Metabolic Health

The Insulin Resistance Diet: Dietitian Tips on What to Eat

4 minutes read

Insulin resistance affects 40% of adults (ages 18-44) in the United States and is directly related to the risk of developing major chronic diseases such as prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease [1]. Insulin resistance occurs when the body stops being able to properly respond to insulin — meaning the body is no longer able to remove sugar from your bloodstream as efficiently as it used to. As a result, your pancreas has to work harder to make enough insulin to try and keep your blood sugar level in an appropriate range. Eventually, your pancreas can no longer keep up with the body’s insulin demands and stops being able to properly lower blood sugar levels, resulting in prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.

Most people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes start out with some level of insulin resistance, which is why it is important to learn how to make healthy changes to reverse it as early as possible.

Leslie Johnson, MS, RD, LD

An A1C test can detect prediabetes. However, it is more difficult to diagnose insulin resistance as there is not a routine test to detect it included in most standard lab work. 

An insulin resistance diet isn't a single, rigid dietary framework but a set of research-supported principles for keeping blood sugar levels stable. Healthy lifestyle changes, like increasing fiber intake and physical activity, can reverse and reduce the risk of developing insulin resistance. The tips below will help you incorporate these healthy changes into your current lifestyle. 

5 key principles of eating for insulin resistance 

Eating in a way that reduces insulin resistance can help promote stable blood sugar levels, increase your muscle mass and metabolism, promote weight loss, and decrease your risk for developing conditions like prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. 

When it comes to a nutrition plan, the insulin resistance diet is not overly restrictive and can be adapted to fit a wide variety of eating styles such as vegan, gluten-free, or dairy-free. It focuses on whole, unprocessed foods, fiber, lean proteins, and healthy fats as well as paying attention to meal timing, nutrient density, and your body’s individual response to foods.

1. Pay attention to nutrient density and quality rather than calories

When it comes to managing insulin resistance, it’s important to remember that your body responds very differently to 400 calories of refined carbohydrates and saturated fat (e.g., a plate of white pasta with alfredo sauce) versus 400 calories of high-fiber carbs, lean protein, and healthy fats (e.g., ¼ plate of whole grain pasta, ¼ plate of grilled chicken, and ½ plate of spring mix tossed with olive oil and vinegar). 

The fiber and healthy fats in the second option will help slow down how quickly the carbohydrates from the pasta are absorbed into your bloodstream and the protein will help hold your blood sugar stable. Whereas the pasta on its own can cause a sudden glucose spike causing your pancreas to produce excess insulin. When planning meals, try to include food from every food group focusing on lean proteins, high-fiber carbohydrates, and colorful vegetables.

2. Focus on building healthy habits 

Building healthy habits is essential for reversing insulin resistance. Rather than expecting yourself to change everything overnight, try structuring the environment around you to support healthy choices like having nutritious snacks readily available and scheduling regular exercise with a friend into your daily routine.

3. Eat whole, unprocessed foods and limit ultra-processed and refined foods 

Ultra-processed and refined foods are often lacking in fiber, an essential nutrient for staying full and maintaining stable blood sugar levels. They are also typically high in added sugar and refined carbs, can lead to drastic spikes (and then crashes) in blood sugar levels, exhausting your body’s insulin-producing cells and affecting things like your energy, appetite, and hormones. By avoiding processed foods and choosing whole, unprocessed foods like beans, fruits, and vegetables instead, you can ensure that you’re steering clear of added sugar and getting adequate fiber to help minimize glucose spikes (~25-30 g/day) [2]. 

4. Experiment with meal timing 

Consistent meal timing is important for overall health and maintaining stable blood sugar levels [3]. Some studies show that the body is more insulin resistant in the evenings, so it may be helpful to make breakfast your biggest meal of the day and dinner your smallest meal of the day [4]. See what works best for your lifestyle and schedule, and try to stick to consistent and balanced meals with snacks that include between meals as needed.

5. Track your body’s response to food

Blood sugar response to foods varies greatly between individuals due to factors such as genetics, lifestyle, and metabolic health [5]. While some may experience rapid spikes followed by a quick decline in blood sugar levels after eating a high-carbohydrate meal, others may have a more stable response. This is why it can be helpful to use a CGM to see how your body responds and to adjust your diet accordingly. Veri’s program can show you objective data from your body and provide you with tailored guidance to improve your diet, habits, and metabolic health.

What to eat on an insulin resistance diet

Unlike other diets, the insulin resistance diet does not restrict entire food groups and allows for flexibility and adaptability to individual preferences and lifestyles. It emphasizes more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats and less processed foods and added sugar.

Fiber-rich carbohydrates

Whole grains, starchy vegetables, and fruits are some of the most fiber-dense foods. Replace some of your refined carbohydrates like white bread, cookies, and chips with some of these high-fiber choices:

  • Whole oats
  • Apples
  • Beans (black, kidney, chickpea, pinto, etc.)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Popcorn
  • Quinoa
  • Peas
  • Raspberries

Colorful fruits and vegetables

The more color you can fit on your plate, the better! Each color includes a different variety of vitamins and minerals your body needs to function properly. Try some of these to increase your variety:

  • Tomatoes
  • Bell peppers
  • Carrots
  • Purple cabbage
  • Turnips
  • Asparagus
  • Cucumber
  • Yellow squash
  • Zucchini
  • Kale
  • Radish
  • Spinach

Lean proteins

Replacing proteins high in saturated fat (steak, hamburger, bacon, etc.) with lean protein sources like chicken, tuna, and low-fat dairy can aid in muscle growth and help improve insulin sensitivity.

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Tuna
  • Low-fat Greek yogurt
  • Kefir 
  • 1% cottage cheese
  • Sardines

Healthy fats

While saturated fats increase risk of insulin resistance, unsaturated fats (“healthy fats”) can actually reduce the risk. Healthy fats can be found in:

  • Walnuts
  • Avocados
  • Olive oil
  • Salmon
  • Flaxseeds
  • Chia seeds

What to limit on an insulin resistance diet

Some of the main contributors to developing insulin resistance include high consumption of processed foods, added sugars, trans fats, and sugar-sweetened beverages. By replacing some of these foods with unprocessed, high-fiber foods, you can significantly reduce your chances of becoming insulin-resistant. 

Highly processed foods

Highly processed foods are lacking in fiber and are high in refined sugars and saturated fats. Some examples of highly processed foods to use caution with consuming include:

  • Ice cream
  • Chips
  • Fruit snacks
  • Sugary cereals
  • Pop-tarts

Added sugar

Added sugar is not just limited to white table sugar–it includes brown sugar, maple syrup, honey, and agave syrup. No matter how it is consumed, added sugar will cause an increase in blood sugar levels. Watch out for these products with hidden added sugar:

Trans fats

While trans fats greater than 0.5 g per serving were banned from the US food system in 2020, they can still sneak their way into the food supply [6]. If you eat more than one serving, you may be consuming more trans fats than you realize. They are commonly found in some of the following foods:

  • Any fried or battered foods
  • Store-bought baked goods (cakes, cupcakes, muffins, cookies, brownies)
  • Baking ingredients (pie crust, shortening, cake mix, frosting)

Sweetened beverages

Sugar-sweetened beverages are one of the largest contributors to insulin resistance in today’s food supply. Experiment with your CGM and watch how replacing sugary drinks, like the ones listed below, with water can help lower your blood sugar:

  • Sugary coffee drinks (lattes, mochas, Frappuccinos, etc.)
  • Soda
  • Lemonade
  • Fruit juice
  • Energy drinks
  • Electrolyte replacement drinks

Foods that spike your blood glucose

Any food that causes a big spike in blood sugar levels can contribute to insulin resistance. These foods are different for everyone, which is why a CGM can be a helpful tool in understanding your body’s individualized response to foods. Some of the more common foods that spike most people’s blood sugar levels include:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Candy (gummy bears, jelly beans, etc.)
  • Cookies
  • Cake and pastries
  • Chips and snack foods

Dietitian tips on planning meals

  • Follow the plate method to easily balance your intake of each food group: 50% non-starchy vegetables, 25% lean proteins, and 25% high-fiber carbohydrates at each of your meals. 
  • Block out time in your schedule to plan your meals for the week. Plan your meals in categories to create structure while also allowing flexibility. For example, Stir-Fry Saturday and Meatless Monday. Change things up within the categories from week to week to increase variety.
  • Use a CGM to understand how your body is responding to different foods.
  • Try a dietary framework if you don’t know where to start like Mediterranean or anti-inflammatory. 
  • Pick a few nights of the week to cook and try one of our recipes

Key takeaways

  • Pay attention to nutrient density rather than calories. Be sure to include a source of lean protein, fiber, and healthy fats at all meals.
  • Focus on building healthy habits. Small changes add up over time, and setting up your environment to help you make healthy choices can go a long way.
  • Focus on consistent, balanced meals that follow the plate method (½ non-starchy vegetables, ¼ high fiber carbs, ¼ lean protein).
  • Track your body’s individual response to foods with a CGM to see what foods work best for you.

leslie johnson ms rd ld

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.



Written by: Leslie Johnson, MS, RD, LD
Reviewed by: Emily Johnson, MSc RD

Table of Contents

  • 5 key principles of eating for insulin resistance
  • What to eat on an insulin resistance diet
  • What to limit on an insulin resistance diet
  • Dietitian tips on planning meals
  • Key takeaways


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