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Insulin resistance and weight loss: What you need to know

1 min Read

What is insulin resistance? | Impact of weight loss | Why weight loss is challenging | Tips for weight loss

  • Insulin resistance makes it harder to lose weight.
  • However, by losing weight, you can make your body more sensitive to insulin.
  • Lifestyle habits—like tracking food intake and being more active—can help make weight loss easier.

You may have heard about the important connection between insulin resistance and weight loss.

In a nutshell, insulin resistance makes it harder to lose weight. At the same time, losing weight helps reduce insulin resistance.

The details are a little more involved, but by understanding this connection, you can both reduce insulin resistance and lose weight.

To break this topic down, we spoke with Dr. Betul Hatipoglu, an expert in insulin resistance and weight loss. Dr. Hatipoglu is a Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University and the Medical Director of Diabetes and Obesity at University Hospitals.

Read on to get her guidance for shedding those pounds to overcome insulin resistance.

Note: Consult with your medical provider before making dietary changes.

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What is insulin resistance (and why is it harmful)?

Before we get to weight loss, it’s helpful to review what insulin resistance is.

Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that transfers glucose from your blood into your body’s cells to give you energy. Insulin helps balance blood sugar levels.

Typically, your body is sensitive to the signals from insulin.

But sometimes your body stops responding to insulin the way it should, so your cells can’t process or store glucose from your blood—potentially leading to high blood sugar. This condition is known as insulin resistance.

While there’s still more research to be done, scientists believe insulin resistance is caused by:

  • Excess belly fat.
  • Not getting enough physical activity.
  • Diets high in processed, high-carbohydrate, and high-fat foods.
  • Taking certain medications.
  • Hormonal disorders and genetic conditions.

Hatipoglu explains that insulin resistance can lead to health issues like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.

Does weight loss help reduce insulin resistance?

Weight loss does indeed decrease insulin resistance, says Hatipoglu.

“A person with more fat will be more insulin resistant,” she says. “A person with less fat and a more lean body with more muscle will be more insulin sensitive.”

A small study published in Nutrition & Diabetes analyzed the impact of weight loss maintenance and relapse on insulin sensitivity. Results showed that “weight loss itself was the strongest predictor of improved insulin sensitivity, whereas weight regain significantly predicted reduced insulin sensitivity.”

Why is there a connection? Hatipoglu says that fat cells play a big role in insulin resistance.

She explains that as you lose weight, fat cells get smaller, lowering levels of leptin—a hormone that, when too high, contributes to weight gain. At the same time, levels of adiponectin—a hormone that supports insulin sensitivity—go up.

What makes weight loss for insulin resistance challenging?

According to Hatipoglu, when you’re insulin resistant, your pancreas ends up overcompensating for the lack of insulin response by making even more. 

This reaction sends the signal that you’re starving—triggering the liver to produce more sugar in the bloodstream and the body to retain fat.

Here’s the thing: Research suggests that extra body fat actually worsens insulin resistance.

So, insulin resistance can lead to weight gain, which can, in turn, worsen insulin resistance. This is why weight loss for insulin resistance is challenging, Hatipoglu says.

“The body will fight against you,” she adds.

But there are other factors that have an impact, too.

Eating foods that require too much insulin

Some foods that are heavily processed and high in carbohydrates and saturated fats tend to increase blood sugar which stimulates more insulin production. That’s why eating them will likely increase insulin resistance and make weight loss challenging.

“You may be able to lose the weight more easily if you stop triggering insulin production as much,” Hatipoglu says.

Hatipoglu recommends that patients eat foods that don’t require high insulin levels. These include lean meats, vegetables, and nuts.

Not getting enough exercise

According to Cleveland Clinic, little to no exercise can make you more insulin resistant.

Remember how insulin moves glucose into your body’s cells to provide energy? Exercise builds muscle that can take in glucose from your blood.

There’s also a feedback loop. If you don’t exercise, you may gain weight, which may also cause insulin resistance.

Hatipoglu’s advice: “If you want one medication for me to give you to sensitize you to insulin, it’s going to be exercise.”

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How do you lose weight if you are insulin resistant?

Losing weight when you’re insulin resistant is challenging but it can be done.

According to Hatipoglu, there are six small but impactful lifestyle changes you can help you meet your insulin resistance weight loss goals.

1. Understand your body to form a solid mindset

The first step, Hatipoglu says, is to approach your goals with the right mindset. 

“You have to believe that you will lose the weight, and you’re ready for it,” she adds.

To develop this way of thinking, it’s important to understand your body. This means knowing what’s behind your eating behaviors—and what it takes to make change happen.

Say you’re upset that your weight loss efforts haven’t changed anything on the scale, and you pull a box of chocolates from the pantry. In this instance, you need to recognize why you’re turning to food for comfort and figure out what you can do instead.

But shifting your mindset around weight loss won’t happen overnight. You have to consistently work to learn about the psychological barriers to success—like social triggers and thought distortions around eating.

You need the resources to help you get to that level of awareness, which Noom Weight can provide.

2. Achieve a calorie deficit that’s right for you

For weight loss to take place, you need to burn more calories than you’re eating. In other words, you have to achieve a calorie deficit.

A small study published in Diabetes (an American Diabetes Association journal) analyzed the effects of calorie restriction on insulin sensitivity. After 16 weeks of reduced calorie intake and resulting weight loss, insulin sensitivity improved for participants.

That said, calorie deficits aren’t always easy—and you have to achieve them in a way that’s healthy and sustainable. If not, you won’t get the long-term results you’re looking for.

Take high-fat processed foods—you may choose not to eat them at all to reverse insulin resistance. While that might work for a while, being too restrictive might cause you to go backward and overeat. You can still have the comfort foods you love here and there in moderation.

Remember to talk to your doctor, too, when deciding on a healthy calorie deficit based on your health condition, lifestyle, and other factors.

Use our calculator to compute a calorie deficit range that’s right for you.

3. Think about calorie density as you choose foods

When it comes to food, not all calories are the same. Some foods have a lower calorie density than others—meaning they have fewer calories for bigger portions.

A 150-calorie serving of chips won’t satisfy your hunger the way 150 calories of cucumber will at snack time. That’s because their calorie density is different. But that doesn’t mean you have to stop eating chips and other foods with a high calorie density.

You just need to balance your meals out throughout the day. That means eating more foods with low caloric density to get fuller on fewer calories while also leaving room to indulge in your favorite treats with higher caloric density.

The result is a lower food intake which leads to the calorie deficit needed for weight loss.

4. Make food logging part of your daily routine

It may not seem like you’re eating that many insulin-dependent foods as you go about your day. But once you start keeping track of what you eat, you might realize that you are.

You could actually be overeating. Daily food logging provides that perspective.

“Food logging is very important, especially at the beginning,” Hatipoglu explains. “The practice helps you learn about what portions and calorie intake are supposed to look like.”

Research indicates a connection between food logging and weight loss. A food logging app can make entering your food intake a breeze, so it feels like just another normal part of your day.

5. Get more physical activity throughout each day

Cleveland Clinic reports that regular moderate exercise improves overall glucose absorption and muscle insulin sensitivity. One moderate-intensity workout alone has the potential to boost glucose uptake by 40% at a minimum.

Hatipoglu recommends getting active daily to build insulin sensitivity back up and, in turn, lose weight faster.

That activity level may not come naturally to you, especially if exercise isn’t currently a part of your routine. Remember that no one expects you to magically be able to hike an uphill trail overnight. You can gradually work up to higher-intensity activities.

Start exercising in a way that feels comfortable for you, and add to it when you’re ready. Your first goal could be walking just 200 steps.

There are many weight loss apps with fitness trackers and step counters out there to guide you. (Noom Weight has both.)

Count your steps and track your favorite activities—whether that’s dancing, kayaking, or cycling. Do what makes you happy and keeps you moving.

6. Have a support system to guide and motivate you

You shouldn’t have to make any huge lifestyle changes by yourself to reach your insulin resistance weight loss goals. With the right people by your side cheering you on, you don’t have to.

Hatipoglu recommends looking for someone to support you on your weight loss journey—whether that’s a healthcare provider, dietitian, family member, friend, or even a weight loss coach.

Noom Weight provides coaches, guides, and support groups, so you don’t have to navigate the challenges of losing weight alone.

“Coaching and group support has been really a very important part of behavioral changes and weight loss interventions,” Hatipoglu explains. “So, any program that’s going to be supporting you in this structured way is going to open the path to success.”

If this article was helpful, you might also want to read about diabetes and weight loss or sign up for Noom Weight today.