Not Losing Weight? It Might Be Insulin Resistance

The #1 Surprising Reason You Can't Lose Weight
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Many overweight adults can't seem to lose weight no matter what they try. The problem may not lie in their calorie counts but their very cells: Increasing numbers of Americans, leading nutritionists say, are insulin-resistant. That is, their bodies no longer properly use the hormone insulin to process the food that's eaten. Net result: The body hangs on tight to the fat that's already there.

A stubborn inability to lose weight because of insulin resistance is a complicated but common problem, says integrative nutritionist Beth Reardon, director of nutrition for Duke Integrative Medicine, part of the Duke University Health System. If you're fighting the scale, she adds, you may be among the 79 million American adults who have or are heading toward prediabetes, a syndrome of insulin-related challenges that usually leads to diabetes unless health changes are made.

In 2010, 1.9 million new cases of full-blown diabetes were diagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Indeed, diabetes and obesity are so related that some health experts have coined the descriptor diabesity.

Why You May Not Be Losing Weight

When we eat, the food is broken down into glucose (blood sugar), the body's main energy source. As blood flows through the pancreas, this organ detects the high levels of glucose and knows to release insulin, a hormone that it produces in order to allow the cells throughout the body to use the glucose. The cells have insulin receptors that allow glucose to enter. Then the cell either uses the glucose to make energy right away or stores it as a future energy source.

For some people, though, this system has gone haywire. The cells' insulin receptors have pretty much stopped acknowledging the insulin, which means the cells don't get the glucose. Instead, the glucose builds up in the blood, where the pancreas notes the escalating glucose levels and pumps out still more insulin in response.

"The cells are starving because the fuel they need isn't being absorbed at the insulin receptor site on the cell," Reardon says.

So what does the body do in response? It hangs on fiercely to the energy stores -- fat -- it already has. And any glucose the cells do manage to absorb goes straight into storage -- as still more fat.

You can't lose weight because your body is in survival mode.

This whole process builds slowly over years. What triggers it in the first place? Experts believe that for many people, the problem stems mainly from a diet overloaded with simple carbohydrates -- bread, pasta, pizza, pastries, crackers, chips and other processed snack foods, sweetened beverages, corn syrup, and other quickly-digested sugars and starches. In other words: the typical modern Western diet. Faced with constant, quick hits of easily digested energy sources, the pancreas keeps pumping out insulin to help the energy get into the cells, but the overwhelmed cells finally say, "Enough!" and stop paying attention.

Warning Signs of Insulin Resistance

This kind of stubborn fat doesn't happen in isolation. The difficulty losing weight almost always occurs along with most of the following warning signs that you may be insulin resistant:

  • Weight gain centered in the middle -- "belly fat" -- measuring greater than 40 inches for a man or 35 inches for a woman

  • A body mass index (BMI) in the overweight or obese zones

  • A tendency to crave carbohydrates (as the starving cells tell the brain to give you more, more, more!)

  • Frequent fatigue, especially right after eating

  • Foggy thinking (because glucose is the preferred energy source for the brain, and the brain's cells, too, are starving for glucose)

  • High glucose levels, as measured by an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) or fasting plasma glucose test (FPG) (The latter test isn't routinely offered in clinical practices.)

  • High fasting and timed insulin levels, which are measured as part of the OGTT

  • High blood pressure (135/85 or above)

  • Low levels of "good" HDL cholesterol (below 40 mg/Dl for a man, below 50 mg/Dl for a woman)

  • High triglyceride levels (150 mg/Dl or above)

Together, this constellation of symptoms is known as "metabolic syndrome," or "syndrome X." Even though there seems to be a genetic predisposition for some people, insulin resistance that leads to type 2 diabetes largely depends on lifestyle. "Anyone can eat his or her way to diabetes," Reardon says. "Diabetes is particularly lifestyle and diet-driven."

8 Diet Tips to Fight Insulin Resistance

What Can Help This Stubborn Weight Come off

The good news is that you can reverse even this super-stubborn weight loss associated with prediabetes. "It's all about babying the pancreas," Reardon says.

Here's how:

  1. Start moving more. Sure, you can think of it as burning calories, but your real goal by exercising is to engage the metabolism. As you work your muscles, you increase the number of enzymes that are looking for glucose as a fuel source (instead of just turning it into fat).

    Aim for 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise (like walking) five to seven days a week. Bonus: Heavier people burn more energy when performing the same amount of exercise as leaner people, according to recent research at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

  2. Do a "whiteout." You don't need a degree in nutrition to make things easier on your cells. Start with the simple step of eliminating white sugar, white flour, and white rice from your diet. This automatically reduces the amount of quickly digested carbohydrates you take in.

  3. Move away from wheat. You've surely heard that 100-percent whole wheat is better for you than processed white, but there are better grains to help you cope with stubborn fat. "All modern wheat varieties are different from the kinds our bodies evolved to process," Reardon says. The man-manipulated wheat we eat today is lower in fiber and too digestible, affecting glucose levels too quickly.

  4. Explore the wide world of good grains. You don't have to give up all breads and cereals. But you do want to move toward whole (intact), unrefined grains, which offer more fiber and other nutritional benefits. Luckily a huge range of whole, unprocessed, unrefined alternatives to wheat, corn, and rice is now widely available at supermarkets, and even at food wholesale warehouses. Look for so-called "ancient grains" such as spelt, quinoa, amaranth, barley, brown rice, and teff.

  5. Get carb-choosy about all your food. Carbs aren't just in grains. Eat fruits and vegetables in whole forms, rather than as purees and juices, so the body has to work harder to get the glucose in them. When you can, be sure to eat the peels too, to get more fiber.

  6. Shop outside the box. Because countering insulin-resistance weight gain depends on every mouthful, give up most packaged foods. They tend to be high in fat and chemicals, low in fiber and other nutrients. Shop the grocery perimeter instead, where most whole food is located.

  7. Learn about (and lower) inflammation, a component underlying many common chronic diseases. This dangerous process undermines the general health of cells. What helps: Adding healthy sources of anti-inflammatory proteins (especially coldwater fish like salmon or omega-3 fortified eggs), walnuts, blueberries, flax, olive oil, green tea, red wine, and spices like cinnamon and turmeric. Replace such fats as butter and lard.

  8. As a last resort, ask a doctor about medication that can help. Metformin is sometimes prescribed for very stubborn cases of the inability to lose excess weight because of insulin resistance, Reardon says. This drug helps control the amount of glucose in your blood; it's only effective in connection with dietary changes and exercise.

"Insulin resistance is preventable, and with these steps someone suffering from it should notice almost immediate changes," Reardon says. Lethargy, fatigue, and foggy thinking start to lift. You'll have more energy. And the pounds will finally start to drop.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

4 months, said...

Um... no, no, no, and no. LOL I laugh at this article. I've been eating a low carb, grain-free, strarch-free, low sugar, low fruit, no junk or fast food diet (technically Paleo) since I was 5 years old. Let me repeat...FIVE YEARS OLD. My mother is a nutritionist, personal trainer, and former model. She's a health nut and that's why I am. I also have been lifting weights and doing cardio for years. I'm also a young adult (in college). Two months ago, I found out I have insulin resistance through OGTT, carb resistance, reactive hypoglycemia, and rapid weight gain. I'm proof that diet doesn't do shyt for diabetes prevention, especially insulin resistance.

over 1 year, said...

Yeah l wish l could say this was helpful but lm on metformin l get an hour of cardio a day or more. I eat salads everyday. I eat better than olympic medalists and still can't get rid of this shit something is wrong. This wasn't helpful for me.

over 1 year, said...

If you want to lose 10 pounds or even lose 20 pounds, Fad diets WILL work for a short amount of time. Over 80% of dieters will gain back that weight plus more in 5 years. What's even worse is that you will lose muscle so when the weight comes back, it comes back as FAT. Think about this for one second. These are by far the most popular diets for rapid weight loss BUT our society gets more overweight as each year passes. The truth is, fast weight loss comes from a diet that works and is easy to follow.

over 1 year, said...

Very well written and easy to understand. Thanks you.

almost 2 years, said...

Thank you for the article. You broke it down so it was easy to learn.

about 2 years, said...

Was recently diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis and hypothyroidism (5.460) vs. 1.760 last year.. I've gained 20 + lbs in 3 months and not able to loose the weight!! Could this be a combination of both my diagnosis? Help,I'm so depressed!!!

about 2 years, said...

All of these things I do or don't do….I work out at least 5 days week. lift weights, zumba, walk. Only drink water, black coffee, unsweet green tea and a glass of red wine from time to tme. I eat grass fed beef, chicken, fish. If i eat bread it's multigrain sprouted….I do crave carbs though, especially chips and salsa. Protein shakes with added greens ….I am 61 and on no medication….Help!!!!!…..My doctor says, Oh your healthy , don't be concerned….NOT what I want to hear. I need to lose at least 10 lb. The scales stagger between 152 and 154. I felt better at the 140.

about 2 years, said...

@LizaF This verified forskolin you have mentioned really helped me. i lost like 35 pounds in three month and 100000 pounds to go, lol. Speaking about garcinia, don’t even spend your money on that. I tried it 2 years go with literally 0 results.

about 2 years, said...

I've been size 10 all my life without even trying a lot. Recently I hit my 40th birthday. And now i can see that i’m starting to gain weight. Soon i will need my personal time zone. My metabolism is getting slower i guess. i hate working out so decided to give weight loss supplements a shot. But there are so many…. My friend which is a dietitian said that is the best since it's verified by a lot of studies. Maybe somebody tried it? Or should i try garcinia?

over 2 years, said...

I have struggled with my weight all my life. Even more now. I eat a clean healthy diet and exercise regularly. I've already done all the things listed above. .. nothing changes.... please help

about 3 years, said...

This was a great and informative article, and I wasn't familiar with rule #7 at all. I believe the most important thing to remember is that your weight is the result of a combination of habits. Good weight loss strategies promote good, healthy habits. In fact, here's a an article that does a wonderful job of explaining the key factors in an effective, long-term weight loss strategy:

over 3 years, said...

this is a great article and perfectly described my condition 6 months no beer no liquor, no fast foods, no cheating living on about 1500 to 2000 calories a day, mostly fruit and veggies, water aerobics only because I'm in too much pain....Article doesn't say how to remedy the situation, and I can't afford the doctor run around, I'm 48 male had this condition for quite a few years, I guess I'm screwed!!

almost 4 years, said...

Excellent article, well presented, best I have read for some time.

almost 4 years, said...

This is the first article I've read that explains cell glucose starvation. I am caring for my diabetic mother, and want to request some more information about how diabetes affects the nervous system, or body in general; I've read articles on diabetes that just mention neuropathy exists, or it affects eyes and feet, but I'd like to know how, in the manner of this excellent article. Thank you!

almost 4 years, said...

A lot of interesting information

almost 4 years, said...

Made me consider diabetes, which my grandfather had, as a potential reason. I'll get it checked.

over 4 years, said...

This is perfect example of me I workout a lot but can never loose fat within my midsection and I'm always tired .no wonder cuz I eat a lot of bread butter and other junk and my family got a history of diabetes I'm gona start changing my choice of food from todaythank you

over 4 years, said...

I have been gaining so much weight and decreasing my food consumption and eating better over the years, I'm in my 50s now. I also started getting dark skin in the upper part of my thighs very ugly and would be embarrassed if I was sleeping with anyone. I researched what it was and realized it was antithesis nigricans. I bought a glucose meter and saw that I was insulin resistance /pre diabetic. Also i have hep c and now they are suggesting all babyboomers be tested as so many people have it and don't know. I found out by accident never suspected because I never used interveinouse drugs or had a blood transfusion, do have a tattoo that I got about 25 yrs ago. My ALT on a routine blood test was just a little high, but my doc had seen so much of this he ordered a hep c test. I read up on hep c and they have proven a connection between the two. Not implying that everyone has both but there is a connection. I don't have diabetes in my family and even with hep c I'm very healthy except for the weight. I'm writing this so if anyone reads this it may help someone else get checked that may have similar issues. I don't eat sugar much at all but my carbs are still too high even though I've cut back considerably. I'm going to eliminate carbs dairy and only eat non GMO meat veggies etc and constantly use that meter and see if I can figure out what triggers it with me and what doesn't. I'm tired of fat, low energy and brain fog!

almost 5 years, said...

I've heard that intermittent fasting can also help curb insuline resistance! there are many ways to practice intermittent fasting - 1:1 - 5:2 - or daily for a certain amount of hours. Adding to this the whiteout in the article... I think one can really change difficult situations. And I've tried it and I'm doing it - it really isn't hard to fast for say 24 - think 8 or them you'll be sleeping anyways!