Can’t shift stubborn belly fat? Insulin resistance could be to blame. Take action now to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes in the future.
Craving sugar, constantly feeling tired and really struggling to lose weight, you put yourself on a strict diet. But despite exercising regularly and keeping junk food in check, you simply can’t lose that spare tyre. Why? Because your body’s natural food-into-fuel process is failing to function properly.
When you eat carbohydrate-rich foods, such as fruit, bread, starchy veg and sugary snacks, they break down into glucose to fuel your body. Of course, you want to use this fuel for energy, not store it as fat, but this all depends on your body’s response to the hormone insulin.
Q. What is insulin resistance?
Insulin moves glucose from the blood into the cells so that the body can either burn it as fuel or store it as fat. Insulin resistance occurs when the body’s cells fail to respond properly to insulin.
For some of us, insulin’s effectiveness wanes as we age, so the body begins to need more and more to help glucose enter the cells. Over time, often years, this resistance escalates, as the body continues to pump out ever-increasing amounts of insulin.
When the body starts struggling to make enough insulin to overcome the resistance, blood-glucose levels rise. Initially, these levels are mildly elevated, causing impaired glucose tolerance, a condition we call prediabetes; however, levels can eventually rise even further, causing the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Q. What are the symptoms?
“The main symptoms of insulin resistance are extra weight around the midriff and difficulty in losing weight, particularly if you have a family history of diabetes,” explains Kate Marsh, PhD, an Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian and Credentialled Diabetes Educator.
Why? Because when insulin levels are high, the body finds fat easier to store and harder to burn. Other signs of insulin resistance include high blood pressure, raised levels of triglycerides (blood fats) and reduced levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.
Other signs are more subtle. People with insulin resistance often complain of feeling tired all the time and craving sugary foods; others can experience reactive hypoglycaemia, a drop in levels of blood glucose that occurs after eating, usually within four hours. This can leave people feeling weak, light-headed and shaky, particularly after they’ve consumed foods with a high glycaemic index (GI).
Q. What are the causes?
Being overweight puts you at risk of insulin resistance, and weight gain worsens the condition. Be aware that you’ll further heighten this risk if your diet includes too many highly processed, nutrient-poor foods, such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, pizzas, chips and sugary drinks. Having an inactive lifestyle that involves little regular exercise can also ramp up your risk.
Still, some overweight people don’t develop insulin resistance, and other factors are involved. Genes certainly play a part — your risk is greater if you have family members with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes — and some health conditions can compound the problem. Women who’ve had gestational diabetes have a higher risk, and women with polycystic-ovary syndrome (PCOS) have a 50 to 80 per cent chance of also having insulin resistance.
Q. How do I know if I have it?
You can’t tell if you have insulin resistance until a test confirms it. Although doctors don’t usually check insulin levels routinely, specific blood tests, such as a fasting insulin level or an oral glucose-tolerance test (OGTT), can help diagnose the condition. All of the usual screening tests for diabetes, including the OGTT, a fasting-blood-glucose test and a glycosylated-haemoglobin (HbA1c) test — detect blood-glucose levels (not insulin levels), so they can’t determine if you’re insulin resistant. Even so, most people with type 2 diabetes are insulin resistant.
If you do receive a diagnosis of insulin resistance, don’t panic. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll develop type 2 diabetes. This is simply an early warning sign that you need to make some dietary and lifestyle changes now so you can avoid diabetes in the future.
Q. I have insulin resistance. What should I do?
You can combat this condition with these easy diet and lifestyle changes. They’ll help you lose weight and protect your health!
Eat fewer processed, nutrient-poor foods. Reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates is particularly important, so make a concerted effort to limit biscuits, pastries, cakes, white bread and crackers, along with those puffed and flaked breakfast cereals.
Add small portions of low-GI carbohydrates to every meal. Eat rolled oats in muesli or porridge at breakfast; multi-grain sandwiches at lunch; and whole grains, such as barley, quinoa, freekeh, wholegrain pasta or low-GI brown rice, at dinner. Eating small serves of low-GI carbs with meals helps regulate the release of insulin.
Enjoy protein-rich foods at each meal. Good sources include eggs, fish, tofu, legumes (such as beans and chickpeas), nuts, chicken, lean meat and reduced-fat dairy products.
Avoid eating large amounts of red meat and all processed meats. Studies link the consumption of these foods with the risk of developing insulin resistance as well as type 2 diabetes.
Find ways to add high-fibre legumes to meals. Top grainy toast with baked beans at breakfast; add hommous to your lunch; or toss beans, lentils or chickpeas into soups and casseroles.
Increase the amount of fresh vegetables in your daily diet. Pile half your dinner plate with a variety of colourful veg. To meet your daily requirement of five vegie serves, think of tasty ways to add them to breakfast and lunch as well.
Quit smoking. People who puff cigarettes are roughly 50 per cent more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than non-smokers are.
Make time to exercise every day. This doesn’t mean subjecting yourself to a punishing exercise boot camp. Simply using your muscles helps improve your body’s response to insulin and its ability to absorb glucose. In fact, research shows that even moderate bouts of exercise, such as walking for 30 minutes on most days, are effective at improving insulin sensitivity.
Limit sedentary activities. Studies show that the more time we spend on the couch, the more likely we are to develop diabetes. If you’re stuck at a desk for most of the day, be sure to interrupt your sitting time with regular breaks.
Tweak your lifestyle in these ways and you’ll not only lose weight more easily, but also improve your insulin sensitivity, reducing — and perhaps even reversing — insulin resistance.
What it means to have…
This condition occurs when the body’s normal response to insulin starts to weaken. Insulin helps the body’s cells move glucose (from food) into the bloodstream, so when this process falters, the body has to produce increasingly large amounts of insulin. At this stage, healthy lifestyle changes can often improve or reverse insulin resistance.
This disorder occurs when the body starts struggling to make the extra insulin it needs to overcome insulin resistance and transfer glucose from the blood into the cells. As a result, blood-glucose levels rise above the normal range. People with prediabetes need to make significant lifestyle changes, or they’re at risk of developing type 2 diabetes within 10 years. Prediabetes also increases the risk of heart disease.
Type 2 diabetes
Over time, insulin resistance can worsen, and the body’s insulin production declines. Blood-glucose levels climb even higher, resulting in type 2 diabetes. If left untreated, these high glucose levels can damage nerves and blood cells, and can eventually lead to serious health problems such as stroke and heart disease.
People with type 2 diabetes must make lifestyle changes and possibly take medication to help lower glucose levels in their blood and reduce the risk of complications.
Think you might have insulin resistance? See your doctor or visit an Accredited Practising Dietitian, both of whom can give you advice on addressing the condition with practical diet and lifestyle changes.