Insulin Levels and Weight Gain

By: 
True You
December 22, 2020

It is no secret that being overweight is highly correlated with type 2 diabetes. Americans have gained weight as a country over the last century, and rates of diabetes have grown along with our expanding waistlines. Even if you don't know a lot about diabetes, you may be aware that people who are diabetic often have to take insulin to help manage their blood sugar. 

The twist is that taking insulin can cause weight gain. This may seem like a counterproductive side effect if extra body fat is a risk factor for diabetes. If gaining weight makes diabetes harder to control, why would you want to take insulin therapy that only makes you gain more weight? 

Why Does Insulin Cause Weight Gain?

Insulin is a naturally occurring hormone your body uses to help you get energy from the food you eat. When things are going right, insulin helps you maintain a healthy weight. There are several ways this balance can be disrupted, though, and when it does, excess weight gain or diseases like diabetes mellitus can result. To understand the relationships among diabetes, weight gain, and insulin, we first need to look at what this important and powerful hormone is and how your body uses it. 

When you digest the food you eat, your body converts carbs and sugars in your food into glucose. This glucose is carried through your bloodstream to cells throughout your body. Under ideal circumstances, the glucose in your blood is absorbed by your cells to be used as an energy source. Insulin is the hormone your body uses to help absorb the glucose from your bloodstream into individual cells. Your body will burn the glucose it needs, with any leftovers being converted into glycogen or stored as fat for later. 

The process described above is what is happening in an ideal setting if you are at a healthy weight and not suffering from a condition known as insulin resistance. If you are consistently eating more calories than you need, your body can eventually become resistant to insulin, which can lead to uncontrolled weight loss and the inability to properly harvest energy out of the glucose in your blood. Obesity can also disrupt this balance and make it harder for your body to process glucose.

There are many reasons why your body may fail to process glucose. People with type 1 diabetes do not produce enough insulin naturally. Insulin production is the responsibility of the pancreas, but for genetic or other reasons, your body can fail to make enough insulin. In people with type 2 diabetes, there is a different process at play. Though your body produces a normal amount of insulin, if you have entered a state of insulin resistance, it means even when there is ample glucose in your blood, it cannot be transferred into your cells to be used as energy. This can create a situation where you begin losing weight because your body cannot get enough energy from the food you are eating. 

For people who are trying to lose weight, this could sound like a good thing. Losing weight due to insulin resistance is not healthy, however, and should be avoided. If you are losing weight due to insulin resistance, your body has stopped breaking down fats and proteins in a proper manner, and there can be dangerous long-term consequences for your health. 

How Does Insulin Make You Fat?

Insulin can cause weight gain by increasing the amount of energy your body can absorb at a given blood sugar level. This will lead to increased amounts of energy available to your cells. If you cannot use all the energy your body absorbs, it will turn to fat storage as a way to keep excess energy on hand for later use. 

If you are taking insulin doses to address insulin resistance or make up for a lack of insulin naturally produced by your body, you will need to increase your levels of physical activity, reduce dietary carbohydrates, and lower your overall caloric intake to prevent weight gain. 

Is Insulin Good or Bad for Weight Loss?

If you are working toward a weight loss goal, it is not ideal to focus on whether insulin is good or bad. Insulin therapy is designed to address hormonal imbalances in your body, and should not be considered a weight management tool. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight should be done through lifestyle changes such as exercise, stress management, changes in diet, and sleep hygiene. 

One of the reasons it is important to maintain your insulin dosage regardless of your overall body weight is variations in insulin levels can have unintended consequences for your body weight. If you skip insulin doses and begin losing weight, you have not changed the underlying problem that required insulin therapy in the first place. This means you will likely need to go back on insulin again soon, which will only cause you to gain weight back. Doing this repeatedly puts enormous strain on your liver and cardiovascular system, and could put you at increased risk of heart disease.  

If you are concerned about weight gain when you start taking insulin, it is best to take a long-term view of managing your weight. Though it is possible you will gain a few pounds at the beginning, proper diet and physical activity can help you stay at a healthy weight over the long haul while addressing insulin sensitivity or deficiency issues. 

Managing Insulin-Induced Weight Gain

When you gain body fat, you can reach a point where insulin levels start to change. As your body tries to manage the increasing insulin resistance associated with weight gain, blood sugar levels in your blood can become harder to manage. If you have reached the point of obesity, which is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more, you enter a category of increased risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other medical conditions made worse by obesity

The effect of insulin-induced weight gain can be mitigated by working with a dietitian to help ensure you are getting the right amounts of various nutrients in your diet. Planning a diet for diabetes management is partly about keeping your blood glucose levels in check to prevent both low blood sugar (or hypoglycemia) and spikes in blood sugar. 

In addition to glucose control, dietary planning is about making sure your overall diet is matched to your levels of physical activity. This is more than just about your raw calorie intake. While overeating is a problem you may need to address, it is also important to ensure you are getting the right kinds of foods. This means avoiding excessive carbohydrate intake and steering clear of unhealthy foods like carbonated drinks and trans fats. 

Changes in diet are not likely to be enough to keep you at a healthy weight, especially if you have begun taking insulin. You will also need to start on a program of planned physical activity to help your body burn more calories. Physical activity does more than just burn calories, though—it can also help your body regulate blood sugar levels more effectively.

Getting started on any new plan of physical activity can be challenging. First off, you should consult with your physician to ensure you are healthy enough to start the workout plan you have selected. Some people, especially those with excess body weight, may be at increased risk of heart disease, and the extra strain of working out should be managed carefully at the outset. It can also be challenging to start a workout plan while you are trying to get your blood sugar levels under control. High blood sugar levels can make you feel lethargic and tired, which may make working out seem daunting. 

Getting Help with Weight Loss

If you have been or could be diagnosed as obese, getting health is going to be difficult or even dangerous on your own. While you will be the one putting in the effort to get in shape, it will be essential to have a healthcare team at your side to ensure you can get to a healthy weight safely and efficiently. This means working with a dietitian, your primary care doctor, and others to help you build and stick with a plan that can bring about the success you are looking for. You may even need to work with exercise physiologists, endocrinologists, personal trainers, and even therapists if necessary to set you on a path to freedom from the limitations of excess body weight and diabetes. 

Making sure you have the right team around you will be crucial for success. At True You Weight Loss, we developed our medical nutrition therapy program for this exact reason. Though some people find themselves in a position of needing to look at weight loss procedures to take control of excess body weight, many more of us simply need a little help, direction, and guidance to find and maintain a healthy weight. 

If you find yourself up against the challenge of long-term weight gain, or have found that necessary insulin therapy has started weight gain that is getting out of control, request a consultation with us at True You Weight Loss today. 

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