Is Insulin Sensitivity Preventing You From Losing Weight?
Insulin sensitivity may be the culprit behind your inability to lose weight.
Read on to learn more about this important, but misunderstood topic.
Unless you are an Anatomy & Physiology geek like me, it’s very likely that you may not know what insulin sensitivity is. Before we get into the juicy stuff (i.e. weight loss), let’s take a quick science lesson.
What Is Insulin?
Insulin is a hormone that is produced and released from your pancreas. As you know, your blood sugar level rises after you eat. Basically, when the pancreas detects elevated blood sugar levels, it is stimulated to release insulin, which in turn encourages your cells to soak up all that nutritious sugar in your blood. To put it another way, insulin is what allows your cells to eat. Although it may be hard to believe sometimes, you are pretty much just a bunch of cells and water (humbling, right?!). Your cells can’t work—or live—without energy and the primary source of this energy is that which comes from your food.
Ever felt super low on energy after several hours of not eating? It should make sense why that happens now. So… you eat, your blood sugar level rises, your pancreas secretes insulin, your cells get their fill and maintain their function, your blood sugar level goes back to normal, and you go on as a productive member of society. Insulin is a crucial piece of the puzzle because, without it, your cells would not be able to take in enough nutrients to survive. Insulin is kind of a big deal…
What Is Insulin Sensitivity?
Now that we have a general understanding of what insulin is, what exactly is insulin sensitivity? Simply put, if you are sensitive to insulin, it means that your cells only need to be exposed to normal—or slightly lower—levels of insulin in order to take in your blood sugars. Yes, this is a good thing! The opposite scenario, insulin resistance, is when things start to get complicated. When you lack insulin sensitivity and have insulin resistance, your cells need to be exposed to a lot more insulin in order to take in the sugars they need to survive. This causes your poor pancreas to work really hard.
Ever felt like you were working your butt off 24/7 and with little to no breaks? Exhausting right? Why? Because you need to rest and recover. That’s how your friend the pancreas feels when you have insulin resistance. The Pancreas has to keep working hard around the clock to produce more and more insulin so that your cells can take in the sugar they need. But we all know what happens when we work too hard for too long—we BURN OUT. So does your pancreas. When our body becomes too resistant to insulin and your pancreas just can’t keep up, this is when we begin to deal with diseases like Type II Diabetes. Having insulin sensitivity is therefore crucial to keeping your cells fueled and your pancreas happy. Insulin sensitivity is kind of a big deal…
How Do I Get Insulin Sensitivity?
The good news is you do have some control over your insulin sensitivity. How? Well, one of the best ways is exercise! Studies have shown that when you begin to engage in regular aerobic activity (e.g. running, swimming, biking, etc.) you not only increase your insulin sensitivity during exercise, but in the long-term as well. Anaerobic exercise such as weightlifting has also been found to have the same benefits, especially that which involves higher repetitions at lower weights.
The opposite is also true: adopt a couch-potato lifestyle and you will find yourself becoming more and more insulin resistant in a matter of weeks. Exercise is kind of a big deal…
So What Does This Mean For Weight Loss?
Okay, so we know what insulin and insulin sensitivity are and that exercise can help to increase our insulin sensitivity, giving our pancreas a break and keeping our cells fueled. Engaging in regular exercise and eating a healthy diet will, as you know, not only help with your insulin sensitivity but also help you shed those pounds and make those days on the scale a little less dreadful. However, you may be saying, “I DO eat healthy and I DO exercise regularly! Why can I not seem to lose any more weight?!” I promise you, you are not alone on this weight-loss plateau. The exciting news is, I may have a solution for you and it involves (you guessed it!) insulin sensitivity.
Basically, as stated earlier, as you begin to lead a healthy lifestyle, your insulin sensitivity will increase. While this is definitely a good thing, it could be keeping you from losing weight. What the heck? I know, it’s super annoying, but just let me explain why this happens.
So, you’re in great shape, you’re eating right, and your insulin is as strong as ever. In fact, your insulin sensitivity is so great that your cells are able to soak up all those nutrients that you are eating with ease. Sounds great right? It is great, but it has its limitations, especially when the nutrients we are talking about are carbs. When you eat carbs, your cells do one of two things with them: (1) use them immediately for energy, or (2) store them for later. When the latter option is chosen, the carbs are stored in the cells as a substance called glycogen. Later on, when your body needs an energy-boost to perform an activity, it is this glycogen that is broken back down into the sugars that the cells can use to produce energy.
All that being said, there is only so much glycogen your body can store in its cells. Think of your body as a filing cabinet and the carbs as your files. If you keep loading that filing cabinet with more and more files, it’s eventually going to run out of space. Now you have no room to put your files, so where do you put them? Your junk drawer, on top of your desk—whatever your personal “clutter” area may be (mine is the kitchen counter). The body does the same thing. When your cells have more carbs than they know what to do with, they put them somewhere else: your thighs, your tummy – whatever that problem spot is, in the form of fat. So, as your insulin sensitivity increases and your cells are capable of soaking in more carbs, all of those carbs that don’t make the cut for immediate energy-usage or glycogen-storage are going to be turned to fats.
It stinks, but don’t worry! For every Goliath there is a stone. No, the solution is not to stop exercising so that your insulin sensitivity weakens up. This will also cause you to gain weight. Rather, the solution lies in your diet, namely, in a diet that is lower in carbohydrates. Notice that I did NOT say a diet free from carbohydrates! You do need SOME carbs; your brain can ONLY use carbs to function and your muscles need those immediate sugars and glycogen stores to keep you performing. That being said, carbs that you should consider cutting out are those that are highly refined and processed, such as soda and fruit juices with lots of added sugar, white bread, and so on. Whole grains and root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots are healthier carbohydrate options that will keep you going strong and looking lean and mean.
Let me repeat, do not cut out carbs completely, just cut them down and replace them with protein. Knowing just how many carbs you should be eating each day to counter the negative weight-loss effects of insulin sensitivity can be very tricky, because having a diet too low in carbs will result in low energy levels and make it very difficult to function.
Therefore, I HIGHLY recommend getting with a dietitian to discuss just how many carbs YOU need to be eating based on YOUR lifestyle and weight-loss goals.
Hannah Giangaspro, Exercise Science and Nutrition Intern
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