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How Carbohydrates Cause Insulin Resistance & Diabetes

Carbohydrates are a name given to describe food that is either sugary (e.g., honey) or starchy (e.g., potatoes). There are two main types of carbohydrate: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar and flour, are digested by the body very quickly. This means that when you eat foods containing simple carbohydrates, you will get a short and rapid boost of energy.

It’s like lighting a firework, once you light it, you get a lot of immediate energy but it only lasts for a short time.

In summary, simple carbohydrates are…

  • Usually the foods you love!
  • Simple, so the body can use them quickly
  • Usually taste sweet like sugar
  • Provide a quick boost of energy
  • Energy boost doesn’t last long

Complex carbohydrates are found mainly in vegetables, grains and brown rice. When you eat complex carbohydrates, the body takes longer to digest them resulting in a gradual release of energy over a prolonged period of time.

green vegetables

Complex carbohydrates, such as green vegetables, provide the body with a slow and steady source of energy.

In summary, complex carbohydrates are…

  • Usually the foods you hate!
  • They are complex, so the body takes longer to break them down
  • Mainly found in vegetables and rice
  • Provide a gradual release of energy
  • Energy supplied for a long period of time

Let’s now look at what happens when you eat carbohydrates, and how eating the wrong type can have negative effects on your health.

What Happens When You Eat Carbs?

Every time you eat carbohydrates the body breaks them down into a form of sugar called glucose.

Glucose is then burned and used as a source of energy. So when you eat carbohydrates, it’s like throwing wood on a fire. The fire burns the wood and uses it to stay alive.

burning log fire

Carbs are broken down into glucose. This is then used by the cells of the body to fuel their activity.

As there is only so much glucose that the body needs or can use, any glucose that the body doesn’t need right away is converted to glycogen so that it can be stored as a reserve supply of energy.

This would be like keeping a few extra logs by the fireplace, which you can then use later when the fire is dying down.

However, as your glycogen reserves can only store a limited amount of energy, the body then stores any remaining excess glucose as fat. So the more glucose that you consume in your diet, the fatter you will become because the more energy your body must store.

As simple carbohydrates supply the body with a lot of glucose when they are digested, this type of carbohydrate can therefore lead to rapid weight gain.

Glucose and Insulin

What helps the body to use glucose is a hormone called insulin, which is secreted by your pancreas.

Insulin is a very important hormone, because high levels of glucose are dangerous and can damage the body. This means that insulin must be secreted after every meal to make sure that the food you eat doesn’t kill you!

The trouble with insulin, is that every time it’s released into the body your cells become more and more resistant to it. As a result, over time the pancreas will have to release more insulin than it used to in order for the body to use glucose and keep it at safe levels.

insulin resistance animation

Insulin resistance makes it harder for your cells to receive glucose. This makes it harder for them to produce the necessary energy they need to function.

In the medical world, this is known as “insulin resistance”. It is unavoidable and happens to everyone.

Insulin Resistance

Whilst you cannot prevent insulin resistance, you can control how quickly it develops.

This is because different foods vary in the amount of insulin that they cause the pancreas to release after they are eaten. The worst offenders when it comes to the development of insulin resistance, are the simple carbohydrate foods.

man in ice cream cone

The more sugar your diet exposes you to, the quicker you will develop insulin resistance.

These foods have a high glycemic index, which means that when you eat them they cause a large and rapid release of insulin in the body. The significance of this is that the more insulin your cells are exposed to, the more rapidly they will develop insulin resistance.

One of the most noticeable signs that the process of insulin resistance is occurring is the accumulation of excess fat. Or in other words, weight gain.

Weight Gain & Insulin Resistance

Although there are many signs of insulin resistance, an increasing level of resistance can easily be seen in males and females in two places:

If you’re a male, the first signs of insulin resistance begin in the belly. If you can’t see your toes, for example, then there’s a very good chance that your cells have already developed a high level of insulin resistance which is now causing you to have a fat stomach.

man measuring fat belly waist

In men, insulin resistance first appears around the belly.

If you’re a female, have a look at your bum! Insulin resistance in females often appears as fat accumulation in the buttocks first, and then later, around the thighs and waist.

obese female body

In women, insulin resistance first appears around the buttocks and thighs.

The reason we look at body fat to indicate the level of insulin resistance, is because insulin has the ability to prevent the body from using stored fat as a source of energy and it also plays a role in the deposition of fat.

This means that if you are eating lots of simple carbohydrate foods throughout the day which have a high glycemic index, then your insulin levels will be high and so your body will continue to store fat rather than burn fat.

This is why models and actors often go on a low carb diet, because doing so prevents excess fat accumulation whilst also allowing for existing fat deposits to be burned off and used as energy. Once that happens, a person starts to lose weight very quickly.

What’s so Bad About Insulin Resistance?

Over time with continual exposure to insulin, your cells get more and more resistant to it. This means that the pancreas has to secrete more insulin in order to have the same effect that a smaller amount used to have.

When your cells get to a point where they are no longer responsive to insulin, or the pancreas can’t secrete enough insulin for it to be effective, you will become diabetic.

In the medical world there is already much concern for the current generation of young children, who many doctors fear are already borderline diabetic due to the large amounts of candy and soft drinks that they consume.

diabetic girl

Type 2 diabetes used to be called “adult onset diabetes”, but the name was changed due to the large amounts of children developing the disease.

Some even speculate that in the future there may be an explosion in the number of diabetics. Interlinked with this is the rising obesity crisis, which is often interwoven with diabetes and heart disease.

Pre-Diabetic Symptoms

We have already established a link between the consumption of simple carbohydrate foods and an increased risk of diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

However, these diseases only tend to appear with high levels of insulin resistance, and therefore, tend to occur at a later age in life.

obese man at beach

Being overweight not only increases your risk of diabetes, but also increases your risk of many other diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

Below you will find listed some of the negative health effects that can occur when eating too many carbohydrate rich foods.

All of these symptoms are often a sign of pre-diabetes, which basically means that you are on the verge of falling into a full-blown diabetic disease.

Let’s have a look at some of these pre-diabetic symptoms now:

Fatigue

tired man

Constant feelings of fatigue are often an early indicator of insulin resistance.

Commonly associated with insulin resistance. If you constantly feel tired and lack energy throughout the day, or parts of the day, you could be suffering from fatigue. Fatigue is one of the first signs that you are on your way to developing diabetes.

Brain Fog

out of order sign on forehead

Lack of mental clarity can be caused by bacteria feeding on the excess sugar in your diet.

Poor memory, brain fog and a lack of concentration are all signs of insulin resistance. Brain fog often occurs shortly after eating simple carbohydrates, and so should be relatively easy to spot.

Pay attention to when you get brain fog, as it will usually occur after eating certain types of foods. These foods will also likely be the foods that put you at greatest risk of developing diabetes.

Intestinal Bloating & Gas

man bloated after meal

If you feel bloated all the time, and regularly pass gas, you are probably eating too many simple carbs.

Most intestinal gas is produced via fermentation from bacteria feeding on carbohydrates in the large intestine. If you have a lot of gas, you are eating too many sugary carbohydrates and are therefore increasing your risk of developing diabetes.

Sleepiness

man sleeping with cat

Certain carbohydrates contain chemicals that act like a sedative. Often, these are the same carbs that cause a sudden spike in blood glucose levels.

Many people feel sleepy after eating a meal, which usually occurs after eating carbohydrates such as pasta.

Pasta contains exorphins, which are a natural sedative, and due to pasta (white) being a simple carbohydrate (i.e., white flour), it also causes a sudden rise and fall in blood glucose levels.

Both of these factors combined can leave you feeling very sleepy shortly after a meal.

Depression

depressed woman

Although sugary foods taste good while you are eating them, they actually make your mood worse in the long run.

Even though carbohydrates make you feel good when you eat them, they are in fact a natural downer as they can adversely affect your mood after they are eaten and even increase your level of aggression towards others. Many people suffering from depression also have insulin resistance and eventually develop diabetes.

Cancer

cancer

The more simple carbohydrates you eat the higher your risk of cancer will be.

When certain carbohydrates are heated or fried (especially potatoes), they produce high levels of a cancer causing substance called acrylamide. This, however, can also occur when meat is fried at high temperatures.

Furthermore, as we shall discuss shortly, sugar (i.e., simple carbs) can weaken the functioning of the immune system which can also increase your risk of cancer.

Growth of Bad Bacteria

bacteria

People who eat a lot of sugar tend to suffer from bad breath, gas and yeast infections. This is because bacteria and yeast feed on sugar.

Bacteria and yeast love sugar, and so eating lots of sugary food (including fruit and fruit juices) will promote their growth. This can lead to yeast infections such as candida and chronic bad breath.

Weakened Immune System

human body

The more sugar you consume the weaker your immune system becomes.

Eating sugary food can impair the functioning of your immune system by as much as 50% for up to 3 hours. This makes you more susceptible to disease and infection.

Hair Loss

man with hair loss

Sugar can rapidly accelerate the process of hair loss, especially in men who are genetically susceptible to baldness.

Sugary foods cause scalp inflammation which causes the body to attack hair follicles in an autoimmune response. This often occurs as “scalp pains” followed by hair loss in the same area.

Carbohydrates also reduce globulin levels. This can cause hair loss because globulin helps lower dihydrotestosterone (DHT) levels. This means that eating lots of carbohydrates will accelerate hair loss.

Other Effects

Some of the other side effects caused by eating carbohydrates are:

  • Damage to teeth and gums
  • High blood pressure
  • Poor eyesight (diabetic retinopathy)
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Accelerated aging
  • Heart disease

As you can see, carbohydrates, and the accelerated insulin resistance they cause, can result in many negative health effects within the body.

However, these effects are largely associated with the consumption of high carb foods or foods that have a high glycemic index. Complex carbohydrates, such as green vegetables like broccoli, are generally not a risk factor in the development of diabetes for most people.

Is a Zero Carb Diet the Answer?

There is much debate about whether carbohydrates are good or bad for you. Some people believe they are so bad that they should be completely eliminated from your diet. This point is debatable, and there are compelling arguments for both sides.

My current view at this point in time, is that eating fewer carbs, rather than more carbs, is healthiest for the body.

This is based on reading several books on the subject, most notably, “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” by Weston Price, and “Why We Get Fat and What to Do about It” by Gary Taubes.

If you haven’t read either of these books, you simply can’t make an informed decision about the optimal level of carbohydrates that a diet should contain.

meat with vegetables

Based on the available evidence, you are probably better off eating fewer carbs than eating more carbs.

If you would like more information about a zero carb diet, I suggest you read this excellent article on the dangers of carbohydrates.

It also discusses the history of the food pyramid, upon which much of our food recommendations are based, and how and why the pyramid did not start out the way it appears today.

But overall, the general gist is this: the more simple carbohydrates you consume the worse your health will become and the quicker you will age.

This occurs via a gradual process of insulin resistance, and it usually takes decades before a full-blown disease, such as diabetes or heart disease, develops.

boy getting fatter

Insulin resistance is a gradual process, but one that will surely result in you getting sicker and fatter over time.

The only warning signs that you will have of this occurring is the visible accumulation of excess fat on the body. In men, this is first evident along the abdomen, and in women, on the buttocks.

Recommendations

If you currently eat a high carbohydrate diet, have large amounts of abdominal or buttock fat, or experience any of the signs of insulin resistance which were previously listed, you should strongly consider reducing the amount of carbohydrates that you consume.

It would also be wise to be selective over which carbohydrates you eat, paying particular attention to simple carb foods that have a high glycemic index.

Unfortunately, this means most of your favorite foods! So ice cream, cookies, potato chips and soft drinks should all be avoided or severely limited.

doughnuts

If you want to lose weight and improve your health, you’re going to have to give up some of your most favorite treats!

If you are a parent, closely monitor what your children are eating, especially if your children are already overweight. This is most relevant for parents in the US or UK, where childhood obesity is a growing and extremely serious problem.

In addition to this, it’s also a good idea to ensure that you exercise regularly. Anaerobic (e.g., weight lifting) and aerobic (e.g., running) exercise has been shown to promote healthy insulin levels and lower your risk of diabetes.

Hopefully by now you should have a better understanding of why simple carbohydrate foods should be avoided as much as possible.

To help you make changes to your diet, below you will find a glycemic index chart of some common foods. Ideally, you want to be eating low glycemic foods as much as possible and high glycemic foods as little as possible.

Glycemic Index Chart of Common Foods

(higher numbers cause faster/higher blood sugar/insulin rise)
10-29 good 30-49 ok 50-64 marginal 65-79 bad 80-100+ bad
Grains
Uncle Ben’s Conv 44
Noodles (instant) 46
Bulgur 48
Buckwheat 54
Brown Rice 55
Lg grain White Rice 56
Basmati Rice 58
Taco Shells 68
Sht grain White Rice 72
Cereals
Kellogg’s Bran Buds 45
Oatmeal 49
Kellogg’s All Bran 51
Kellogg’s Special K 54
Shredded Wheat 67
Quaker Puffed Wheat 67
Kellogg’s Rice Krispies 82
Kellogg’s Cornflakes 84
Breads
Sponge Cake 46 Pumpernickel Bread 51
Sour Dough Bread 52
Stone Gr Whole Wheat 53
Pita Bread 57
Blueberry Muffin 59
Pizza (cheese, tom) 60
Croissant 67
Whole Wheat Bread 69
White Bread 70
Bagel 72
Waffles 76
Donut 76
Rye Bread 76
Pasta
Fettuccini (egg) 32
Ravioli (meat) 39
Spaghetti 43
Spiral Pasta 43
Capellini 45
Linguine 46
Macaroni 47
Rice Vermicelli 58
Legumes-Beans
Red Kidney Beans 27
Soy Beans 18
Lentils 30
Cannellini Beans 31
White Beans 31
Lima Beans 32
Garbanzo(Chickpeas) 33
Navy Beans 38
Pinto Beans 39
Baked Beans 48
Broad Beans 79
Vegetables
Broccoli 10
Cabbage 10
Lettuce 10
Mushrooms 10
Onions 10
Red Peppers 10
Carrots 49Green Peas 48 Sweet Potato 54
Corn 55
Potato (new) 62
Beets 69
Potato (french fries) 75
Pumpkin 75
Potato (mashed, instant) 86Potato (red skinned) 93Potato (baked, white) 93Parsnip 97
Fruits-Berries
Cherries 22
Grapefruit 25
Pear 38
Apple 38
Plum 39
Orange 44
Grapes 46
Kiwi 52
Mango 55
Banana 55
Papaya 58
Cantaloupe 65
Pineapple 66
dried dates (103)Watermelon 103
Cookies-Crackers
Oatmeal Cookies 55
Shortbread Cookies 64
Stoned Wheat Thins 67
Ryvita Crispbread 69
Melba Toast 70
Kavli Crispbread 71
Soda Graham Crackers 74
Crackers 74
Vanilla Wafers 78
Water crackers 78
Rice Cakes 82
Rice Crackers 91
Beverages
Milk (whole) 22
Soy Milk 31
Milk (skimmed) 32
Milk (chocolate flavored) 34
Snacks-Desserts-Condiments
Yogurt Plain 14 Peanuts 14
Walnuts 15
Cashews 22
Yogurt (low-fat) 33
Snickers Bar 41
Chocolate Bar 49
Ice cream (low-fat) 50
Popcorn 55
Potato Chips 55
Power Bar 58
Ice Cream (whole) 61
Rasins 64
Corn Chips 72
Jelly Beans 80
Pretzels 83
Tofu Frozen Dessert 115
Sugars
Fructose 23 Lactose 46
Honey 58
Sucrose 65 glucose 100
maltose 105

How to Reduce Your Risk of Diabetes

Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder which affects blood sugar levels, of which, there are two main types: Type 1 & Type 2.

Type I Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes usually occurs in young children as a result of a virus or an autoimmune disorder which destroys the body’s ability to produce insulin. As a result, people with Type 1 diabetes must take insulin injections for the rest of their life.

Types II Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes occurs most commonly in middle-age as a result of a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle which subsequently reduces the efficiency of insulin to control blood sugar levels.

Type 2 diabetes used to be called “adult onset diabetes”, but because so many young people were developing diabetes, the name was later changed to Type 2.

Unlike Type 1 diabetes, however, Type 2 diabetes can be prevented and managed by making lifestyle changes such as those which are listed below:

Lose Weight

The fatter you are, the higher the level of insulin resistance you have. So a fat body indicates that you are eating too many simple carbohydrates and are storing more energy than you burn off.

You need to lose this extra fat, because with each passing decade you bring yourself one step closer to developing full-blown diabetes.

weight loss on waist

It’s not impossible to lose weight if you really want to.

However, if you find that you can eat whatever you like without putting on excess weight, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not at risk of developing diabetes.

Some people, for example, develop what is known as intra-abdominal fat. So rather than accumulating visible fat which can be seen as fatty skin, they develop fat around their internal organs.

Intra-abdominal fat can be just as deadly as regular fat. So if you are eating an unhealthy diet, but don’t find yourself putting on extra weight, you may want to speak with your doctor to get yourself checked out.

Exercise

Exercising for 30 minutes, five times a week, can half your risk of developing diabetes. Ideally, this exercise should make you sweat, but if you don’t have time to exercise for so long, just make sure that you keep yourself active throughout the day.

women walking for exercise

You don’t have to join a gym to benefit from exercise, as even walking for a few minutes each day can do wonders for your body.

This form of exercise is called non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), and can reduce your risk of developing diabetes simply by you being active during a normal working day.

If you find that you are very active throughout the day, but are still overweight, be aware that exercise is not a very effective means for weight loss although it does still offer many health benefits.

Making a change to your diet, such as by cutting out sugar, will be much more effective than exercising regularly but continuing to eat an unhealthy diet.

Lift Weights

woman lifting weights

Weight lifting is an anaerobic form of exercise that increases the body’s metabolism and speeds up the rate at which it burns fat.

Lifting weights helps to develop muscle mass, which then increases the rate at which you burn fat whilst also helping your body to use insulin more effectively. If you don’t have weights, use your own body weight by doing press-ups or squats.

Cut Out the Carbs

meat with broccoli

Try to eat a diet that contains complex carbohydrates as they won’t spike your blood sugar like simple carbs do.

As we have already discussed, refined or simple carbohydrates are a major contributing factor towards the development of diabetes. You should therefore try to avoid any form of sugar or flour based food, and only eat complex carbohydrates such as green vegetables.

Avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup

Although people used to eat a moderate amount of sugar in the past, most did not develop diabetes. Apart from the fact that they did not eat so much sugar as we do today, the type of sugar they ate was different.

Today, we tend to eat a lot of high fructose corn syrup or glucose fructose syrup, instead of the natural sugars which people used to eat.

can of coke with kids in background

In the US, high fructose corn syrup is used to sweeten Coca Cola. This sweetener has been strongly linked to obesity and diabetes.

The trouble with these artificial sugars, is that the body can’t deal with them in the same way that it does with natural sugars.

This makes artificial sugars the biggest single cause of obesity and diabetes, and should therefore be completely avoided if you are trying to reduce your risk of developing diabetes.

Other artificial sweeteners, however, such as aspartame and sucralose, will not increase your diabetes risk. But they do have many other adverse health effects and so should also be avoided as discussed in this article.

Stop Smoking

Smokers are almost twice as likely to develop diabetes than non-smokers, so you can reduce your risk simply by quitting or cutting down.

woman smoking cigarette

As well as increasing your risk of many different diseases, smoking also increases your risk of diabetes.

One of the main reasons why smoking tends to increase one’s risk of diabetes, is because tobacco, especially American grown tobacco, usually contains a lot of sugar.

If you can’t stop smoking, try smoking a natural additive-free tobacco instead, such as American Spirit or Pueblo tobacco, as these don’t contain any added sugar.

Take Vitamin Supplements

vitamin supplements on tongue

Vitamin supplements can be a great way to compensate for a nutritionally deprived diet and reduce the risk of diabetes.

Nutritional supplements such as zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, green tea extract, cinnamon and chromium can help your body to better control blood sugar levels and thus reduce your risk of developing diabetes.

Avoid Drinking Milk

Studies have found that a certain protein in milk (insulin like growth factor, IGF-1) is almost identical to a protein on the surface of insulin producing cells.

milk and honey

A protein found in milk can increase your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease.

Drinking milk could therefore cause the body to destroy its own insulin producing cells, leading to type 1 diabetes (insulin injections for life).

Since there seems to be a strong link between this milk protein and the development of heart disease and diabetes, it would be best to stop drinking milk completely if you are trying to reduce your risk of diabetes.

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