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Insulin resistance occurs when your body’s cells don’t respond well to insulin and can’t efficiently absorb glucose — or blood sugar — from your blood.

Consequently, your body produces more insulin, which can increase your risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes and fatty liver over time.

Fortunately, you can reverse insulin resistance and decrease your risk of these complications with your diet.

This article explains what to eat and avoid to reverse insulin resistance and lose fat and provides a sample insulin resistance diet menu.

insulin resistance diet

What is insulin resistance?

Insulin resistance occurs when your body’s cells — primarily from your liver, muscle, and body fat — don’t respond well to insulin.

Insulin is a hormone produced by your pancreas that lowers blood sugar.

Consequently, your pancreas must compensate and produce more insulin to lower blood sugar and maintain normal levels.

High insulin levels as a result of insulin resistance causes (1):

Having excess body fat as a result of regularly consuming more calories than your body needs is the primary cause of insulin resistance — but there are also genetic factors at play (1).

Over time, insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), metabolic syndrome, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Generally, you won’t experience any symptoms of insulin resistance but over time you may experience:

  • increased or frequent urination
  • feeling more tired than usual
  • extreme thirst
  • numb or tingling hands or feet
  • frequent infections

Fortunately, it’s possible to reverse insulin resistance by making changes to your diet.

Insulin resistance diet

Eating certain foods and avoiding others can help you lose weight and reverse insulin resistance (2, 3).

Indeed, just a 5% loss in body weight can significantly improve insulin sensitivity (4).

And although it’s commonly thought that insulin resistance makes it more difficult to lose weight, research proves otherwise (5).

Here are foods to eat and avoid on an insulin resistance diet:

Foods to eat

Here are foods that can help you reverse insulin resistance (6, 7):

  • Fruits: apples, avocados, bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe, grapes, plums, mango, oranges, pears, raspberries, watermelon, etc.
  • Nonstarchy vegetables: arugula, asparagus, bok choy, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, cucumber, kale, mushrooms, onions, peppers, etc.
  • Starchy vegetables: beets, cassava, corn, green peas, jicama, lima beans, potatoes, pumpkin, and squash
  • Whole grains: brown rice, oats, popcorn, quinoa, and whole-grain bread, pasta, and tortillas
  • Lean meats: lean cuts of beef and pork that say “loin” or “round”
  • Poultry: eggs, duck, goose, skinless chicken, turkey, pigeon, and quail
  • Low-fat dairy: low-fat varieties of milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese
  • Nuts and seeds: almonds, cashews, chia seeds, hazelnuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts, etc.
  • Beans and peas: black beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, and split peas
  • Beverages: black coffee, unsweetened tea, and water

While it can be helpful to track your calories for weight loss, prioritizing these foods will generally result in weight loss without having to track them.

Foods to avoid

Avoid these foods and ingredients since they can worsen insulin resistance:

  • Added sugar: baked goods, candies, dairy desserts like ice cream, and sugary beverages like energy drinks, fruit drinks, soda, specialty coffee drinks, and sports drinks
  • Refined grains: crackers, chips, and white bread, pasta, and tortillas
  • Processed meats: meats that have been smoked, cured, dried, or salted, including bologna, cured bacon, deli meat, ham, hot dogs, and salami
  • Other ultra-processed foods: dried fruit, fried foods, some frozen meals, fruit snacks, and granola bars

Alcohol can worsen insulin resistance in excess but tends to have a small beneficial effect in moderation (8).

Still, alcohol is a source of calories and can negatively affect fat loss in some people.

Sample insulin resistance diet menu

Here is a one-day sample insulin resistance diet menu:

  • Breakfast: scrambled eggs with sauteed spinach and oatmeal topped with blueberries
  • Snack: low-fat cottage cheese and peach slices
  • Lunch: salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, avocado, feta cheese, and chickpeas
  • Snack: apple slices and almonds
  • Dinner: pan-seared barramundi with couscous, and roasted carrots

Use this example as a general guide and adjust the serving size and food choices based on your nutrient needs, preferences, ability to access and purchase foods, and any food allergies or intolerances.

Supplements to improve insulin resistance

In addition to diet, several supplements have been shown to improve insulin resistance.

If you’re taking any medications for diabetes, talk with your doctor before trying any of these supplements since they can enhance the effectiveness of diabetes medications.

Magnesium

Magnesium is an important mineral for healthy blood sugar control because it regulates insulin secretion and action (9).

Consequently, a magnesium deficiency or a suboptimal level is strongly linked to insulin resistance.

Although you can get all the magnesium you need from your diet, supplementation tends to be a more effective method for increasing magnesium levels.

A review of 26 studies involving 1,168 people with or at risk of type 2 diabetes showed that magnesium supplementation significantly reduced fasting blood sugar, fasting insulin levels, and the HOMA-IR score, an important indicator of insulin resistance, compared with placebo (10).

What’s more, the same review demonstrated that magnesium supplementation reduced triglyceride levels, lowered blood pressure, and improved HDL “good” cholesterol.

Most studies have shown improvements in insulin sensitivity with 250–300 mg of magnesium citrate per day (10, 11).

Purchase magnesium citrate online.

Chromium

Chromium is an essential trace element, meaning you need very small amounts of it.

But despite your body’s limited need, chromium is still important because it enhances insulin signaling to promote the uptake of blood sugar by your body’s cells.

A review of 23 studies involving people with type 2 diabetes found that chromium supplementation significantly reduced fasting blood sugar levels and insulin levels and improved overall blood sugar control compared with placebo (12).

However, other studies in women with PCOS have failed to find significant benefits on blood sugar control and insulin resistance with chromium supplementation compared with placebo (13, 14).

Cinnamon

Cinnamon extracts have been shown to lower blood sugar by enhancing insulin sensitivity.

A review of five studies involving women with PCOS demonstrated that supplementation with 0.5–1.5 grams of cinnamon per day for 8–52 weeks significantly improved markers of insulin resistance compared with placebo (15).

Another review, this time involving 16 studies involving people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, found that daily supplementation with 1–12 grams of cinnamon for up to 4 months significantly reduced fasting blood sugars and insulin resistance compared with placebo (16).

Cinnamon contains a liver toxin called coumarin, which can be harmful in high doses.

However, Ceylon cinnamon has lower levels compared with other cinnamon types, making it a better option for supplementation (17).

Purchase Ceylon cinnamon here.

Exercise to improve insulin sensitivity

Your muscles are the primary site where insulin stimulates blood sugar absorption from the blood (1).

As such, exercise is incredibly effective for improving insulin sensitivity and reversing insulin resistance (18, 19, 20).

For the best results, incorporate both aerobic exercises like running or biking and weight lifting that targets all major muscle groups (21).

If you’re new to exercise, start slow and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts over time.

The bottom line

Insulin resistance occurs when your body’s cells don’t respond to the hormone insulin as they should, resulting in high blood sugar levels, increased fat gain, and inflammation.

Fortunately, you can reverse insulin resistance by eating a diet consisting primarily of whole, minimally-processed foods and engaging in regular exercise.

Certain supplements like magnesium, chromium, and cinnamon may also improve insulin resistance. Just make sure to talk with your doctor before trying these supplements if you’re taking any diabetes drugs.


Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN
Gavin Van De Walle, MS, RD, LN

Gavin Van De Walle holds a master's degree in human nutrition and bioenergetics. He is a registered dietitian who aims to arm the public with evidence-based nutrition recommendations so they can make their own educated and informed health decisions.