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Home / Weight Loss / How does insulin affect your weight?

How does insulin affect your weight?

Discover the role of insulin and how insulin resistance can make it harder to lose weight

Insulin is an important hormone (chemical messenger) in the body. It plays a role in managing blood sugar (glucose) levels.

Every time we eat our blood glucose levels rise. Insulin works to bring these levels back down by helping our cells absorb some of the sugar from our blood.

A doctor talking to an overweight patient

Sometimes, there are problems with insulin production. This causes high blood sugar (hyperglycaemia) and can lead to insulin resistance.

People with insulin resistance can be more prone to gaining weight and may find themselves struggling with weight loss. Keep reading to learn how insulin affects your weight and ways of managing your insulin levels.

What does insulin do?

The hormone insulin helps to manage our blood sugar levels. It is produced by special cells (called beta cells) in the pancreas.

When we eat food, our bodies break some of it down into sugar. This sugar is then absorbed from our intestines into the bloodstream. As a result, blood glucose levels rise.

Blood cells and glucose travelling down a vein

To bring blood glucose levels down again, we need insulin. Insulin allows sugar to be transported from the blood into nearby cells, which use the glucose as fuel.

How does insulin affect your appetite?

Insulin doesn’t directly affect your appetite. However, if your body is frequently producing large amounts of insulin (due to large spikes in your glucose levels throughout the day) your appetite and urge for cravings will likely increase.

What are glucose spikes?

When you eat meals that are high in simple sugars and carbohydrates, they cause your blood sugar levels to rise dramatically.

A graph showing blood glucose spikes

A steep sugar spike results in a crash, which causes tiredness and sluggishness. In order to feel more energised again, you crave sugar. This creates a cycle throughout the day where you frequently crave sugary foods to keep your energy levels up.

This increase in sugar cravings can cause weight gain over time, due to a surplus of calories.

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance is a term used for when the body’s cells stop responding to insulin as they should. This means that they don’t take up enough sugar from your blood.

This results in blood sugar levels being too high, which can cause many different health problems. Even mildly raised glucose levels can be damaging long-term.

Over time, being insulin resistant can lead to being prediabetic. Without treatment, you may even develop type 2 diabetes. Worldwide, as many as 1 in 10 adults are living with this condition.

Type 2 diabetes is a serious condition that increases your chances of heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, vision loss and kidney disease.

Roughly a quarter of people with type 2 diabetes are required to take extra insulin as treatment. This helps lower blood glucose levels, especially if they aren’t producing much insulin naturally.

What causes insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance is more likely to develop if you carry extra fat around the liver and pancreas. You are more likely to have fat around these organs if you carry extra weight around your middle, rather than your hips or legs.

It’s also more common in people who are overweight or obese. However, people with a healthy BMI can become insulin-resistant too.

As well as being inactive, a diet that’s high in sugar and simple carbohydrates can also cause insulin resistance to develop. Frequent spikes in your sugar levels require the pancreas to make large quantities of insulin. Over time, the pancreas can tire and slow in its production.

Some women also become insulin-resistant during pregnancy due to changes in their hormones.

Does insulin cause weight gain?

If you become insulin-resistant and have too much insulin in your body, this can result in weight gain.

Normally after a meal, your body produces insulin to lower blood sugar levels (allowing cells to take in some of the sugar). Any excess sugar (which isn’t needed by the cells) is then stored in the liver as glycogen.

When your body needs sugar but isn’t getting any food (such as when you’re asleep), you convert stored glycogen back into glucose. This can then be used by your cells.

However, if you have insulin resistance, things work a little differently. When your cells don’t respond to insulin, they don’t take up sugar from the blood. This causes two problems:

  • Excess sugar becomes stored as fat in the liver.
  • Because your cells don’t receive enough sugar, your brain sends hunger signals which causes you to eat and increase your blood sugar levels even further.

Both of these factors can cause a variety of health problems, including weight gain, if not dealt with.

Insulin injections

If you have diabetes, you may have been prescribed regular insulin injections. Insulin is a growth hormone, and taking growth hormones can encourage weight gain.

If you are taking insulin, your blood sugar levels will be brought down. This in turn can cause hunger, which may cause you to overeat.

You can manage your weight while taking insulin by eating a balanced diet and doing more exercise, like walking to work instead of driving.

Can I reverse insulin resistance?

The best way of reversing insulin resistance involves:

  • making healthier diet choices
  • doing more regular exercise
  • losing weight

Making lifestyle changes doesn’t happen overnight. Try to adopt one new habit every week, and educate yourself about healthy eating by reading pages online or by talking to a nutritionist.

By reversing insulin resistance, you are preventing the onset of type 2 diabetes.

Low-carb diet

A low-carb, low-sugar diet is best for those with raised blood sugar levels. To help reverse insulin resistance, opt for small portions of complex carbohydrates, increase your intake of vegetables, and avoid foods containing added sugar.

Eat Avoid
  • Wholemeal grains (brown rice, rye bread, wholemeal pasta)
  • Non-starchy vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli, tomatoes, courgettes, peppers etc)
  • Berries/apples instead of bananas
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Adding sugar to your tea/coffee
  • Honey, cakes, pastries, and more than 3 servings of fruit per day
  • Starchy vegetables (like potatoes and beans)
  • Fizzy drinks and alcohol

How can I lose weight with insulin resistance?

While it can be more of a challenge to tackle weight loss with insulin resistance, it is still entirely possible.

Focus on keeping your blood sugar levels within a healthy range, so that your brain doesn’t give you the signal for more food. This can be done by:

  • eating 3 main, balanced meals
  • avoiding sugary snacks and drinks
  • reducing your intake of carbs
  • drinking plenty of water (so that your blood sugar is less concentrated)

Prescription treatments

If your BMI determines that you’re obese, and you’ve been struggling to lose weight, you may benefit from the aid of prescription weight loss treatments.

Weight loss injections like Wegovy are effective at managing weight. They work by reducing your appetite and slowing down your digestion.

Want to learn more about prescription
weight loss meds?

Click here
Medically reviewed by Dr. Caroline Fontana Written by our editorial team Last reviewed 10-01-2024
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