Sustainable Nutrition

Everything You Need To Know About Glucose, Insulin, & Low-Carb Diets

Written By: Kripa Jalan

Everything You Need To Know About Glucose, Insulin, & Low-Carb Diets

Some experts (including the self-proclaimed ones on Twitter)—believe carbs and insulin make you gain weight. But, they say, the fix is simple: If you eat a low-carb diet, you’ll keep insulin levels low—and lose weight rapidly instead. 

Is it true? Let’s look at the science behind these claims!

Why you should care!

Type 2 diabetes—which affects 50 million Indian adults —doesn’t come out of nowhere. More so, the conversion from pre- to full blown Type 2 diabetes, happens extremely rapidly in our population.

P.S. Present research fails to capture the country’s diversity and there is limited data on individuals being treated in the private sector. So, the burden may be underestimated.

And it’s easy to dismiss blood sugar levels and other metabolic health markers as relevant only to people with diabetes. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The condition develops gradually, starting with subtle changes to your ability to generate energy from food. Long before the formal diagnosis, this decline in metabolic health affects your physical well-being and can hamper energy, mood, and other aspects of day-to-day life. 

The good news is that you can slow and even reverse this damage. By improving your metabolic health, you improve your body’s ability to make and use energy. This goes not just for people with diabetes or prediabetes, but for everyone who wants to maintain optimal health.

WTF is metabolic health?

Everything you do requires energy.

Whether you’re running, jumping, thinking, or silently sitting, your body needs a reliable power supply to carry on. It gets this supply by converting food into energy through a set of biological processes known as metabolism.

Good metabolic health means that your body can efficiently make and use energy, helping you function at full capacity. Poor metabolic health, by contrast, means that cells aren’t getting the energy they need, leading to a slew of mental and physical challenges.

Glucose 101

The body gets most of its energy from glucose, a kind of sugar that comes from food you eat and circulates in your blood.

After you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream. Cells then absorb glucose and use it to generate the energy they need to do their job, whether that’s contracting muscles, relaying brain messages, or fighting off infections.

Enter Insulin

When you eat carbohydrates, and blood glucose rises, your body—specifically your pancreas—releases insulin. That’s because insulin is your body’s key regulator of blood glucose.

Insulin is needed to shuttle glucose from your blood into your muscle and fat cells, where it can be used for energy or stored for later use.

Without insulin, your blood glucose levels would stay elevated for a much longer period. And that would be very bad. This is why people with type 1 diabetes must take insulin every day via injections or a pump.

So, where’s the problem?

After you eat super sugary or carb-dense foods, your body tries to compensate by releasing extra insulin. In the short term, this works: the additional insulin opens cell doors, glucose enters, and blood sugar remains relatively stable. If you have these insulin surges too often, however, your cells can eventually become numb to insulin’s effects—a condition called insulin resistance.

Insulin-resistant cells have trouble opening their doors, even as blood sugar and insulin levels rise. This can lead to serious health consequences, including Type 2 diabetes.

Should I just cut carbs?

If you eat lots of carbs at a meal, your blood glucose and insulin levels go up more than if you eat fewer carbs.

But context matters. And, people respond differently to the same amount of carbs, depending on a number of factors like:

  • Fitness level
  • Body fat
  • Genetics
  • Microbiome health
  • Muscle mass
  • How recently, vigorously, and long they’ve exercised
  • Time of day
  • What else they’re eating

While a low-carb diet can certainly help balance blood sugar and comes with a range of benefits - over time, adherence to low-carb diets wanes, just like it does with other diets. 

If you can sustain a low-carb diet long-term – great.

If you can’t, there’s other ways to balance and improve your metabolic health:

  • Try and limit your consumption of ultra-processed foods. 
  • Get in some form of movement (bonus: doing moderate exercise post-meals)
  • Prioritize your psychological well-being and take steps to manage stress. 
  • Sleep for 7-8 hours on a daily basis.
  • Don’t smoke and watch out for petrochemicals in skincare products/food packaging. 

Your blood sugar levels can have a big impact on how you feel day-to-day, so learning to balance them through your diet, exercise, and lifestyle habits can help you feel your best and avoid future health issues. 

Not everyone’s blood sugar levels will react the same to changes though, so working with a healthcare practitioner can be valuable for determining what’s best for your body.