You may be familiar with insulin if you or someone in your family is diabetic. But insulin is actually an essential hormone we all need to survive. Insulin plays a key role in helping our bodies regulate how we store and use glucose and fat. Insulin allows glucose to enter cells to be used as fuel, or be stored as glycogen in muscle or liver cells. It also regulates fat storage. When insulin levels are high, it stimulates fat cells to take up glucose and turn it into fat. When insulin is low, it enables the body to access the stored fat and turn it into energy. Sounds great, right? But what happens when we have too much insulin?

“When our bodies are exposed to a continuous or nearly continuous supply of glucose — say, for instance, with a high-sugar, high-carbohydrate diet — insulin is secreted constantly, but still remains high,” said Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman. “This is called ‘hyperinsulinemia.’ Our bodies stop responding correctly to insulin, creating insulin resistance, which affects one in every three adults in the nation.

“Insulin resistance is commonly linked to obesity, cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS),” Tillman continued.

“It’s also, of course, often tied to type 2 diabetes and prediabetes. Often, hyperinsulinemia and insulin resistance can be present for years before blood glucose ever shows signs of being elevated. Diagnosing insulin resistance can be difficult because insulin levels aren’t routinely tested in most medical practices. There is a simple method you use to check yourself, though. Waist-to-height ratio has been shown to be a great predictor of a person’s insulin resistance. All you have to do is divide your waist measurement by your height. A ratio of less than 0.5 indicates good insulin sensitivity, while a number higher than 0.5 indicates a worsening insulin resistance. The idea here is that our waist should be less than half our height. If your waist-to-height ratio is higher than 0.5, it may give you a good starting point to consult your physician and ask some questions.”

If you are found to have insulin resistance, Tillman says there are treatments available.

“One step in treating insulin resistance is to switch to a reduced-carbohydrate diet,” she said. “Another possible helpful tool is intermittent fasting or time restricted eating. Increased physical activity and exercise would almost certainly benefit just about everyone, but will become particularly important if you’re diagnosed with insulin resistance. Better sleep and stress management habits will become more important, as well.

“And if you’re having trouble with any of these changes, consult your physician. He or she may recommend you seek the advice of a registered dietitian who can help you find more strategies for healthy eating if you’re diagnosed with insulin resistance.”

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