Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate your blood sugar by controlling how much glucose your cells can absorb.
The good news? By picking the right foods for you, you can reduce your insulin resistance and help keep your blood sugar in check.
There’s no fixed diet plan for reducing insulin resistance. Scientists have drawn up some guidelines, but they recognize that a personalized approach is best.
At ZOE, we run the largest nutrition study in the world, with over 15,000 participants so far. Our results show that everyone responds differently to foods. While one person might see a high blood sugar spike after eating a particular food, another person may have a more moderate response.
The ZOE at-home test analyzes your blood sugar and blood fat responses to food — as well as the unique range of bacteria that live in your gut — to tell you which foods are best for you.
You can take a free quiz to find out more.
Read on to learn about the links between insulin resistance and diet.
Insulin resistance and diet
Insulin is a hormone — a chemical that communicates with other parts of your body to trigger important functions.
Insulin tells your body to “unlock” your cells so they absorb sugar (glucose) from your bloodstream.
When your body no longer responds the way it should to insulin, this is called insulin resistance. It increases your risk of prediabetes and diabetes by keeping your blood sugar levels high.
What you eat has links to insulin resistance, although researchers are still figuring out the details.
Overweight and obesity lead to excess fat storage around your organs and waistline, increasing your risk of insulin resistance.
Different foods also have varying effects on insulin resistance. Foods that rapidly increase your blood sugar prompt the release of a large amount of insulin.
These are often foods that rank high on the glycemic index (GI), which we describe in more detail a little later on.
Over time, your body gets used to the extra insulin and becomes less sensitive to it. This reduces how much glucose your cells absorb from your bloodstream.
It starts to increase your risk of prediabetes and diabetes by raising your overall blood sugar levels.
ZOE’s research shows that everyone responds to foods differently, so even high-GI foods don’t lead to the same blood sugar increases from person to person.
The ZOE at-home test analyzes your blood sugar responses to food, as well as your blood fat responses and your gut health.
Based on your unique results, the ZOE program provides you with personalized nutrition advice so you can eat the best foods for your body.
What to eat on an insulin resistance diet
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) is clear that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” diet for controlling insulin resistance.
Instead, they recommend personalized nutrition aimed at reaching your blood sugar targets and weight management goals.
However, the ADA has published some broad guidelines for people with insulin resistance:
Boost your fiber intake by eating more whole grains.
Eat food that provides polyunsaturated, or “good,” fats.
Focus on non-starchy vegetables. For example, opt for fewer potatoes and more leafy greens.
Choose whole foods rather than processed foods.
When it comes to veggies, not all are created equal. When possible, go for fresh, whole vegetables that you’ve prepared yourself. This means that they’ll have no extra sugar or salt.
Frozen or canned options are fine, but make sure you pick low-sodium products.
Some insulin-friendly vegetables are:
leafy greens, including kale, cabbage, and spinach
cruciferous vegetables, like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli
While getting your vegetable hit from carrot or tomato juice might seem appealing, it’s worth noting that whole vegetables have a lot more fiber than juice, and they'll fill you up for longer.
Whole fruits are also high in fiber, which can help keep your blood sugar in check and help you feel fuller for longer.
If you’re going for canned fruit, make sure you choose a low-sugar option.
Fruit juices can be high in sugar, too, and not particularly useful for managing insulin resistance. They also provide less fiber than whole fruit.
You can still enjoy some dairy treats if you have insulin resistance. They’re a vital source of calcium, which helps keep your bones strong.
But many cheeses, yogurts, and animal milks contain saturated fats, which may be linked to increased insulin resistance, according to 2020 research.
Try swapping your saturated fats for healthier fats, such as nuts, seeds, and avocados.
4. Whole grains
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) recommends that whole grains make up at least half of your daily grain intake.
Refined grains are heavily processed, while whole grains have the parts of the seed that contain more fiber — the bran, the germ, and the endosperm.
This means that whole grains don’t spike your blood sugar as much as refined grains, so they can help you feel fuller for longer.
Examples of grains that help stabilize blood sugar include:
You can find whole grain versions of many breads, pastas, cereals, and tortillas.
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5. Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes are good for your overall health. Plus, they provide plenty of fiber and protein that release energy slowly while keeping you full for longer.
The ADA recommend:
Fish can be a great source of protein, and oily fish also provide omega-3 fatty acids. These compounds help protect you from heart disease by improving your blood fat levels, blood pressure, and heart rate.
Having diabetes doubles your risk of heart disease or stroke, so it’s important to eat foods, like fish, that can help you look after your heart.
For excellent seafood sources of omega-3s, choose fatty cold-water fish, like:
7. Lean protein and poultry
Fans of chicken and turkey will be pleased to hear that lean white meat is a good source of protein.
However, avoid eating the skin if you’re looking to manage your insulin resistance — even if you’ve cooked the bird skin-on, which is fine.
This is because the skin is high in poor-quality fat, which isn’t good for your heart health.
Other lean sources of protein include:
pork: center loin or tenderloin*
veal: roast or loin chop*
lamb: roast or lean chop*
beef: lean, with the fat removed*
vegetarian protein: beans, legumes, tofu, soy, and tempeh
*Limit these to 1–2 times a week.
8. Nuts and seeds
Healthy fats are essential for your body. And including these fats in a meal can help control your blood sugar response.
Nuts, seeds, and their butters can provide you with lots of healthy fats, as well as nutrients like magnesium, fiber, and protein — all without adding too many carbs.
This is good news for your blood sugar and insulin resistance, as low-carb foods are less likely to trigger a blood sugar spike.
However, nuts are energy-dense, so make sure you portion them correctly: A palm-sized serving of nuts is one portion. Choose raw and unsalted varieties, if possible.
If you’re looking to control insulin resistance, focus on non-starchy vegetables and foods with lots of fiber and healthy fats.
It’s particularly important to limit processed foods containing added sugar. Opt for whole foods instead.
Foods to avoid for insulin resistance
If you’re managing insulin resistance through what you eat, it’s important to cut down on processed foods with added sugar.
Foods like the following increase your risk of a blood sugar spike:
soda, juice, and sweetened tea
refined grains, including white rice, white bread, and cereal with added sugar
ultra-processed snack foods, like candy, cookies, cakes, and chips
Making changes to your diet can seem daunting, especially if you haven’t had to before.
Here are some tips to help make the adjustments more effectively:
Focus on small, manageable changes: Rather than making several big changes, just one or two simple ones will be easier to stick to and more likely to become habitual.
Stick to regular meals: Not skipping meals can help manage your blood sugar and prevent hunger. It also reduces the likelihood of overeating later.
Pair your foods: Pairing carbs with fiber, protein, or fat will lessen your blood sugar response.
Don’t worry if you have a “bad” day: See it as a learning opportunity, not a failure. Your overall diet is more important than any single moment or day.
Look for low-GI foods: You’ll digest foods with low GI scores more slowly. This means a more gradual rise in blood sugar.
What's the GI?
This index is a way of measuring how the carbs in different foods affect your blood sugar levels.
The GI ranks foods from 0–100. The higher a food’s GI score, the more quickly your blood sugar will rise after you eat this food on its own.
For example, lentils are a low-GI food: They have a score of 30. White rice is a high-GI food because it has a score of 82.
When you’re looking to keep your blood sugar in check, it can help to understand how quickly specific foods might affect your levels.
However, a food’s GI score doesn't give you the whole picture. It doesn’t take into account how we respond to multiple ingredients together.
Plus, different people have different responses to food. As we mention above, high-GI foods don’t produce the same blood sugar rise from person to person.
If you’re looking to control insulin resistance, being aware of a food’s GI score can be useful, but it remains just one part of the puzzle.
Eating to support weight loss
According to the NIDDK, obesity and excess fat around your organs and waist are a risk factor for insulin resistance.
The NIDDK links belly fat to the release of hormones that trigger inflammation.
Inflammation is the way your immune system responds to potentially harmful events around your body.
It’s essential for fighting infections, but ongoing inflammation can have negative effects and contribute to your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
A waist measurement of more than 35 inches for women or 40 inches for men means that your insulin resistance could be related to inflammation — even if your body mass index is in the normal range.
Eating a balanced diet (including the foods we list above) can help you manage your weight and reduce your risk of insulin resistance. These foods release energy slowly and keep you feeling fuller for longer.
One weight loss strategy involves burning more calories than you take in. However, not all calories are nutritionally equal.
Focusing on the quality of foods rather than the quantity of calories can help you to lose weight sustainably.
Opting for healthier snacks between meals can also help.
And having more variety in your diet may enhance weight loss. You can start by aiming to eat at least 30 different plants per week.
Staying active also helps you maintain a lower weight and significantly reduces the risk of long-term health implications.
Speak to your doctor or a dietitian about whether weight loss would help you manage your insulin resistance.
Another strategy for dealing with insulin resistance is to think about the balance of macronutrients in your diet.
Macronutrients are the nutrients that we need in the largest amounts: carbs, fat, and protein. They provide you with energy and are crucial for helping parts of your body work properly.
These nutrients are in the many insulin-friendly foods we list above, so there are plenty of choices.
While carbs have the biggest impact on your blood sugar, you can reduce their effect by combining them with protein and fat.
Balancing your macronutrients like this can help you manage insulin resistance.
Causes of insulin resistance
We’re not yet sure of the direct cause, but several factors increase your risk of developing insulin resistance.
Obesity and excess fat around your organs and waist is the main risk factor.
Here are some other factors related to developing insulin resistance:
being 45 or older
having a close relative with diabetes
having a history of gestational diabetes, heart disease, or stroke
having high blood pressure
having abnormal cholesterol levels
having polycystic ovary syndrome, or PCOS
having a sedentary lifestyle
taking certain medicines, including glucocorticoids
having some hormonal disorders, such as Cushing’s syndrome
having sleep issues, such as sleep apnea
Also, your risk is higher if you are African American, Latinx, Asian American, American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander American.
Eat the right foods for you
In this article, we’ve looked at general guidelines for foods that could help with insulin resistance.
But ZOE’s research has shown that the way your insulin and blood sugar levels change after eating is specific to you.
Your blood fat responses and your gut microbiome also play important roles in whether different foods are good for your body.
Your gut microbiome is the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your gut. They break down the food you eat into chemicals that play important roles in your body.
ZOE scientists have identified 15 “good” and 15 “bad” gut bugs. Some of them are linked to how much insulin your body produces and your insulin sensitivity.
The ZOE at-home test tells you how different foods, and their combinations, affect your blood sugar and blood fat levels, as well as the makeup of your gut microbiome.
With the ZOE program, you can find the best foods for you.
You can take a free quiz to find out more.
Insulin resistance develops when your body gets too used to high blood sugar levels and becomes less sensitive to insulin.
Certain foods can help you manage insulin resistance and avoid blood sugar spikes. They include:
beans and legumes
nuts and seeds
fatty cold-water fish
These foods release energy slowly and help you feel full for longer.
Also, try to limit the amount of processed foods you eat, including sugary drinks and cereals, refined grains, like white rice and white bread, and snacks like chips and candy.
However, to eat what’s best for your body, it’s important to understand your personal responses to foods.
ZOE’s pioneering at-home test analyzes your blood sugar and blood fat levels after you eat, as well as your unique gut microbiome.
Take a free quiz to learn how the ZOE program can help you to eat the best foods for you.
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