Do you struggle with a few extra pounds despite eating healthy and exercising regularly? Trust me – this can be SO frustrating! When faced with unwanted fat or unexplained weight gain, many people increase exercise intensity and frequency and cut back on carbs and, theoretically, this should work…but it’s not!
Instead, weight creeps up, especially around the middle, and we feel tired, unmotivated and discouraged! The problem is that working out more and eating less is actually backfiring because it’s causing blood sugar and cortisol imbalances in our bodies. A healthy body isn’t just about diet and exercise – it’s about what you eat and how you exercise!
How Your Diet Affects Your Blood Sugar
As a healthy, fit individual, you probably don’t eat a lot of sugary treats. You know that donuts, ice cream, and candy have no nutritional value and that junk food can make you fat. Instead, you reach for foods labeled with “no sugar added”, “made with whole grains”, or “fat-free”. Or, you follow the advice of health and fitness experts to choose healthy options like protein bars, yogurt, whole grain bread or smoothies.
Here’s the kicker – these “healthy” foods are probably one of the main causes for your stubborn weight! Because most of these so-called healthy foods contain sweeteners, little to no fiber, or are devoid of nutrients, your body goes on the defense.
Sugars, including most artificial sweeteners, spike your blood sugar (or glucose), which triggers the release of insulin. Insulin’s job is to signal your cells take in glucose for energy. Cells only have so much room for glucose before they shut their doors on insulin. If your blood glucose levels are still elevated, insulin triggers the conversion of some into glycogen by the liver but the remaining glucose needs somewhere to go. Insulin will try to get more glucose into the cells but the more the insulin ‘knocks’ on the cells’ doors, the less likely the cells are to respond – this leads to insulin resistance. With nowhere to go, excess glucose is shunted into fat cells for storage.
When you eat simple carbohydrates, like fruit smoothies and flavored yogurt, your blood sugar spikes and insulin floods your system. Fiber helps to slow down the release of glucose and prevents surges of insulin. Processed foods devoid of nutrients don’t feed your body what it needs to function and, because cells become resistant to insulin, inadequate amounts of glucose enter cells and you’re left feeling hungry.
Exercise and the Stress Response
People who want to get rid of excess fat typically try to exercise more often. Cardio workouts get longer and high-intensity routines become more frequent. After all, fitness experts tell us that the longer and harder a workout, the more calories we’ll burn and the more health benefits we’ll experience. What people don’t realize, though, is that every time you experience physical stress, including exercise, your adrenals pump out stress hormone, called cortisol.
And, a low carb diet, common in the health and fitness community, triggers cortisol secretion because the body thinks it’s starving and tries to conserve energy. Cortisol mobilizes fat cells to move closer to the major organs (i.e. the abdomen) where they will be more accessible as a source of energy. Unfortunately, fat cells do not break down easily so the body goes after other sources of energy, like protein, first. Here are more bad news – fat cells themselves release cortisol into the blood!
Fitness experts glorify the benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as the fastest, more effective way to melt body fat. Yes, HIIT has been shown to improve strength and cardiovascular function, but HIIT also places major stress on your body. And, for people already dealing with suboptimal nutrition, blood sugar imbalances, and sleep deprivation, stress hormones are already high.
(source: Precision Nutrition http://www.precisionnutrition.com/research-review-blood-sugar)
If you’re struggling to lose those last few pounds, here are some tips to help balance your insulin and cortisol.
- Identify the stressors in your life and find positive ways to deal with them. Give yourself permission to do something relaxing every day.
- Avoid processed, packaged foods, especially those with 2+ grams of sugar per serving and more than 5 ingredients.
- Eat 1 cup of fresh blueberries and 1 tsp of cinnamon daily to improve insulin sensitivity.
- Pair carbohydrates with healthy fats and/or protein at every meal and snack, especially after exercise. This helps offset the cortisol response.
- Aim for 5-10 grams of fiber at every meal.
- Limit HIIT, long-duration cardio or other intense workouts to twice per week and no more than 25 minutes per session (less if you’re extremely exhausted).
- Add yoga, brisk walking (preferably outdoors) and meditation 2 – 3 times per week to help reduce stress.
- Replace calories lost in low-carb diets with calories from healthy fats.
- Make sleep a priority! When you’re sleep deprived, cortisol is elevated and blood sugar is out of whack.
Regular exercise and a healthy diet are the cornerstones of weight management. But, understanding which foods to eat and what type, frequency and intensity of exercise are right for you will help balance your hormones and meet your goals faster.
Hi, I am a Certified Holistic Nutrition (CHN) and Fitness Coach. I help busy women lose weight, eliminate afternoon sugar cravings, sleep better and feel like themselves again.
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