If you’ve tried restrictive diets that “should” work but don’t, you are not alone. Most research agrees that diets based on calorie restriction fail, even for the most diligent and dedicated participants. This is because calories and weight loss are more sophisticated than the addition/subtraction rules behind many diet programs. Weight loss can be influenced by the microscopic characteristics of your cells and your body’s messengers – the hormones. You may need to consider the relationship between insulin resistance and weight loss.
I like to think about hormones like the performers in a Cirque de Soleil show. There are aerial acrobats, vocalists, and dancers all moving in harmony from side to center stage on cue from the other performers. One of the hormones that takes center stage in the performance of weight loss is insulin. And insulin may be the very thing that is making it so difficult for you to lose weight.
What is Insulin?
Many people know insulin as the hormone that responds to glucose in the blood. But insulin is important for more than just that. Insulin also helps build muscle, helps electrolytes keep blood pressure in balance, and even helps support brain functions for learning and memory.
In all, insulin plays its biggest role in metabolism. During digestion, sugars and carbohydrates from food are converted into glucose – the body’s primary energy source. Glucose then enters the bloodstream, where it’s picked up by insulin. Insulin unlocks the gates on the cell for glucose to pass through. When there is more glucose than your body will use, the leftover glucose gets converted to a triglyceride and stored in adipose (fat) cells in case you need energy later and can’t get to food.
So, less glucose in your diet means less fat storage and less weight gain, right? Maybe.
If you decrease your intake of sugars and simple carbohydrates, you may see weight loss, or at least pause weight gain. If your diet was very high in sugars, you will also lower inflammation, improve satiety and have better digestion.
But what if you decrease sugar and simple carbohydrates, and weight still isn’t coming off?
It could be related to insulin, or more importantly, insulin in-sensitivity, also known as insulin resistance.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin resistance starts out as too much insulin, which is often released to manage glucose from diet, but also in response to stress. If the levels of insulin stay high constantly and over time, the cell will attempt to dampen the response to meet its needs by reducing the number of gates available for glucose to pass through, thus creating the state of insulin resistance. This means the circulating glucose isn’t used for energy. The glucose must go somewhere, so it’s placed in the fat cells as a triglyceride to be stored for later. As fat cells grow with more stored triglycerides, they can also develop their own insulin resistance.
Remember, this is in response to glucose and insulin, and not calories. So, when insulin is rising, body fat will increase, even though the number of calories may stay the same or even drop.
How Do I Know If I am Insulin Resistant?
You can’t exactly feel insulin resistance, and it doesn’t occur suddenly, so you might not know if you have it. Signs of insulin resistance might be:
- Waist circumference equal to or greater than hip circumference
- Extreme thirst or hunger
- Increased urination
- Feeling more tired than normal, especially after a meal
Common lab markers that indicate signs of insulin resistance are:
- Elevated fasted glucose
- Elevated Hemoglobin A1C (HbA1C)
- Elevated insulin
- Elevated triglycerides
- Low HDL cholesterol
- Elevated blood pressure
If you’re not sure whether you have insulin resistance, ask your doctor for a blood test of your fasted glucose and insulin.
What Are Some Risk Factors for Insulin Resistance?
Since insulin resistance is caused by an imbalance in glucose regulation, you may be more at risk if you:
- Eat lots of sugars or simple carbohydrates
- Have an inactive lifestyle
- Drink alcohol in excess
- Use nicotine
- Have a history of diabetes
- Are over 45 years old
- Have sleep problems
- Take certain kinds of medication
Many resources list “obesity” as a risk factor, but it’s as much a result as it is a cause.
How Do You Lose Weight if You are Insulin Resistant?
How your body responds to insulin is partly due to your age & genetics, but also things you can control, such as stress and intakes of simple carbohydrates and sugars. When it comes to weight loss with insulin resistance, it doesn’t work to simply reduce calories. Instead, you’ll have a better chance at meeting your goals by making some manageable changes to your diet and lifestyle that support insulin sensitivity for your cells.
Diet Changes to Support Insulin Resistance
Reduce your intake of processed grains. Breads, pasta and crackers will raise glucose, and therefore insulin, more than whole grains like rice, amaranth or quinoa.
Avoid snacking between meals. Eating throughout the day keeps insulin constantly circulating around the cells.
Boost fibers in your diet from fruits and vegetables, beans and whole grains. Fiber will improve satiety and make you feel full longer, so you’ll be less likely to want to snack between meals.
Use fasting wisely and deliberately. If you want to try fasting, start with at least getting 12 hours of fasting overnight between dinner and breakfast. There are many fasting programs, and their success depends on finding the right one for you. We can help if you’re not sure how to get started.
Avoid concentrated fructose and sucrose. Foods and drinks that contain concentrated sources of fructose, like corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, or sucrose – such as some fruit juices, soda, candy, or ice cream – have been shown to increase insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance needs a diet that starts with a balanced blood sugar. Download our free guide to balance your blood sugar.
What Are Some Lifestyle Changes I Can Make to Reverse Insulin Resistance?
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep. When you’re not rested, the body struggles to respond to stress and increases cravings for more glucose to meet perceived energy demands for fight & flight.
Balance stress. All kinds of stress promote insulin to make you ready to fight or run away. Balancing stress with breathing, meditation or yoga will help with insulin sensitivity. Visit this blog for other tips to balance stress.
Move your body. Even if you have to sit a lot during the day, try to move by standing, walking around your space or flexing your muscles. Exercise regularly and with increasing intensity. Building more lean muscle will help clear glucose.
The exception to this is if you’ve recently significantly reduced carbohydrate intake. Keep aerobic exercise (running, swimming, hiking) a little more moderate or try bursts of exercise, like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), to give your body time to adapt to the fuel source.
Address underlying sources of inflammation. This could be related to digestive dysfunction, allergies, or stress and you may need to work with a practitioner.
Nutritional Supplements to Improve Insulin Resistance
Additionally, certain nutritional supplements may support insulin sensitivity. Check with your doctor or practitioner to find the right doses for supplements:
- Chromium – a mineral found in broccoli, green beans, whole grains liver and turkey. 
- Berberine – made from the bitter roots and stems of plants. 
- Magnesium – a mineral so important to nearly every function of the body that it’s found in nearly all foods in varying levels. Some of the highest magnesium foods are pumpkin seeds, almonds, spinach, dark chocolate, quinoa, and avocados. 
- Resveratrol – a compound found in plant-based foods, including blueberries, cranberries, dark chocolate, grapes, peanuts and pistachios. 
Like cholesterol, insulin is often perceived as the villain. But it’s only when insulin falls out of harmony with your body that problems with health, metabolism and weight occur. As you improve insulin resistance, you may be pleasantly surprised by the change in your body shape.
I work with people who want to support insulin balance, weight loss and metabolism including understanding when fasting is correct for you.
Schedule a free 20-minute phone consult to learn how we can support your insulin and weight goals.
“Why We Get Sick” by Benjamin Bikman, PhD
“Blood Sugar Solution” by Mark Hyman, MD
Disclaimer: Nutrition therapy is not intended as a diagnosis, treatment, prescription, or cure for any disease, or as a substitute for medical care. Jen Marshall and Stacy St Germain are not licensed medical providers. Nutrition plans are not intended as a substitution for traditional medical care, nor should be interpreted as medical advice, but instead is an adjunctive and supportive therapy.
This content was originally written on April 9, 2021, and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.