Insulin: No.1 marker for better health
Calories, fat intake and lowering cholesterol. For almost 60 years the dominant mindset has been when it comes to weight management and general wellness these are the markers to improved health. Yet we now have rising rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, CVD, CHD, cancers and other chronic diseases across the globe.
As a Registered Master Trainer and Nutritional Advisor with level 4 qualifications in obesity and diabetes, with a high level of personal experience and understanding addressing the challenges of weight management and the complexity of nutrition, as well as all aspects of fitness, I can only applaud the countries such as Brazil and Canada that are beginning to take a different route. For the rest of the world, I fear we are still a long way from recognising the path we continue to take is wrong.
In the UK, recent analysis by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) found that UK millennials are on track to be the most overweight generation since records began, with population trends indicating 70% of people born between the early 1980s and mid-90s will be overweight by the time they reach middle age. This is some 40% higher than the “baby boomer” generation, born just after World War Two. However, the serious health implications related to this are largely unrecognised, with the same study finding only 15% of the population were aware that being overweight as an adult is linked to 13 different types of cancer.
Yet, whether people recognise these dangers or not, the irony is we only need to take a small step back to see things in a radically different light and to identify the compound linking so many of these problems: insulin.
Of course, it is essential to accept that wellness and good health is a multi-faceted issue, with a whole host of variables involved. However, my research and experience has led me to conclude that managing insulin levels should be a top priority to ensure better health and to combat the rising tide of chronic disease.
What is insulin and why is it so important?
Insulin is the hormone responsible for helping manage blood glucose levels. If our blood glucose levels become elevated after consuming carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates) the pancreas produces insulin to restore lower levels by driving glucose to each cell. This is a normal and healthy process. Problems arise when glucose levels are constantly elevated. Cells (liver and muscle) start resisting insulin, so even more must be produced. This chronic elevation will also lead to increased inflammation of cells, with chronic inflammation capable of causing long term problems.
Controlling insulin levels – practical steps
In simple terms the most effective way of managing insulin levels is control of our carbohydrate intake. There are many effective and simple ways of achieving this:
- through general diet, for example, by increasing fibre intake and lowering our refined carbohydrate intake
- opting for a Ketogenic style diet, where fat consumption dominates, as fat doesn’t instigate insulin spikes
- employing some parameters of intermittent fasting, so giving our body a breathing space when no food is being consumed
- resistance training, as having more muscle provides better carbohydrate tolerance as there is increased glucose storage and insulin receptors.
All of the above can help us manage our insulin effectively. There is no one size that fits all approach, but of course, some people may have other health issues around certain diet plans and exercise routines. In all cases it is important to take professional advice tailored to individual needs, but in general terms the thing to do is to determine which one might broadly work and be followed consistently; this is the vital point.
Move beyond calories
In all the protocols described a common theme is the inadequacy of calories in evaluating food. Simply considering or counting calories is useless; lowering calorie intake won’t do much good if you still end up with a high refined sugar intake; insulin would still be high, with the main problem unaddressed. Further, if weight management is a goal, the latest research also backs up the critical point: what you eat is more important than just calories consumed, or energy burned.
Real food – the best diet of all?
A study from the Stanford Prevention Research Center published in JAMA found that people cutting back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods, while simply concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods – without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes – lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year. It also didn’t seem to matter whether the diets were low-fat or mostly low in carbohydrates, while their genetics or their insulin-response to carbohydrates did not appear to be an influence either.
It’s all about what you eat
Diet quality, not quantity, was the key. Researchers were also interested in comparing how overweight people would fare on low-carb and low-fat diets. So, while soft drinks, fruit juice, muffins, white rice and white bread are technically low in fat, the low-fat group was told to avoid these sources of refined carbohydrates and eat foods like brown rice, barley, steel-cut oats, lentils, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, quinoa, fresh fruit and legumes. The low-carb group was trained to choose nutritious foods like olive oil, salmon, avocados, hard cheeses, vegetables, nut butters, nuts and seeds, and grass-fed and pasture-raised animal foods.
In comparison to typical weight-loss trials, participants were not set highly restrictive carbohydrate, fat or caloric limits. The focus for everyone was to eat whole or “real” foods – and as much as they needed to avoid feeling hungry.
The result? On average, members of the low-carb group lost just shy of 6k, those in the low-fat group just over 5.25K, with reductions in waist measurements, body fat, blood sugar and blood pressure levels.
The bottom line: what we eat, the quality of our diet, is important for managing insulin levels, weight management and long-term well-being. Eating more vegetables, more fruit, more whole foods, less added sugar, less refined grains and less highly processed food.
Move beyond calories and make eating real food Just Routine
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