Insulin Resistance, Obesity and Carbs: Is Insulin Resistance Caused by Over Eating Carbs? Is Obesity Caused by Insulin?

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Insulin Resistance, Obesity and Carbs

Insulin resistance describes the condition when body cells have become less sensitive to the effects of insulin, the hormone secreted by the pancreas to help glucose to gain entry to cells where it is turned into energy. A reduction in insulin sensitivity causes the pancreas to over-compensate by releasing even more insulin. This leads to two common outcomes: diabetes, or obesity combined with high cholesterol and increased rates of heart disease.

Obesity and Insulin Resistance

Some evidence supports the idea that too much insulin (hyperinsulimia) may affect the body's ability to use calories efficiently, thereby causing obesity, but the question is which comes first – does excess body fat cause insulin resistance or is it the other way around? This obesity-insulin issue has become confused by the polarization of opinion around the value of low carb dieting.

Some diet-experts who promote low-carb diets are fierce advocates of the twin propositions that (1) insulin resistance is caused by eating carbohydrates; and (2) insulin resistance is the cause of obesity.

Is Insulin Resistance Caused by Carbohydrates?

Although insulin resistance is mainly caused by hereditary genetic factors, there is no doubt that some carbohydrates (high-glycemic-index carbs) aggravate insulin insensitivity when eaten to excess. (For example, see Carbs and Blood Glucose Levels and Effects of High GI Foods on Health). However, there is no evidence to suggest either that all carbs aggravate insulin resistance, or that a carb-free diet leads to good health. Furthermore:

  • It is too simplistic to say that only carbohydrate in the diet stimulates insulin production. The truth is that all ingested foods stimulate the release of insulin.
  • It is not accurate to say that insulin stores fat only when high carb foods are eaten. The basic rule of human biochemistry is that food-energy (calories) is only stored as fat if too much food (from any source) is eaten. Meaning: if the body takes in less calories than it uses in a day, all those calories will be "burned" or used for energy. It does not matter what percentage of those calories came from fat, protein or carbohydrate. On the other hand, if the body takes in more calories than it burns, insulin will help to store those extra calories as fat. Again, it does not matter where the extra calories come from.

Carbs in Diets

Some experts point out that if all carbohydrates were responsible for insulin resistance, countries who consume the greatest amount of carbs as a percentage of calories in their diet, would suffer the most. Yet this is not the case. Third world countries - who tend to consume least protein and fat in their diet - are relatively unscathed by insulin resistance. Also, in Japan, carbohydrates compose the majority of daily caloric intake. High carb foods like grains, rice, and vegetables are daily staples of the Japanese diet, and intake of high protein, high fat animal products is minimal. In contrast to the "horrors" of carbohydrates as described by promoters of some "almost-no-carb" diets, Japan has one of the lowest rates of obesity, heart disease, cancer and diabetes in the world.

Insulin Resistance Caused by Combination of Factors

Bottom line: aside from hereditary causes, insulin resistance is aggravated by a wide variety of factors including over-consumption of high GI carbs. But sufferers of insulin resistance and insulin insensitivity may continue to consume lower GI carbs as part of a balanced diet, without ill-effects.

Is Insulin the Cause of Obesity

The idea that insulin is the sole (or even the major) cause of obesity is not supported by medical evidence. Obesity is an extremely complex issue. It has to do not only with excess consumption of calories and lack of exercise, but also genetics, psychological issues, social issues, medical problems, food-processing issues and many other cultural factors. However, the overconsumption of high-glycemic value foods (and high-fat fast-food) is a major cause of concern. For example, consider these obesity contributory factors:

  • The increase in US fast food outlets and soft-drinks vending machines parallels the recent increase in obesity.
  • About 40 cents in every US dollar spent on food is spent on eating out or takeouts.
  • Americans currently spend $61 billion per year on sodas - the classic high GI carbohydrate. (Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest)
  • Americans also spend $30 billion, per year on carb-rich pizza. (Source: Activity, October 2003)
  • Surveys continue to show that diners rate "portion-size per price" as the leading indicator of value for money when eating out.
  • Portion sizes at restaurants are becoming ever more outrageous.

In addition to this, studies show that the low quality of school food, widespread lack of exercise, use of home computers and TV viewing habits are all contributing to the obesity epidemic.

Bottom line: obesity is not a simple issue and insulin is not likely to be the sole, or even major cause.

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Insulin Resistance Syndrome provides general information about the glycemic index (GI), glycemic load (GL), low GI diets, GI value for all food groups, health problems of high blood glucose including metabolic disorders such as pre-diabetes, impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, hyperinsulinism as well as type 1 and type 2 diabetes. But no information is intended as a substitute for medical advice. Copyright 2003-2021.