Insulin Resistance: How the Mediterranean Diet Can Help

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Ever heard of insulin resistance? Many people have it and don’t even know it. Insulin resistance is when our body doesn’t respond well to a hormone called insulin, which controls our blood sugar.

This can lead to high blood sugar levels, causing health problems, like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

It is also more likely to occur as women go through menopause.

But don’t worry, the good news is there’s a solution: the Mediterranean diet. It can help fight insulin resistance and keep us healthy without needing to restrict our calories, cut carbs or avoid other major food groups. Let’s learn more about what insulin resistance means for our health and how the Mediterranean diet can help.

What is Insulin Resistance?

Insulin resistance is a condition where our body becomes less responsive to a hormone called insulin. Insulin usually acts like a key, unlocking our cells to let in glucose (sugar) from our bloodstream. This glucose is used as energy by our cells.

But in insulin resistance, this process doesn’t work well. Our cells don’t respond properly to insulin, so they don’t take in enough glucose. As a result, our blood sugar levels stay high.

Graphic image of insulin works as a key to let glucose into the cell

Imagine trying to open a door with a key that doesn’t fit the lock quite right. Insulin resistance is like that—our cells don’t “fit” insulin as well as they should. This means our body must produce more insulin to try to get the cells to respond.

Insulin resistance is like a domino effect. When our cells don’t take in enough glucose, our pancreas (an organ that makes insulin) works overtime to produce more insulin. This might work for a while, but eventually, the pancreas can’t keep up. As a result, our blood sugar and insulin levels rise, and this can lead to health issues like type 2 diabetes.

Insulin resistance can also increase the risk of developing other health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS).

Currently it is estimated that insulin resistance affects 25-35% of Western populations.

What causes insulin resistance?

We still don’t know exactly what causes insulin resistance. Several factors are likely at play, including genetics, hormonal conditions as well as certain medications. Some lifestyle factors are also associated with insulin resistance.

Let’s take a closer look at how each of these factors contributes to the development of insulin resistance:

1. Genetics: Our genes play a role in determining how likely we are to become insulin resistant. Some people are genetically predisposed to have cells that don’t respond as well to insulin.

2. Age: insulin resistance seems to develop as we get older.

3. Hormonal conditions: Issues with certain hormones can affect how well your body uses insulin. Conditions such as Cushing’s syndrome, hypothyroidism and menopause can cause insulin resistance.

4. Medications: Certain medications can cause insulin resistance, including steroids, some blood pressure medications, and some psychiatric medications.

5. Diet: Eating a diet high in sugary and processed foods is associated with developing insulin resistance over time. These foods can cause our blood sugar levels to spike, putting stress on our insulin system.

6. Lack of exercise: Leading a sedentary lifestyle, where we spend long hours sitting and not moving much, can contribute to insulin resistance. When our muscles aren’t active, they become less responsive to insulin. Moving our body regularly can help improve insulin sensitivity.

7. Sleep and Stress: Poor sleep and chronic stress can also play a role. Lack of sleep can disrupt our body’s hormonal balance, affecting insulin sensitivity. Chronic stress releases hormones that can make our cells less responsive to insulin, too.

8. Weight: Carrying weight around the waist, is associated with insulin resistance. Fat cells, especially those around the belly, release chemicals that can interfere with insulin’s work. But it isn’t clear if the weight causes the insulin resistance or if it’s the insulin resistance that tends to make us lay down more fat around our abdomen.

How does the Mediterranean Diet Affect Insulin Resistance?

This way of eating comes from countries near the Mediterranean Sea and is famous for its tasty food as well as many health benefits. Many studies show that the Mediterranean Diet is a strong choice for staying healthy and feeling good throughout our lives.

It has a positive influence on insulin resistance by promoting balanced blood sugar levels and enhancing the body’s response to insulin. The diet’s emphasis on whole foods, healthy fats, lean proteins, and abundant fiber helps maintain steady glucose levels, reducing the strain on insulin-producing cells. Nutrient-rich ingredients combat inflammation and oxidative stress, contributing to improved insulin sensitivity.

Here’s how:

1. Whole Foods Abundance: At the core of the Mediterranean Diet lies an abundance of whole foods—fresh vegetables, plenty of fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These foods are teeming with dietary fiber, which not only slows down the absorption of sugars but also keeps our blood sugars level. This gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream reduces the demand on insulin, contributing to improved insulin sensitivity.

2. Healthy Fats Embrace: The Mediterranean Diet wholeheartedly embraces healthy fats, particularly the monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts. These fats play a vital role in maintaining the integrity of cell membranes and enhancing insulin receptor activity. In simpler terms, they help our cells “listen” better to insulin’s messages, so sugar(energy) has an easier time getting into the cells.

3. Nutrient Powerhouses: Laden with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, the Mediterranean Diet nourishes our body’s intricate mechanisms. These nutrients work to combat oxidative stress and inflammation—factors that can compromise insulin sensitivity. Reducing stress and inflammation helps our insulin to work better.

4. Lean Proteins: Lean protein sources like fish and legumes, staples of the Mediterranean Diet, provide a satisfying alternative to protein sources higher in saturated fats. Eating more of these proteins supports muscle health that improves insulin sensitivity. Read more about the overall importance of protein in menopause here.

5. Low Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates: The Mediterranean Diet’s emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods naturally leads to reduced consumption of refined carbohydrates and added sugars. This not only prevents blood sugar spikes but also lessens the strain on our insulin-producing cells.

Adopting the Mediterranean Diet: Practical Steps for Success

Failing to plan is planning to fail. Use the following tips to get you started:

Meal planning and preparation:

Embrace Variety: Craft a weekly meal plan that celebrates the diverse array of foods found in the Mediterranean Diet. Aim for a mix of colorful vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

Prep Ahead: Spend some time on weekends or your free days preparing ingredients in advance. Chop veggies, cook grains, and marinate proteins, so putting together meals during the week becomes a breeze.

Include Plant-Based Proteins: Integrate legumes (like chickpeas and lentils) and nuts into your meals as protein sources. Experiment with hummus, bean salads, and nut-based sauces. Check out some high protein vegetarian snack ideas here.

Opt for Olive Oil: Replace butter and other cooking fats with extra-virgin olive oil. Drizzle it on salads or use it for sautéing to enjoy the heart-healthy benefits.

Substitution Ideas for Familiar Foods:

Grains: Swap refined grains like white rice and pasta for whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, and whole wheat pasta. These keep you fuller for longer and help stabilize blood sugar levels.

Snacks: Trade sugary or processed snacks for fresh fruits, mixed nuts, or Greek yogurt topped with berries. These options provide nutrients and satisfy cravings. Here is a list of 30 snack ideas to get you going.

Proteins: Substitute red meat with fish (like salmon or mackerel) or poultry. Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that benefit heart health.

Dressings: Create simple homemade dressings using olive oil, vinegar, and herbs.

Remember, adopting the Mediterranean Diet is about creating sustainable habits. Gradually incorporate these changes into your routine, allowing your taste buds to adapt to new flavors. With time, you’ll discover the joy of nourishing your body with wholesome foods that align with the Mediterranean tradition.

By following the entire pattern of eating, rather than just focusing on individual foods or nutrients, the Mediterranean diet can help improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.

Whether you’re aiming to improve insulin sensitivity, or simply enhance your overall well-being, I’m here to guide you every step of the way. Don’t hesitate to reach out.

For more tips, inspiration and my latest blog posts, please join my FB page.

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Sandra Turnbull
Sandra Turnbull

Sandra has 30+ years experience as a Registered Dietitian and Certified Executive Coach, and is passionately committed to sharing evidence-based information while helping women thrive during the monumental transition that is menopause.

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Sandra Turnbull
Sandra Turnbull

Sandra brings over three decades of expertise both as a Registered Dietitian and a Be Body Positive facilitator. As a fellow midlife adventurer herself, she is committed to providing evidence-based guidance and compassionate support to women navigating the pivotal journey of menopause. For her it’s about nurturing bodies and minds with kindness and understanding, knowing its not just about what is on your plate; it’s also about how you feel in your skin.

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