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For decades, cholesterol has been vilified as the key factor driving heart attacks and strokes. While new drugs can drastically reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol, studies suggest that lives are not being saved by this approach. A paradigm shift is underway, and refined carbohydrates, sugar, and insulin resistance are emerging as key threats to heart health.
The role of insulin
Insulin is an essential hormone that escorts glucose molecules from our circulation into body cells. Insulin-resistant cells can’t respond to the knock of this hormonal chaperone on their walls. In a futile attempt to knock louder, the pancreas produces more insulin, but the signal is not received. Blood glucose levels continue to rise, progressing over time to type 2 diabetes.
While serious, diabetes is not the only consequence of insulin resistance. Infertility, metabolic syndrome, polycystic ovarian syndrome, liver disease, and some cancers are all linked with disturbed insulin function.
High insulin levels deal three strikes to our bodies by
- causing direct cellular damage to the cardiovascular system
- prompting changes to blood vessels, encouraging plaque formation
- fueling cholesterol production and increasing blood pressure
What causes insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance is linked to obesity and a sedentary lifestyle. Sugar is also a suspect, but weight gain caused by high-sugar diets may be the true culprit. Men are at slightly higher risk owing to their tendency to deposit extra weight around their abdominal organs. Other contributors are sleep apnea, poor sleep quality, psychological stress, environmental pollutants, and possibly even artificial sweeteners. Inflammation may add additional fuel to the fire.
How is it treated?
Simply addressing the factors above will improve your body’s response to insulin (also called “insulin sensitivity”). In people who are obese or overweight, weight loss sensitizes tissues to the message of insulin, lowering blood sugar and insulin levels.
Studies continue to investigate the most insulin-sensitizing forms of exercise, but while the scientists sort it out, get moving in any way that pleases you. Higher intensity exercise is likely most beneficial, but simply breaking up inactive periods with intermittent movement will help.
Following a Mediterranean-style diet seems to improve insulin sensitivity while protecting the heart through lowering cholesterol, blood pressure, weight, and systemic inflammation. While questions remain about the benefits or risks of alcohol, dairy, and grains on this plan, a plant-heavy diet packed with fiber, nuts, and antioxidant-rich foods should support proper insulin function. Legumes such as peas, lentils, and chickpeas are also important players, inspiring some of us to quietly sing, “Beans, beans, they’re good for your heart” before stopping abruptly.
What about supplements?
Key supplements could be considered in combination with a targeted diet and exercise plan and with the guidance of a qualified health care practitioner.
Consult your health care practitioner to discuss whether these supplements might be right for you.
- vitamin D and calcium
If you’re trying to manage an eating plan prescribed by your doctor for insulin resistance or cardiovascular health, reach out to our Store Dietitian, Kathryn, for recipe ideas and shopping assistance.