Managing your weight means figuring out why your body holds onto extra pounds in the first place. Maybe it’s because of certain lifestyle habits (or lack thereof), or perhaps there’s something happening biologically that you need to address, such as insulin resistance. Reminder: Insulin is a hormone that allows cells in your muscles, fat, and other tissues to absorb sugar from your blood to give you energy. When your body doesn’t respond effectively to insulin, it can lead to insulin resistance, which can cause weight gain, among other health issues. So, how do you lose weight with insulin resistance and avoid those ensuing health problems?
Insulin Resistance 101
In the simplest terms, insulin resistance means your body doesn’t respond well to the hormone insulin, says One Drop coach, Lisa Goldoor, a registered nurse (RN) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES).
“When your body doesn’t respond well to insulin, the process of using glucose for fuel is interrupted,” she explains. “This causes a back-up of glucose in the bloodstream because, when you eat carbohydrates, they break down into glucose as per usual, but the glucose isn’t able to enter the cell to effectively give you energy.”
What’s more, adds Goldoor, that sugar back-up in the bloodstream can also cause stress on both your circulatory system, which can lead to cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart disease, as well as your pancreas and liver, which are responsible for helping to “clear” the glucose from your bloodstream.
The prevalence of insulin resistance varies depending on what part of the world you’re looking at, but in the U.S., it’s estimated that about 24% of adults live with insulin resistance. “There are many risk factors that can lead to insulin resistance in the body, including family history, inactive lifestyle, and extra weight,” explains Goldoor. However, she notes that we don’t totally understand what causes insulin resistance.
What we do know, though, is that insulin resistance can increase the risk of not just heart health issues, but also type 2 diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), in response to insulin resistance, your pancreas deploys greater amounts of insulin in an attempt to keep cells energized and blood sugar levels stable. Over time, though, when left unaddressed, insulin resistance can get worse, leaving the pancreatic beta cells that make insulin to wear out. Once the pancreas no longer effectively produces the hormone to overcome insulin resistance, the result is higher blood sugar levels, and, if left unmanaged, prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
Insulin Resistance and Weight
Again, experts don’t totally understand what causes insulin resistance, let alone the link between insulin resistance and weight.
That said, one theory suggests that, when glucose is backed up in your bloodstream as a result of insulin resistance, your body may try to clear the sugar through glucose uptake in your body’s fat cells, which can lead to weight gain, explains Goldoor. But another theory proposes the notion that increased fat, specifically in the pancreas, can lead to an accumulation of ceramides, which are molecules that kill the pancreatic beta cells responsible for making insulin.
That means lifestyle can certainly play a role in this as well, according to the ADA, which states that being sedentary, overweight, or living with obesity can all increase the risk of insulin resistance. “It’s not clear, but some researchers theorize that extra fat tissue may cause inflammation, physiological stress, or other changes in the cells that contribute to insulin resistance,” per the ADA. “There may even be some undiscovered factor produced by fat tissue, perhaps a hormone, that signals the body to become insulin-resistant.”
Bottom line: “We don’t know which happens first: insulin resistance or weight gain,” says Goldoor. But we do know that the two seem to have an interdependent relationship, so the key is to address them simultaneously as best as you can.
How to Lose Weight with Insulin Resistance
When managing insulin resistance, your main goal isn’t necessarily to lose weight, but rather to help your body maintain steady glucose levels, so you can avoid not just weight gain, but also the potential ensuing health issues described above.
In the process, you may naturally begin to lose weight as well, which will help your body use insulin more effectively (and benefit your heart health), says Goldoor. But weight loss doesn’t even have to be drastic to manage insulin resistance; research shows that losing just 5% to 7% of your body weight (10 to 14 pounds for someone who weighs 200 pounds) can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 58% in adults who are at high risk of the condition (i.e. have insulin resistance).
So, what are some ways to manage your weight and blood sugar levels or, if necessary, lose weight with insulin resistance? The first, and perhaps most obvious, strategy: mindful nutrition.
“Regardless of dietary preference, it’s important to limit your carbs, especially those that are higher in sugar or have a higher glycemic index,” explains Goldoor. A food’s glycemic index measures how quickly it will cause your blood sugar levels to rise, based on the number of digestible carbs it has. Foods like white rice or white bread, desserts, chips, fries, and even some sweetened dairy products (think: fruit yogurt) typically have a high glycemic index, but unprocessed foods can have a high glycemic index as well, such as pineapple or bananas.
In order to feel full and satiated without those processed carbs, Goldoor recommends leaning toward foods that won’t spike your blood sugar as much, including proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables. “Another strategy is to eat carbs in combination with healthy fats (avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish) and/or choose high-fiber carbs (farro, buckwheat, quinoa, broccoli, beans, berries), which helps to decrease the impact of the glucose spike,” she adds.
One Drop coach, Sandra, a CDCES and registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN), echoes Goldoor’s recommendations, highlighting the importance of a well-balanced diet of foods that are high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, in addition to fiber, protein, and healthy fats.
“Focus on replacing processed foods with whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, fish, plant-based protein, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and plant-based oils,” suggests Sandra. “Experiment with high-fiber grains like farro, buckwheat, and quinoa; plant-based proteins like chickpeas, lentils, and beans; and healthy fats like avocados, nuts, and seeds.”
Don’t forget about the importance of exercise, too. Exercise can not only help you lose weight and therefore improve insulin resistance, but it can also help reduce the amount of sugar in your bloodstream since you need that sugar to energize you for your workout, explains Goldoor.
While there aren’t specific exercise guidelines for people living with insulin resistance, the ADA notes that staying active is one of the best ways to combat insulin resistance. “Any sort of physical activity and movement will help with insulin resistance,” says One Drop coach, Lindsay Vettleson, RDN, CDCES, and certified personal trainer (CPT). “Find an activity you enjoy, and be active most days of the week,” whether it’s through daily walks, home workouts, or even a dance class you take a few times per week. (If you use a glucose meter to manage your blood sugar levels, just remember to test your blood sugar before and after trying any new type of exercise to understand how different activities affect your body.)
But remember that exercise doesn’t always have to take on a structured form. Maybe you can squeeze in a little extra movement by dancing while you brush your teeth each day, or taking the stairs down to your apartment complex’s laundry room instead of using the elevator, or moving a trash can into a different room so you have to get up and walk a little each time you throw something away. (Need additional guidance? Hear more of Vettleson’s workout recommendations in her podcast about building a physical activity routine that works for you.)
Whatever you find your groove in, “consistency is key,” says Goldoor. “I’d rather you walk 10 minutes six days a week than do an hour one day per week. Pick small goals, and increase duration or intensity only after you’ve achieved them for a few weeks.” (If you’re a One Drop Premium member, don’t forget to ask your health coach about the cardio plans we offer and how we can help you stay accountable.)
Looking for more tips about how to lose weight with insulin resistance? Check out our expert-approved strategies for managing blood sugar, navigating weight-loss plateaus, and approaching weight management from a healthy mindset.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Alexa Stelzer, RDN, CDCES, and clinical health coach at One Drop.