Insulin: Unless you're a diabetic, it's probably one of those health terms you're familiar with but can't really define. However, if you're overweight, that needs to change. Even if you're not one of the 26 million Americans living with type 2 diabetes, insulin issues may still be hindering your health and contributing excess belly fat.
When you eat a meal, your body breaks the carbohydrates down into a sugar called glucose, and insulin is the hormone responsible for ushering that glucose into your cells so it can be used for energy. However, lifestyle factors including a diet high in processed carbs and sugary drinks can cause your body to stop responding to insulin effectively, preventing glucose from entering your cells and prompting your pancreas to pump out extra insulin to compensate. The result: excess insulin and sugar in your blood stream that leads to weight gain, especially around your middle. "If your problem area is your love handles, then you likely have high insulin levels," says Natasha Turner, ND, hormone expert and author of The Carb Sensitivity Program. "Too much insulin encourages your body to store unused glucose as fat, and it also prevents your body from using stored fat for energy."
The good news: Research shows that nixing processed foods and staying active can bring your insulin and blood sugar to healthy levels, and help you drop pounds for good. Even better? Certain foods may give you an extra fat-blasting boost by restoring your body's sensitivity to insulin. Here are 12 to add to your diet, as adapted from The Carb Sensitivity Program.
In a groundbreaking study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2010, researchers discovered that obese, insulin-resistant participants who consumed a blueberry smoothie every day for 6 weeks experienced a 22-percent improvement in insulin sensitivity, compared to only 4.9 percent in the placebo group. Plus, blueberries are low in sugar, high in belly-filling fiber, and packed with anti-aging antioxidants that benefit skin, cognitive function, and heart health.
Slimming Suggestion: The next time you're in need of a quick breakfast, give this blueberry-orange smoothie recipe a try.
Protein is essential for maintaining healthy body composition, blood sugar balance, and muscle growth. Whey protein in particular may also help reduce your food intake: A University of Toronto study found that eating whey protein before a meal provided satiety signals that prevented a group of healthy young adults from overeating.
Slimming Suggestion: Add a dose of whey to your diet with these 10 Tasty Protein Shake Recipes.
High in monounsaturated fats, avocados got an undue bad rap during the recent low-fat era. Yet studies show that people sustain their nutrition program longer and see greater weight loss on a higher-fat diet that's composed of about 30 percent heart-healthy fats (such as those found in avocados), compared to a low-fat diet. The reason: Fats can help to slow the release of sugars into the bloodstream, which leads to less insulin release. Avocados also contain a unique weight-loss friendly carbohydrate called mannoheptulose that research links to lower insulin secretions.
Slimming Suggestion: Avocado's not just for guac. Try some in this delicious Egg, Avocado, and Spicy Mayo Sandwich recipe.
On a per-gram basis, chia is touted to be the highest source of omega-3s in nature, with 65 percent of its total fat from omega-3 fatty acids. The ancient gluten-free grain is also a substantial source of fiber, magnesium, potassium, folic acid, iron, and calcium. Research shows that chia stabilizes blood sugar, manages the effects of diabetes, improves insulin sensitivity, and aids symptoms related to metabolic syndrome, including imbalances in cholesterol, blood pressure, and high blood sugar after meals.
Slimming Suggestion: Add 1 to 2 tablespoons to oatmeal, salads, or smoothies daily to reap the benefits.
A must-have in your smoothie-making arsenal, flaxseed is a nutrient powerhouse rich in thiamin, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, and manganese. Its high fiber content also helps lower blood sugar, improve cholesterol levels, and aid weight loss. What's more, adding 2 to 3 tablespoons of flaxseed to your smoothies, oatmeal, salads, or cereals can also reduce your cancer risk and provide you with a healthy hit of "good fats." The oils in flaxseed can go rancid quickly, though, so be sure to purchase ground flaxseed in a vacuum-sealed package and store it in the freezer. Or better yet, grind your own daily.
Slimming Suggestion: Add flaxseed to pancake batter for a brain-boosting morning meal. You'll love these Blueberry Protein Pancakes.
Your favorite spice mix not only boosts the flavor of your meals, but may also shrink your stomach. Research published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that a food-seasoning spice mixture significantly reduced blood sugar and insulin levels and improved blood-cholesterol balance in rats. And another study in the Research Journal of Pharmaceutical, Biological and Chemical Sciences found that fenugreek seeds, garlic, onion, and turmeric can lower blood sugar and reduce insulin.
Slimming Suggestion: Spice up your routine with this Tomato and Mozzarella Rice recipe.
Monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocados encourage the release of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin, and olive oil in particular has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. In a 2007 study published in the journal Diabetes Care, 11 subjects with insulin resistance and excess abdominal fat tried three different diets for 28 days each: a diet high in saturated fat, a high-carb diet, and a diet rich in monounsaturated fats, including olive oil. Of the three diets, the one rich in olive oil had the best outcome, preventing not only belly-fat accumulation, but also insulin resistance.
Slimming Suggestion: Use 1 tablespoon of olive oil in this Asian-Inspired Broccoli Slaw recipe.
Just a pinch of cinnamon on top of your yogurt can go a long way toward balancing insulin levels. A study published in the journal Diabetes Care showed that cinnamon can cause muscle and liver cells to respond more readily to insulin, thereby improving weight loss. Just 1/2 teaspoon a day for 20 days is enough to improve your insulin response and lower blood sugar by up to 20 percent.
Slimming Suggestion: Sneak more cinnamon into your diet with one of these 7 Delicious No-Cook Breakfasts.
It turns out that our grandparents had it right--eggs for breakfast, regardless of how you prepare them, improve appetite control and boost energy levels. In a 2008 study published in the International Journal of Obesity, overweight and obese subjects given two eggs a day for breakfast lost 65 percent more weight than those eating a similar breakfast without eggs. The researchers concluded that eating eggs might control hunger by reducing the post-meal insulin response and control appetite by preventing large fluctuations in both blood sugar and insulin levels.
Slimming Suggestion: Turn your breakfast into a belly flattener with this Tomato, Artichoke, and Feta Frittata recipe.
Cherries are a wonder food, and not just because they taste great and can satisfy your urge for something sweet with just a few calories. Scientists have identified a group of naturally occurring chemicals called anthocyanins--abundant in cherries and other red fruits--that may help to lower blood sugar levels. In early studies published in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, anthocyanins were found to reduce insulin production by 50 percent. Anthocyanins are also potent antioxidants, which may protect against heart disease and cancer.
Slimming Suggestion: For a sweet-spicy salsa, combine chopped cherries with green onions, cilantro, garlic, and jalapeno.
Your salad dressing may play a role in lowering post-meal glucose levels. According to a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vinegar can blunt blood sugar and insulin increases, and increase the sensation of fullness after a high-carb meal. The researchers found that the acetic acid that gives vinegar its tart taste improves post-meal insulin sensitivity, even in those who are currently insulin resistant. Just watch out for balsamic vinegar, which contains more sugar than other varieties.
Slimming Suggestion: Balsamic isn't the worst veggie topper. Steer clear of these 20 Dressings that Turn Salads into Fat Bombs.
Nuts are a great source of healthy fats, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which reduce insulin resistance and improve cholesterol levels. They're also rich in plant protein and dietary fiber, two macronutrients that help keep you full and curb cravings. Another reason to go, well, nuts: Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health discovered that women who consumed nuts or peanut butter five times a week or more lowered their risk for type 2 diabetes by nearly 30 percent compared to those who rarely or never ate nuts or peanut butter.
Slimming Suggestion: For the biggest health payoff, be sure to select natural, sugar-free varieties.