Q&A: Insulin resistance


The Question:

Can you help me with a weight problem? I’ve used your book EATING LESS for some time and already succeeded with impressive (to me!) changes in what I’m eating, including cutting out sweet things after my evening meal and cutting way down on snacks. I know you like us to focus on things other than weight loss to motivate ourselves, but I do need to lose weight and this simply hasn’t happened. What am I doing wrong? I don’t really see how I can eat any less than I am doing already.

My Answer:

The good part is that you know you’ve got an effective method to take control of overeating. The next step is to explore how to define ‘overeating’. This could be tough, because the answer will vary somewhat from person to person, and because there’s still controversy about this is the field of nutrition.

I suggest you consider the problem of insulin resistance, which is likely to be happening to some degree. It’s well established in research that insulin resistance makes it difficult to lose weight, as well as leading to fatigue and excess hunger, which you might also be experiencing.

The primary role of insulin is to help your body to deal with the carbohydrates you eat. When carbohydrates have been digested and arrive in your blood stream, they’re in the form of glucose. When glucose is present in the blood stream, insulin is released to take that glucose through the cell walls to be used by the cell to produce energy.

This bit is important: glucose cannot be taken into the cells without insulin present.

When you’ve become insulin resistant, your cells don’t accept the insulin any more and so the glucose cannot enter the cells. Then, there’s too much glucose in the blood stream and not enough in the cells where it’s needed.

Insulin resistance develops largely through overuse. Just like a friend who visits too often, after a while (maybe years!) all you can say is, “THAT’S ENOUGH!” Stress and chronic lack of adequate sleep are contributing factors.

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  1. P Barnes

    A smaller eating window is a great help to insulin resistance. Keeping the window <8 hours means that Insulin is low for up to 16hours/day.

  2. Christina

    Thanks for covering this one Gillian. I’ve been suffering with insulin resistance for years and this is a great reminder that you can reverse or control the issue.

    So many health professionals have told me to loose weight to deal with insulin resistance, but as you’ve pointed out, insulin resistance makes it harder to loose weight so it seems like an impossible task. Plus I struggle because it’s putting focus back on weight and am always conscious not to do this in order to help tackle my addictive desire to overeat.

    Your article has inspired me to firstly focus on this again – because it’s so important for health, but also to really focus on changing what’s going on at a cell level, which I think will also help me to shift the focus away from my weight.

    Thanks again!

    • I know that many health professionals say to “lose weight” but it’s really a matter of managing insulin sensitivity. (And, you do get to lose weight too.)

  3. AJ

    An excellent article, Gillian, which mirrors my own experience to a tee.

    By managing my insulin response (limiting all processed carbs including grains, starches, most fruit) and upping natural fats (not processed seed oils) I found that “eating less” just followed naturally to the extent that I comfortably eat twice a day (lunch/tea; a 6-8 hour window as per P Barnes comment), never feel hungry and never even need to snack in between! I face carb temptation in my daily life but use your technique of facing the addictive desire and taking responsibility in that moment to make a free choice (invariably I choose health over cake, it is an easy decision actually). Fifteen months into limiting carbs and upping healthy fats I am still comfortable with this way of eating and reaping the benefits (a miracle, to me).

    You are so right when you point out that the onus should be on managing insulin not ‘losing weight’ (or exercising more for that matter), particularly as losing weight invariably means being recommended a low fat diet (which just means you never get satiated and get really hungry and miserable quickly) and that, coupled with ‘exercise more’ means you work up your appetite even more! A double whammy.

    One more interesting side effect of this way of eating is the huge improvement in my moods; I put this down to managing my blood sugars by keeping them very stable. I do not miss the extreme highs and lows (from overeating addictive carbs) which contributed to the almost permanent state of anxiety I lived under.

    Like you, Gillian, I keep up with books and articles being published on this subject, word is getting out into mainstream and, although there is resistance from established government agencies and vested interests in the food and pharma industries, this is a bottom up revolution. People like me are doing it for themselves and realising that it works for us (insulin resistant people).

  4. Val

    Wonderful post, once again you read my mind! I recently tried LCHF and did find it helped with hunger control. However, I found it hard to follow for longer than a couple of weeks because even moderate low carb is too high in animal-based foods for my comfort (too long to go into the reasons here). Question: would it work to eat LCHF for a period of time, until blood sugar and insulin sensitivity are back to normal, and then up the carbs a bit, but having learned our lesson and so choosing low-glycemic foods like beans and whole grains and the occasional sweet treat? Like a proper blue zone Mediterranean Diet?

    • I think you can only try this out to see what works for you, and there’s plenty of research supporting a Med diet. However, animal-based foods don’t necessarily need to be included in LCHF, as this is more about high fat than high protein. All forms of coconut fat, olive oil, olives and avocados are all in that vegetarian high-fat group. And some more protein could come from a whey supplement.

  5. Luce

    Hello, I am torn, because I feel this could be very helpful, but I fear that limiting carbohydrates will make me feel very deprived and cause binges… do you have any insight or tips to do this safely?

    • Thanks for this comment, Luce – I think you speak for many. Yes, I’ve got tons of insight and tips on how to implement this sort of advice (or any other for that matter). This is exactly what my work is all about; not the nutritional advice itself but how to make it a real and lasting part of your life with food. This is so often what’s ignored, and will make all the difference. I suggest you read at least one of my books (Ditching Diets is a good one to start with) and consider doing an online webinar series with me. Next one starts September 24 – think about it?

  6. Maggi

    I know about this, but wonder how it is that the Blue Zones, regions of the world where a relatively high percentage of the populations live degenerative disease free into their 90’s and to 100, eat diets high in starches, including grain-based foods, though of course not modern manufactured ones. Their animal sources of calories play quite a small role comparatively speaking. It does sound like they don’t eat frequently and do eat quality fats. I’ve had quite good results for the last year gravitating towards having my meals be made up of their foods. I had already been using your principles of times and plans. The research that yielded the MIND diet showed a benefit in delaying dementia in people who ate a minimum of three servings of whole grains a day, as well as other routine practices. But I don’t doubt most of the population of the developed world would benefit from generous reductions of the common starches in the diet. I know I have, as I have by reducing eating frequency. I’m at the point now at which I pretty much don’t trust nearly every impulse to eat food randomly. In fact, when I’m eating regular meals, I’ve come to believe that a random impulse to eat something outside of them is a sign that it’s probably not a good thing to eat! Simple desire for food is a very poor indicator of need.

    • Hi Maggi – and thanks for your excellent comments. Whole books have been written about this, so challenging to reply in a short blog. Mostly, I was addressing a very particular and fairly common problem I hear from clients, those who cut back on their eating but don’t lose weight as they had expected. There could be a number of explanations, but it can be helpful to know about the ways in which metabolism is compromised after many years of overeating. If a person is overweight, it’s very likely there is some insulin resistance, so it would be crucial to address that. I agree with you that reducing eating frequency is beneficial – and yes, absolutely, that desire for food is a very poor indicator of need!

    • Just want to add that this recent MIND study you mentioned looked at daily food intake that included three servings of whole grains a day and compared outcomes with those people who were consuming processed and manufactured grains each day. The whole grains came out better, but low carb wasn’t part of this study at all.

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