What Is Insulin Resistance, and How Can It Affect Your Health?By Carole Anderson Lucia Reviewed by Briana Rodriquez, R.D. Science-Backed
Chances are you’ve heard about diabetes and its precursor, prediabetes. But have you heard of insulin resistance? Sometimes referred to as a silent blood-sugar problem, the condition involves invisible metabolic changes that start to happen in your body — which, if left uncorrected, can eventually lead to Type 2 diabetes.1 But the good news is that even if you do have insulin resistance, you can delay the onset of diabetes or perhaps even prevent it altogether by taking some simple steps to protect your health.2
Read on for the most common questions about insulin resistance, including how it develops, factors that put you at risk for developing it, and what you can do to help reverse it.
Q: What is insulin resistance?
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A: Put simply, insulin resistance is a condition that prevents your body from responding appropriately to the amount of insulin it is producing. In other words, your body becomes resistant to insulin.3
To understand how insulin resistance works, first we need to discuss insulin itself — a vital hormone that regulates the amount of blood glucose, or blood sugar, in your body. This is how the insulin/blood sugar process optimally works:2
- When you eat, food is broken down into glucose.
- Glucose then enters your bloodstream.
- Your pancreas releases insulin to help move glucose out of your bloodstream and into the cells of your body, where it can be used for energy.
- Your liver also stores glucose for future energy use.
- The levels of glucose in your bloodstream decrease once it enters your cells; this causes your levels of insulin to decrease.
- Your decreased levels of insulin signal your liver to release stored glucose to be used as energy.
If you have insulin resistance, glucose can’t easily move from your bloodstream into the cells of your body because your cells don’t respond properly to insulin. This, in turn, causes your pancreas to release more insulin in an effort to help glucose move out of your bloodstream and into your cells.4
If this pattern continues, your pancreas can eventually become unable to keep up with the demand for extra insulin. As a result, because glucose doesn’t move out of the bloodstream as it is supposed to, consistently high levels of blood sugar can develop, leading to prediabetes and then Type 2 diabetes.5,6
Q: Is insulin resistance common?
A: It is. According to the American Heart Association (AHA),7 more than 60 million Americans have insulin resistance.
Q: Can insulin resistance cause other problems?
A: In addition to increasing the risk of developing prediabetes and diabetes, insulin resistance puts you at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, the AHA reports.7 It also may be linked to the development of fatty liver disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) at the National Institutes of Health.4
Q: What causes insulin resistance?
A: While experts aren’t sure of the exact cause of insulin resistance, they suspect that genetics may play a role. The American Diabetes Association reports that several genes have been identified that make a person more likely to develop the condition.8
Other factors that increase your risk of developing insulin resistance include the following, according to the NIDDK:4
- Being obese or overweight. Obesity is largely considered to be the major risk factor for developing insulin resistance. This is especially true if you have too much visceral fat — also called belly fat — with a waist circumference of 40 inches or greater for men or 35 inches or greater for women. This holds true even if your body mass index is normal.
- Being 45 or older.
- Having a parent or sibling who has diabetes.
- Being physically inactive.
- Having high blood pressure.
- Having sleep apnea.
In addition, the American Diabetes Association says your risk is increased if you have low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides; or if you have suffered from heart disease, a stroke, or a disease of the blood vessels in your neck or legs.9
Q: What are the signs of insulin resistance?
A: Insulin resistance typically has no signs or symptoms, according to the NIDDK,4 although the Mayo Clinic reports that if your blood-sugar levels are high, you may have signs and symptoms that are common to diabetes, including blurred vision, fatigue, and increased thirst and urination.4,10
Q: How is insulin resistance diagnosed?
A: According to the NIDDK,4 doctors typically don’t test for insulin resistance, as the most accurate test is complex and used primarily for research.4 However, when doctors do test for insulin resistance, they may opt to do a blood test called the hemoglobin A1C, which is commonly used to test for prediabetes and diabetes. While it does not directly test for insulin resistance, the hemoglobin A1C test is often considered to be a marker for the condition.11 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should get a baseline A1C test if you’re over 45 years old, or if you’re under 45 and are overweight, and have one or more risk factors for prediabetes or Type 2 diabetes (such as having a parent, or sibling with Type 2 diabetes, or if you are physically active less than three times a week).12
Q: What can you do if you think you have insulin resistance?
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A: If you or your doctor suspect that you have insulin resistance, your goal should be to increase your cells sensitivity to insulin. You can do this through two primary steps, according to the American Diabetes Association: weight loss if you are overweight, and increase the amount of exercise you get. Following are several steps the ADA recommends to help you achieve both objectives:9
Modify your diet
- Reduce your serving sizes.
- Eat plenty of vegetables and a moderate amount of fruits and whole grains.
- Drink water or calorie-free drinks instead of soft drinks and juice.
- Opt for baked, grilled and steamed foods rather than fried.
- Fill half of your plate with vegetables at every meal, one-fourth of your plate with meat or other lean protein, and one-fourth with high-quality carbohydrates, such as brown rice or whole grain pasta.
- When ordering meals at restaurants, ask for salad dressings and sauces on the side; try to use a minimal amount.
- Avoid ordering large serving sizes when eating out, opt for smaller portions, or try sharing a dish with someone.
- Cut back on high-fat toppings, such as butter, sour cream, full-fat salad dressing and mayonnaise.
- Opt for seasonings like herbs, spices, fresh salsa and lemon juice.
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- If you sit for long periods throughout the day, try to get up and move every 90 minutes.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever possible.
- Going shopping? Park at the far end of the parking lot.
- Walk around while you talk on the phone.
- Try to work more movement into your day: Clean the house, work in the garden, wash the car, take your dog for a walk.
- Walk or do some other form of regular aerobic exercise; try to do at least 30 minutes, five days a week.
- Incorporate strength training into your exercise routine: Aim for two to three days per week.
Focus on getting high-quality, restorative sleep. Preliminary studies have shown that doing so may help reduce insulin resistance.13
Consider trying time-restricted feeding. Harvard Health reports that a form of intermittent fasting called early time-restricted feeding may help certain people develop better insulin sensitivity.14 Researchers studying a small group of obese men with prediabetes found that when the study subjects restricted their meals to an eight-hour period of the day — in this case, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. — they experienced “significantly improved” insulin sensitivity.
We hope we’ve helped clarify the important role that insulin plays in keeping you healthy. Getting to — or staying at — a healthy weight, in conjunction with getting plenty of healthy exercise, can help ensure that this vital hormone continues to work optimally in your body.
If you’re looking to improve your health, Jenny Craig can help by following our most effective program, Rapid Results, you may experience health benefits beyond the scale. In fact, participants in the Diabetes Prevention Program (a major clinical research study) who lost just 5% to 7% of their body weight through a structured lifestyle-change program were able to reduce their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by up to 58%.15
If you’re ready to lose weight or start your journey to better health, we’re here to help with delicious, balanced meals and dedicated one-on-one support. Your journey is just one click away — get started today!
Carole is an award-winning journalist based in Southern California who specializes in health and wellness topics. Her work has appeared in Parents, Fit Pregnancy, Mom & Baby, Yahoo News, Viv magazine and Lifescript. She's won several national awards for her work including a National Science Award and two National Health Information awards. A frequent contributor to Jenny Craig’s Blog, Healthy Habits, she enjoys gardening, spending time at the beach and adopting far too many rescue animals in her spare time.
Favorite healthy snack: jicama dipped in homemade hummus
Briana is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Certified Personal Trainer for Jenny Craig, based in Carlsbad, California. She is passionate about utilizing food as functional and preventative medicine. Guided by a simplistic and optimistic approach, Briana’s philosophy is to help people improve their health and achieve their goals through the development of sustainable habits to live a healthy life. In her free time, you can find her strength training, indoor cycling, coffee tasting, and at local eateries with her husband and two dogs.
Favorite healthy snack: peanut butter with celery alongside a grapefruit-flavored sparkling water (so refreshing!)
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and fact-checked by Briana Rodriquez, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Jenny Craig.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
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