Recently this question was posed to me on a Q+A thread, and rather than rush through the topic without a full explanation, I decided that this was best answered here on a blog post.
As we dive into our health journey and begin to make better choices for our health, we often begin to wonder about different conditions and illnesses, and where we fall on the ‘scale’ for the likelihood of developing these.
Diabetes is often one of these, and is a condition that is affecting more of our population each day due to the vast availability of processed food and sugar being used as a filler in EVERYTHING.
However, getting the information you need doesn’t have to be difficult- and making healthier swaps to prevent it is possible.
Today I will be sharing with you all of the information that you should know in regards to this- including what exactly insulin is, what being insulin resistant means, the difference between type one, type two, and gestational diabetes, and how you can prevent (or manage) this condition in the most effective way possible.
Let’s dive in!
What is insulin and insulin resistance?
Insulin is an important hormone in our bodies, that is responsible for a lot of bodily processes with their major role being to regulate the nutrients in our bloodstream. And although it’s most known for managing our blood sugar- it also plays a part in protein and fat metabolism.
Think of insulin as a ‘key’ in our bloodstream.
It’s role is to ‘unlock‘ our cells and allow glucose (aka the sugar in our blood), to flow in.
When we eat a meal with carbohydrates, the amount of sugar in our bloodstream increases- as carbohydrates convert to sugar in the body. Our pancreas (where insulin is produced) senses the increase in blood sugar and releases insulin to unlock the cells and move the sugar, helping to lower our blood sugar levels.
This is crucial, because a high amount of sugar in our blood can have toxic and severe effects if left untreated- and can even result in death.
Sometimes though, we can develop insulin resistance, where our cells stop responding to insulin as they should- again, think of a key when it gets old, rusty and broken down, and it no longer opens a lock like it should.
With our cells not responding to insulin correctly and not accepting the glucose in our blood, our pancreas continues to release additional insulin- which overtime, can lead to both increased blood sugar levels and increased insulin levels.
Not only can this be toxic to your body overall as I mentioned above, but your pancreas can also become worn down and damaged. And once your blood sugar passes a certain threshold and remains there, you can often be diagnosed with diabetes.
So what’s the difference between Type 1 & 2?
There are two main types of diabetes that we hear the most about- type one and type two. We also have a condition called gestational diabetes, which I will cover below.
Although both type one and type two are both chronic diseases that affect our blood sugar regulation, there are some distinct differences and we will cover those here.
This type is often diagnosed early on in life (think childhood or adolescence) and is something that is not lifestyle related.
Think of it as if you don’t have a ‘key’ at all!
It happens when the body’s immune response kicks on, and it mistakes the healthy insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas as foreign invaders, destroying them. Meaning that individuals with this type do not produce insulin at all.
The reason why the body responds in this way is still unknown, research ongoing. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent or treat this type of diabetes (as current research stands).
Individuals diagnosed with type one are required to take insulin injections around the clock to help manage this condition.
This type is often diagnosed later on in life and is generally lifestyle related.
Think of this one as if you have an old, rusty, broken key (like I mentioned above).
In this type, you still have the ability to produce insulin, your body just isn’t using it properly. The lifestyle risk factors for type two diabetes include inactivity, increased weight, poor nutrition, and high sugar intake.
This type can be prevented and can be treated by managing both nutrition and lifestyle factors.
When poorly controlled however, individuals will be required to take insulin injections and/or other medications to help manage it.
And what about gestational diabetes?
Gestational diabetes is a condition that develops when a woman (who does NOT have diabetes) develops high blood sugar while pregnant.
This does not mean that you had diabetes before you were pregnant or that you will have it once you give birth- but it can increase your risk of type two diabetes in the future.
This temporary condition often develops because of insulin resistance or having a reduced production of insulin. However, the reason for this occurring during pregnancy is still unknown.
The risk factors for this include being overweight, previously having gestational diabetes, having a family history of type two diabetes, or having polycystic ovary syndrome.
Generally, there aren’t many symptoms with this type of diabetes (it is rare to have any), however, it can increase your risk of pre-eclampsia, depression and requiring a caesarean section.
This type of diabetes can be prevented by maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle before pregnancy. To treat it though, it can also be managed with a healthy diet and exercise- but in some cases, insulin or other medications might be required.
What does low glycemic mean?
When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into simple sugars so that they can be absorbed and used properly. However, not all carbohydrates are made equal (as I discuss in this blog post), and they each have a different effect on the body.
The Glycemic Index is a system that measures this reaction and ranks foods according to their effect on blood sugar. There are three categories for this: Low, Medium or High.
Foods with a low glycemic rating are the preferred choice, as they are slowly digested and absorbed, resulting in a steady, stable blood sugar.
Foods with a high glycemic rating on the other hand, are best to be avoided and only eaten in moderation, as they are quickly digested and lead to a rapid spike in blood sugar.
It’s important to note that ONLY foods that contain carbohydrates will be included on the GI scale, as this only measures the affect on blood sugar. Foods that are not included on this scale include chicken, beef, eggs, fish, herbs, spices, etc.
Different things can affect the GI rating of a food including the type of sugar it contains, the structure of the starch, how refined the carbohydrate is, the nutrient composition, how long a food has been cooked for and the ripeness of it.
I recommend taking a read over the blog post linked above where I go into detail regarding simple and complex carbohydrates, as this is a great place to start for learning how to recognize and choose complex carbohydrates.
Some examples of LOW GI foods include:
Steel cut oats, bran flakes, apples, strawberries, apricots, peaches, plums, pears, kiwi, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, zucchini, sweet potatoes with an orange flesh, corn, yams, winter squash, lentils, chickpeas, baked beans, butter beans, kidney beans, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, barley, pearl couscous, buckwheat, freekeh, semolina, milk, cheese, yogurt, coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk, and more.
Some examples of HIGH GI foods include:
White bread, bagels, naan, Turkish bread, French baguettes, pastries, instant oats, Rice Krispies, Cocoa Krispies, Corn Flakes, Froot Loops, Désirée and Red Pontiac potato varieties, instant mashed potatoes, corn pasta and instant noodles, Jasmine rice, Arborio rice (used in risotto), Calrose rice, other white rice, rice milk, rice crackers, Corn Thins, rice cakes, pretzels, corn chips, chips, scones, doughnuts, cupcakes, cookies, waffles, cakes, jelly beans, licorice, Gatorade, etc.
Please note, neither of the lists above are inclusive. Should you be interested in or required to seek out low GI foods for preventing, managing or treating an illness, I recommend you do some additional research or seek the guidance of a professional to help you do so.
How to manage and/or prevent insulin resistance:
Below is a list of items that have been shown to have a positive impact on improving overall health and lowering your risk for insulin resistance. These are also things that you can do to help manage your diabetes or insulin resistance, should you have a current diagnosis:
- Engage in routine exercise.
- Lose belly fat to eliminate stress on organs.
- Stop smoking.
- Reduce overall sugar intake.
- Eat a well balanced diet with whole foods.
- Incorporate omega-3 fatty acids.
- Choose beneficial supplements.
- Get adequate, quality sleep.
- Reduce overall stress.
- Engage in mindfulness activities.
- Donate blood to lower iron count.
- Consider intermittent fasting.
There you have it babe- a simple explanation of everything you need to know on insulin, insulin resistance, diabetes and the glycemic index.
I hope this helps you understand the topic better and clear up any questions you may have.
You can also checkout my video HERE that I made to explain this subject as well.
Best of luck babe!