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Eating for Insulin Resistance

Foods that help balance blood sugar

With Kara Landau RD and Beatriz Mendez del Rio, FDN-P


Fill your kitchen with vegetables, legumes, and resistant starches to have on hand.

Your pancreas produces insulin, an all-powerful hormone that enables your cells to absorb glucose (a sugar your body uses as an energy source) from the foods you eat. When you have insulin resistance (as in type 2 diabetes) however, your cells aren’t able to effectively utilize the insulin that your pancreas makes. Or, your pancreas may make no insulin at all, which is the case in type 1 diabetes.

When your cells can’t actually use the glucose for energy, this leads to high levels of sugar in the blood. When these levels are higher than they should be — with the pancreas working over time to release enough insulin — this is considered pre-diabetes (which can be totally asymptomatic), a serious condition that occurs in one in three people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When the pancreas chronically overworks to make enough insulin, you eventually end up with diabetes. Long-term insulin resistance can cause major health issues, such as damage to your organs, eyes, limbs, and muscles.

According to Beatriz Mendez del Rio, FDN-P and health coach, people with insulin resistance should aim to regulate their blood sugar each day, with every single meal. It’s not about cutting out a particular food group. It’s choosing the right foods from each group that matters.

“Insulin’s primary purpose is to carry the sugar from your blood into your cells so that it can be burned for energy.” However, she points out, “sugar is like Goldilocks. It is needed in the right amounts. If you eat too much sugar, you overflow your system, causing a massive spike in blood sugar levels, which requires the pancreas to make excess insulin to move the sugar to your cells.”

Symptoms and warning signs of diabetes include:

  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Extreme thirst or hunger
  • Weight loss when you’re eating as normal
  • A sensation of tingling, numbness, or pins and needles in your hands and feet
  • Frequent urination

What recent studies suggest about diabetes and diet:

There is evidence that eating high loads of animal products (and not enough veggies) can lead to higher disease risk or poorer diabetes management. “Population groups that modify their traditional dietary habits, increasing the amount of animal products while reducing plant-based foods, experience a remarkable rise in the frequency of type 2 diabetes,” says Mendez del Rio.

In fact, the study found, diets (such as keto) that push high protein intake and low carb eating can further intensify insulin resistance. On the other hand, “plant-based foods enhance insulin sensitivity,” which means you should be reaching for more greens to fill your plate.

Understanding the Glycemic Index

The Glycemic Index (GI) is an index that ranks carbohydrate-containing foods by high, medium, and low glucose levels. Understanding where foods fall on the GI scale can help you make smart eating and food purchasing decisions to help support insulin resistance. 

You’ll want to eat foods that generally fall low on the GI scale. Low GI foods include whole grains, sweet potatoes, and non-starchy veggies. If you’re looking for sweet stuff, you’ll want to try low-GI, non-nutritive (i.e., non-caloric) sweeteners, such as monk fruit and Stevia.  

A wise move: Download a GI app, such as Glycemic Index Load, for your phone to help you make healthy grocery-shopping decisions. 

Watch your macros

“The best way to keep blood sugar levels balanced is to adjust your macronutrient ratio in each meal," says Mendez del Rio. She stresses the importance of working with a healthcare provider who can help you determine which macronutrients (fats, proteins, and carbohydrates) you need more or less of. 

“Everyone’s different. So, one person’s capacity for metabolizing a sweet potato, for example, might differ from another’s — and might cause you a sugar spike while it won't do anything to the person next to you,” she says.

Mendez del Rio does recommend certain foods, however, for insulin resistance. Specifically, she suggests proteins and fats (which don’t spike blood sugar). When it comes to carbs, you’ll want to reach for high fiber foods, “such as cruciferous veggies, leafy greens, mushrooms, root veggies, legumes, and whole grains.”

You’ll also want to make sure you’re getting enough key nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium.

Eat more resistant starches

Reach for resistant starches, says Kara Landau, RD, of Uplift Food. These are carbohydrates that resist digestion in the small intestine. Sounds confusing, right? These foods actually ferment in the large intestine, acting as a prebiotic, thus increasing the growth of  “good bacteria” in our gut.

So how does this help with insulin resistance? “Foods filled with resistant starch are particularly valuable for those who suffer from insulin resistance due to the fact that resistant starches have been shown to help make our cells more responsive to insulin,” says Landau. 

These foods can aid in blood sugar regulation all while making you feel fuller faster — which is particularly important for patients with diabetes, who may have constant cravings for food. To eat resistant starches, you’ll want to fill your kitchen with cassava, plantains, potatoes, oats, peas, and chickpeas. 

An insulin resistance food hack: Avoid the middle of the grocery store

As the American Diabetes Association says, “Everyone's body responds differently to different types of foods and diets, so there is no single "magic" diet for diabetes,” but that doesn’t mean you have to worry about not eating enough or missing out on delicious foods.

To simplify the “what can I eat?” concern, Erik Levi, certified functional nutritional therapy practitioner and health coach, says, “I tell clients to avoid the entire middle of the grocery store.” In short, focus on the perimeter of the grocery store, where you’ll find all of the fresh produce, meat, and seafood.

You’ll want to avoid alcohol, sodas, boxed foods, candies, ice creams, breads, pastas and anything else that is processed. You can spot processed foods easily by looking at the packaging. Most processed foods come in a box or bag. You can also take a peek at the ingredient list. If it’s got a long list of ingredients, skip it.

Levi makes it very clear: “The less ingredients the better.”

Fill your kitchen with the following foods:

  • Veggies
  • Fruit
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Barley, quinoa, oats
  • Omega-3 fatty fish (sardines, herring, salmon)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Water, tea, and other unsweetened beverages

 When you eat matters as much as what you eat, Levi adds. “Especially avoid any carbohydrates in the morning and early afternoon as these are the times of day when your cortisol is highest and can cause insulin to spike.”

Embracing a healthy lifestyle

In the end, you’ll want to make sure you’re eating plenty of high-fiber, plant-based foods — and that you have a full fridge of healthy snacks on hand for when you get the urge to nibble. In addition to eating well, it's important to take your medication properly and embrace movement. Daily exercise is key, according to the American Diabetes Association.

When you workout — even taking a stroll after a meal or getting regular movement in throughout the day —  you improve your blood sugar levels. This is because your muscles actually help to soak up the glucose in your blood. Losing weight can help, too — even if it’s only 10 pounds, as excess body weight and belly fat are linked to insulin resistance.

Think in terms of the little things you have control over: Take the stairs instead of the elevator, chow down on some berries and whole grains over processed foods, and replace sodas and sweetened beverages with water or tea. 

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