Hyperinsulinemia is the single biggest predictor of obesity. Interestingly, obese individuals have high insulin levels, which means insulin is both the cause and consequence of obesity. Not just that, abnormally high insulin levels render cells unresponsive to its presence, thereby leading to greater fat deposition and more weight gain.
How to know if you’re insulin resistant? Watch out for these signs to know if you’re insulin-resistant
We have discussed the link between obesity and insulin resistance in detail here
Can we lower insulin or reverse insulin resistance through diet?
As the number 1 cause of chronic obesity, insulin remains the major problem that should be addressed if you want long-lasting weight loss. Fortunately, it is possible to reduce insulin levels through diet. Reducing insulin levels naturally restores responsiveness in cells, increasing their capacity to sense insulin and putting a check on aberrant lipogenesis (i.e synthesis of triglycerides).
In the following section, we will discuss how to achieve this state through proper dietary practices
Which diets work best?
First, let us review scientific literature to better understand which dietary practices are most effective in lowering insulin levels and improving insulin sensitivity.
Effects of Low-Fat Diets
Low-carb and low-fat meals were equally effective in inducing weight loss in a one-year study (1). Moreover, reducing calorie consumption had the same effect as reducing consumption of dietary fats (2). This implies that the quality of food and the consumption of a balanced proportion of macronutrients is what determines insulin response in individuals with diet-induced obesity.
Effects of High-Fiber Diets
Studies have repeatedly shown that dietary fiber increases satiety, helping you feel fuller faster. Also, dietary fiber-rich foods have a low GI, which explains their efficacy in boosting insulin response and weight loss (3). In one study spanning 10 years (4) people consuming a low GI diet (high in fiber, high in fat) gained the LEAST amount of weight, as compared to those who consumed a high GI diet (low in fiber, low in fat). These were people who gained the most weight during this period.
What does fiber do?
Here, we should consider three properties of fiber.
- It’s viscous
- water-soluble, and
- bulky in content
So whenever you consume a fiber-rich source of carbohydrate, it greatly slows down the glycemic response due to its bulking effect. Thus, as less insulin is produced, the absorption of dietary carb/fat contents in the digestive system is ultimately slowed down. In other words, your stomach gets empty at a slower rate, making you feel full for a long time. Thus, having a fiber-rich meal lowers your chances to get hungry later and reach out for an unhealthy snack. This is another way by which fiber boosts weight loss, by lowering your calorie consumption.
How to create a low Glycemic Index (GI) meal?
- Based on these studies, the following dietary practices are recommended for lowering insulin and insulin resistance:
- There’s no need to go for low-carb meals. If you take a high-carb meal, make sure it is rich in fiber too, like whole grain cereals, millets, beans of all kinds (pinto, kidney, black, garbanzo), root vegetables, green leafy vegetables
- What about fruits? A hell yes! Choose high-fiber fruits like banana, apple, peach, prunes, mangoes, guava, and berries
- Canned fruits, fruit juices are all devoid of fiber and cause an instant spike in blood glucose and insulin. Hence, they are best consumed in moderation.
- Fill up on non-starchy vegetables. These include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, sweet potato, carrots, eggplant, okra, mushrooms, and a lot more. Here’s a list (5) Pumpkin, white potato, peas, squash, and zucchini are the starchy vegetables. They have higher carb content and tend to increase blood sugar rapidly
- Lower your sodium intake by replacing table salt with rock salt. High sodium intake has been linked with insulin resistance and diet-induced obesity (6)
Effects of Low Glycemic Index (GI) Diets
In a thorough analysis of six independent studies that followed the effect of low glycemic index (GI) foods on body weight in obese individuals, it was concluded that overweight individuals receiving low glycemic index foods experienced greater weight loss and had improved blood cholesterol/triglyceride levels, indicating lowered insulin levels, as compared to people who received low-fat diets (7).
In short, when you want to design your own insulin-resistance foods, eating low-GI foods is a strategy that works better than eliminating high-fat foods from the diet.
Effects of High-Fat Diets
As we know, dietary fat is of four major types: monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), saturated fatty acid (SFA), polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA), and trans unsaturated fatty acid (TFA). Replacing saturated fat (SFA) with monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA) has been found to restore normal insulin levels and reduce insulin resistance in obese individuals.
Sources of MUFA to include in your insulin-resistance diet are: Olives and olive oil, nuts (almonds, cashews, macadamia and pecans), avocadoes, and a variety of nut butters
Similar to MUFA, polyunsaturated fat i.e. PUFA also reduces insulin resistance, thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. It also has a beneficial effect in lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and circulating triglyceride levels (8). One type of PUFA, i.e. omega-6-fatty acid PUFA is particularly beneficial (9).
Sources of omega-6-fatty acid-rich sources of PUFA to include in your insulin-resistance diet are: Eggs, poultry, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and whole-grain breads/cereals
Effects of Low-Carbohydrate High-Protein Diets
A combination of low-carb and high-protein leads to a significant reduction in appetite, inducing satiety and promoting insulin sensitivity, leading to fat reduction and weight loss (10). Consuming more protein causes an increase in thermogenesis, i.e. the number of calories your body spends towards heat generation, further improving BMR in obese individuals with hyperinsulinemia (11).
The final takeaways from the scientific evaluation of these different dietary methods in reducing insulin and insulin resistance are as follows:
- Low-carb, high-protein meals are maximally effective, as they have a dual effect- on one hand, they improve satiety and on the other hand, they promote insulin sensitivity
- Low-glycemic index foods are also effective.
- If you want to have carb sources, you’re welcome to do so but they should be fiber-rich. High-fiber carbs have low glycemic index and thus don’t raise insulin as much
- Dietary fats like MUFA and PUFA (omega-6-fatty acids, in particular) are beneficial
- Eliminating fats from diet or calorie restriction is not necessarily effective as long as you
- Eat high-protein, low-carb meals
- Include fiber-rich foods in your diet
- Eat low GI foods
Diet tips for lowering insulin: How to design a diet plan for insulin resistance
Based on the above information, we’ll next discuss how to implement these dietary practices in your everyday meal planning. Since people with high insulin levels are likely to have chronic inflammation in their body, whatever meals you include in your diet must be anti-inflammatory and antioxidant in nature.
We’ll start with the morning drink.
Morning drink (5:30- 8:30 am)
For your morning drink, you can take a green smoothie made with seasonal, dark, leafy greens like kale and spinach. You can add yogurt as the base for a nice dose of probiotic or go for water for a light, easily digestible smoothie.
Detox drinks, like fruit-infused water, ginger tea, turmeric water are all advisable as they scavenge harmful free radicals and assist in liver functioning, thereby allowing for effective removal of toxin byproducts of inflammation from the body.
To summarize, recommendations for morning drinks that lower insulin resistance are:
- Green smoothie; Ingredients: ¼ cup kale + ¼ cup spinach + 1 cup yogurt/water
- Fruit-infused water
- Fresh vegetable juice (celery/cucumber/ash gourd/bottle gourd)
- Green tea
- Carrot-celery juice
Breakfast (9:00-11:00 am)
It is recommended that you keep breakfast light if you have eaten the night before. Intermittent fasting, the concept of having breakfast later during the day has been proven to be enormously effective in reducing insulin resistance. If you are reasonably full after the morning drink, you can skip breakfast entirely and have an early lunch. However, if you are not comfortable in skipping breakfast, make sure to eat whole grains that are full of fiber, or better still, proteins.
- Skip breakfast if you have eaten the night before, i.e. practice intermittent fasting
- Eat something light (antioxidant-rich fruit) if you’re are expecting an early lunch
- Eating something reasonably satiating (e.g: fiber-rich carbs/protein/ good fats) if you’re expecting a late lunch
Consider the following options:
- Antioxidant-rich fruits; have mono-fruit meals like pomegranate, ripe papaya, berries
- Oatmeal porridge (Ingredients: plant-based milk, oat bran, cinnamon, banana)
- Apple slices dipped in almond butter & pre-soaked almonds
- Scrambled eggs with tomatoes n green bell peppers
- Oats pancakes
- Barley flakes
- Boiled egg salad (4 whole eggs + diced onions + green chillies; dressing: vinegar, lemon juice, olive oil)
- Chickpea-cucumber salad
- Healthy source of fats like avocados
Lunch (2:00-4:00 pm)
Having a well-balanced lunch negates post-afternoon sugar cravings. Also, since insulin-resistant people are likely to feel rather sleepy and lethargic after lunch, it’s advisable to consume protein as compared to starch. However, if you’re a vegetarian, consider opting for non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and beetroots. Here are some options to consider:
- Chicken lettuce wraps
- Tofu scramble
- Black bean and kale salad
- Stir-fried mushrooms in garlic, thyme and olive oil
- Chicken and rice
- Pan-fried cottage cheese
- Roasted sweet potatoes with smoked salmon/poached eggs
- Boiled eggs and chickpea salad with freshly diced cucumber
Evening snack (5:00-6:00 pm)
No snacking is a strong feature of the insulin-resistance diet. This is because, every time you eat, your body produces insulin. And if you eat all the time, your body will keep producing insulin and exacerbate the underlying insulin resistance.
If you do want to snack, consider opting for zero-calorie drinks like green tea or black coffee. They boost metabolism as well, and suppress hunger.
If you do want to eat, consider nuts, seeds, seasonal fruit (low-carb), water-rich fruits/veggies like watermelon and cucumber, or folate-rich foods like sprouts.
Here are some options:
- Energy seed bars
- Sprout salad
- Cinnamon-spiced black coffee
- Homemade cheese crackers
Dinner (By 8:00 pm)
It’s imperative to inculcate the habit of having an early dinner, atleast 2 hours before bedtime and 14 hours before the time of breakfast the next day. Maintaining a time gap of 14-16 hours between today’s dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast allows your body to fight insulin-resistance naturally and makes weight loss effortlessly. This is the whole essence of intermittent fasting.
Also, keep dinner light and easy to digest. Consider the following options:
- Amaranth-lentil porridge
- Spinach-egg-mushroom lasagne
- Skillet-roasted corn, tomato and asparagus
- Bean chilli; pinto bean, kidney bean, black bean
- Grilled/roasted chicken
- Winter vegetable soup
- Whole wheat pasta with shrimps and garlic
Does dairy cause insulin resistance?
Low-fat dairy has been found to be beneficial in reducing insulin levels (12). Dairy is rich in whey, casein, and vitamin D, all which contribute to improving insulin resistance. As a result, unless you are lactose intolerant, it is advisable to include milk and milk products in your diet.
If you are attempting to get rid of weight that has accumulated as a result of improper diet over the years, then lowering insulin should be your go-to strategy. Adopting the above dietary practices will not only lower insulin and insulin resistance but also boost good health, paving the way for sustainable weight loss that is easy to maintain as well.