If you are a man with a waistline bigger than 40 inches, or a woman with a waistline bigger than 35 inches, or if you love someone who answers that description, or if your child is overweight, please read on.
I remember it like it was yesterday, sitting in my endocrinologist’s office as she explained what was going on in my body. I was more than 100 lbs. overweight, and ready to diet some of it off as I had so many times before, but this time the diets that had always worked before just didn’t work at all. I was scared, I felt lousy, and I had a lot of crazy symptoms that seemed unrelated to me.
All my crazy symptoms were not unrelated, but could all be explained easily enough: My body had become resistant to insulin. I didn’t yet have the full-blown disease, Type II Diabetes, that insulin resistance often leads to, but the symptoms, my abdominal fat, my high blood pressure, my struggle with weight loss, all fit the profile. I was well down that road.
Researchers estimate that 30 to 40 million of us in the U.S. are in the same boat. The S.S. Insulin Resistance. More than a third. Close to a half. And because insulin resistance doesn’t show up in standard tests, most of us have no idea.
And please note, because lately so many people with insulin resistance or prediabetes or Type II diabetes are kids, we no longer call the disease “Adult-onset Diabetes.” Isn’t that incredibly awful? We had to change the name of the disease to make room for kids.
Good news, though: It’s reversible. Most of us can re-tune our bodies to make use of the insulin we produce and reduce our insulin production to normal levels. How? By exercising. By eating better.
Why should we? To avoid Diabetes and heart disease, and some kinds of cancer. Good reasons.
Okay that’s the bad news and the good news, but if you’re like me, you want more. A mental picture. A better understanding. Here’s how my endocrinologist explained it.
Your cells use the glucose, or sugar, from your bloodstream to do their thing, give you energy, make you go. Imagine that the cells in your body have doors, and the doors have locks. Insulin, a hormone made by your pancreas, is like a trusted delivery person with a key to all those locks. It unlocks your cell doors to let the glucose in. Or at least, that’s what insulin does when everything’s running smoothly.
When it’s going well, your pancreas doesn’t push out insulin until it sees how much glucose comes along from the foods you eat. Then it only makes what it thinks your cells will need.
But when you have too much abdominal fat, that extra fat produces a protein that changes the locks on your cell doors. The insulin key doesn’t work, or doesn’t work every time. That is, your body’s cells become resistant to insulin. They’re not getting the glucose they want right away.
Now your pancreas senses what’s going on and starts producing more insulin delivery folks. Staff the problem, right? This overproduction of insulin can go on for quite awhile without you knowing it. Not all of your cells are resistant, but more and more over time. If the insulin can’t deliver the glucose into your cells, it delivers the glucose for storage, as fat.
Eventually your pancreas gets tired of over-producing insulin. It burns out, slowing down insulin production. When that happens, your blood glucose doesn’t reach your cells or go to storage, but stays in your bloodstream. That’s not good. Now your blood sugar levels start to rise, and the inflammatory processes of all this blood sugar and hormonal upset does its damage to vital organs. The resulting disease is how diabetes kills people.
Some researchers now believe that organ and tissue damage begin much earlier in the process, well before measurable rises in blood sugar happen. I’m inclined to believe that’s true, of course, given my own experience. I was basically an old woman at 38. And I didn’t like it one bit.
This is a very highly simplified picture, folks. The sort of thing that could make a nutrition researcher or medical professional blanch. But it’s a useful sort of story, I think, because it tells us some things. It tells us there is a vicious cycle we can get into once our middles grow too big. It tells us we need to exercise, and it tells us we need to help our bodies out by reducing the sugar in our diets.
If you’ve got a big tummy, 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week is the best thing you can do for your health. Do that first. Drop this article, and do it now.
Next, take a look at your diet. If you want to fix insulin resistance quickly, you’ll cut out added sugars and simple starches. (I actually cut out all the rest of my starches too, which helped a lot) at least until you can bring your weight under control. The South Beach diet is a terrific diet for folks with lots of weight around the middle. Designed just for us.
And finally, take a peek at your life. Stress feeds belly fat. There’s no mistaking it. If there is any way you can reorder or restructure your life to cut back on stress, consider doing that sooner rather than later. We do tend to put off making ourselves happy, but there’s really nothing noble in making yourself sick and miserable.
Be well. I will if you will,