Optimizing metabolic health and keeping a healthy weight depend on far more than the amount of calories we consume and burn. Numerous factors are at play, but a key driver of overall health is insulin, a critical hormone in regulating blood sugar and metabolism. This vital hormone is not commonly tested, but it should be: avoiding chronically elevated insulin levels is crucial for preventing insulin resistance, which can negatively impact someone’s ability to lose weight. Fortunately, diet and lifestyle changes like exercise, stress management, and blood sugar tracking can all help reverse insulin resistance and promote weight loss.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin is the hormone that helps shuttle glucose from your bloodstream into your cells, where it can be used for energy or stored for later use. It’s crucial for maintaining stable blood glucose levels.
Insulin resistance is a condition where all cells in the body, including cells in muscles, fat, and the liver, become less responsive to the effects of insulin. Excess body fat, chronically high blood sugar, physical inactivity, and other mechanisms can contribute to its development.
As insulin becomes less effective, the pancreas secretes more insulin to shuttle glucose into the cells. This results in high circulating glucose and insulin levels in the bloodstream. Over time, the overwhelmed pancreas loses its ability to produce adequate insulin. Without enough insulin, blood sugar levels remain consistently elevated.
Insulin resistance is often correlated with excess body fat and obesity, two risk factors for Type 2 diabetes. However, insulin resistance can start to develop years before an official diabetes diagnosis. In fact, over a third of American adults have prediabetes—the precursor to Type 2 diabetes—and most don’t even know they have it.
Left unchecked, prediabetes and its corresponding insulin resistance can contribute to numerous other health issues like fatty liver disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), high cholesterol, high blood pressure (hypertension), cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer.
How Insulin Affects Weight Loss
Insulin is intricately involved in metabolism and energy storage. When you eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose during digestion. The glucose enters your bloodstream, signaling your pancreas to release insulin.
Insulin acts as the key that allows glucose to leave the blood and enter the cells. Excess glucose that doesn’t immediately get used is stored for later use. Insulin directs this storage process.
Under normal conditions, insulin helps store excess glucose in the liver and muscles as glycogen. It also facilitates fat storage by enabling fat cells to take up circulating fatty acids. High insulin levels prevent stored energy—particularly fat—from being accessed and used. With this fat accumulation comes increased levels of inflammation, which leads to further insulin resistance.
The goal for someone wanting to lose weight is to access their stored energy reserves. Chronically high insulin levels make this challenging.
How to Reduce Insulin Resistance to Lose Weight
The good news is that insulin resistance and metabolic health are primarily influenced by modifiable dietary and lifestyle factors. By changing your exercise, nutrition, stress, sleep, and tracking your blood sugar, you can improve insulin sensitivity and optimize your body’s ability to tap into stored energy and lose weight more effectively.
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to boost insulin sensitivity. Your muscles act as a major “sink” for glucose storage and usage. Exercising causes your muscles to better respond to insulin and store glucose as glycogen, lowering blood sugar levels. Physical activity also helps combat many risk factors associated with metabolic dysfunction, including a high waist circumference and elevated fasting blood sugar, and positively impacts markers associated with good metabolic health, such as HDL cholesterol.
There is an acute benefit during and shortly after exercise (for one, our bodies are more insulin-sensitive following a training session). However, consistent exercise also leads to long-term adaptations like increased capillary density, mitochondria production, and glucose uptake that enhance insulin function over time.
Any type of movement helps. (Going for a brief walk after a meal is a great habit to help stabilize blood sugar.) A combination of aerobic activity (especially steady-state, zone 2 training), resistance training, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and flexibility/mobility work will maximize metabolic benefits. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines recommend 150–300 minutes of activity a week or 75–150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, like HIIT.
Eat a Balanced, Nutritiously Dense Diet
Following a balanced diet focused on whole, minimally processed foods can profoundly influence insulin sensitivity, glucose tolerance, and weight management. Focus on consuming foods low in refined carbohydrates and higher in fiber, paired with healthy fats and protein, which help prevent blood sugar spikes.
Non-starchy vegetables, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, olive oil, avocado, and lean proteins are all excellent choices. Limiting your carb intake to low-glycemic vegetables, some fruit (prioritize fruits with lower sugar content, such as kiwi and berries), and legumes will deliver essential nutrients and fiber without causing too big of a spike. (Although everyone responds differently to different foods.)
Some foods traditionally considered “healthy” are often also sneaky spikers. Oatmeal, whole grains, and ancient-grain cereals, when eaten regularly or in excess, can negatively impact metabolic health and contribute to weight gain.
To promote a healthy weight and optimal metabolic health, it’s also critical to limit added sugars (especially high-fructose corn syrup), refined carbohydrates (white bread, flour, etc.), and ultra-processed foods, which trigger rapid spikes in blood glucose. Avoiding certain additives, which contribute to inflammation and some metabolic health problems, is also vital.
Manage Stress Levels
Stress causes several metabolic shifts that can worsen insulin resistance. When you perceive any threat, your body activates its “fight-or-flight” response. Part of this response involves releasing stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine.
These hormones raise blood sugar to prepare muscles for quick bursts of energy (to flee a tiger, for example). This response is an adaptive survival mechanism. However, chronic stress can keep us in a perpetual state of high cortisol and high blood sugar, leaving us more susceptible to insulin resistance.
Enjoy effective stress-management techniques like meditation, yoga, deep breathing, spending time outdoors, or any other strategy that activates your body’s parasympathetic nervous system.
Get Quality Sleep
Inadequate or poor-quality sleep is linked with reduced insulin sensitivity. Even short-term sleep deprivation can raise blood sugar and insulin resistance. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. Set a consistent sleep schedule and aim for 7-9 hours per night. It’s also best to avoid electronics and bright lights before bedtime.
If Necessary, Take Targeted Supplements
Some supplements can potentially reduce insulin resistance directly or by lowering inflammation and oxidative stress. Some of the best vitamins and supplements to consider for metabolic health include vitamin D, magnesium, alpha lipoic acid, selenium, magnesium, and curcumin, among others. However, more research is needed to confirm optimal dosing and efficacy. Speak to your doctor before starting any new supplements, especially if you take medication.
Monitor Your Blood Sugar
Tracking your blood sugar levels with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM) allows you to identify how your body responds to different foods in real time. With this personalized, immediate information, you can specify which foods spike your blood glucose and then make incremental changes to your meal plan to keep your levels in a more stable range.
CGMs also provide valuable biofeedback on how exercise, sleep, stress, alcohol, and other variables impact blood sugar. Self-experiment and find what works best for your body. Better blood sugar control translates to reduced insulin resistance for easier weight loss over time.
Lose Weight Gradually
Excess body fat, especially belly fat, can worsen insulin resistance. Losing weight can help restore insulin sensitivity. The CDC notes that people who lose weight slowly (about 1-2 pounds per week) are more likely to keep it off long-term.
Consider Intermittent Fasting
Fasting isn’t right for everyone, so discuss it with your healthcare provider first. But if fasting feels right for you, start slowly. Maybe that means having an earlier dinner and later breakfast. Always make sure to stay hydrated, consume a sufficient amount of electrolytes, and listen to your body, especially during prolonged fasts.
Insulin resistance significantly hinders weight loss and encourages the body to store fat rather than burn it. Implementing lifestyle strategies that improve insulin sensitivity so your body can access stored energy reserves is critical. Regular exercise, a metabolically healthy diet, stress management, quality sleep, targeted supplements, blood sugar tracking, and intermittent fasting can all help reverse insulin resistance for weight loss. With patience and consistency, these steps optimize your metabolic health and help your body lose weight more easily.
Manage your weight the healthy way with Levels
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