Insulin is a hormone that helps the body absorb glucose and keeps blood sugar levels balanced. Insulin resistance makes it harder for the body’s cells to take in glucose. However, some dietary measures can improve insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance occurs when the cells in the body cannot use insulin effectively. Over time, insulin resistance can cause a range of health problems, including damage to the organs, muscles, limbs, and eyes.

People with insulin resistance may receive a diagnosis of prediabetes, which can progress to type 2 diabetes. A person who has insulin resistance may need routine checkups with a doctor to ensure that they do not develop type 2 diabetes.

Certain diet and lifestyle habits can affect the risks related to insulin resistance. In fact, eating or limiting certain foods can improve insulin sensitivity, reduce insulin resistance, and decrease a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

This article will explore the dietary and lifestyle changes a person can make to increase their body’s sensitivity to insulin.

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A balanced diet may help people manage their blood sugar levels. Image credit: Vgajic/Getty Images

Many people do not consume enough magnesium, calcium, fiber, and potassium, all of which are essential for regulating blood sugar levels. Therefore, it is important for people with insulin resistance to include plenty of foods rich in these nutrients in their diet.

Additionally, although people with insulin resistance do not need to eliminate any foods from their diet, it is important to understand how certain foods may affect blood sugar levels.

The following foods may support insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of developing diabetes in general:

  • non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, dark leafy greens, tomatoes, and peppers
  • citrus fruits such as lemons, oranges, and limes
  • high fiber foods, including beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds
  • whole grains such as oats, quinoa, and barley
  • protein-rich foods, including lean meats, fish, soy, legumes, and nuts
  • fish with high omega-3 fatty acid content, such as salmon, sardines, and herring
  • foods that contain antioxidants, such as berries
  • water, especially as a substitute for sweetened drinks
  • unsweetened teas
  • unsweetened yogurt

Certain foods are more likely to raise blood sugar. Regularly eating foods that are high in added sugar or carbohydrates can overload the body’s ability to produce enough insulin.

Over time, this can also lead to high amounts of insulin in the blood, which can cause cells to become more resistant to insulin’s effects.

When this happens, the glucose remains in the blood, contributing to the health concerns that accompany consistently raised blood sugar, such as damage to the kidneys (nephropathy) or the limbs (neuropathy).

Limiting the following foods may help moderate blood sugar levels:

  • sweetened beverages, including fruit juices, soda, and fountain drinks
  • alcohol, especially in large quantities
  • highly processed snacks, convenience meals, and boxed foods
  • sugary sweets such as cupcakes, ice cream, and chocolate bars
  • refined grains such as white bread, rice, pasta, and flour-based foods, which are lower in fiber than whole grain versions
  • fried foods
  • foods high in saturated fats, including chocolate, butter, and red meat

Finding a healthy balance

People can still eat foods on this list occasionally without negatively affecting long-term insulin sensitivity. The key is to limit these foods and replace them with more nutritious options when possible.

By sticking to a nutritious, high fiber diet that is low in added sugars, a person can steadily improve their insulin sensitivity.

Regular physical activity can also be helpful. Taking walks regularly or staying active throughout the day can significantly improve blood sugar regulation.

Additionally, some people may be able to reduce their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by losing 5–7% of their body weight.

These changes can also reduce a person’s risk of heart disease and other health conditions.

For more science-backed resources on nutrition, visit our dedicated hub.

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The Mediterranean diet can improve insulin sensitivity. Image credit: Webphotographeer/Getty Images

Following a balanced diet plan that includes foods from a variety of cultures can improve insulin sensitivity.

For example, the Mediterranean diet is a diet plan inspired by a specific culture that involves eating lots of seasonal, plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and using olive oil as the primary source of fat. People following this diet eat fish, lean meats, legumes, and nuts as main protein sources and enjoy dairy products in moderation.

People following the Mediterranean diet also limit their intake of red meat and may consume red wine in moderation during meals.

In a large 2018 study, researchers found that women who followed the Mediterranean diet had about a 25% reduced risk of cardiovascular health conditions, including factors such as insulin resistance.

However, the Mediterranean diet is just one option for healthy eating. Other diet plans, such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, may also help improve insulin resistance.

This DASH diet provides daily and weekly nutritional goals and specifies the amounts of certain food groups a person should aim for each day, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy, fats and oils, and meat, fish, or poultry.

These diets can work well when a person combines them with other healthy lifestyle practices, such as stress management, adequate sleep of 7–9 hours per night, and regular physical activity.

One way to manage blood sugar levels and reduce insulin resistance is to eat foods with a low glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL).

The GI lists carbohydrate-containing foods according to how quickly they increase the glucose levels in a person’s blood. GL accounts for both the GI of a food and the serving size.

Carbohydrate foods with a high GI and GL can cause blood sugar spikes and put more demand on the body to produce insulin. Conversely, the digestive system processes foods with a low GI and GL slowly, which reduces blood sugar spikes.

Eating foods with a low GI and GL is an excellent way to maintain balanced blood sugar levels and preserve insulin sensitivity. This category includes many fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

The body needs glucose for energy. However, many cells cannot absorb glucose without assistance.

The pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream. The insulin then helps the glucose travel to the body’s cells, which use it for energy.

Insulin allows cells to absorb glucose, making sure that blood sugar levels remain at a safe level and that the cells in muscle, fat, liver, and other areas can get energy

When a person has insulin resistance, their cells are less sensitive to insulin. This means the pancreas has to produce more insulin to keep blood sugar levels stable.

If the pancreas cannot keep up with the increased demand for insulin, blood sugar levels rise. If the cells cannot use all the excess glucose in the blood, a person will have high blood sugar levels. Over time, this could lead to type 2 diabetes and various other health concerns.

Genetic factors may increase the risk of insulin resistance. However, lifestyle factors also make a difference.

Certain daily habits can decrease insulin resistance and the risk of diabetes.

Diet

Diet affects insulin resistance in at least two major ways.

First, consuming too many calories can trigger weight gain. According to one study in middle-aged adults, weight gain increases the risk of insulin resistance. However, regular physical activity can counteract these effects.

Second, various types of foods may have different effects on insulin resistance and blood sugar levels.

A person should follow a balanced diet and prioritize foods high in fiber, protein, and heart-healthy fats. A doctor or dietitian may provide advice on which foods to eat to maintain steady blood sugar levels.

Body weight

Though a person can develop insulin resistance at any weight, having overweight or obesity may increase the chances of insulin resistance.

People with excess fat around their waist and abdomen, in particular, are at a higher risk of developing insulin resistance. Though the mechanism is not entirely clear, some researchers believe that fat cells secrete hormones and other substances that may interfere with insulin’s effectiveness.

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

However, body weight is just one factor that may contribute to insulin resistance. Having overweight or obesity does not mean that a person will develop insulin resistance.

A person can work with a doctor or dietitian for personalized guidance on whether diet and lifestyle changes may be beneficial.

Sedentary lifestyle

Not getting enough exercise can affect the way insulin regulates blood sugar levels. According to the American Diabetes Association, physical activity plays a vital role in keeping blood sugar levels steady.

Aim for around 30 minutes of exercise per day, at least 5 days per week. A person can also add more activity to their daily routine by taking the elevator instead of the stairs, going for a walk during their lunch break, or using a standing desk.

Other risk factors

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Sleep problems might increase insulin resistance. Image credit: Kleber Cordeiro/Shutterstock

Other lifestyle factors that can affect insulin resistance include:

  • Smoking: This can impair insulin sensitivity and insulin production.
  • Sleep issues: Losing just 1–3 hours of sleep per night can increase insulin resistance.
  • Age: People aged 45 or older might have a higher risk of insulin resistance.
  • Use of steroids: Taking this type of drug can increase insulin resistance by 60–80%, depending on dose.
  • Underlying health conditions: High blood pressure, previous episodes of stroke or heart disease, and polycystic ovary syndrome can all increase a person’s risk of developing insulin resistance.
  • Hormonal disorders: Disorders that affect hormone production, such as Cushing’s syndrome and acromegaly, can disrupt insulin sensitivity.
  • Race: People of African American, Hispanic, Native Alaskan, American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander descent have a higher risk of insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance means that the body’s cells become less effective at absorbing glucose from the blood. It is common in prediabetes, a condition that can progress to type 2 diabetes.

Diet plays an essential role in preventing insulin resistance. Following a balanced diet and increasing physical activity can reduce a person’s risk. Adding more foods that are high in fiber, protein, and heart-healthy fats to the diet can be beneficial.

Managing underlying health conditions, getting plenty of sleep, and managing stress levels can also help promote overall health and improve insulin resistance.

Q:

Does prediabetes always turn into diabetes?

A:

A diagnosis of prediabetes does not mean that you will definitely advance to diabetes, though it is a high risk factor.

The good news is that prediabetes is reversible. Evidence shows that there is up to a 58% reduction in the risk of developing diabetes when a person makes and sustains healthy lifestyle changes.

These include reducing total carbohydrate intake; switching from processed carbs to high fiber, low GI carbs; losing weight; doing daily exercise; getting good quality sleep for 7–9 hours a night; and managing stress.

Natalie Butler, RD, LDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.