Information about nutrition is abundant, and it's essential to understand several key concepts about how our food choices can impact our metabolic health. Veri believes that a metabolically healthy diet should be a flexible and empowering framework rather than a rigid set of rules. In this article, we will explore the core components of a glucose-stabilizing eating pattern and show you how you can make any diet insulin-resistance friendly, including Mediterranean, keto, and anti-inflammatory diets.
What makes a diet insulin resistance friendly?
To build a metabolically healthy diet, we need to lay down the foundational principles. These principles serve as the building blocks of a balanced diet that supports metabolic health:
- Protein: Lean protein sources like poultry, fish, and plant-based options can help maintain muscle, curb hunger, and support the body's energy regulation . Research suggests that diets containing adequate protein (at least 0.8 g/kg body weight — more depending on your activity level) can make your body less insulin resistant .
- Fiber: Fiber, the indigestible part of the plant, is essential for maintaining steady blood sugar levels and supporting digestive health by slowing down how quickly sugar enters the bloodstream after eating It can be found in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Aim for at least 25-30 g of fiber per day. You can see how much fiber is in various food sources here .
- Healthy fats: Incorporating unsaturated fats, like those found in avocados, nuts, and olive oil, can help improve insulin sensitivity, decrease inflammation, and support overall metabolic health . While saturated fats can be enjoyed in moderation as part of a balanced diet, be sure to pay attention to the quality and source as some saturated fats are found in foods that may not support metabolic health.
- Complex carbohydrates: Found in foods like whole grains, legumes, and vegetables, complex carbs consist of longer chains of sugar, which take longer to break down in the body compared to simple carbohydrates. They provide a steady source of energy and have a lower glycemic index, meaning they have a smaller impact on blood sugar levels. Complex carbs can help maintain stable blood sugar levels, preventing rapid spikes and crashes that can lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and various chronic health issues.
These foundational principles should serve as a guide for creating your own metabolically healthy diet. Depending on your lifestyle and dietary preferences, you can fine-tune your choices. For instance, if you follow a keto diet, ensure you get enough fiber from leafy greens to support your metabolic health.
In my experience working with clients, I’ve noticed that the structured framework of popular eating patterns like anti-inflammatory and Mediterranean can serve as a valuable roadmap, making the nutrition journey much more manageable. Opting for a clear structure that balances guidelines with flexibility within is not only more empowering, but also helps sift through the endless nutrition advice from sources like social media, family, and well-meaning friends.
Now, let's assess the metabolic friendliness of popular diets and understand what each gets right and where it could use improvement.
1. The Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is a nutritional pattern inspired by the traditional dietary habits of Mediterranean countries. It is characterized by a high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats — particularly olive oil — and is well-established as a dietary pattern that promotes heart health, reduces the risk of chronic diseases, and supports overall well-being [7, 8]. The abundance of healthy fats and anti-inflammatory foods in the Mediterranean diet decreases inflammation and allows insulin to work more effectively in the body. Not only that, a high intake of healthy fats can stimulate insulin release which helps clear glucose from the blood, effectively stabilizing blood sugar levels .
What the Mediterranean diet gets right:
- Rich in healthy fats: Olive oil, a staple of this diet, is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats.
- High in fiber: Mediterranean diets typically include abundant fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
How to make the Mediterranean diet more metabolically friendly:
- Be mindful of portion sizes: While this diet is rich in healthy foods, watch your portion sizes to maintain a balanced calorie intake. While calories are not the main focus of metabolic health, consuming an excess can result in the storage of those calories as fat, particularly in the liver and muscles. This fat accumulation can interfere with insulin signaling, making cells less responsive to insulin. Foods like nuts and oils, though full of valuable nutrients, are very calorie-dense. Most Mediterranean diets recommend keeping servings of nuts to about 3-5, ¼ cups servings per week, and oil to 1-4 tbsp per day .
2. The keto diet
The keto diet is a high-fat, low-carbohydrate eating plan designed to induce a state of ketosis, where the body burns fat for fuel instead of glucose. It typically includes foods like meat, fish, non-starchy vegetables, and healthy fats while limiting carbohydrates to a minimal amount.
What keto gets right:
- Rich in health fats: Keto encourages the consumption of healthy fats, which can improve insulin sensitivity.
- Minimal refined sugar: By design, keto eliminates most sources of refined sugar which are directly linked to causing insulin resistance
How to make keto more metabolically friendly:
- Focus on fiber: Keto diets can lack fiber due to the restriction of carbohydrates like whole grains and fruits. Try increasing your intake of lower carbohydrate fiber sources such as leafy greens, brussels sprouts, and nuts to make sure you are getting your fiber.
- Be mindful of saturated fat: Saturated fat is linked to insulin resistance because it can cause fat to build up in your body, which makes your cells less responsive to insulin, making it harder to control your blood sugar. Be sure to moderate how much red meat and full-fat dairy you eat when planning your fat and protein sources on a keto diet .
3. The anti-inflammatory diet
Chronic inflammation is when your body's defense system, known as the immune system, stays active for a long time. It can harm your organs, disrupt how your cells function, and make your body less responsive to insulin, which regulates blood sugar. The anti-inflammatory diet is centered around foods that help reduce chronic inflammation in the body, offering numerous health benefits. Here's a breakdown of what this diet gets right and how to make it even more anti-inflammatory:
What the anti-inflammatory diet gets right:
- High in fruits and vegetables: This diet emphasizes a rich intake of colorful fruits and vegetables, providing fiber and essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that combat inflammation.
- Full of flavor: This diet encourages use of anti-inflammatory spices like turmeric, ginger, and garlic. This can make it easier to follow and more enjoyable.
How to make the anti-inflammatory diet more metabolically friendly:
- Balance intake of each food group: While this diet is rich in healthy foods, make sure you are balancing your intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats as this diet doesn’t provide specific guidance on macronutrients. You can do this by following the Plate Method (4) and including 50% non-starchy vegetables, 25% lean proteins, and 25% high-fiber carbohydrates at each of your meals. I also recommend this cookbook to many of my clients looking to incorporate anti-inflammatory recipes into their diet .
With any diet comes the potential for disordered eating . Remember to check in with yourself and have flexibility when needed. Building a metabolically healthy diet doesn't require strict rules but rather an understanding of core principles. To tailor your diet to your preferences, consider the components of a healthy meal: fiber, healthy fats, protein, and complex carbohydrates. When exploring popular diets, keep in mind what each diet does right and where it could use improvement. This approach allows for flexibility and empowers you to make choices that suit your lifestyle.
- Look for a diet with essential components like high fiber, healthy fats, protein, and complex carbohydrates to support metabolic health.
- Pay attention to portion sizes to maintain a balanced calorie intake and prevent fat accumulation, which can lead to insulin resistance.
- Focus on adding fiber through non-starchy vegetables and be cautious with saturated fat sources like red meat and full-fat dairy.
- Balance your intake of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and consider following the Plate Method for a balanced meal.
With these principles and insights, you're equipped to create a metabolically healthy diet that suits your unique needs and preferences. Remember, the goal is not restriction but empowerment through knowledge and choice.
Leslie Johnson is a Registered Dietitian with her Master’s degree in Nutrition, Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change from the Friedman School at Tufts University and is currently working at Family Health Services as the Food Is Medicine Program Director and at Firelands Health as an outpatient dietitian in the Firelands Center for Coordinated Care. She is passionate about all people having access to fresh, nutritious food that can help keep their bodies healthy and works to incorporate nutrition science, communication, and food equity in her everyday practice. You can find more information on her website.