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Insulin Resistance: A Silent Pandemic with Serious Health Implications

By Jannell Baez, MS, RDN, LD/N

Warning Insulin resistance detected

The complexity of our human metabolism and immune system is incredibly fascinating to me. We continue to learn about how our metabolism affects the development of chronic diseases through the latest scientific research and the old saying that “We are what we eat” is a hard truth we must accept.

Although we are blessed to live in a time of food abundance, we often struggle to make the right choices because of cultural influence, societal norms, and a fast-paced lifestyle that leaves little time for healthy food preparation. As a result, our metabolism does not work well and has trouble processing the excess calories and sugars causing weight gain and something called insulin resistance which is one of the first signs that our body cannot handle so much glucose and if left unchecked, can lead to chronic health conditions such as Type 2 diabetes. People with insulin resistance and diabetes were identified as being at higher risk of complications and death from COVID-19 because of an imbalance in their ability to regulate their immune system causing an exaggerated immune response.

The food that the average American consumes is highly processed and low in nutrients leaving us at risk for excessive weight gain, metabolic dysregulation and the development of chronic disease. These processed foods are often high in refined carbohydrates which the body perceives as sugar causing a release of insulin. Insulin is a critical hormone needed to get glucose into our cells to be used for energy.  If the energy is not needed, the glucose is stored as fat. When dietary intake of calories is more than we use, our body stores the energy for a time when we are not eating as much or are more physically active. Since we live in a time where there is more feast and less famine, the fat stores are never used and people get stuck with excess weight or may even become obese.  When we consume excessive calories and processed carbohydrates, the pancreas has to secrete more and more insulin to meet the body’s demand. After years of the body being flooded with insulin and glucose, cells can become numb to the action of insulin which then causes blood glucose levels to rise since the insulin no longer acts as an usher for the glucose to enter the cells. 

Insulin resistance is diagnosed when Fasting Insulin levels are above 25 mlU/L, Fasting Glucose levels greater than 100 mg/dl and Hemoglobin A1C level between 5.6 and 6.4%.

Having elevated insulin and glucose levels has been correlated with the development of hypertension, atherosclerosis, Type 2 diabetes, cancer, fatty liver disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other chronic diseases.

The Global Prevalence of Insulin Resistance

The scary truth is that insulin resistance is estimated to be prevalent among 44.8% of young adults (ages 18-44) in the United States. This is likely underestimating the true number of people with insulin resistance since many people with this condition don’t know they have resistance to insulin or problems metabolizing glucose.

It has been estimated that at least 20% of people globally have metabolic syndrome, a condition associated with insulin resistance. This is largely due to being overweight, lack of physical activity and consuming processed food. Metabolic syndrome is a term used to describe a condition which is a combination of several physiological symptoms such as high blood pressure, a large waist circumference (greater than 40 in for men and greater than 35 in women), high triglycerides (greater than 150 mg/dl), an HDL level less than 40mg/dl and elevated fasting glucose levels in the blood (greater than 100mg/dl). The elevated fasting insulin and high fasting glucose is a product of insulin resistance.

Symptoms of Insulin Resistance
FatigueCravings for Sugar
Inability to lose WeightConstant Hunger
Fatigue after mealsMigrating aches and pains
Signs of Insulin Resistance
Elevated glucose while fasted and after mealsElevated insulin while fasted and after meals
Increased waist to hip ratioHigh triglycerides and low HDL
High Blood PressureCentral Obesity around the belly

 

What we can deduce from all of these statistics is that many of us are sick and getting sicker from a condition that is largely related to diet and lifestyle choices. The incidence of cancer, diabetes and dementia continues to rise and our health care systems will certainly be overwhelmed with so many chronically ill people. The good news is that we can reverse these metabolic issues that act as precursors to disease! Even small consistent changes in our lifestyle can improve our metabolic health helping us be more resilient to diseases as we age.

Your Metabolic Toolbox: Scientifically Proven Ways to Correct your Metabolism

  1. More movement

A sedentary lifestyle has been correlated with developing insulin resistance. We are living in an era with so many conveniences that it is impacting our health in a negative way. Many of us sit for most of the day, we take cars to the corner store and can have dinner delivered to us without leaving the comfort of our sofa. The human body was designed to move and utilize the energy from the food we eat. Make movement a priority in your daily life. Studies have shown that insulin resistance was improved when people engaged in cardiovascular and or resistance training. Whether you walk, garden, clean the house or go to an exercise class at the gym; including movement and exercise is key to having a healthy metabolism. If you have never exercised, start with a daily 5-10 minute walk after dinner and work your way up to 30-60 minutes a day.

2. Avoid Processed Foods and Added Sugars

Foods processed in a factory contain carbohydrates that are easily absorbed and stored because the fiber is usually stripped away along with other healthy vitamins and minerals. Many also contain high fructose corn syrup and other added sugars. Choose whole foods that resemble what would grow naturally from the earth. Choose natural fruits and vegetables from the produce section and unprocessed fresh or frozen meats as the basis of your diet. Don’t be fooled by snack products like vegetable chips or gummy snacks claiming to be made from vegetables and fruits. The best way to have fruits and vegetables is in their natural form which contains fiber and other synergistic phytochemicals. Our body is better able to use whole food and utilize the vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals for energy production, healing or repair.

  3. Meal Timing and Intermittent Fasting

Living with food available to us 24 hours a day has caused humans to eat more than we need to. Many of us are often in a postprandial or “just fed” state which denies or body a chance to rest and repair since our metabolism is constantly busy digesting and absorbing nutrients. Evolutionary biology indicates that our bodies were designed to eat during the day and fast at night. Early humans often had to hunt and forage each day and did not have the option of eating a bagel and coffee upon waking.

Timing our meals allows for digestive breaks for our body and lets the pancreas have a break from churning out insulin when it is triggered by a high carbohydrate meal. Shorten your eating window daily by fasting overnight for a minimum of 12 hours between dinner and breakfast. If you already have insulin resistance you may benefit from a longer fast to regulate your body’s sensitivity to insulin. Speak with your doctor, dietitian or healthcare provider if you want to try a longer fast so it can be done safely without risk of malnutrition.

  1. Lower Carbohydrate intake

If you are a carb or sugar junkie, you may be on the road to glucose dysregulation and insulin resistance. Sugar is everywhere and most convenience foods are high in processed carbohydrates. Sugar is put into dressings, condiments, sauces, peanut butter, soups, beverages and processed foods in general. Coffee shops offer blended coffee concoctions that are more like a dessert than coffee. Our children grow up eating sugary cereals for breakfast, juices and chips for lunch, and sodas and cookies at home for a snack. Americans are estimated to eat 152 pounds of sugar a year. That equals 6 cups a week! Processed carbohydrate foods like potato chips, crackers, pasta and cereals trigger a spike in blood glucose and the pancreas then has to produce the insulin to store it over and over again. Over time, this can cause our cells to lose the sensitivity to insulin.

Choose lower carbohydrate snack options most of the time such as nuts and seeds or vegetables with a healthy dressing (read dressing ingredients to sleuth out sugars and unhealthy oils). Avoid sugary beverages and packaged sweets. Use stevia or monk fruit as a sugar substitute. Better carbohydrate food choices include those from starchy vegetables and whole grains. Control portions of bread, pasta, and other starches. Limit fruit to 2 cups a day.

  1. Lose weight if you need to

Losing the extra weight you are carrying will also help your body to become more efficient at metabolizing the carbohydrates we consume. One study found that losing as little as 5-10% of weight resulted in better insulin sensitivity. Weight loss can be achieved by implementing the recommendations listed above. If you need help implementing the recommendations you can work with a dietitian, health coach or other healthcare provider to help you reach your goals.

  1. Get Better Quality Sleep

Sleep has been found to be so important to health that the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer rises when sleep is not optimal. Lack of sleep impacts glucose levels by causing them to rise and the body is unable to regulate blood sugar levels as well. Prioritizing sleep and getting 7-8 hours a day allows the body and brain to repair itself.

  1. Reduce Stress

Stress. We all have it and it is toxic to our health. Reducing stress is something we all must work on. Stress causes glucose levels to rise as part of our “fight or flight” stress response. It’s a survival mechanism that helped us have enough energy to run away from danger in ancient times. Stress is now different and may be a deadline at work instead of a predatory animal but the physiological results is the same. Try to find a way to release stress with a mind-body practice such as meditation, prayer, exercise, dancing, music, yoga, practicing gratitude or making art. Sometimes removing toxic people from your life can be most helpful. The key is finding something you enjoy that allows your mind to stop thinking about the stress in your life for a short time.

  1. Use Herbs and Spices in Food and Beverages

Many herbs and spices contain medicinal phytochemicals that can help regulate the response to blood sugars. Incorporating these herbs and spices into meal preparation can help modify the way your body metabolizes sugar and improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Here are a few examples of herbs and spices that can help balance glucose metabolism when combined with a healthy whole foods diet.

  • Cinnamon
  • Fenugreek
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Green tea
  1. Supplements that help Optimize Insulin and Glucose Regulation

Taking certain supplements can help support a healthy metabolism along with a healthy whole foods diet. The following nutrients were found to have a significant impact on glucose regulation. Speak with your doctor, dietitian or healthcare provider for guidance on dosing specific to your needs.

  • Chromium is a mineral involved in carb and fat metabolism. Supplementing 200–1,000 mcg daily could improve the ability of insulin receptors to reduce blood sugar.
  • Berberine is a plant molecule extracted from a variety of herbs including the plant Berberis.  Some studies have found it increases insulin sensitivity and lowers blood sugar. Effective dosage ranges from 1000 mg-1500 mg daily divided into 500mg with meals. Its mechanism of action is not fully understood. Speak with your healthcare provider before adding Berberine as a supplement.
  • Magnesium is a mineral that works with insulin receptors to store blood sugar. Taking magnesium may help increase insulin sensitivity if you are deficient. Deficiency of this mineral is common among Americans. Some studies have correlated low blood magnesium with insulin resistance. Combining a magnesium supplement and a Chromium supplement was found to be more effective in improving insulin sensitivity when compared to only taking either one on its own
  • Resveratrol is a polyphenol found in the skin of red grapes, wine and other berries. It may increase insulin sensitivity and was found to be effective in improving glucose control in Type 2 diabetics. We still do not fully understand how it works to improve insulin resistance but resveratrol offers other health benefits as well so it wouldn’t hurt to take this supplement as part of a healthy lifestyle.
  1. Tech Tools for Managing Glucose Levels

If you have been told you are diabetic, prediabetic, have insulin resistance or just want to be more empowered with weight control there are now tools available to help you manage your metabolism and its response to carbohydrate intake. Continuous glucose monitors (CGM) allow us to see how foods affect our blood sugar levels and how our body responds to and normalizes glucose levels. A sensor is placed on your arm that measures and tracks trends in glucose throughout the day. The sensor can be worn for 2 weeks and allows the patient to see how certain foods effect glucose levels. The data collected can tell us if your body is able to normalize to the glucose levels. The CGM links to an app on your phone to track your levels throughout the day. Information gathered by wearing a CGM can help both diabetics and non-diabetics learn about their body’s metabolism of foods which can guide people in making better food choices.

There are a variety of carb tracking apps available that allows users to enter the foods they eat and can calculate macronutrient ratios helping people learn what foods or meals are providing the most carbohydrates in their diet. This can be helpful when people are trying to change their diet to correct insulin and glucose dysregulation.

Final Tips for Healthy Glucose Metabolism

Eating a natural whole foods diet high in colorful vegetables and a little fruit is a good way to care for your metabolism. Maintaining a healthy weight, choosing quality carbohydrates and exercise can help you keep your metabolism humming as it should.

Avoid convenience and processed foods most of the time, be aware of sugar content in foods and include some physical activity every day. Carbohydrates should come from whole food sources such as starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruit. Combining high carbohydrate foods with protein and fat improves glucose metabolism by allowing a steadier glucose level as opposed to a large glucose spike in the blood.

Our ancestors never had the access to sugars that we have in modern times. We need to have awareness and discipline when it comes to sugars and refined carbohydrates in our diet to be well and age gracefully. Empower yourself with knowledge and apply it to your life. If health and nutrition information is daunting or confusing, work with a dietitian or health coach for guidance. Ultimately, we have the power to preserve our health with our lifestyle choices

Healthy Vegetable Frittata

Frittatas can be part of a nutritious low carbohydrate meal. It is easy to make and can be enjoyed as a leftover for multiple meals. This recipe can be modified to include your favorite vegetables and can also be made dairy-free by omitting the butter and cheeses. A vegan cheese option can be used if you do not tolerate dairy. Leftovers can be enjoyed for several days if kept refrigerated. Have fun playing around with the ingredients to make multiple variations with different flavors. Serve with a mixed green salad and sliced avocado. Makes 8 servings.

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil for drizzling
  • 8-10 Mushrooms, quartered
  • 6 spears of asparagus, chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 12 large eggs
  • ½ cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 dashes hot sauce
  • 2 Tbs butter
  • 1 medium onion, halved and sliced thin
  • 1 cup cold baked potato (white or sweet), diced
  • ¼ cup green olives with pimentos
  • 8 fresh basil leaves, chopped

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 450ᵒ F
  2. Drizzle olive oil over the mushrooms and asparagus on a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Roast for about 12 minutes or until a nice color is achieved. Set aside.
  3. Beat the eggs together with some salt and pepper in a bowl. Do not overbeat; just mix until the eggs mostly come together). Stir in the cheeses and the hot sauce and set aside.
  4. In a large ovenproof non-stick skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and golden brown (this will take several minutes) Add the diced potatoes, sprinkle with salt and pepper and stir to cook for a couple of minutes. Finally add the asparagus, mushrooms, olives, and roasted red peppers and cook, stirring until everything is hot.
  5. Make sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed across the bottom of the skillet then pour the egg mixture so that it evenly coats everything. Let sit on the burner for 30-45 seconds to set the edges then put the skillet in the oven. Cook, watching it carefully until the eggs are set but not very brown on top. 10-12 minutes.
  6. Slide frittata out of the skillet. Sprinkle with basil and slice into wedges.

Enjoy!

For more information or to schedule an appointment with Jannell, please request via our website or by calling the office at 786.780.1188.

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