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Battling With Insulin


Large portion sizes and inactivity are both known to cause weight gain, but now new research shows a well-known hormone may also be a driver in weight gain. 

Eat too much food and we gain weight – no surprise there. But new research in mice suggests that too many kilojoules may not be the only driver of weight gain, with high circulating insulin levels a likely culprit. According to the animal study, mice with persistently lower insulin levels stayed trim, had lower levels of inflammation and less fat in their livers, even despite overindulging of a high-fat all-you-can-eat buffet. The trimmer mice were found to have white fat (fat that stores energy in the form of triglycerides) that was “reprogrammed” to burn more energy in the form of heat, subsequently acting like the calorie-burning brown fat. While it’s too early to say whether these findings will help lower the obesity levels, we all can work to lowering our insulin levels by adjusting the types of food we eat.

How does it all work?

Our cells need two types of fuel – one is oxygen and the other is glucose. Glucose can’t make it into the cells on its own and needs the hormone insulin, which acts as a key, to open the cell, allowing glucose to enter. So, after a meal, your blood glucose levels rise, sending a message to your pancreas to starting pumping out insulin. Insulin then tells our cells to take up the glucose where we either use it for energy or store it in the form of glycogen. While this is happening, your blood glucose levels are dropping back to normal and eventually your insulin production is switched off. When you haven’t eaten for a while, your blood glucose levels start to drop below normal and the pancreas releases another hormone called glucagon into the bloodstream. This signals the liver to break down the stored glycogen into glucose. The glucose enters the blood and your blood glucose levels increase back to normal.

The food choices you make greatly impacts your insulin production in your body. A large meal of refined carbohydrates or high-GI foods, puts immense pressure on your pancreas to pump out large amounts of insulin. Over time the insulin locks (or receptors) on the cells stop working and more insulin is needed to do the same job. Too many episodes of feasting on high-GI foods can lead to insulin resistance, where excess insulin and glucose build up in the bloodstream. This means that the glucose is not getting into the cells and that the body is unable to utilise the food eaten, which can lead to feelings of fatigue and increase cravings for carbohydrates. The high circulating insulin levels also sets up a cascade of effects which are not the best for health including making it easier for the body to store fat, elevating cholesterol and triglyceride levels and increasing the likelihood of developing fatty liver.

Getting Insulin Under Control

Three lifestyle changes can help you lower insulin levels and help you manage your weight. Take control of these three areas:

1. Balance your meals: Choose a lean source of protein such as skinless chicken, lean red meat, fish, tofu, legumes or lentils, and then balance it with minimally processed, low-GI carbohydrates. But remember, it’s not just the type of carbohydrates that you need to consider but also the amount you eat, so be sure to watch your portion sizes. Then, to finish off the meal, add some healthy fats such as avocado, nuts or olive oil.

2. Exercise is the key: Muscle is more sensitive to insulin than fat and most other organs – in other words muscle cells open more easily to insulin. Low muscle mass or inactive muscles are more insensitive to insulin, increasing the likelihood of developing insulin resistance. What takes place next is your fat cells become more sensitive to insulin and the more weight you pile on. It then becomes a vicious cycle: the more weight you pile on, the more insulin resistant your muscle become. The best way to overcome this is to exercise. Exercise opens up the flood gates of the cells and allows glucose to enter. Any movement is better than nothing, but for the best results aim for a minimum of 60 minutes per day. A combination of interval training and resistance training is best, while you should also move as much as you can during the day. Remember to sit less, move more, move often.

3. Count sheep: Are you someone who forgoes sleep in a bid to get more done? Then learning to get your beauty sleep could be the best thing you do for your health. If you’re not getting adequate sleep, your hunger hormone ghrelin increases. High ghrelin and insulin levels are the perfect combination for weight gain and fatigue. But it’s not just about getting the right amount of sleep, it also comes down to quality. Improve your sleep by avoiding electronic devices an hour before bed, create a sleeping environment that is cool and dark, and leave your mobile phone in the kitchen on silent.

What factors do you think play a role in weight gain?

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