What is insulin resistance?

If someone has insulin resistance, their body does not respond properly to the hormone insulin.

Insulin is produced by the pancreas. When we eat foods containing carbohydrate they are broken down to glucose (a term for sugar) in the blood. The normal function of the hormone insulin is to transfer glucose from the blood into the liver and muscle cells, to be used as energy, and managing our blood glucose levels.

In people with insulin resistance, the muscles and the liver resist the action of insulin, so the body has to produce higher amounts to keep the blood glucose levels within a normal range.

Insulin resistance is more common in:

  • People with a family history of diabetes
  • People who are overweight (particularly around the stomach area)
  • People who are physically inactive
  • Women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
  • Ethnic groups (e.g. Indigenous Australians and Torres Strait Islanders).

A person with insulin resistance has a greater risk of developing Type II diabetes and heart disease. Insulin resistance is detected by blood tests that your GP or specialist may order.

If you have insulin resistance, following a healthy lifestyle can reduce your chances of developing Type II diabetes. Studies have shown that combining:

can all help reduce your risk of Type II diabetes in the years to come. These lifestyle changes were shown to be at least as effective as a common medication used to treat insulin resistance.

Smart eating tips for improving insulin resistance

  • If you are overweight, losing some weight will improve insulin resistance. Eating smaller portion sizes, being more physically active and eating less energy dense foods (‘extra’ foods) can assist with weight reduction.
  • Physical activity is not only beneficial for weight management but can also independently assist with improving insulin resistance. Include 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week.
  • Resistance training (e.g. hand weights) can also help with insulin resistance. Also try to increase your incidental activity. Examples of incidental activity include gardening, housework and walking around the shops.

Healthy eating tips

  • Eat at least five serves of vegetables and two pieces of fruit each day.
  • Eat wholegrain foods everyday such as high fibre breakfast cereals, multigrain bread, oats, barley and cracked wheat.
  • Enjoy legumes (dried peas, beans and lentils) on a regular basis.
  • Include low glycaemic index (GI) foods. Low GI foods can help by slowing the rate of absorption of glucose into the blood stream, so not as much insulin is required.
  • Reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet. Limit commercial cakes and biscuits, fried take-away foods, butter, lard, cream and trim the visible fat off meat.
An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can help you plan and implement these lifestyle changes.