We’re going to let you in on a little secret: The FIRST thing you should do when you want to lose fat or put on muscle is to improve insulin sensitivity.
Insulin sensitivity is SO important for fat loss because when you are insulin resistant, the body is much more likely to store the food you eat as fat. Insulin resistance also produces inflammation in the body, causing a whole bunch of health problems that any sane person wouldn’t want to deal with.
Besides making it nearly impossible to lose significant amounts of body fat or pack on muscle, poor insulin sensitivity has all of the following negative effects:
- It reduces athletic performance.
- It inhibits sleep and makes you tired.
- It slows recovery from training or injury.
- Muscle soreness and pain are more severe.
- It leads to diabetes if you don’t fix it.
- It raises triglycerides and increases heart disease risk
- It leads to a boatload of other health problems—you’ve heard the misery suffered by diabetics (sleep apnea, nerve problems, gut issues, eye and feet problems, and so on).
Don’t worry! There are simple everyday things you can do to improve insulin sensitivity and optimize everything about your life. This article will give you a quick run-down on how insulin works and what you can do NOW to improve it.
What Insulin Is & Why It Matters
Insulin is a hormone that is secreted by the pancreas. When you eat a meal, your blood glucose (sugar) rises after you digest the food. Insulin goes into action, binding with your cells in order to store the glucose either in muscle as glycogen (the energy source for the muscle) or as fat. If you are healthy, the body “prefers” to replenish glycogen first, only storing excess glucose as fat if glycogen stores are topped off.
When you develop insulin resistance, the cells aren’t readily binding to insulin. The body has to pump out more insulin to get the high blood glucose that’s circulating out of the blood and where it needs to be. High insulin increases fat storage, which is one reason that high insulin levels are associated with obesity.
The following are nine of the simplest but MOST effective ways to improve your insulin sensitivity.
#1: Do strength training and other anaerobic activities.
Exercise is absolutely essential for improving insulin sensitivity because your muscles and cells are desperate for fuel during and after your workout.
Even when you’re not working out, muscle consumes the majority of glucose that is in the blood (70 to 90 percent). Exercising radically increases this demand. Improvements in the sensitivity of the cells to insulin quickly follow this high demand for fuel and your body maintains this increased sensitivity to insulin for at least 24 hours after a workout.
Studies show all forms of physical activity help, however, anaerobic modes may have the greatest impact on insulin health because they build lean tissue, thereby increasing your overall demand for energy. For every 10 percent increase in muscle mass, you get an 11 percent reduction in insulin resistance.
Besides more muscle, anaerobic exercise improves proteins and enzymes involved in insulin signaling (the ability of insulin to bind to the cell to let glucose in) and glycogen storage.
To get the benefit, do sprint workouts and higher volume strength training.
#2: Endurance exercise works too!
If you greatly prefer endurance exercise, it also has a very beneficial effect on insulin sensitivity, although it is a little different from anaerobic exercise. Endurance training improves insulin sensitivity, reducing the amount of insulin needed to clear a relative amount of glucose from the blood.
The catch is that you only experience major benefits in trained muscles, so if you’re a runner, you’ll be fairly insulin sensitive in the leg musculature, but less so in the upper body.
Do some form of total body exercise and strength training is pretty much a no-brainer as your best option because combined aerobic and resistance programs improve insulin sensitivity more than aerobic training alone.
#3: Optimize your carb intake.
The key to optimizing carb intake is to individualize it to your genetics and situation. For example, a sedentary, overweight person is going to have entirely different carb needs (and much more insulin resistance) than a hard-charging athlete who is mindful of their carb intake.
A 2012 study provides some insight: The 2-year trial showed that for overweight people with insulin resistance or diabetes, a low-carb, high-protein, low-glycemic diet is more effective for improving insulin sensitivity and reducing body fat than a low-fat diet or even the much applauded Mediterranean diet.
The high-protein diet induced the greatest changes in insulin sensitivity and body composition improvements of the three interventions by the end of the study. Systemic inflammation and lipid markers were also improved. These benefits are key, highlighting the cascade of beneficial effects of good insulin health.
Researchers cited the better dietary habits adopted by the high-protein dieters as being the reason for such positive insulin and health outcomes: They ate more protein, avoided high-glycemic sugary foods, and ate more vegetables.
If you’re sedentary and overweight, try a very low-carb (less than 50 grams a day kind of low) diet. For leaner, more active individuals, try restricting carbs to 100 to 200 grams a day, or try carb cycling. For recreational trainees, it might mean to eat moderate to high-carb on training days and low-carb on off days.
#4: Eat foods that improve insulin sensitivity with higher carb foods.
Vinegar, green tea, nuts, and spices are among the foods that increase insulin sensitivity, improving the body’s ability to store the carbs you eat as muscle glycogen instead of as fat.
For example, vinegar improves pancreatic function so that your body releases less insulin in response to the carbs you eat. This is useful because when you eat high-glycemic carbs, the pancreas tends to overestimate the amount of insulin needed and releases too much.
Vinegar is also known as a nutrient partitioner, meaning it improves insulin signaling to lean tissue cells so that energy is less likely to get stored as fat. Green tea, cinnamon, turmeric, and other spices have been found to have the same effect. Nuts have also been linked to improved insulin sensitivity.
Anytime you eat higher carb foods, whether it’s sweet potatoes, oatmeal, or pasta, pair them with one of these insulin sensitizers.
- Acids such as apple cider or balsamic vinegar, lemon, or lime.
- Pickled foods such as kim chi, sauerkraut, or pickled ginger.
- Spices like cinnamon, fenugreek, and turmeric.
- Have a cup of green tea before every meal.
- Walnuts, almonds, or other favorite nut.
#5: Eat glycemic-lowering foods with your carbs.
In it’s simplest form, this is achieved by choosing foods in whole form over refined foods because they elevate blood sugar more slowly so that the body is able to regulate insulin release more effectively instead of just pumping it out in a desperate response to a spike in blood sugar.
Two types of foods: Foods high in naturally-occurring fiber will reduce the glycemic response. These include most vegetables, and those that are rich in antioxidants, such as berries and leafy greens. For example, rainbow chard is known as an anti-diabetic food in Turkey. Dark-colored berries are often used in Scandinavia to lower the blood sugar response of oatmeal.
#6: Optimize fat intake and balance your omegas.
When it comes to fat intake and insulin health, a few things are for sure:
- Avoid trans-fats like they are the plague. These are partially hydrogenated and hydrogenated oils that often used in baked and processed foods.
- Radically reduce your intake of processed vegetable oils that contain omega-6 fat. These are safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, corn, canola oil and other vegetable blends. The easiest way to do this is to avoid processed foods.
- Do get a small amount of omega-6 fats from whole sources such as nuts and seeds, and minimally processed, cold pressed olive oil.
- Balance your omega-6 intake with omega-3 fat intake in as close to an equal ratio as possible. Get omega-3 fats by eating oily fish a few days a week.
Why It Works
This approach improves insulin health because the fat we eat is used by the body to build the outside lipid (fat) layer that protects cells. This lipid layer functions best when it is flexible but strong, improving the cells sensitivity to insulin.
#7: Get enough magnesium.
Known as the mineral of insulin sensitivity, magnesium exerts positive effects on the insulin receptors in each cell of the body.
For example in a randomized study performed on overweight people, taking 365 mg of magnesium daily for 6 months significantly improved insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. The participants had lower fasting glucose and blood pressure was reduced a significant amount at the end of the study.
Magnesium-rich foods include leafy greens, especially Swiss chard, seeds (pumpkin and sesame), nuts (almonds, cashews), and broccoli.
#8: Cook, cool, and re-cook your carbs—increase their resistant starch.
Normally when you eat higher carb foods you get a large, quick elevation in blood sugar. But carbs that are high in something called resistant starch don’t respond to the normal enzymes in our guts that digest them. The blood sugar response to these foods is much lower, and the healthy bacteria in our guts feed on the resistant starch, which is a highly beneficial effect.
What it comes down to is that foods high in resistant starch lead you to absorb fewer calories and improve insulin sensitivity at the same time—a win-win situation. Resistant starch is found in raw unmodified potato starch, green bananas, oats, peas, maize, and raw potatoes.
Increase the resistant starch content of carbohydrate foods by cooking them, letting them cool, and then reheating them. This process changes the structure of the carbs in everything from pasta to bread, reducing the blood glucose response.
#9: Eliminate liquid fructose.
Liquid fructose causes insulin resistance and is linked with belly fat gain when consumed in large quantities. This is interesting because fructose is processed by the liver and doesn’t stimulate insulin secretion in the way that glucose does. However, when you consume more fructose than the liver can readily handle, fructose causes metabolic problems, interfering with insulin signaling, and getting stored as fat.
Besides eliminating all fructose-containing beverages (soda, fruit juice, sports drinks), avoid processed foods (often packed with high-fructose corn syrup), and stay away from agave (it has more fructose than corn syrup). You can also opt for lower fructose fruits and vegetables, such as most berries, nectarines, grapefruit, avocado, and tomatoes.