The typical modern diet, which is high in ultra-processed foods, isn’t a great diet for metabolic health. In fact, the modern diet is one of society’s greatest health threats; this becomes more clear with each passing year. Diabetes, obesity, and heart health issues are all on the rise, which can often be attributed to another growing health threat: insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance is a metabolic condition that occurs when your cells become less responsive to insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. When insulin isn’t working as it should, more sugar stays in the blood—which means elevated insulin and blood sugar levels over time, a key metric for diabetes, obesity, and other metabolic health issues.
While genetics and other factors play a role, diet is crucial in preventing, managing, and potentially reversing insulin resistance. If you’ve been told you’re insulin resistant, or are simply looking for ideas on how to change your diet for overall better health, take note of the following foods to both eat and avoid for insulin resistance.*
Best foods to combat insulin resistance
Let’s start with the foods to keep in, or add to, your diet.
Rule number one if you have insulin resistance: watch your carbs. This doesn’t mean you have to cut all carbs from your life, but you do need to make sure you’re eating the right ones (i.e., complex carbs) in moderate amounts. Anything that elevates your blood glucose will initiate an insulin response, but since complex carbohydrates are rich in fiber and take longer to digest, they won’t affect your blood sugar levels as much as simple carbohydrates (i.e., candy, bread, etc.).
Examples of complex carbs include:
Fresh fruits and vegetables
The importance of fiber cannot be overstated. It supports heart health and digestion, and keeps you feeling full for longer so you’re not as tempted to snack. Most people don’t get enough of it, so seize any chance you have to incorporate more fiber into your day.
The next important macronutrient for an insulin-resistant-friendly diet is lean proteins. Proteins help build and maintain muscles and bones and cause little to no insulin response. And like fiber, it also helps you feel full and satisfied.
You can find protein from a variety of sources:
Fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel
Tofu, nuts, and other plant-based sources of protein
It may sound counterintuitive, but fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. It helps absorb vitamins, keeps us warm, and is the body’s most efficient energy source. Most importantly for those who are insulin resistant, healthy fats have no insulin response and are more satiating than high-carbohydrate foods.
Make sure you’re focusing on healthy fats though, which are unsaturated fats found in:
While healthy fats do a lot of good for us, unhealthy fats should be avoided. We’ll cover that in more detail in the “foods to avoid” section.
People with insulin resistance are sometimes hesitant to eat fruit because it can be high in carbohydrates, but many fruits also contain a lot of fiber to help slow down digestion and keep blood sugar from spiking too much. Focus on berries and whole fruits (with skin on). Keep in mind that the structure of the fruit is important for keeping you satiated, so if you juice or blend your fruit, the sugars become more concentrated and are more readily available since the stomach doesn’t have to work as hard to digest it. This will cause more of a spike in blood glucose than if you eat the fruit whole.
One food group you don’t need to hold back on is non-starchy vegetables. Low in calories and high in fiber and nutrients, these vegetables won’t cause rapid spikes in blood sugar and can be consumed raw or cooked:
Spinach, kale, and other leafy greens
Cucumbers and zucchini
Broccoli and cauliflower
Carrots (especially when eaten raw)
Insulin resistance foods to avoid
Now let’s get into the foods to avoid if you are insulin resistant. A good rule of thumb is to avoid shopping in the middle aisles at the grocery store—you’ll start to see why as you keep reading.
If you only eliminate one food from your diet, make it sweetened beverages (soda, juice, energy drinks, etc.). Not only are they high in sugar, but liquids are digested more quickly than solids. This is a double whammy on your blood sugar levels. Start by replacing one drink a day with water and gradually reduce the sugary drinks you consume each day. If you’re the type to add a lot of sugars or sweeteners to your coffee or tea, try gradually reducing the amount you add. Your taste buds will adapt and you will learn to love the taste of unsweetened beverages.
Baked goods, candy, and other sweet treats are next up on the list of foods to avoid. This includes:
Most breakfast cereals
Cake, brownies, and cookies
You’ve probably heard the advice to not go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. Those who do often find one or more of these items in their cart before they make it to the checkout line.
White bread, rice, and pasta
Now that we’ve covered refined sugars, let’s talk about refined flour. While whole wheat and whole grains get the thumbs-up, white flour and refined grains get a thumbs down because they are stripped of their fiber and nutrients. Without the fiber to slow down digestion, foods with white flour cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. So steer clear of white bread, rice, and pasta as much as possible, and opt for a whole-wheat or whole-grain alternative whenever you can.
Cutting all fat out of your diet isn’t a good idea for anyone, but it’s best to limit your consumption of saturated and trans fats, especially if you’re insulin resistant. This includes foods like:
Anything with partially hydrogenated oils (i.e., baked goods, frozen pizza, shortening, microwave popcorn)
When you’re told to avoid fatty foods, these are the foods people are talking about. But keep eating those healthy fats!
Ultra-processed foods and snacks
Ultra-processed foods feature prominently in the typical North American diet—which is a big reason why so many people are insulin resistant. This includes foods like:
Sugary snacks and cereal
These foods are designed to be easy, taste good, and last a long time, but the convenience is not worth the cost to your health over time. Take a look at your pantry and freezer and start planning how you can replace some of these processed foods with healthier, more nutritious foods.
Alcohol can cause blood sugar fluctuations and impair insulin sensitivity if you drink too much. If you do drink alcohol, it’s best to keep it at no more than one drink a day.
Perfection not required
Those with insulin sensitivity have plenty of good choices to choose from that won’t cause their blood sugar to spike or stay high for too long. But the list of foods to avoid can be overwhelming, especially if you don’t make a lot of your own meals.
That being said, the effort to improve your diet is very much worth it. Anything you can do to improve insulin sensitivity will have a measurable effect on your quality of life. Just start slow and don’t expect things to go perfectly all the time.
Practicing intermittent fasting can also help manage blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity, even if you have trouble avoiding some of your favorite foods in the “don’t eat” column. Visit ufeelgreat.com to learn more about how to support better overall health by maximizing the benefits of intermittent fasting.
*Talk to your doctor before making major changes to your diet.