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How often do you think about your insulin and glucose levels? Too many people only think about them if they have diabetes, but not before. Yet insulin (a hormone that helps the body process glucose) and glucose (the fuel you get from eating carbs) are two of the most important factors influencing health today. Even if you don’t have diabetes, metabolic health influences wellness in countless different areas, including weight, cognitive health, joint health, mood, digestion, fertility, cancer risk, and so much more.
How Insulin & Glucose Work In Your Body
Insulin is a hormone that the pancreas makes. Its purpose is to metabolize food and help the body use and store the resulting nutrients for energy. Because this is such a vital aspect of basic wellness, when insulin levels are too high or too low, your entire body can be impacted.
When you eat, some of your food is digested and put to work immediately. The leftover nutrients are stored for later energy. Insulin helps facilitate the use, storage, and sparing of the simple nutrients that are left when food is broken down: glucose, amino acids, and lipids.
Blood sugar is the measure of how much glucose is circulating in your blood. As you eat, this level rises. Insulin works to remove glucose from the blood and put it into storage for later to keep your blood sugar levels stable. It also helps glucose get into cells to be used as fuel for cellular processes. When you don’t have enough insulin or your body does not respond to it, your blood sugar levels become too high and may stay that way.
You can have problems with insulin in a few ways:
- Your body does not produce insulin because you have an autoimmune disease that prevents your body from doing so (type 1 diabetes)
- Your body resists insulin or does not respond properly to it, with the pancreas either not making enough or making too much (type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or pre-diabetes)
- During pregnancy, your body is not able to make enough additional insulin to support the rapid growth and hormonal changes, leading to higher levels of glucose circulating in the blood (gestational diabetes)
Type 1 diabetes requires insulin support because the body is physically unable to make it. But type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes can often be managed entirely with diet. In some cases of gestational diabetes, both diet and insulin may be required, since even short exposures to extremely high glucose can harm the fetus and can even lead to stillbirth, birth defects, preeclampsia, or insulin/glucose problems in the baby after birth.
How to Support Healthy Insulin & Glucose Levels
There are two major factors involved when it comes to making sure that your body has balanced glucose levels.
- Foods that you eat. When you eat foods that are higher in carbohydrates and lower in fiber, it will lead to a more dramatic glucose response. This means that it takes more insulin to usher the glucose out of your bloodstream and into cells. If your body resists insulin, then high carb meals will cause your blood sugar levels to be mean that your blood sugar levels will be too high for too long. Fiber helps to slow the digestion and breakdown of carbs into glucose, so high-fiber carbs are better for blood sugar balance.
- Movement. When you eat big meals that are high in carbs and then you continue to sit around, your glucose levels may stay high. When you are more active, your body requires more glucose for energy, so the amount in your blood will drop. People who have type 2 diabetes and women with gestational diabetes are advised to take a walk after eating because it helps the body optimize how glucose is used and decreases the chance that blood sugar levels will remain too high.
If you want to support optimal glucose levels and support your body’s response to insulin, there are a few things you should do.
- Avoid refined and processed carbs and don’t eat too many carbs at a time. Unless you are an athlete who is specifically loading carbohydrates ahead of an event, you don’t ever need to eat a meal that is high in carbohydrates. Doing so can make it challenging for your body to properly handle glucose. When you do eat carbs, balance them with plenty of healthy fat and protein, and choose carbs that have fiber in them. Examples: eat broccoli, cauliflower, or asparagus instead of white potatoes or grains, and choose higher-fiber fruits like berries instead of oranges or bananas.
- Consider your total dietary carbohydrate intake. Even if you make sure that single meals are not too high in carbs, you can still be eating too many carbohydrates in general. While conventional dietary recommendations may suggest that 45 to 60 percent of your calories come from carbohydrates, this is too high even for most athletes. Your carbohydrate needs may differ depending on your activity level, pregnancy/lactation, age, and sex, but most ancestral nutrition experts will recommend lower ratios. A ketogenic diet, for example, is very low in carbs, with 20 percent or less. A low-carb diet is considered to be anything less than 45 percent, which would mean that most ancestral food plans are low in carbs by default.
- Be more active. Most people who have insulin and glucose problems are eating too many carbs and not being active or not being active enough. It is rare to find someone who is highly active with glucose and insulin imbalance unless they are overtraining and binging. Humans were designed to be active frequently throughout the day. Many live relatively sedentary lifestyles compared to our Paleolithic ancestors, so even when carbohydrate intake is moderate, without regular activity levels you can still have too much glucose or poor insulin response. The answer is not to develop a hard-to-follow fitness routine, which will usually fail at some point, but instead to make movement and activity a regular part of life. Adults don’t lose the need to play and run around. It is every bit as essential for adults as well as kids. In fact, making movement a part of your life in a playful way instead of muddling through a have-to exercise routine can lead to better long-term results for glucose, insulin, weight, mood, and more.
Today’s Simple Step
Many people are not aware of how many grams of carbohydrates they eat per day, let alone how many grams of fiber they’re consuming. Tracking this for a day can give you a good idea as to how what you’re eating could be impacting your glucose levels. If your carb count is high and your fiber grams are low, try swapping for foods that are higher in fiber or replace carb foods with protein or healthy fats. For example: instead of eating an apple for a snack, eat a hardboiled egg or an avocado. Instead of eating pasta with meatballs for dinner, eat spiralized zucchini with meatballs.
These Quick & Easy “Angel” Eggs are a good example of a snack that is blood-sugar friendly and also packed with nutrients. If you don’t want to use the dip mentioned in the recipe or need to keep things dairy-free, add in a dollop of mashed avocado for a delicious guacamole-style deviled egg.