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What is insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance is a state where your body does not respond to insulin as it should. Insulin is an essential hormone that regulates blood sugar levels and allows your body to use glucose for energy. When your body does not respond well to insulin, it has to make more insulin to get the same effects, which can cause high levels of insulin in the blood and eventually high blood sugar levels as well. When your body is resistant to insulin, it can lead to a host of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
What causes insulin resistance?
While insulin resistance is a complex metabolic problem with multiple causes, research suggests that the most common causes include:
- Poor diet: A diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, and saturated and trans fats can cause high blood sugar levels and an insulin spike, consequently increasing insulin resistance over time.
- Sedentary lifestyle: Regular exercise is important for insulin sensitivity. Physical activity helps to improve your body's ability to use insulin and regulate blood sugar levels. Being sedentary can contribute to insulin resistance.
- Obesity: Excess body fat, particularly in the abdomen (called visceral fat), has been linked to insulin resistance.
- Genetics: Some people may be genetically predisposed to insulin resistance.
- Inflammation: Chronic low-grade inflammation has been linked to insulin resistance.
- Sleep disturbance: poor sleep quality can interfere with the body's ability to regulate blood sugar levels, leading to insulin resistance.
- Aging: With age comes a natural decline in insulin sensitivity.
How do certain foods increase insulin resistance?
Certain foods can increase insulin resistance by promoting chronic inflammation, oxidative stress, and the accumulation of fat in tissues. For example, eating too many carbohydrates makes our cells overloaded with glucose, which makes our body make more insulin to help store all of it. Over time, our cells become less responsive to insulin’s signals to take in glucose, and some glucose stays in our blood. Over time this leads to chronic insulin resistance and other health problems.
Also consuming some fats, such as trans fats and saturated fats, can also contribute to insulin resistance by causing inflammation and promoting the accumulation of fat in tissues like the liver and muscles. More fat cells in these organs increases certain chemicals and hormones, which hurts your body’s ability to use insulin properly.
What signs and symptoms might indicate insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance often develops slowly over time, and people with early insulin resistance may not show any symptoms. However, as insulin resistance progresses and your body's ability to regulate blood sugar decreases, some symptoms may start to appear.
Some common signs and symptoms of insulin resistance include:
- Frequent hunger or cravings for high-carbohydrate or sugary foods
- Fatigue or low energy levels, especially after meals
- Difficulty losing weight, or weight gain around the midsection
- High blood pressure or cholesterol levels
- Insomnia or difficulty sleeping
- Skin changes, such as darkened areas around the neck or armpits
- Increased urination or thirst
- Tingling or numbness in the hands or feet
- Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in women
If you have any of these symptoms, it is important to speak with your healthcare provider to see if insulin resistance might be the underlying cause.
What foods should I eat to improve insulin resistance?
While maintaining a well-balanced diet overall is important, research does suggest that certain foods can especially help. Here are some examples to include in your insulin resistance diet:
- Fiber-rich foods: Studies have found that high-fiber foods can improve insulin sensitivity. Include a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes for your fiber intake.
- Healthy fats: Some types of fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can help improve insulin sensitivity. Examples of healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, and fatty fish.
- Protein: Including protein in your meals can help regulate your blood sugar and improve insulin resistance. Sources of protein include lean meats, fish, eggs, and plant-based sources such as tofu, beans, and lentils.
- Low-glycemic index foods: Foods with a low glycemic index (GI) can help improve insulin resistance. These foods are digested more slowly, which can help regulate blood sugar levels. Examples of low GI foods include whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
- Spices: Some spices have been found to have beneficial effects on insulin resistance. For example, cinnamon has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity and glucose control in people with diabetes.
What foods should I avoid to improve insulin resistance?
If you have insulin resistance, it is important to make dietary changes to improve your condition. You should limit the following foods in your insulin resistance diet:
- Refined carbohydrates, sugary foods and drinks: Foods high in refined carbohydrates and simple sugars such as white bread, pasta, rice, candy, soda, and juice should be limited. These foods cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, leading to insulin spikes.
- Saturated and trans fats: Saturated and trans fats, found in foods like fried foods, processed snacks, and fatty meat products, can contribute to insulin resistance.
- Alcohol: Alcohol can interfere with the body's ability to regulate blood sugar levels, leading to insulin resistance.
How do I improve insulin resistance?
There are several ways you can improve your insulin resistance:
- Eat a balanced diet and limit sugary and processed foods: Eat a balanced diet with a focus on nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
- Exercise regularly: Regular physical activity, including aerobic and resistance exercise, can improve insulin sensitivity and help lower blood sugar levels.
- Manage stress: High levels of stress can contribute to insulin resistance, so finding ways to manage stress, such as through meditation, deep breathing, or yoga, can be helpful.
- Get enough sleep: Poor sleep quality and inadequate sleep duration have been linked to insulin resistance, so getting enough sleep is important for managing blood sugar levels.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Being overweight or obese can contribute to insulin resistance, so maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise is important.
- Consider medication: In some cases, medication may be necessary to manage insulin resistance and diabetes, so working with a healthcare provider to find the appropriate treatment plan is important.
The causes of insulin resistance can be quite multifactorial - each person's individual characteristics and environment can contribute differently to their insulin resistance. This is why not only diet but also a well-balanced lifestyle are important to prevent and manage insulin resistance. Focus on eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, managing stress, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting alcohol consumption. These lifestyle changes can help improve your insulin sensitivity, your chronic health conditions and your quality of life.