Okay, so you’ve just finished your lunch. You’re feeling satiated and a little bit relieved because now you can focus better on your work. However, what you don’t realize is that inside your body there is a whole other process that’s just about to begin.
Once you’ve eaten, your stomach starts digesting your food and breaking it down into nutrients, mainly sugar and starch.
This sends a signal to your pancreas, a small organ located behind the stomach, to release the hormone insulin. Hormones are chemical substances whose main job is to help regulate cell activity.
Insulin and glucose then travel together in the bloodstream, stopping at each cell throughout the body. When the cells see them together, they open up their doors to absorb the glucose for energy.
Insulin has a very important role in the way we break down our food for energy (metabolism):
- It helps lower blood glucose levels by allowing cells to absorb glucose, and by minimizing the liver’s glucose production.
- It helps stimulate tissue found in the liver and muscles to store any excess glucose. Once stored, it is known as glycogen.
- Any leftover glycogen that the body does not use for energy, is stored as fat for the body to use later, if ever.
Glucagon is another hormone produced by the pancreas whose job is to raise blood sugar levels once they fall too low. During exercise, sleep, or between meals, the levels of glucose in your bloodstream drop significantly.
The pancreas senses the drop, and tells the pancreas to stop secreting insulin and start secreting glucagon instead.
Once glucagon has been released into the bloodstream, its job is to head for the liver. The liver is both a storage compartment and a manufacturer for glucose, depending on the body’s needs. When you eat, the liver stores glucose (as glycogen) for later when your body will have more need for it.
The liver senses the presence of the glucagon and begins to supply its stored form of glucose (glycogen) into the bloodstream as glucose, allowing for a controlled rise in the levels of glucose in the blood.
When a healthy level of glucose has been detected, the pancreas turns off the release of glucagon.
In a healthy body, the glucagon and insulin use this buddy system to make sure that blood glucose levels remain within set limits, allowing the body to function properly.
Now that we know how insulin works, it’s time to know what triggers its secretion and if certain foods make the body produce more insulin, and vice versa.
The body’s main default source of energy is glucose. The main source of glucose comes from the sugars and starches in carbohydrates.
Simple carbs are those made from only one or two sugar (saccharide) chains. All simple sugars and starches are converted to glucose in the body, except sugar alcohols and insoluble fiber and include:
- Sucrose is table sugar or cane sugar and all items made with it
- Glucose is sugar in some fruits and starchy vegetables
- Fructose is the sugar in all fruits and is often used to make various processed food products because it is very sweet
- Galactose is the sugar that occurs naturally in dairy foods, such as milk and yogurt
Simple Carbohydrates Include: non-starchy vegetables, candy, table sugar and anything made from it, soda, white flour and all foods made from it, juices, fruit, milk, honey and syrup just to name a few.
Simple carbs require no break down as they enter the body to be absorbed so they digest quickly to flood the bloodstream with glucose, causing insulin spikes to occur.
The least amount of load on insulin comes from non-starchy vegetables, like greens, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and others that have minimal amounts of carbohydrates.
Complex carbs are made up of thousands of sugar chains hence the name complex and include all starches, including but not limited to corn, potatoes, beans, rice, all grains, cereals, and bread, including both refined and whole grains.
While complex carbs are slower to digest and may not flood the bloodstream with glucose as quickly as simple carbs do, they also trigger an insulin response in the body, providing a fuel source that has the possibility of being stored as fat.
Any impairment in the secretion of insulin is described as diabetes of which there are two types.
Type 1 Diabetes
Hypoglycemia or type 1 diabetes, is when there is a deficiency of glucose in the blood and too little to reach your cells properly, if at all, this is a condition people are born with, which is not linked to diet or lifestyle choices as its causes.
- Characterized by very high blood glucose levels since the beta cells are destroyed and insulin can no longer be synthesized and released into the bloodstream.
- Insulin injections are crucial to sustain blood sugar levels in a diabetic’s bloodstream and these injections are required for life.
Type 2 Diabetes
Too much glucose in the blood is referred to as hyperglycemia or type 2 diabetes, which can cause severe complications as nerve damage, kidney damage and eye problems if kept untreated.
The constant stimulation of the production of insulin may and does at epidemic levels in the United States, eventually lead to insulin resistance, a condition known as type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is a condition that typically develops as a result of obesity, overweight and lifestyle choices.
- Insulin resistance or deficiency occurs in the body, so the uptake of blood sugars becomes stalled or impotent altogether
- Beta cells are damaged, but not to the extent of type 1 diabetes.
- Beta cells are still able to do their job, but to a much lesser extent, and certainly not enough to meet the body’s requirements.
- Characterized by a high rate of glucagon secretion which is unaffected by blood glucose levels.
- Diet, weight loss, and medications can help to stall its advancement, control blood sugar, and possibly prevent or even reverse type 2 diabetes.
Carbohydrate Related Weight Gain
The process that triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas, which sends food to cells may occur in leftover sugar, or simply put energy which is unused by the body that may then be stored as fat, which contributes to weight gain and obesity.
The Statistical Review of U.S. Macronutrient Consumption Data, 1965–2011 found a significant link between increases in carb consumption on a societal level between the years of 1965 and 2011 and increased levels of obesity in the United States during that same time period.
While some people are able to burn off any carbs they eat, others cannot do the same.
Additionally, empty calorie carbs, such as sugar and sweets typically are much harder to control when it comes to their effect in increasing body fat stores.
The release of insulin is a highly complicated, tightly regulated process that allows the body to function properly. It has to balance food intake and metabolic needs perfectly.
This is why, in order for everything to go without a glitch, we must provide the pancreas with a healthy, fit body and a balanced way of life.
For many, insulin trigger foods, or carbs are the main culprit in obesity and the presentation of type 2 diabetes in both childhood and adult life and should therefore be an important consideration in dietary choices.
Low carb diets greatly reduce these insulin trigger foods, and focus mainly on fats. When carb intake is greatly reduced, it triggers a metabolic process known as ketosis, which gives the body an alternative source of energy, which is body fat, leading to weight loss and improved metabolic health.