Almost 10 percent of the U.S. population has type 2 diabetes. (1)
This condition happens when the body stops responding to insulin and blood sugar levels become too high. But it’s actually more complicated than that.
This is a complete guide to type 2 diabetes, as well as symptoms of insulin resistance—the issue that occurs before diabetes.
What is Insulin Resistance?
Insulin is a hormone in the body that helps to regulate how glucose, or blood sugar, is used. The hormone is made in the pancreas.
When carbs are eaten, they are broken down into simple sugars that get released into the bloodstream. In response, the pancreas releases insulin to guide the cells to take sugar into them for later stored energy.
This keeps blood sugar levels stable and keeps them from being too high, which can be problematic.
Insulin is a hormone, which means that it sends messages. But the cells can stop listening to the message to take in blood sugar, which is known as insulin resistance.
When this happens, the amount of glucose that circulates in the bloodstream stays high. This can result in levels that are mildly high or that are high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes.
Insulin resistance is very common in the U.S., with more than 30 percent of the population meeting the criteria. (2)
About the same number of children, as well as adults, have insulin resistance. (3)
When blood sugar gets too high, it can harm cells and especially the brain. As the body gets resistant to insulin, the pancreas makes more and more—sort of like shouting louder and louder to tell the cells to do their job.
As blood sugar levels stay high, insulin levels get higher, too. The more this cycle continues, the worse the hormonal communication gets.
Beyond diabetes, the pancreas can become overworked and damaged from this process, leading to an overall reduced output of insulin, which worsens the problem even more.
- High levels of fatty acids in the blood
- High intake of fructose and high-sugar processed foods
- Low levels of physical activity or exercise
- Imbalances in gut bacteria
- Genetics and ethnicity
It is possible to have more than one of these triggers at a time.
5 Signs of Insulin Resistance
Your doctor has several ways of testing to see if you have insulin resistance. Signs that this may be a problem include: (9)
- High fasting insulin levels from a blood test
- High glucose levels from a blood test
- Being obese, overweight, or having a high amount of belly fat
- High levels of triglycerides
- Low levels of HDL cholesterol
Insulin resistance is problematic because it can lead to metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Both of these also independently increase the risk of developing problems like heart disease or cancer. (10)
If you have a family history of diabetes, are overweight, or sometimes have episodes of feeling extremely hungry or lightheaded, see your doctor to have your insulin and glucose tested.
What is Diabetes?
When people refer to diabetes, most often they’re talking about type 2 diabetes, which is a chronic disease. Type 1 diabetes, sometimes referred to as childhood diabetes, is an autoimmune condition.
It is distinctly different from type 2 diabetes and cannot be caused by lifestyle factors.
Type 2 diabetes typically occurs after insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. It is a condition where blood sugar levels become excessively high due to insulin resistance and dietary intake.
It typically occurs in adults, but can happen in children who are overweight and eat a diet that is high in processed foods, carbs, and fast food.
Type 2 diabetes is typically caused by diet, obesity, and lifestyle choices (like lack of exercise), but there is also a genetic component to it.
Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes
Sometimes diabetes can exist for a long time before it is diagnosed. Other times it is diagnosed before any symptoms really exist.
But common signs and symptoms of type 2 diabetes include:
- Increased urination
- Increased thirst
- Higher appetite
- Weight changes
- More frequent infections and reduced immunity
- Yeast infections or fungal infections
- High blood sugar levels
A person may or may not have these symptoms when they develop diabetes. Sometimes it can be discovered from routine blood work or a yearly physical. This is why it’s important to keep regular appointments with your healthcare provider.
How Is Diabetes Treated?
When someone is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, there are common ways it is addressed.
Obesity and being overweight can worsen blood sugar and insulin problems, so when type 2 diabetes is diagnosed, weight loss is often recommended.
This can happen from dietary interventions and an appropriate exercise program. Stress management can also be a key factor in being able to lose weight.
Exercise is important for treating diabetes beyond just the purpose of weight loss. Exercise helps the body’s cells become more sensitive to insulin, helping to lower blood glucose levels. It can also help to lower stress levels and promote overall wellbeing.
If you don’t exercise at all, starting with a walk for 15 to 20 minutes five days per week, or even just three days per week, can be a good place to start. Never start an exercise program without first clearing it with your healthcare provider.
The food that you eat can go a long way in helping to regulate blood sugar levels and to address type 2 diabetes. Eating fewer refined and high-starch carbs and increasing fiber intake can help to reduce blood sugar spikes.
Protein and fat should be paired with carbs to prevent fast digestion that leads to high blood sugar levels.
You don’t have to eat a super strict diet forever, but it is important to get control of your blood sugar by making some serious changes.
Don’t replace all sweeteners with artificial ones, either, as these can still lead to blood sugar and insulin problems and have other unaddressed concerns—like potentially leading to the development of cancer. (11, 12)
In some cases, type 2 diabetes needs medication to bring it into balance. This can include medication to help the pancreas make more insulin, reduce the amount of sugar in the bloodstream, or could even be insulin injections directly.
There are other medications, too, but ultimately the approach taken to treat diabetes is determined by how severe the case is and other health factors.
Natural Ways to Address Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes doesn’t always have to be treated with medication. In fact, it responds well to natural lifestyle changes. Insulin resistance too, before type 2 diabetes happens, can be addressed with some healthy changes. These are the most proven ways to promote healthy blood sugar and insulin levels.
Regular Physical Activity
Research proves that exercise on a regular basis is the most effective way to optimize insulin sensitivity. It can start working literally the same day you start it. (13)
Losing Belly Fat
While there’s no way to target weight loss to one specific area of the body, overall working in regular physical activity to your lifestyle can help to reduce belly fat.
Decrease Sugar and Sweetener Intake
Real sugar can lead to glucose spikes and can worsen insulin resistance, but so can artificial sweeteners. If you have a mega sweet tooth, it’s important to find ways to promote satiety so that you aren’t driven to endless snacking.
Fat and fiber are both great at helping promote feelings of fullness and reducing sugar cravings in the process.
Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
While focusing on a diet rich in whole foods is a good way to naturally address diabetes, it’s specifically important to increase anti-inflammatory foods like omega-3 fats (salmon, mackerel, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds) and those that are rich in antioxidants, like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Optimize Your Sleep Routine
While not everyone needs eight hours of sleep every night, you consistently need at least six or seven consecutive hours. If you have insomnia or struggle to sleep straight through, speaking with your doctor to address your sleep problems is important.
8 Foods That Are Good for Diabetes
Eating a whole food diet is important for diabetes and insulin resistance. Certain foods have stronger impacts on blood sugar levels and insulin and can be therapeutic when eaten more frequently.
The following foods are especially helpful for people who have diabetes, metabolic syndrome, or insulin resistance.
1. Leafy Greens
Arguably good for everyone, leafy greens are especially good for diabetes. Rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, leafy greens help support good blood sugar levels. They’re also low in calories and carbs.
Try spinach, kale, watercress, chard, and romaine.
Rich in folate, protein, and antioxidants, eggs are a superfood for blood sugar balance. They can help decrease inflammation levels, promote satiety, and help promote normal blood sugar levels. (15, 16)
But keep in mind that most of the nutritional benefits are in the yolk, so eating egg whites alone won’t offer the same health support.
3. Coldwater Fish
Some fish is extremely high in omega-3 fatty acids and promotes good blood sugar health, heart health, and leads to overall reduced levels of inflammation in the body.
Cold water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, and anchovies have the highest levels of omega-3s. If you’re not used to regularly eating seafood, try working in a serving three to five times per week.
4. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts are rich in fiber and also contain fat and protein, making them an excellent snack option for good blood sugar levels.
Different types of nuts contain differing levels of nutrients, but generally speaking, they’re all good snack options in moderation.
Keep in mind that peanuts are not nuts and are actually pro-inflammatory.
Great nut options include:
- Macadamia nuts
- Brazil nuts
Seeds can be a good snacking choice, too, as they’re also rich in fiber. Try pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds, but be sure to choose options that aren’t roasted in oil or coated in salt.
A popular spice, cinnamon doesn’t just taste good but has a high level of antioxidant benefits. Research shows that it’s helpful in lowering blood glucose levels and helping increase insulin sensitivity. (17, 18)
The important distinction is that there are two types of cinnamon: cassia and Ceylon. Ceylon has significantly more health benefits than cassia, yet cassia is the kind you’re most likely to see in grocery stores.
If you’re going to increase cinnamon for blood sugar benefits, finding Ceylon is worth it. To get some benefits, you really only need a teaspoon per day. You can even add it to black coffee, tea, or oatmeal to effortlessly get it in.
6. Chia Seeds
Rich in fiber but very low in carbs, chia seeds have a ton of health benefits. Available in black and white varieties, chia seeds can be made into pudding, used as egg replacers in baking, or added to salads and smoothies.
7. Cruciferous Vegetables
Cruciferous vegetables are healthy because they’re high in fiber and they contain lots of other important nutrients for diabetes and blood sugar, like vitamin C, magnesium, and folate.
While all vegetables have health benefits, cruciferous veggies are lower in carbs than some others and can be better for people with insulin resistance.
Try working in broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and asparagus regularly into your diet.
While all fruits have vitamins and antioxidant benefits, many of them are also fairly high in carbs. Berries have the benefit of being very high in fiber along with vitamins and antioxidants, making them the perfect blood-sugar-friendly food.
Pair them with chia pudding or oats for a high-fiber breakfast.
Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are all excellent, low-carb and high-fiber choices.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.