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How diet can improve insulin resistance

March 25, 2017
Insulin is a hormone that helps the body absorb glucose, keeping blood sugar levels in balance. Insulin resistance makes it harder for glucose to be absorbed.

This causes problems for muscles, fat, and the liver, as they need glucose (sugar). Over time, insulin resistancecan cause high blood sugar levels and damage cells.

Insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes. People with insulin resistance are often diagnosed with prediabetes. They may need extra checks to make sure they don’t develop diabetes.

Diet and other lifestyle choices can increase the risks related to insulin resistance. Making diet changes can reduce insulin insensitivity. This reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and the health problems that go with it.

Understanding insulin resistance

Glucose is a vital source of energy for the body. However, many of the body’s cells can’t absorb glucose on their own.

The pancreas secretes insulin into the bloodstream. It joins up with glucose, and travels to the body’s cells, where it attaches to insulin receptors. Insulin allows the cells to absorb glucose, making sure that:

  • blood sugar levels remain at a safe level
  • muscle, fat, liver, and other cells are able to get energy

Insulin resistance makes cells less sensitive to insulin. This means the body has to produce more insulin to keep blood sugar levels healthy.

If the pancreas is unable to keep up with the increased demand for insulin, blood sugar levels go up. When this happens, cells can’t use all of the excess glucose in the blood. This leads to type 2 diabetes.

Diet tips

Following a healthful diet plan, such as the Mediterranean Diet, can improve insulin sensitivity.

This diet recommends eating lots of seasonal plant-based foods, having fruit as a dessert, and olive oil as the main source of fat. Fish, poultry, and dairy products should be eaten in moderation. It also advises people to have a very small amount of red meat and a little wine during meals.

How many calories you have each day should be based on weight loss goals and body size. Larger people need more calories, while smaller people need fewer calories. Generally, 2,000 calories per day is a healthy average to maintain weight.

The Mediterranean Diet is just one option for healthful eating. Other diet plans offer more specific ways to improve symptoms of insulin resistance.

Glycemic index

One of the simplest ways to tackle insulin resistance is to eat foods with a low glycemic index (GI).

Low GI foods are digested slowly and don’t produce as many blood sugar spikes. The difference between low GI and other foods is particularly noticeable when it comes to carbohydrates. Carbohydrates that have a high GI can cause blood sugar spikes and put more demand on the pancreas to make insulin.

As such, eating low GI foods is a good way to maintain balanced blood sugar levels.

Foods to eat

Western diets typically lack certain nutrients, such as magnesium, calcium, fiber, and potassium.

These nutrients are especially important to maintain blood sugar levels. So, people with insulin resistance should seek out foods rich in these ingredients.

It’s possible to enjoy foods from every food group even with insulin resistance. Understanding which foods increase blood sugar and which support insulin sensitivity is key.

The following foods help to support insulin sensitivity:

  • non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli and peppers
  • high-fiber foods, such as beans and whole grains
  • protein-rich foods, including lean meats, fish, and nuts
  • foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon
  • antioxidant foods, such as berries
  • sweet potatoes, which are lower GI than other potatoes
  • water, especially as a substitute for sweetened drinks
  • unsweetened teas

Foods to avoid

Certain foods are more likely to raise blood sugar. These foods should be limited or avoided to help maintain a steady blood sugar level:

  • sweetened beverages, including fruit juices, soda, and fountain drinks
  • alcohol, particularly beer and grain alcohol, especially in large quantities
  • grains, whether refined or whole, may worsen insulin sensitivity in some people
  • starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, pumpkin, corn, and yams
  • processed snacks and boxed foods
  • excessive sugary sweets, such as cupcakes, ice cream, or chocolate bars
  • white bread, rice, pasta, and flour, which is lower in fiber than whole grain
  • dairy from cows, especially milk
  • fried foods, even if the food is otherwise healthful
  • foods high in saturated fats, including chocolate, butter, and salt pork

Finding a healthful balance

It’s possible to sometimes eat foods on this list and still improve insulin sensitivity. The key is to limit these foods, and to replace them with more healthful options as often as possible.

By sticking to a diet rich in fiber and plants while being low in added sugars, it’s possible to steadily improve insulin sensitivity. Daily exercise is also an important factor. These lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other health conditions.

Causes of insulin resistance

Research shows ethnic and genetic factors may increase the risk of insulin resistance. However, lifestyle factors also make a big difference.

Making positive changes to lifestyle can greatly decrease the risk of insulin resistance.

Diet

Diet affects insulin resistance in at least two ways. Firstly, consuming too many calories whether from too much fat, sugar, or alcohol can make people gain weight. This increases the risk of insulin resistance.

Secondly, different food types affect insulin resistance. Some foods increase the risk and some foods reduce it.

Weight

Being overweight makes insulin resistance much more likely. People with lots of fat around their middle, in particular, are at an even greater risk. This is because fat secretes hormones and other substances that may interfere with insulin.

Excess fat around the waist is also linked to chronic inflammation. This can trigger a wide range of health problems, including insulin resistance.

Not enough exercise

Not getting enough exercise can affect the way insulin regulates glucose. Physical activity plays an important role in keeping blood sugar levels steady. It is a great idea to do light exercise after meals because exercise causes the muscles to use up glucose and they don’t need insulin. This lowers blood sugar levels.

Other lifestyle factors

A number of other lifestyle factors affect insulin resistance, including:

  • smoking
  • sleep issues
  • older age
  • use of steroids

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