Insulin and weight gain: Keep the pounds off

Insulin and weight gain often go hand in hand, but weight control is possible. If you need insulin therapy, here's how to minimize — or avoid — weight gain.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Weight gain is a common side effect for people who take insulin — a hormone that regulates the absorption of sugar (glucose) by cells. This can be frustrating because maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of your overall diabetes management plan. The good news is that it is possible to maintain your weight while taking insulin.

The link between insulin and weight gain

When you take insulin, glucose is able to enter your cells, and glucose levels in your blood drop. This is the desired treatment goal.

But if you take in more calories than you need to maintain a healthy weight — given your level of activity — your cells will get more glucose than they need. Glucose that your cells don't use accumulates as fat.

Avoid weight gain while taking insulin

Eating healthy foods and being physically active most days of the week can help you prevent unwanted weight gain. The following tips can help you keep the pounds off:

  • Count calories. Eating and drinking fewer calories helps you prevent weight gain. Stock the refrigerator and pantry with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Plan for every meal to have the right mix of starches, fruits and vegetables, proteins, and fats. Generally, experts recommend that meals consist of half non starchy vegetable, one-quarter protein and one quarter a starch such as rice or a starchy vegetable such as corn or peas.

    Trim your portion sizes, skip second helpings and drink water instead of high-calorie drinks. Talk to your doctor, nurse or a dietitian about meal-planning strategies and resources.

  • Don't skip meals. Don't try to cut calories by skipping meals. When you skip a meal, you're more likely to make poor diet choices at the next mealtime because you're too hungry. Skipping meals can also cause low blood sugar levels if you don't adjust your insulin dose.
  • Be physically active. Physical activity burns calories. A reasonable goal for most adults, set by the Department of Health and Human Services, is at least 150 minutes a week of moderately intense aerobic activity — such as walking, bicycling, water aerobics, dancing or gardening — plus muscle-strengthening exercises at least two times a week. Talk with your doctor about activities and exercises that are appropriate for you.

    Also, ask your doctor how best to handle exercise. Physical activity helps your body use insulin more efficiently, so depending on how much exercise you're planning on doing, you may need to cut back on your insulin dosage or have a snack. It's possible for your blood sugar to drop even hours after exercise.

  • Ask your doctor about other diabetes medications. Some diabetes medications that help regulate blood glucose levels — including metformin (Fortamet, Glucophage, others), exenatide (Byetta), liraglutide (Victoza), albiglutide (Tarzeum), dulaglutide (Trulicity), sitagliptin (Januvia), saxagliptin (Onglyza), canagliflozin (Invokana), dapagliflozin (Farxiga), empagliflozin (Jardiance) and pramlintide (Symlin) — may promote weight loss and enable you to reduce your insulin dosage. Ask your doctor if these or other medications would be appropriate as part of your diabetes treatment plan.
  • Take your insulin only as directed. Don't skip or reduce your insulin dosages to ward off weight gain. Although you might shed pounds if you take less insulin than prescribed, the risks are serious. Without enough insulin, your blood sugar level will rise — and so will your risk of diabetes complications.

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Sept. 17, 2020 See more In-depth

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