Updated 14th April 2022

Insulin resistance and how to eat the right foods for you

Insulin is a hormone that helps regulate your blood sugar by controlling how much glucose your cells can absorb. 

If your cells don’t respond to insulin the way they should — a condition known as insulin resistance — it can contribute to your risk of diabetes. 

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 nutritional 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 are the best foods 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 that they absorb sugar (glucose) from your bloodstream.

When your body no longer responds the way it should to insulin, it’s known as insulin resistance. This 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 working out exactly how. 

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. Food choices that rapidly increase your blood sugar — often known as high-glycemic index, or high-GI, foods — prompt the release of a large amount of insulin. 

Over time, your body gets used to this extra insulin and becomes less sensitive to it. This reduces how much glucose your cells absorb from your bloodstream and starts to increase your risk of prediabetes and diabetes by raising your overall blood sugar levels.

However, ZOE’s research shows that everyone responds to foods differently, so even so-called 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) are 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 have 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 (fewer potatoes, more leafy greens)

  • choose whole foods rather than processed or junk food

1. Vegetables

When it comes to veg, not all are created equal. Where possible, it’s important to go for fresh, whole vegetables that you’ve prepared yourself. This means they’ll have no extra sugar or salt.

You can still choose frozen or canned options if that’s what you prefer, but make sure you pick low-sodium products.

Some insulin-friendly vegetable options are:

  • leafy greens including kale, cabbage, and spinach

  • cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli

  • tomatoes

  • asparagus

  • green beans

  • carrots

  • peppers

While getting your vegetable hit from a refreshing carrot or tomato juice might seem appealing, it’s worth being aware that whole vegetables have a lot more fiber and fill you up for longer.

2. Fruits

Whole fruits are also high in fiber, which can help keep your blood sugar in check and help you feel fuller for longer.

Examples include:

  • oranges

  • melons

  • grapes

  • apples

  • blueberries

  • strawberries

If you’re going for canned fruit, make sure you choose the low-sugar varieties. 

Fruit juices can be high in sugar, too, and not particularly useful for managing insulin resistance. They also provide less fiber than the whole fruit.

3. Dairy

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) recommend that whole grains make up at least half of your daily grain intake. 

Refined grains are heavily processed, but whole grains still have the parts of the seed that provide more fiber — the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. This means they don’t spike blood sugar as much as refined grains do, and they can also help you feel fuller for longer between meals.

Examples of grains that help stabilize blood sugar include:

  • oats

  • wheat

  • cornmeal

  • barley

  • brown rice

  • quinoa

  • bulgur

  • sorghum

  • millet

  • buckwheat

You can find whole-grain alternatives for a variety of breads, pastas, cereals, and tortillas.

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5. Beans and legumes

Beans and legumes are good for your overall health, and they provide plenty of fiber and protein that release energy slowly while keeping you fuller for longer. 

The American Diabetes Association recommend:

  • black beans

  • kidney beans

  • chickpeas

  • green lentils

6. Fish

Not just a great source of protein, oily fish also provide omega-3 fatty acids. These compounds help protect you from heart disease by improving 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 look after your heart.

For excellent seafood sources of omega-3s, choose fatty coldwater fish like:

  • trout

  • mackerel

  • tuna

  • herring

  • sardines

7. Lean protein and poultry

Fans of chicken and turkey needn’t go hungry at Thanksgiving. Lean white meat is a good source of protein.

However, be sure to 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 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 to 1-2 times per week

8. Nuts and seeds

Healthy fats are essential for your body. Having healthy 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 your nuts correctly — a palm-sized serving of nuts is one portion. Choose raw and unsalted varieties, if possible.

9. 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 these increase your risk of a blood sugar spike:

  • soda, juice, and sweet tea

  • refined grains, including white rice, white bread, and cereal with added sugar

  • ultra-processed snack foods like candy, cookies, cakes, and chips

Eating to support weight loss

According to the NIDDK, obesity and excess fat around your organs and waist can cause insulin resistance

The NIDDK link 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 (BMI) is in the normal range.

Eating a balanced diet of the foods listed above can help you manage your weight to reduce your risk of insulin resistance. These foods release energy slowly and may keep you feeling full for longer. 

One weight loss strategy is a calorie deficit, which means burning more calories than you take in. However, not all calories are nutritionally equal. Focusing on the quality of foods that you eat rather than the quantity can help you to lose weight sustainably. 

Opting for healthier snacks in between meals can help, and eating more variety is thought to enhance weight loss. Increase the variety of plants you’re eating by aiming for at least 30 different plants per week. 

Staying active also helps to maintain a lower weight and significantly reduces the risk of long-term health implications.

Speak to your doctor or dietitian about whether they recommend weight loss to manage your insulin resistance.

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 certain foods are good for your body. 

Your gut microbiome is the name for the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your gut. They break down the food you eat into chemicals that are involved in important functions 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 combinations of foods, impact your blood sugar and blood fat, 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.

Summary

Insulin resistance develops when your body gets too used to high blood sugar levels and becomes less sensitive to insulin. 

There are some foods that can help you manage insulin resistance and avoid blood sugar spikes.

They include:

  • non-starchy vegetables

  • fruits

  • lean protein

  • whole grains

  • low-fat dairy

  • beans and legumes

  • nuts and seeds

  • fatty coldwater fish

These foods release energy slowly and help you to feel full for longer. 

You should 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 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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Diabetes diet, eating, and physical activity. (2016). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/diet-eating-physical-activity 

Insulin resistance & prediabetes. (2018). https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/diabetes/overview/what-is-diabetes/prediabetes-insulin-resistance 

Low-glycemic index diet may improve insulin sensitivity in obese children. Pediatric Research. (2015). https://www.nature.com/articles/pr2015142 

Marine omega-3 (N-3) fatty acids for cardiovascular health: an update for 2020. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. (2020). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC7072971/ 

Nutrition therapy for adults with diabetes or prediabetes: a consensus report. Diabetes Care. (2019). https://diabetesjournals.org/care/article/42/5/731/40480/Nutrition-Therapy-for-Adults-With-Diabetes-or 

Omega-3 fatty acids. (2021). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/ 

Optimal diet strategies for weight loss and weight loss maintenance. Journal of Obesity & Metabolic Syndrome. (2021). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33107442/ 

The physical activity guidelines for Americans. JAMA. (2018). https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2712935 

Plant based butters. Journal of Food Science and Technology. (2014). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC4486598/ 

The role of diet on insulin sensitivity. Nutrients. (2020). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC7600669/ 

The role of fiber in energy balance. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. (2019). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC6360548/ 

Understanding carbs. (n.d.). https://www.diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/understanding-carbs