Turnaround Eating! Change Insulin Resistance to Insulin Sensitivity
By Juliet M. Getty, Ph.D.
Do you have an overweight horse? Chances are he is insulin resistant. Excess body fat leads to elevated insulin, and blood glucose levels are slow to return to normal. Elevated insulin leads to more body fat storage, which leads to greater insulin resistance, and the vicious cycle continues. Even horses of normal weight can be insulin resistant, exhibited by regional fat deposits along the neck, shoulders, tail head, and back. These horses are labeled as having “Equine Metabolic Syndrome,” another term for insulin resistance.
The opposite of insulin resistance is insulin sensitivity.
Insulin sensitivity simply means that the horse’s cells respond better to insulin and there is no longer a need for the pancreas to continually pump out high levels of this hormone. Storage of body fat normalizes, as well as blood sugar levels. In attempting to reach this goal, many horse owners will restrict feed – putting their horse on a “diet.” The problem is that horses are designed to graze. They need to consistently chew to neutralize stomach acid (through saliva production, a natural antacid). Left with an empty stomach, your horse can suffer a variety of health issues, experience a hormonal stress response that increases the blood insulin level, and ironically, remain overweight. This is because excess insulin tells the body to hold on to body fat and refrain from burning it for energy. Consistently eating forage, on the other hand, matches what a horse would naturally do. It allows cortisol (stress hormone) levels to decline, making the cells more responsive and more sensitive to insulin.
How eating affects insulin sensitivity was recently evaluated by researchers at Louisiana State University. They determined that hay-deprived mares experienced a greater degree of insulin resistance and less insulin sensitivity than those mares who were fed hay ad libitum (free-choice). These results are consistent with a horse’s natural eating pattern. A healthy, insulin sensitive horse is a horse that will not easily gain weight when fed forage free-choice. A healthy horse will burn body fat and not store excessive amounts.
Reduce concentrates but not forage.
Calorie reduction, though important, should be accomplished by reducing or even eliminating commercial feeds and cereal grains. But never reduce forage intake. While pasture grazing may not be an option for your overweight, insulin resistant horse during certain times of the day or seasons of the year, you should always offer hay, day and night, 24 hours a day. Be sure to provide a vitamin/mineral supplement to fill in the gaps that exist with hay. To do this effectively, it is best to make sure that your hay is low enough in non-structural carbohydrates (NSC) and calories. Therefore, testing is recommended. Once you know your hay has a NSC level of at most 12 percent, and no more than 0.89 megacalories per pound (1.96 megacalories per kilogram), feed it free-choice.
Allow your horse to self-regulate.
When forage is restricted, your horse’s body perceives this as “survival mode” and will hold on to body fat because it is uncertain when food will again be made available. But once the horse gets the message that hay is always there, that he doesn’t run out, not even for 10 minutes, then and only then will your horse understand that he can walk away and the hay will still be there when he returns. He starts to calm down his eating, eating more slowly, and eating less – eating only what his body needs. Insulin sensitivity increases, and body weight begins to normalize. With the help of exercise, your horse’s cells will respond to insulin better and no longer store excess body fat.
Give your horse a chance to be a horse - to tell you how much forage he needs.
Dr. Juliet Getty is an internationally respected equine nutritionist available for private consultations and speaking engagements. At www.gettyequinenutrition.com, sign up for her informative—and free—monthly newsletter, Forage for Thought, read articles, join her nutrition forum, enroll in upcoming teleseminars and purchase previously recorded events. Contact Dr. Getty directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.