Weight gain is a normal side effect of taking insulin. Insulin helps you manage your body sugar by assisting your cells in absorbing glucose (sugar). Without insulin, the cells of your body are unable to use sugar for energy. You’ll eliminate the extra glucose in your bloodstream through your urine or have it stay in the blood, causing high blood sugar levels.
You may experience weight loss before you start insulin therapy. The loss of sugar in your urine takes water with it, so some of this weight loss is due to water loss.
Also, unmanaged diabetes can make you extra hungry. This can lead to eating an increased amount of food even when you start insulin therapy. And when you start insulin therapy and begin getting your blood sugar under control, the glucose in your body is absorbed and stored. This causes weight gain if the amount you eat is more than you need for the day.
It’s important not to cut back on your insulin, even if you gain weight. You may lose weight again when you’re off insulin, but you’re then risking complications. Once you start treatment again, the weight will come back. This can lead to an unhealthy weight loss pattern and long-term complications such as heart diseases or kidney damage. Insulin is the best way to lower your blood glucose and manage your diabetes.
The good news is that you can manage your weight while taking insulin. It may mean changing your eating habits and being more physically active, but this can help you avoid weight gain. Learn what steps you can take to manage your weight.
Your healthcare team has a wealth of information, experience, and practical tips for navigating these waters. They can help you make a plan for weight loss and for maintaining a healthy weight. This important team may include one or more of the following healthcare professionals:
- primary care doctor
- nurse educator or diabetes nurse educator
- certified diabetes educator
- registered dietitian
- eye doctor
- exercise physiologist
- therapist, social worker, or psychologist
Your healthcare team will help formulate your plan by assessing your current status. They’ll start looking at your body mass index (BMI), overall health status, and obstacles you may face when it comes to diet and physical activity.
They can also provide guidance for setting realistic goals based on their assessment. Numeric goals can help with your weight loss journey. Your goals may be:
- reaching your ideal BMI
- maintaining your ideal weight or losing a set amount of weight
- reaching daily and weekly physical activity goals
- changing lifestyle habits to help improve your health
- accomplishing your goals by a certain date
You can also ask your doctors about other diabetes medications so you can reduce your insulin dosage. Some medications such as glyburide-metformin (Glucovance), exenatide (Bydureon), and pramlintide (SymlinPen) can help regulate your sugar levels and some weight loss. Your doctor will let you know if these medications are appropriate for your condition.
Your dietitian can help you with a meal plan for the dietary changes you need to make. An individualized meal plan is crucial for success, because everyone’s eating habits and dietary needs are different. Your plan will include what types of foods you eat, portion size, and when you eat. It may also include shopping and meal preparation.
Most people with diabetes are familiar with managing their carbohydrate intake, but calorie counting is different. It entails watching protein, fat, and alcohol intake as well.
The key to losing weight is to burn more calories than you consume. But this doesn’t mean skipping meals. Skipping meals has a larger side effect than losing weight. It can cause low blood sugar levels and even weight gain. Your body uses energy less efficiently when skipping meals.
Portion control can help with managing your calorie intake. In addition to counting carbs, consider using the “plate method” of portion control. Trimming your portion size can help with lowering your calorie count.
Here are the basics of the plate method of portion control:
- Visualize a line down the center of your dinner plate. Add a second line across one of the halves. You should have three sections.
- Put non-starchy vegetables that appeal to you in the largest section. Vegetables add bulk and size to your meals without adding many calories. Plus, they’re often high in fiber, which is good for blood sugar and weight.
- Grains and starches fill one of the smaller sections, using your carb counting guidelines.
- Place lean protein in the other small section.
- Add a serving of fruit or a low-fat dairy product as allowed by your meal plan.
- Add healthy fats but limit the amounts as these can add a lot of calories in a small amount.
- Add a noncaloric beverage such as water or unsweetened coffee or tea.
The portions of food you eat are crucial. In America, we supersize food. Research confirms that Americans consume significantly more calories because they’re offered larger portions. With that in mind, know that it’s OK to say “no” to more.
Certain foods can help your weight loss journey. Choosing foods that are high quality and nonprocessed is more satiating and effective than relying on calorie counting. According to Harvard School of Public Health, studies show that weight gain is associated with processed foods and red meats. High-quality foods also help with consuming few calories.
Weight loss foods
- whole grains
Weight gain foods
- potato chips and potatoes
- starchy foods
- sugar-sweetened beverages
- processed and unprocessed red meats
- refined grains, fats, and sugars
Talk to your doctor if you’re interested in a particular diet. Not all diets work for everyone. And some cause unintended side effects, especially if you have other health conditions.
The best way to burn calories and unused energy is exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week for adults. This is the equivalent of 30 minutes of exercise five days a week.
Exercise can also help with insulin sensitivity by making your cells more sensitive to insulin. Research shows just one week of training can improve your insulin sensitivity.
A combination of aerobic and resistance exercises can help improve your weight loss journey. Aerobic activities help with burning calories and glucose, while resistance training builds muscle. The primary fuel of your muscles is glucose. So the more muscle you have, the better off you are. Strength training can also preserve lean body mass as you age.
Aerobic activities can be anything that raises your heartbeat, such as:
- running or walking
- using stair steppers or elliptical machines
Resistance or strength training includes:
- doing body weight exercises
- lifting free weights
- using weight machines
You can get a trainer, take classes, or use a fitness app like 30 Day Fitness Challenges to help jump-start your routine.
Increasing insulin sensitivity
You may find it more beneficial to do interval training, which is when you exercise with periods of slow and moderate or intense activity. According to Diabetes Self-Management, studies show that people with type 2 diabetes improved their insulin sensitivity with moderate-intensity resistance training. One of the studies found that men with type 2 diabetes increased their insulin sensitivity, gained muscle, and lost weight even though they ate 15 percent more calories.
Find a couple of lower intensity and strenuous activities that appeal to you. Doing them at least every other day can help with increasing insulin sensitivity and weight loss. Other ways to increase insulin sensitivity are:
- getting enough sleep
- moderating stress levels
- reducing body inflammation
- losing excess body fat
Exercise can also help with these steps.
Before you start
Be sure to consult your doctor before you begin an exercise regimen. Exercise lowers blood sugar. Depending on the type of insulin you take, you may need to adjust the intensity or timing of your exercise, or adjust your insulin or food intake. Your healthcare team can advise you on when to test your blood glucose levels and when to eat relative to the time you’ve set aside for exercise.
Exercise can also make some diabetes-related complications worse. It’s important to check with your doctor before starting an exercise routine if you have:
Be mindful that reducing your insulin is never a solution for weight loss. The side effects that you can experience by limiting your insulin dose are serious and can be long lasting.
Remember to discuss any weight-loss programs with your healthcare team. They’ll be able to put you on the right path to maintaining a healthy weight while taking insulin.