If you struggle with insulin resistance, pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes, you know how important your diet is and how much it can affect how you feel each time you eat–not to mention the impact on your overall health.
So you’re probably searching for the best diet or eating plan to help you manage (and even reverse) your symptoms. The answer? The DASH diet, which is endorsed by both registered dietitians and proven to help with insulin resistance and diabetes by scientific studies. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is Insulin Resistance?
First, it’s important to understand what insulin resistance is.
“Insulin resistance is when the body has a poor response to insulin resulting in high blood sugars in the blood,” explains registered dietitian Jonathan Valdez, RDN, owner of Genki Nutrition and a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
This can cause a snowball effect in the body and impact your overall health.
“This can cause your pancreas to work harder, and starts producing more insulin, releasing it into your body to help glucose enter your cells,” says Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Insulin almost acts like a key; you need insulin to unlock your cells and allow glucose to enter and provide them with energy.”
Pre-diabetes and diabetes can occur when people have insulin resistance.
“Without insulin, glucose hangs out in the blood rather than entering the cells, over time this can cause Type 2 diabetes, as there’s a buildup of blood sugar floating around in your blood and it can’t be properly used by the body for energy,” says Ehsani.
All of this is connected with diet, and a poor diet (one that is rich in refined carbohydrates and simple sugars that cause blood sugar spikes and rapid falls), often leads to insulin resistance
“One way to reverse insulin resistance is to keep your blood sugar stable and controlled, and limit quick spikes and falls, which can happen when you are eating a diet rich in refined grains and sugar,” adds Ehsani.
So, which diet is best for reversing insulin resistance, and even diabetes? The DASH Diet, which stands for dietary approaches to stop hypertension.
“This diet was designed for people with high blood pressure to follow, as it’s a diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and limits your intake of fat, sodium and sugar,” explains Ehsani.
However, it’s also an appropriate diet for anyone with diabetes (and has been studied and recommended by the American Diabetes Association), obesity or for anyone looking to follow as it’s a well-balanced nutritious diet.
“The CDC recommends people who have diabetes consume about 50% of their calories from carbohydrates,” adds Valdez.
What Is the DASH Diet?
“The DASH diet recommends a high intake of both fruits and veggies each day (5 servings a day of each!), recommends whole grains over refined ones (7 servings), recommends low fat or fat-free dairy (2-3 servings per day), lean proteins like fish [and] chicken (2- 3 servings per day) and limits fats and oils too,” explains Ehsani. “It also recommends you limit your sweets intake to less than 5 servings per week.”
She adds that this diet is best for reversing insulin resistance as it is high in dietary fiber, which will help keep one’s blood sugar more stable, and limits your intake of refined grains and simple sugars.
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Related: 9 Best Fruits for Diabetics
How to Get Started With the DASH Diet
If you’re looking to implement the DASH diet into your life, here are a few helpful tips to get you started. And Ehsani suggests that you start off slowly.
“Start small, with one change at a time or one goal you plan on working on each week,” she says. “Maybe you find that you aren’t eating enough fiber-rich foods, so you start adding in more whole grains at dinner time. Then once you’ve mastered that goal, after a few weeks you can work on a new goal, like adding more veggies into your day, at least 1 cup to every lunch, for example.”
And since everyone has unique and varying needs, she adds that you shouldn’t be afraid to consult with a registered dietitian, a nutrition expert to help you find the best eating plan for your health needs. That being said, here are some tips to help you get started:
Tip #1: Add in one more cup of veggies per day.
In the grand scheme of things, one cup of veggies is a totally attainable goal to start with–and you can add in raw or cooked veggies to make it count.
“Adding more veggies into your day not only adds lots more vitamins [and] minerals into your diet, but also bumps up your intake of dietary fiber,” says Ehsani. “Veggies are also one of our lowest calorie foods, and most Americans don’t eat enough.”
Specifically, dietary fiber is digested at a much slower rate that won’t cause a spike in blood sugar.
“Fiber slows absorption of sugars to prevent spikes in the bloodstream and increases satiety,” says Valdez. “Along with protein, it can help you to overall eat less calories to prevent abdominal weight gain, which increases insulin resistance severity.”
Not sure how to do it? Ehsani suggests that you add 1 cup of raw baby spinach to your plate at dinner or add 1 cup of stir-fried veggies at lunch along with your brown rice and black beans or add in 1 cup of sauteed bell peppers and onions into your quesadilla or taco.
And if you don’t like veggies on their own, you can add 1 cup of veggies to your sandwiches like ½ cup of lettuce greens and ½ cup of sliced-up tomatoes and cucumbers.
“Or add 1 cup of mixed veggies to your pasta sauce, or add 1 cup of baby greens to your spinach–you won’t even notice it in your smoothie!” says Ehsani.
Tip #2: Swap out refined grains for whole grains.
This is another great way to bump up your fiber content.
“Instead of consuming white bread, for example, try to have whole wheat bread instead,” says Ehsani. “Consuming more whole grains will in turn bump up your fiber intake, which can help better regulate your blood sugar, as fiber-rich foods like whole grains take much longer to digest by the body therefore not spiking the blood sugar much more than refined grains.”
To do it, instead of using white bread to make a sandwich, use whole wheat bread. Or instead of using a white tortilla, use a whole wheat one. Another easy swap? When making rice, make wild rice, brown rice, quinoa, barley or farro instead.
Tip #3: Have protein at each meal and snack
You don’t need to purchase protein powders or foods with extra protein added to them to get enough protein.
“Making sure you have a source of protein at each meal and snack will help keep your blood sugar more stable, as protein-rich foods are digested at a slower rate than non-protein-rich foods,” says Ehsani. “Including them at meals will help keep your blood sugar more stable and prevent less spikes and falls to your blood sugar as well.”
Ehsani suggests that you try to choose high-quality, lean sources of protein you can get from real foods, such as eggs, nuts, seeds, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, chicken breast, turkey breast, salmon, tuna, tilapia and mahi-mahi.