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May 10, 2021 / Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN

Insulin Resistance Diet Plan: What to Eat to Improve Insulin Resistance

Ripe raspberries, sliced cucumber, dry whole grain pasta and a wooden spoon with chia, flax and sunflower seeds in it.

At this very moment, your body is engaged in multiple processes to help you breathe, move, metabolize food, and live. One of those processes includes releasing a hormone called insulin into your bloodstream when needed.

When you eat, many foods are broken down into glucose (sugar). When glucose enters your blood, your pancreas releases insulin to help the glucose enter cells in your muscle, fat, and liver where it can be used for energy. Insulin acts as a key to open up the doors to these cells so that glucose can enter.

However, this system doesn’t always work smoothly. When the cells in your muscle, fat, and liver become resistant to insulin’s signals, you may be experiencing insulin resistance. If you don’t take action and insulin resistance doesn’t improve, you may experience adverse long-term health outcomes, such as elevated blood sugar levels, hypertension, heart disease, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes.

The exact cause of insulin resistance is unknown, but you may be more likely to develop insulin resistance if you have any of the following risk factors:

While you can’t change your age or family history, there are changes you can make to your lifestyle, as well as dietary approaches to improving insulin resistance.

What Is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin resistance occurs when cells can no longer take up glucose (sugar) from your blood, becoming resistant, or less sensitive, to insulin. It can also be referred to as impaired insulin sensitivity.

You can think of insulin resistance as a warning sign. At first, your pancreas releases more insulin to make up for the resistant cells. Over time, however, your pancreas cannot keep up with the demand for increased insulin, and glucose remains in the blood rather than being used by the cells for energy. This causes blood sugars to rise more and more. If left untreated, insulin resistance can progress to become prediabetes and then type 2 diabetes.

The good news is that prediabetes and type 2 diabetes are preventable. The first step is knowing you have insulin resistance or prediabetes so that you can make the appropriate changes to your diet and lifestyle.

Signs of Prediabetes

Prediabetes and insulin resistance can often go unnoticed for a long time because many people do not exhibit any noticeable symptoms. An initial sign of insulin resistance and prediabetes that may present is a skin condition called acanthosis nigricans. This condition is characterized by skin discoloration and darkening of the skin around the armpits, neck, elbows, or knees. When prediabetes and insulin resistance are reversed, the discoloration improves and can go away.

Other signs and symptoms of prediabetes that may indicate uncontrolled blood sugars include:

Foods to Eat to Improve Insulin Resistance

Diet plays a significant role in the reversal of insulin resistance. Research has shown that there are certain dietary approaches to improving insulin resistance, such as eating more lean proteins, fiber, and healthy fats. Knowing what food to include in your diet is just as important as knowing what to limit or avoid, such as ultra-processed foods and snacks, refined carbohydrates, and added sugars.

Learning how to eat healthier is one of the ways you can lower blood sugar naturally, but making healthy changes to your diet isn’t always easy. Having a good support system, a solid plan, and tools to help and encourage you along the way can make it much more manageable.

If you’re trying to reverse insulin resistance and improve insulin sensitivity, you may want to incorporate the following foods into your diet.

Vegetables

The best diet for insulin resistance wouldn’t be complete without vegetables. But not all vegetables are created equal. Non-starchy vegetables are nutrient-dense without being carbohydrate-rich or calorie-dense, whereas starchy vegetables (like corn, potatoes, and sweet potatoes) are still rich in nutrients but are higher in carbohydrates and calories.

A 2014 study found that eating non-starchy, nutrient-rich vegetables (like kale or bell peppers) was linked with improved insulin sensitivity. Those who consumed even a small amount of nutrient-rich vegetables (less than one serving per day) had 31% increased insulin sensitivity compared to those who ate no nutrient-rich vegetables.

Some non-starchy vegetables you might want to consider adding to your insulin resistance diet plan include:

Remember, this list isn’t conclusive, and starchy vegetables aren’t bad—they’re just higher in carbs and calories than their non-starchy counterparts, but they still have a place in an insulin resistance diet. If you want to eat more vegetables, you may want to try this kale, Brussels sprout, and seared salmon salad recipe.

Fruit

Fruit can sometimes get a bad rap, but certain fruits can help reverse insulin resistance. A 2020 study uncovered the insulin resistance effects of berries, especially cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries. The researchers found that eating berries was associated with reduced insulin resistance, better blood sugar control, and better postprandial (post-meal) blood sugars.

Some fruits you might want to add to your insulin resistance diet include:

Start your day with this kiwi-berry chia yogurt bowl recipe for a nutrient-rich fruit-filled breakfast.

Whole grains

Refined carbohydrates (like white bread, enriched pasta, pastries, and cakes) are common staples in the standard American diet. But they don’t have an optimal effect on blood sugars or insulin resistance. Swapping the types of carbohydrates you’re eating—from refined grains to whole grains—can go a long way in reversing insulin resistance.

A 2018 study compared the effects of eating whole grains or refined grains in people at risk of type 2 diabetes. The researchers found that a whole-grain diet led to greater postprandial blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity than a refined-grain diet, even when matched for calories.

Here are some whole grains that you might want to consider adding to your insulin resistance diet plan:

Try this pesto quinoa salad recipe to incorporate more healthy whole grains into your diet.

Beans and legumes

Beans and legumes are high in fiber, plant-based protein, vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. These qualities make legumes an inevitable addition to an insulin resistance diet. And research agrees. A 2018 review published in the journal Nutrients found that eating soybeans, beans, peas, chickpeas, and lentils led to reduced insulin resistance and more desirable glucose and insulin parameters.

Beans and legumes that may be good for improving insulin resistance include:

If you want to eat more beans but don’t know where to start, try this Chana saag (curried chickpeas and spinach) recipe next time you’re making dinner.

Lean proteins

Increasing protein intake has been found to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance, but the type of protein may matter.

A 2020 study compared the effects of following a normal-protein diet (less than 20% of calories) and a high-protein diet (25–30% of calories) for one month. Although both diets were reduced in calories, the researchers found that the high-protein diet led to greater improvements in insulin sensitivity, greater reductions in fat mass and triglyceride levels, and increased muscle mass. Another interesting finding was that there were no differences in these results whether the protein sources were predominantly animal-based or plant-based.

On the other hand, other studies have found that moderate-to-high intakes of meat may increase insulin resistance unless the meat being consumed is very lean. That being said, lean protein sources may be best for improving insulin resistance, such as:

Try this chicken avocado and mango salad recipe to boost your lean protein intake.

Fish

Fish can improve gut health, inflammation, and mood, and happiness. You can even incorporate fish into your insulin resistance diet plan. Why does fish have all of these benefits? If you guessed that it has something to do with omega-3 fatty acids, you guessed right. Fatty fish are some of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are well-known for their heart-protective benefits, but research has also found that a diet rich in omega-3s can improve insulin sensitivity in older adults.

Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:

For a dinner that packs an omega-3 punch, try this almond-crusted trout recipe.

Healthy fats

Just like all carbs are not created equal, all fats are not created equal either. Research suggests that saturated fats can impair insulin activity and increase insulin resistance, whereas unsaturated fats can reduce insulin resistance.

Healthy fats to add to your diet include:

Try this orange, avocado, and cashew salad recipe for a healthy dose of healthy fats at lunchtime.

Fiber

Did we save the best for last? Perhaps we did. Eating more fiber is one of the most effective dietary approaches to improving insulin resistance. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Nutrition links high dietary fiber intake with a 20–30% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In the study, high dietary fiber intake was defined as more than 25 grams per day in women and more than 38 grams per day in men, which is consistent with the recommendations set by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Foods high in fiber include:

Try this raspberry and greens smoothie recipe that packs in 14 grams of fiber per serving for a morning fiber boost.

Can You Reverse Insulin Resistance?

Knowing you are insulin resistant may be disheartening, but don’t despair—it may be possible to reverse insulin resistance with healthy lifestyle choices. By making positive changes to your diet, exercise, physical activity, stress management, and sleep patterns, you may be able to optimize the way your body uses glucose and insulin.

These lifestyle changes may be challenging at first, whether you’re aiming to lower your added sugar intake with a sugar detox, fitting exercise into a busy schedule, or following a prediabetes diet plan. However, if you stay consistent with your goals, you may start to notice you feel better, your blood sugars are better controlled, and you’re on track to reverse insulin resistance.

The Takeaway

Insulin resistance can be a wake-up call that you’re at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. If you make healthy lifestyle changes, you can improve your insulin sensitivity, reverse insulin resistance, and lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. These changes don’t have to be drastic—even changing your diet and becoming more physically active will have a significantly positive impact.

If you don’t know where to start, try eating more non-starchy vegetables, high-fiber fruit, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fat. PlateJoy Health’s meal planning services can help you plan wholesome meals and maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you’d like a more comprehensive guide, a diabetic meal plan might just be what you’re looking for.

Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN
Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant @ Alena Menko Nutrition
https://www.alenamenko.com/

Alena Kharlamenko is the founder of Alena Menko Nutrition, a food and nutrition blog where she publishes healthful, plant-forward recipes and makes nutrition approachable with easily digestible information. She’s also passionate about gut health and is a Monash FODMAP-Trained Dietitian. When she's not cooking up a storm in the kitchen or behind her computer, she can be found exploring the vast culinary scene of NYC, traveling around the world, or hiking and spending time in nature. You can find Alena on Instagram @thebalancedbite or on Facebook @AlenaMenkoNutrition.

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