If you or someone you know has diabetes you’re probably all too familiar with the term “insulin”. But, what you might not know is that this powerful hormone can dramatically affect the body’s natural fat-burning mechanisms and ultimately influence how easily you lose weight and even how quickly you gain it. Even if you knew this or have heard it somewhere before, keep reading to find out why.

What Exactly is Insulin?

Insulin is a hormone that’s exclusively produced by specialized cells in the pancreas called beta cells. This essential hormone primarily functions in lowering blood sugar (glucose) levels whenever they are too high for too long. Digestion and absorption of carbohydrates (carbs) generally causes blood sugar levels to rise, as most carb-containing foods are converted to glucose.

Related Article: What You Should Know About Carbs and the Glycemic Index

Since glucose is the body’s preferred energy source, it’s continuously used to fuel vital metabolic functions and day-to-day physical activities. Unused glucose in the bloodstream triggers insulin release from pancreatic beta cells. Insulin then signals the liver and muscle cells to take up this glucose for storage as glycogen.

Glycogen stores serve as a key fuel source when blood glucose levels are low (when the body’s in a fasted state).

The Role of Insulin in Weight Gain

Prolonged and repeated elevations in blood glucose can set off a progressive insulin-related signaling cascade that inhibits weight loss and could ultimately contribute to unintended weight gain. Although insulin-stimulated glucose uptake and glycogen synthesis are triggered when blood sugar levels are high, the body’s capacity to store liver and muscle glycogen is actually quite limited.

In fact, the average person can only hold about 2,000 calories of stored glycogen, which is just enough to fuel approximately two hours of continuous high-intensity exercise training. Once the liver and muscle cells have met their storage capacity for glycogen, any remaining glucose is converted to triglycerides (fat) and stored in adipose tissue, primarily as visceral (“belly”) fat.

Related Article: Why Exercise Alone Won’t Get Rid of Belly Fat

Now, I must emphasize that the likelihood of glucose being stored as fat is next to none when a healthy diet well-balanced in high-quality carbohydrates is followed. This holds especially true when exercise and other forms of physical activity are regularly performed, as the body is able to adequately use blood glucose for energy and, with the aid of insulin, successfully store any excess as liver and muscle glycogen.

Related Article: Dietary Sugar: The Good, The Bad and The Unnecessary

On the flip side, the surplus of circulating glucose that results from haphazardly consuming carbs will surely override the body’s capacity to store glycogen leading to unwanted fat storage and ultimately weight gain. Moreover, vanity-aside, continuous surges of insulin that result from excessive carb consumption can cause the body’s cells to become less sensitive to it, causing a condition known as insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance substantially reduces the body’s ability to convert blood glucose into liver and muscle glycogen making fat storage an inevitable consequence. Adding insult to injury, if left unchecked and untreated, insulin resistance can also lead to the development of type 2 diabetes and related health issues (increased blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol levels).

Related Article: How Healthy Eating Habits Can Ward Off Type 2 Diabetes

Managing Insulin for Weight Loss

Believe it or not, in spite of its potential role in weight gain, insulin isn’t weight loss enemy number 1. In fact, when insulin is properly regulated it can actually enhance weight loss by enabling the conversion of blood sugar into energy instead of fat. In addition, maintaining stable insulin levels promotes the burning of fat that’s already stored in the body, which can further boost weight loss.

So, here’s the magic question: How can you control the natural actions of insulin in a way that supports weight loss instead of inhibiting it?

The answer to this question is very simple: By combining a sensible eating plan with a proper exercise routine.

A sensible eating plan is essentially one that’s rich in high-quality carbohydrates and other key nutrients like “healthy” fats and lean protein. In terms of carbs, the very best sources include vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and all-natural grains, as the rich content of dietary fiber, fat and/or protein housed in such foods reduces the rate at which glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream thereby lessening the need for insulin.

Related Article: A Simple Guide to Eating Sensibly

When coupled with sensible eating, regular exercise training (cardiovascular exercise and weight lifting) reduces the body’s overall demand for insulin. This is primarily because, in and of itself, exercise has “insulin-like” effects that naturally lower blood glucose by increasing the rate at which it’s used to fuel the working muscles. Exercise also improves insulin’s ability to store greater amounts of glucose as liver and muscle glycogen thereby reducing the possibility of unnecessary fat storage.

Related Article: Establishing a Weekly Workout Plan

The Net-Net

When it comes to fat burning and ultimately weight loss, the insulin-signaling system can truly be one of your very best friends. However, when this system is abused weight gain and other health problems will likely ensue. As with weight management in general, glucose and insulin regulation all comes down to what and how much you eat and whether or not you’re creating an adequate balance with what you do.