas releases insulin. Insulin has numerous functions in the body, especially for metabolism, but the most important for this article is to help your body process, utilize, and store blood sugar.
Let’s say you eat a high-carbohydrate meal. Insulin is released to “partition” blood sugar to its final destination—either muscle tissue (to be stored as energy) or fat cells (as body fat).
Unfortunately, due to years of consuming a diet full of processed, blood-sugar-spiking carbs and sugars (often a result of eating a low-fat diet), most people are not nearly as sensitive to insulin as they could be. So while insulin should be a huge asset to your body transformation goals, it often becomes a total fat-loss and health-derailing nightmare.
The result? Dramatically reduced fat burning (insulin turns fat burning “off”), increased blood sugar levels, and increased fat storage (insulin turns fat storage “on”). But that’s not all; this can lead to poor performance, reduced sleep, slowed recovery, and muscle soreness. Not good.
Ideally, when you consume carbohydrates, here is what you want to happen:
- Minimum insulin release— This occurs when your body is highly sensitive to insulin. When it is, your cells are highly responsive to just a small amount of insulin, which effectively and efficiently clears glucose from your blood to its storage sites. This is great news because your body has an incredibly difficult time burning fat in the presence of insulin. The more sensitive to insulin you are, the better.
- Quick and efficient blood sugar clearance— Again, this will occur when your body is highly sensitive to insulin.
- Maximum glycogen uptake— Glycogen is the term used for carbohydrate stored in muscle tissue and the liver. When these tissues are highly sensitive to insulin, the vast majority of blood glucose will be stored within them as an energy reserve, instead of being converted to fat.
- Minimum fat storage— When you increase insulin sensitivity, your body will choose to store your carbohydrate intake as energy, again in muscle tissue and the liver, instead of body fat.
Simply put, your body’s ability to process the carbohydrates you eat all comes down to your insulin sensitivity and your body’s ability to efficiently clear sugar from your blood. Knowing that, you’re probably wondering what you can do to improve your insulin sensitivity and make your body responsive once again to this critically important hormone.
Not to worry!
3 Ways to Increase Insulin Sensitivity
To increase your insulin sensitivity, the absolute best thing you can do is move your body. While all exercise helps, strength or resistance training helps the most by increasing muscle mass, and as you increase muscle mass, your insulin sensitivity naturally goes up. You see, even when you’re not moving your body, your muscles make use of 70 to 90% of your blood sugar. And when you are working out, you’ll use even more. In fact, research suggests you’ll enjoy increased insulin sensitivity for a full 24 hours after you finish your last rep.
2. Mind Your Carb Intake
This one should come as no surprise. By consuming fewer carbs, you’ll have more control over your blood sugar and insulin levels. One two-year study took overweight people (who are typically less sensitive to insulin) and put them on three types of diets: a low-carb, high-protein diet; a low-fat diet; or the Mediterranean diet. Which one improved insulin sensitivity the most?
The low-carb, high-protein diet was significantly more effective for improving insulin sensitivity. In addition, it was also effective at reducing body fat and improving blood fat markers. The diet restricted carbs to 20 grams (at the start) to a maximum of 120 grams per day (for weight maintenance). Leaner, more active folks, however, can handle more carbs (100 to 200 grams per day).
3. Make key dietary changes
Eating foods that are high in Omega-3’s has been shown to help improve insulin sensitivity as well as improve blood lipid levels. Increasing your intake of magnesium may also help.
Whole foods, especially fibrous foods including most vegetables, tend to elevate blood sugar more slowly than refined foods. In addition, acidic foods (such as vinegar and lemon juice), pickled foods, spices (including cinnamon and turmeric), and most nuts improve insulin sensitivity to a degree. So if you are eating a higher carbohydrate food, it couldn’t hurt to combine it with one of the above insulin-sensitivity-increasing foods.
Now that you know the importance of supporting healthy levels of insulin and blood sugar, try these 3 simple methods to improve your insulin sensitivity and to help your health markers, body composition, energy levels, and more improve!