If you’re overweight and trying to lose some pounds, you may have been told that eating a low-calorie diet and limiting your fat intake are the way to go.
But what if you have insulin resistance and are at risk for type 2 diabetes?
“If you think you’re insulin resistant or at risk, talk to your doctor about how to manage the condition, including diet,” says Michael W. Lee, MD, an endocrinologist and weight management specialist at Scripps Clinic Center for Weight Management. “Your efforts to lose weight may not have anything to do with willpower,” Dr. Lee adds. “It may be due to the way your body reacts — or doesn’t react — to insulin.”
Your doctor may recommend a low-carb diet, regular exercise and even medication to help you overcome insulin resistance. But first you need to know if you have this condition.
“Your physician can diagnose and recommend ways to reverse insulin resistance and prevent or delay type 2 diabetes,” Dr. Lee says.
Insulin is a metabolic hormone made by the pancreas when you eat that tells your body’s cells that fuel, in the form of blood sugar or glucose, is available for immediate use.
In some cases, for a variety of reasons, the body’s cells don’t respond to insulin as they should and can’t easily take sugar from the blood. The pancreas reacts by producing more insulin to try to keep up with higher blood sugar levels. This condition is known as hyperinsulinemia.
If your cells become too resistant to insulin, it can result in elevated blood sugar levels, which can lead to weight gain, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Losing weight with insulin resistance is more difficult because the body stores excess blood sugar as fat.
Excess body fat — especially around the waist — and lack of physical activity are primary causes of insulin resistance. A diet of highly processed carbohydrate foods and saturated fats is another contributor. Certain medications and genetic conditions can also cause it.
Signs of insulin resistance, include:
- High blood sugar levels
- High blood pressure
- High blood levels of triglycerides (a kind of blood fat)
- High LDL (bad cholesterol)
- Low HDL or good cholesterol
Symptoms of insulin resistance are associated with high blood glucose levels and include:
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Increased hunger
- Blurred vision
- Vaginal and skin infections
- Slow healing cuts and sores
Dietary changes, physical activity and even some medications can help reduce both blood glucose and insulin levels.
Low-carb diets that emphasize healthy sources of carbs, fat and protein can reduce insulin resistance.
One of the best tools to promote better blood glucose management is the Glycemic Index (GI).
A GI score is a measure of the effect that a given food has on blood sugar levels.
- High-glycemic foods (70 and above) cause sudden and significant insulin spikes.
- Mid-glycemic foods (56-69) are foods with moderate insulin-raising effects.
- Low-glycemic foods (0-55) help keep insulin levels relatively low and steady.
Harvard University offers a simplified online glycemic index reference to help with glucose management.
There are also smartphone and tablet apps to track and manage diabetes, glucose control, meal plans and physical activity.
Carbs that bring on blood sugar spikes include most kinds of refined flour products, such as rice, bread, breakfast cereals and baked goods as well as sugary drinks and fruit juices.
Carbs that minimize blood sugar spikes include beans and legumes, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, milk and yogurt.
“Even if somebody is not insulin-resistant and doesn’t get additional weight-loss benefits from minimizing their intake of simple carbohydrates, it’s a healthy way to eat,” Dr. Lee says.
The key to weight loss is consistency and sustainability, he says. “It is possible to lose weight and maintain that loss on any kind of reduced-calorie diet, especially if it allows foods that you like, so you can stick to it.”