By Sayuri Barritt, RD, 7/20/22
You may have heard of the hormone "insulin" before and wonder how insulin and blood sugar management can support weight loss, improve hormone balance, and prevent diabetes.
If you are struggling with weight loss and/ or balancing hormones, you may want to check how your diet and lifestyle that may be impacting your blood sugar and insulin levels.
If you are curious in how you can manage your insulin level through nutrition and lifestyle, you may find this article interesting.
Insulin is a hormone made and secreted by the pancreas, which is an organ located behind your stomach. When you eat carbohydrate-rich food, your body breaks it down into an absorbable unit, glucose (a simple sugar), which then is released into the blood stream through the small intestine. This increase in blood glucose level triggers the pancreas to secrete insulin. Insulin acts as a chemical messenger telling your body's cells to absorb glucose from the blood stream and use it for energy. This results in lowering your blood glucose to a normal level until the next meal is consumed.
Once your cells absorb enough glucose from the bloodstream for energy, excess glucose is then stored in the liver and muscles as a temporary form of energy storage called glycogen. When these organs are filled up with glucose, the rest of the glucose will be stored in fat cells, especially around the abdominal area, which has infinite storage capacity.
There are many factors that have a negative impact on your blood sugar level:
Excess carbohydrate intake, especially refined carbs and added sugar
A sedentary lifestyle
Elevated stress hormone, cortisol, due to chronic stress
Excess body fat accumulation, especially around abdominal area
Metabolic/endocrine disorders such as diabetes and PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome)
These factors are associated with a metabolic condition called insulin resistance. With this condition, the cells do not recognize insulin and the blood sugar level becomes chronically elevated. This forces the pancreas to work harder in producing more insulin to lower blood sugar levels. This can ultimately put your body into a fat-storing mode, which further increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and hormone imbalance. Basically, this condition makes it harder for the body to burn excess body fat.
Does this mean you need to eliminate carbohydrates from your diet? The answer is NO. Carbohydrates are still the preferred fuel source for your body, and especially the brain cells. Your brain cells rely on glucose for optimal brain and nerve function, which require a minimum of 130g of glucose per day. Furthermore, organs such as red blood cells and renal medulla exclusively use glucose for energy. Therefore, it is important for you to consume adequate carbohydrates each day.
How can you achieve your desired weight loss without giving up carbs?
Here are the 5 practical tips to make it happen!
Tip#1: Understand your carbohydrate needs.
Foods high in carbohydrates naturally raise your blood sugar and insulin levels. But, it does not mean that these carb-rich foods are your enemy. As mentioned above, glucose from carbs is still an important nutrient, providing an energy source for your cells. Blood sugar and insulin control is about understanding what types and what quantities of carbs your body needs for optimal function without putting it at a metabolic risk.
Eating fiber-rich carbs such as whole grains, legumes, and vegetables can slow down the absorption of glucose into the blood stream. This, in turn, can help prevent blood sugar and insulin spikes, and insulin resistance.
Consuming adequate amounts of complex carbs also helps your body to stay energized and focused throughout the day. Carbohydrate needs are unique for every person, based on their physical activity levels, and chronic conditions such as diabetes and PCOS. Registered dietitians can help you determine your carb needs based on your health goals.
Tip#2: Pair carbs with protein and/ or healthy fats, especially for breakfast.
Eating carbs with protein and/ or healthy fats can further help you manage your blood sugar levels by providing your cells with a steady stream of fuel. This is especially important in the morning, when your blood sugar is really low after overnight fasting. If you eat a breakfast that is high in refined carbs, such as white bread, white rice, and sugary pastries, it triggers blood sugar spikes and excess insulin secretion. What's the outcome? You will experience a blood sugar rollercoaster feeling sleepy, tired, and hungry before lunch time. In addition, your body will crave more refined carbs later in the day to compensate for the extreme blood sugar ups and downs. This will cause constant hunger and switch the body into a fat-storing state, not a fat-burning state.
Here are some good breakfast options for managing blood sugar level: oatmeal with berries and nuts, 1 slice of whole grain toast with avocado slices and cooked egg, plain Greek yogurt with sliced pear and almonds.
Tip#3: Avoid constant snacking (grazing) throughout the day.
When you are stressed out, your body craves extra glucose to fight stress, whereby your brain signals you to eat more food, particularly processed, sugary foods. Frequent snacking, consuming particularly carb-rich foods, will lead to a constantly elevated blood sugar level, which results in excess insulin secretion. In addition, grazing can result in excess calorie intake. This promotes the cells to store excess carbs in fat cells, making it difficult to lose weight and maintain a normal blood sugar level.
There are several ways to combat constant snacking, some of which include: consuming adequate protein with each meal, not skipping breakfast, staying hydrated, and getting an adequate amount of sleep. In addition, stress also triggers food cravings for most people. Effective stress management is another way to prevent snacking. This leads us to the next tip.
Tip#4: Reduce your stress hormone, cortisol.
When you body experiences physical and emotional stress, a stress hormone, cortisol, is secreted by the two adrenal glands, which are located directly above your kidneys. One of the jobs of cortisol is to raise the blood sugar level, so the body can efficiently handle and reduce stress. Although short-term cortisol production is a good thing in the case of increased mental focus and improved immune function, chronically elevated cortisol level puts you at a risk of metabolic conditions including insulin resistance, weight gain, hypertension, and diabetes. This is why, it is crucial for you to manage stress during your weight loss journey.
Stress management techniques are individual-based. Some people can achieve relaxation by practicing meditation and yoga, while others may find walking a good way to reduce stress. In addition, just taking a few deep breaths will calm your sympathetic nervous system, which then promotes relaxation and reduces cortisol.
Consuming a balanced diet with plenty of antioxidants such as vitamin C and E, selenium, and vitamin D can also help reduce oxidative stress caused by the stress hormone.
Tip#5 Exercise or stay active daily.
Exercise and physical activity have many health benefits including effective utilization of blood glucose, weight loss, and improvement of mood. In addition, by staying physically active, it also improves your blood circulation and energy level.
There are a variety of exercises you can do. Aerobic exercise, such as power walking and light jogging can speed up the use of blood glucose for energy versus fat storage. On the other hand, strength training can promote increased muscle mass, which enhances the gene expression of GLUT4 (glucose transporter protein type-4). This, in turn, stimulates the muscle cells to absorb more glucose for contraction and metabolic demand. Feeding muscle cells with glucose and protein helps muscles grow, which increases metabolism for weight loss. Therefore, strength training becomes increasingly important with age as people start experiencing decreased muscle mass and metabolism.
What types of exercises are best? It depends on your preferences and current physical level. It is important to choose exercises you will enjoy doing for the long-term. Walking, weight training, and yoga are some examples of exercises that can benefit your health, metabolism, and well-being.
Insulin plays a critical role in signaling your cells to use glucose for energy, which in turn reduces your blood sugar level. However, excessive constant insulin secretion can lead to metabolic conditions such as weight gain, insulin resistance, and diabetes. The blood sugar control tips outlined above may be effective solutions for weight loss and restoring hormone balance. At Forty Love Nutrition, we offer a 1-month metabolism reset program, which focuses on blood sugar and insulin management for effective weight loss. Please contact us if you are interested in this program or an individual nutrition consultation.