The Insulin Response to Carbohydrates

Have you ever wondered why you often get hungry a few hours after what seemed to be a large meal? Maybe you get a cookie craving 3 hours after a large pasta dinner? Well there's a very good reason for that. It has to do with how the body processes carbohydrates and it's related to one of the body's most important hormones - Insulin.

When we eat a carbohydrate rich meal, blood sugar levels increase as the carbohydrates are broken down into their base molecules - sugar. As blood sugar levels increase, insulin is released in response. Insulin is a hormone which moves glucose (sugar) from the blood into the muscles and fat cells for storage. In order to visualize this relationship better, take a look at the graph below.

Insulin Graph In this graph we can see how insulin reacts to an increase in blood glucose levels. After the ingestion of a carbohydrate rich meal, blood glucose levels increase rapidly. Once the body detects these elevated blood glucose levels it releases insulin. You can see that blood glucose levels peak and then fall off and insulin does the same, however insulin levels peak later than blood glucose. Once blood glucose levels reach normal again, you can see that it takes insulin a little bit longer to reach normal again. It is this lag time in normalization of insulin levels which gives us those sugar cravings after carbohydrate rich meals. This is because blood sugar levels are normal but we still have insulin present in the blood and that insulin needs something to do - without sugar to store it gets bored! So it has the effect of asking the body for more sugar. That's why we get hungry even though we just ate a few hours ago.

So what can we do to eliminate or at least reduce these hunger cravings? We have to learn how to control the insulin response to some degree. If we can decrease the amount of sugar we dump into our blood, thereby decreasing the size of the peak in blood glucose levels, the insulin response will decrease accordingly. By leveling off the peaks and valleys in insulin during the day you'll be able to exit that 'hunger rollercoaster' that plagues millions.

There are a couple of ways we can do this, some of which are detailed in other sections of this website so I'll just touch briefly on them. The first way is to choose your carbohydrates wisely - see
Good Carbohydrates, Fats and Proteins. Another good plan is to try to include carbohydrates, fats and protein in every meal and snack throughout the day. Fat and protein will slow down the release of insulin. Also, carbohydrates that have a higher fibre content do not cause as large an insulin response as those which contain less fibre.

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