Have you noticed that, as we get older, many people acquire a ‘muffin top’ that just won’t disappear no matter what weight loss strategy is followed? The spare tyre that stubbornly refuses to melt away could be under the influence of your hormones, particularly insulin.
Insulin and its opposite number, glucagon, play central roles in the regulation of our blood sugar level, keeping it within a narrow range. For many of us, this works well: insulin and glucagon get on and do their job well, unless our eating and lifestyle gets in the way and causes problems.
Both insulin and glucagon are hormones produced by the pancreas. Insulin is produced when we eat carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are complex sugars; they are processed by the body, though one of several pathways, to become glucose. Most of this glucose passes into the bloodstream, raising blood sugar level and triggering an insulin response. Insulin’s job is to move the glucose out of the blood into the cells where it can be used as fuel. When the cells have taken what they need, any excess glucose goes into the liver and muscles where it’s converted into glycogen, a storage form of glucose. Once the cells, liver and muscles have taken what they need, any leftover glucose is converted to fat, usually around the tummy.
It’s this element of insulin’s function that has lead it to be called the “fat storage hormone”.
The process of blood sugar regulation is complex and elegant. A perfect example of the body doing what the body does well. Until we overdo the carbs.
Too many carbs results in a big rise in blood sugar levels and, consequently, a surge of insulin. If the system is working well, this insulin ‘spike’ clears blood glucose back to within the desired range, but it could lead to blood sugar becoming a little low: if this happens, we may experience an energy slump, irritability, shakiness, grumpiness, an inability to focus, poor concentration, and cravings.
And that’s when we might find ourselves reaching for a choccie biccie (or three), a muffin, a latte or other quick energy hit. And the whole cycle starts again.
The trouble with this elegant cycle is that continual wide fluctuations of highs and lows is stressful. Yes, stress doesn’t ‘just’ come from external sources: it can be internally created as a result of your choices. And this takes its toll on the body.
But it gets better. Or worse, depending upon your perspective. I love the elegance of the body, its innate and intuitive wisdom that underpins its drive to keep everything balanced and harmonised, so I love how other choices also exert an influence. You might disagree.
Choosing to fuel on carbs, particularly those deliciously nasty refined, over-processed bad boys like sugar-laden snacks, is one element. Add in a reliance on caffeine, or alcohol to manage a full-on life. Perhaps a liberal helping of consistently poor sleep. Or maybe a generous dollop of (external) stress. Before you know it, your survival strategy has created the perfect recipe for an insulin-driven muffin top.
The stress connection
When blood sugar falls, our body can convert glycogen back to glucose. This process is triggered either by the secretion of insulin’s ‘partner’ hormone, glucagon, or, when under stress, by adrenaline. Either trigger has the same result: blood glucose returns to the desired range.
Stress hormones such as adrenaline or cortisol can increase appetite. This is an evolutionary mechanism designed to ensure fuel and energy availability for when we need to deal with threats, such as a sabre-toothed tiger waiting to pounce on us as we forage for berries. Back in caveman days, it was effective and fit for purpose. Fast forward to modern times, and a 24/7 processed-food environment, when it’s only too easy to meet our appetite, and it becomes problematic.
Over-consumption of carbs, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, stress – anything that can interfere with a stable blood sugar level – could be triggering insulin and encouraging the storage of fat around your middle.
But it’s not ‘just’ a spare tyre that’s the concern. Over time, the effect of insulin can become blunted; the pancreas needs to produce more of it to get the same response as before. This sets the scene for insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues and a range of associated conditions rooted in metabolic dysfunction.
Supporting a balanced insulin response and stable blood sugar level can be achieved by paying attention to what you eat and when you eat it in the context of your general lifestyle.
Yes, it really is as simple as doing a few things differently:
- Understand and manage your carbohydrate intake. The focus here is on swapping refined or ultra-processed foods for their less-processed equivalents. Think brown basmati rice instead of white, rolled oats rather than quick-cook or ‘instant’ versions, perhaps even sweet potatoes instead of white ones. The key here is fibre: fibre slows down the speed at which glucose is released into the bloodstream. Quinoa is a great substitute for rice or couscous as it’s higher in protein which, like fibre, can slow the release of glucose. Reduce the servings of starchier carbs such as rice or potatoes or bread, bulking out meals with non-starchy veggies or less starchy beans, pulses and legumes (more fibre again). If you’re going to have a starchy carb, make sure you aren’t doubling up: at the Indian, there’s really no need for rice and naan; Italian, choose pasta or garlic bread, not both; pie and veg, not chips (yes, pastry and potatoes are both carbs).
- Ask yourself, “where’s the protein?” Protein foods slow down the release of glucose from carbs, and help with a sense of fullness, meaning that cravings are less likely. Check that you’ve included some protein at every eating episode. Good examples are (organic, or at least free-range) eggs, or chicken; grass-fed meat; yoghurt (I particularly like Fage Greek yoghurt); nuts and seeds, or hummus.
- Eat more, not less, fat. By which I mean the good stuff. Just like protein, ‘healthy’ fats can help blunt the insulin response. Choose extra-virgin olive oil, oily fish, full-fat yoghurt, grass-fed butter and meat, nuts and seeds (preferably organic), avocado, and coconut oil. Note how some sources also provide some protein – oily fish, nuts, seeds, yoghurt, grass-fed meat – double whammy.
- Watch the alcohol. Call me a killjoy but alcohol can seriously disrupt your best intentions to lose the muffin top for so many reasons. The most important ones here are the sugar content, and the increased likelihood of random snacking as we give into tempting nibbles. If you fancy a tipple, match glass for glass with water, and keep snack foods out of reach.
- Understand why you’re eating. My favourite recommendation, because it applies in every situation and to every health concern where there’s a dietary connection. So, pretty much all of them then. Are you eating because you are biologically hungry, or because you’re bored, or socialising, or feeling unhappy, or… or… Want to understand a little more, delve a little deeper? Talk to me.
- Sort out your stressors and your sleep. Both of these influence your food choices, in a variety of ways. Some simple sleep supporting tips can be found here. Stress management ideas coming soon but I’m happy to bounce around some ideas, just message me.
- Get moving. Physical activity can make the insulin-directed glucose transporters that move glucose from the blood into the cells a lot more effective. We’re not talking marathons here, just a single bout of activity every day can be enough. And resistance exercise can be great as it builds lean mass which may enhance your metabolism as well as refining your silhouette. Choose what you enjoy, and do it. Regularly.
- Supplements may help. Some very specific micronutrients and phytonutrients (from plants) may offer some support as you get your eating, stress, and sleep sorted. Please speak to your GP, pharmacist, or other qualified health practitioner before supplementing, especially if you have an underlying health condition or are on medication.
- Cinnamon. The Champion of the Spice World is often touted as being able to improve insulin sensitivity. Yes, it may, but there’s some evidence that you’ll need about a teaspoon a day. Add it to yoghurt, or porridge (alongside the good fats and the protein), or into the poaching liquid for some seasonal fruits (then serve with yoghurt!).
If you’re wondering why, despite all your efforts and all your diets, that spare tyre is not budging, perhaps shifting your gaze away from the mirror and onto insulin may be the answer. And if you want some support in sorting that out, you know where I am: contact me.