Weight loss should be pretty simple. Eat less and move more. Burn more calories than you take in. Choose real food, cut the sugar, avoid processed junk foods.
And for many folks, consistently following these simple guidelines will lead to steady weight loss and better health. But what if it doesn’t? What if you’re eating less and exercising consistently, and the scale stays stuck?
This article addresses one of the most common reasons why some folks have difficulty losing weight. A major cause is insulin resistance and I want to address your concern of what to do about insulin resistance as it relates to losing weight.
Insulin resistance is a term that gets tossed around, in dieting circles, in obesity clinics, and in online forums on weight loss. But what is insulin resistance, and why does it matter?
What is Insulin Resistance?
We’re going to do a short biology lesson here, so stick with me. Insulin is a hormone that acts like a key in the lock to allow glucose (blood sugar) in the blood stream to get into cells to be stored for future use. When you eat or drink something with sugar or carbohydrates, your blood sugar goes up.
The higher levels of blood sugar trigger the pancreas to release insulin. The insulin goes out and “unlocks” the cells to allow glucose to move into storage. Then blood sugar goes back down, and the pancreas stops releasing insulin.
Sometimes, however, the cells stop responding to normal levels of insulin; they become “insulin resistant”. When this happens, the pancreas starts putting out more and more insulin to try to keep the blood sugar levels under control.
As cells become more resistant, the pancreas has to work harder and harder. If the cycle continues, eventually the pancreas wears out and isn’t able to produce the high levels of insulin anymore. So suddenly there are low levels of insulin and high blood sugar—this is type 2 diabetes.
Someone who has insulin resistance will typically have a lot of belly/abdominal fat, and laboratory testing will show high insulin levels AND high blood glucose. Often, the good cholesterol (HDL) will be low, and triglycerides will be high.
How Does Insulin Resistance Relate to Being Overweight?
There are two schools of thought on insulin resistance and it’s connection to obesity.
The first believes that obesity leads to insulin resistance. That is to say, people become fat first, and then develop insulin resistance. And there is some truth to that, but if so, restricting calories and losing weight ought to be enough to reverse insulin resistance. And while eating less and losing weight are certainly important, there is more to the picture.
The second school of thought proposes that insulin resistance come first, and obesity follows. Since insulin’s primary function is to transport glucose into cells, a normally functioning system is able to store excess energy as glucose, not as fat.
But when cells become insulin resistant, the excess energy begins to be stored as fat, especially in the belly/abdomen. This theory also helps to explain why normal weight people can be insulin resistant, and why people who are insulin resistant don’t just store fat all over the body, but specifically in the abdomen.
Hormones and metabolism are complex, and the science is a lot more complicated than what I’ve presented here. I don’t believe that either theory is complete, and there is much more to learn about how our bodies work. One of the things that we are just learning is the causes of insulin resistance.
What Causes Insulin Resistance?
The root cause of insulin resistance is much debated, and has been since it was first recognized in the late 1800’s. It isn’t always clear which is the chicken, and which is the egg, but the following factors are widely recognized as being associated with insulin resistance and are definitely contributing factors.
- Generalized, cellular level inflammation
- High carbohydrate diet
- Skimping on sleep
- Lack of exercise
- Chronic stress
Of these contributing factors, one stands out as a common denominator. Chronic inflammation is a suspected culprit in almost all of what are often called “lifestyle diseases”, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke, high blood pressure, alcohol abuse, and drug abuse disorders.
What this means on a practical level, is that cellular-level inflammation (which cannot be seen or easily measured), is caused by each of these conditions and makes each of these worse—and we aren’t quite sure which happens first.
What Can I Do?
Since inflammation is the common denominator in insulin resistance and other so-called lifestyle diseases, one of the best ways to improve your health is to knock down the inflammation. There are many ways to do this. And the good news is that most of them don’t involve
prescription medication and many are completely free.
Sleep. Sleep is so important that the effect of skimping for even one night is equivalent to 6 months of a poor diet. Wow. So get some zzzz’s!
Aim for seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, and don’t sleep with your phone—in fact, put all electronics away an hour before going to bed.
The electromagnetic frequencies emitted by your phone can worsen inflammation, and the blue light disturbs deep sleep rhythms.
Exercise. Getting regular adequate exercise makes your body release natural anti-inflammatory substances, improves insulin responsiveness almost immediately, speeds up your metabolism, and improves sleep.
Adequate means 20 to 30 minutes of moderate to intense activity per day, 5 days a week.) Start slow and build up.
Stop Smoking. Quitting the use of tobacco products, smoking especially, begins reducing inflammation as soon as 20 minutes after your last smoke. As an interesting sidebar, doing the other things on this list will make it easier for you to quit smoking, because these actions increase neurotransmitter levels
Cut the Sugar. Processed sugar is perhaps the single biggest pro-inflammatory culprit. Simply cutting out sugary foods and drinks will dramatically reduce inflammation, and of course is also great for cutting calories (and therefore great for losing weight!).
Eat Real Food. That is, eat fresh fruit, raw or cooked vegetables, meat that came from animals, whole berries, raw or roasted nuts, and other foods that are close to their original form. Avoid highly processed foods. Look for ingredient labels that have 5 or fewer ingredients listed.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids. This is one type of fat that you shouldn’t be avoiding. Your body needs omega-3 fatty acids to function well, and a diet high in omega-3’s can help prevent heart disease.
Omega-3’s are also potent anti-inflammatory molecules. Foods high in Omega-3 include fish, some vegetable oils, nuts (especially walnuts), flax seeds, flaxseed oil, and leafy vegetables. Anchovies, halibut, and salmon are high in Omega-3’s and typically have safe levels of mercury.
Eat fish once or twice a week, and get vegetables with most meals. Hey, veggies with breakfast is a great way to jump start a healthy day!
Berberine. This herbal supplement is known to help decrease insulin resistance. Check with your healthcare provider and use a reputable brand.
Curcumin. It is the active part of turmeric, a well-known colorful spice. Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory and pain reliever. Adding turmeric to your foods is a great way to get some curcumin, but you’d need to eat several cups each day to get the same amount of curcumin as you can find in many curcumin supplements.
Personally, this is a favorite for pain control. I use 1,000 milligrams of curcumin daily, combined with 1,000 milligrams of fish oil and 2,000 to 5,000 units of Vitamin D3.
Reduce Stress. Stress is strongly linked to inflammation. When you experience stress or trauma, your brain triggers the release of several hormones, including cortisol. In the short term, cortisol is an anti-inflammatory chemical. But the stress response also shuts down your body’s natural repair process, shunting energy to deal with the emergency.
However, when the stress response is always “on”, as in chronic or repeated stress, your body never goes back to the rest-and-repair mode. Cortisol levels stay high, and your body responds by going into a chronic low-level inflammatory state.
Reduce stress through removing stress triggers, learning positive coping skills, practicing meditation and prayer, going for a walk in nature, listening to classical, jazz or other soothing music, cuddling with your partner, taking a vacation, swimming, getting some sun, building social connections, and whatever other positive ways you have found to calm your body, mind, and soul.
Intermittent Fasting. It is also known as time-restricted eating) can help reduce inflammation by giving your body a daily reset, promoting anti-inflammatory production, and increasing the length of time of the normal nightly healing and repair process.
Intermittent fasting, at it’s simplest, means skipping breakfast (and not having an early lunch!). The idea is to extend the overnight “fast” into the daytime hours, and to only eat during a certain time of the day.
This “eating window” is typically 4 to 6 hours long, and the most common times are from approximately 2 pm to 6 pm. A gentler version simply has you stop eating right after supper and not eat again until 10 or 11 the next morning.
There is no right way to do intermittent fasting, and what works for one person may not work for the next. Check with your healthcare provider before beginning any sort of fasting regimen, especially if you are pregnant, breast-feeding, diabetic, or have any kidney, liver, or blood sugar regulation health issues.
Low Carb Diet. Cutting out sugar is a good idea for everyone. The low carb diet takes this idea a little further and restricts all forms of simple carbohydrates. This means that most of your calories come from fats and protein.
Breads, pastas, most flour, and anything that converts quickly into blood glucose is eliminated or restricted on the low carb diet. For some people, low carb works quite well, and they see less inflammation and more weight loss. However, it is important to remember that this is a diet and not a sustainable lifestyle, for most people. Instead of jumping on the low carb diet, I recommend removing the worst offenders for inflammation: wheat and other forms of gluten.
This means you can still have alternate forms of most of your favorite carb-based foods, and you are less likely to experience the negative side effects, including low energy and irritability.
These include medications like metformin, which improves insulin sensitivity. For some diabetics insulin injections or an insulin pump may be needed (this is especially true for type 1 diabetics, where the pancreas has stopped making insulin).
However, even when drug therapy is necessary, the other techniques can still help, and may stop the disease from getting worse, and will certainly help you feel better and do more!
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Putting It All Together
Bottom Line: When eating less and moving more isn’t working, there is still hope! Learning what to do about insulin resistance starts with understanding the causes and then putting in the effort to make minor improvements, which is the first big step towards taking back your health.
As always, don’t try to do everything at once. Pick one or two to start this week. If it works with your schedule and lifestyle, keep doing it and add in some more changes.
If you have to start with only one, cut the sugar. That will give you the biggest return for your effort, since sugar consumption effects many areas other than weight loss and insulin resistance.
Are you familiar with insulin resistance or know someone suffering from it? Share your thoughts below and don’t forget to also share this with others 🙂