The Truth About Diabetes and Weight Gain: What You Need to Know

Diabetes is often linked to changes in weight. However, practical lifestyle changes can help manage diabetes weight gain to support your care plan.

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by
Chelsea Rae Bourgeois, MS, RD
— Signos
Health writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
April 23, 2024
August 22, 2023
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Much like a car uses gasoline to go, go, go, our bodies convert the sugar we eat into energy through a very important hormone: insulin. Insulin regulates how the body absorbs glucose, thus affecting our blood sugar levels. But its role in the body doesn’t stop there. Insulin resistance can also play a pivotal role in body weight management.

Research continues to point to a connection between body weight and developing diabetes.1 If diabetes weight gain is on your radar, join us as we break down the science behind weight gain and diabetes mellitus.

However, before we get started, it’s important to note that people of all weights and body types are diagnosed with diabetes daily. Remember that your body size and medical history are unique to you.

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Diabetes and Weight Gain: What’s The Link? 

Research tells us there’s a link between diabetes and weight gain, but what does that mean? Does diabetes cause weight gain? How does blood glucose affect our body mass index (BMI)? To understand the connection, we have first to understand the ins and outs of diabetes.

When we eat, our bodies break down food into smaller, more absorbable parts ( i.e., glucose). When glucose enters the bloodstream, our bodies signal the pancreas to release insulin so it can do its very important job. Insulin acts as a messenger between our body’s cells and sugar, telling our cells that it’s time to fuel up by absorbing glucose.

However, when insulin resistance is a factor, the body may not function as intended. Insulin resistance causes the body’s cells to ignore insulin’s signal to absorb the sugar from your blood. Of course, as a result, your blood sugar levels continue to rise, signaling the pancreas to release more insulin. As this cycle continues, the pancreas eventually reaches a tiring point and cannot keep up with the insulin demands.

It’s this breakdown in functioning that eventually leads to weight gain. Long story short, when the bloodstream retains excess insulin, it signals the body to store more sugar. While some sugar can be stored in the liver or muscles, most of it gets stored as fat. Enter unintentional weight gain.

Still, weight gain can vary significantly based on several factors, including:

  • Age
  • Height
  • Genetics
  • Ethnicity
  • Diet
  • Physical activity

Does Insulin Make You Gain Weight?

Weight gain is considered a common side effect for people who take insulin. But is insulin really to blame? When you take insulin, sugar leaves your bloodstream and enters your cells, lowering your blood sugar levels. That’s the goal of insulin therapy in diabetes treatment, after all.

However, when we consume more calories than we need, our pancreas can’t keep up, and our cells get more sugar than they bargained for. The sugar our cells don’t use for energy gets stored as fat, causing weight gain.

So, while insulin is part of the equation, it’s not solely responsible for diabetes-related weight gain. Our hormones, nutritional intake, physical activity levels, and even sleep hygiene affect our weight.

6 Ways to Keep a Healthy Weight with Diabetes

Weight gain is commonly linked with an increased risk of developing diabetes. So, if you are diagnosed with prediabetes, maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. If you are currently living with diabetes, healthy body weight can help manage your blood glucose levels.

In addition to seeking guidance from a registered dietitian or another qualified healthcare provider, here are six lifestyle changes that can play a role in weight management:

1. Track Your Calorie Intake

Monitoring your calorie intake can help you make educated decisions about what to eat regarding body weight management. Try to include various nutritious foods in your meal plan, and be mindful of your portion sizes. Prioritize nutrient-dense food, such as fresh fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

Be mindful of foods that may contribute to high blood sugar levels without providing much nutrition. For example, sugary beverages and refined carbs may cause an alarming spike in your blood glucose and affect your insulin levels.

2. Consume More Proteins

When most people think of a diabetes-friendly diet plan, they immediately prioritize carbohydrates. While carbs are vital in managing blood sugar levels, we can’t forget protein’s role in weight management.

Research points to a connection between high-protein diets and weight loss, showing that increased protein intake can improve appetite, body weight management, and heart disease risk factors.2 Need help meeting your protein needs? Protein supplements might be your answer. Still, protein is not meant to replace carbohydrates in the diabetic diet but rather to support healthy blood glucose levels.

3. Beware of the Glycemic Index of Your Food

When planning your meals, be mindful of the glycemic index of your foods. Foods with a high glycemic index can cause unwanted spikes in your blood sugar. Try to prioritize low-glycemic index foods with more fiber than their counterparts.

4. Keep Yourself Active

According to the latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, the average adult should aim for 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic activity and two days of strength training each week.3 Aerobic exercise can include walking, dancing, biking, gardening, and more, depending on your preferences.

Regular physical activity helps your body utilize insulin more efficiently. Depending on your workout, you may need to adjust your insulin or carbohydrate intake to prevent hypoglycemia. Work closely with your healthcare providers as you design an exercise plan to meet your needs.

5. Don’t Skip Meals

Diet culture has taught us that eating less will solve all our problems, and THAT’S JUST NOT TRUE. Our bodies need consistent nutrition to function and meet the demands we ask of them. Skipping meals can lead to a drop in your blood sugar and extreme hunger, leading to overindulgence or unhealthy choices at your next meal. As a result, you will likely experience a rollercoaster of blood sugar levels.

6. Take Your Medicine According to the Directions You Have

Compliance with your diabetes care plan is key. Your diabetes medications are tailored to fit your individual needs, and while you might be tempted to adjust your insulin dosages to stop weight gain, it presents serious risks. Without sufficient insulin, your blood sugar levels can skyrocket, along with your risk of diabetes complications. If you have concerns about your medications, talk with your doctor.

Type 2 Diabetes Can Also Cause Weight Loss

Can diabetes cause weight loss? While diabetes is often associated with unintentional weight gain, it can also lead to weight loss. Undiagnosed diabetes can trigger weight loss or make it challenging for some people to maintain a healthy weight. If your pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to move sugar out of your bloodstream and into your cells, your body may burn existing fat stores and muscle tissues for energy.

If your blood sugar levels are chronically elevated, your body will continue burning fat stores, eventually causing weight loss. But, thankfully, select lifestyle changes can help curb weight loss and promote gradual weight gain.

How to Gain Weight with Diabetes

Often, people living with type 2 diabetes are advised to lose weight to help manage their blood sugars and reduce the risk of related complications. However, sometimes, a person with diabetes needs to gain weight to benefit their health. Stress, limited access to food, and thyroid issues can all trigger unintentional weight loss. And, unfortunately, so can diabetes itself.4

Gaining weight typically requires consuming more calories than you use. It seems simple enough, right? Unfortunately, for those living with diabetes, it requires more than just a positive calorie balance at the end of the day. People with diabetes must choose their foods strategically to avoid blood sugar complications.

People with diabetes should opt for nutrient-dense foods, such as full-fat dairy products, lean proteins, and healthy cooking oils when trying to gain weight. Examples of nutritious, high-calorie foods include:

  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Nut butter
  • Fatty fish
  • Beans
  • Meat

Additionally, limit or avoid caffeine products and other foods that may suppress your appetite. And be mindful of your snack choices. While some snacks may be high in calories, they may not contribute to your nutrient needs. Increasing your calories shouldn’t require sacrificing well-balanced nutrition.

Whether you have type 2 or type 1 diabetes, keep these considerations in mind:

  • Adding highly processed or carbohydrate-dense foods can boost your calorie intake but may also cause dangerous blood sugar spikes.
  • If you use insulin, notify your doctor of any weight changes to ensure that your dosages are appropriate for your needs at your current weight.
  • A calorie-rich diet may lack several essential nutrients. Be mindful of your nutrient needs and use supplements if needed.
  • If you use fats to increase your daily calories, prioritize unsaturated fats over saturated fats.

And, most importantly, don’t take on this journey alone. Reach out to your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist for guidance and support.

When You Should Visit Your Doctor

If left untreated, diabetes and its associated complications can lead to other serious health concerns, such as heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. Don’t wait to see your doctor or registered dietitian if you have concerns about your blood sugar control.

Some signs and symptoms to watch out for include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Frequent low blood sugars
  • Blurry vision
  • Mood changes
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Itchy skin
  • Extreme hunger
  • Numb or tingling hands

Learn More About Diabetes and Weight Management with Signos’ Expert Advice 

Understanding your body and how to fuel it is one of the most influential ways to embrace and maximize your health. What we eat affects more than our weight, so adjusting your nutritional intake to meet your individualized needs can be a game-changer. Continuous glucose monitoring can be an invaluable tool on many levels.

Signos’ CGM can be an effective tool for diabetes management and beyond. It helps you keep track of your blood sugar levels, giving you pertinent information to help you navigate the many decisions that affect your overall health.

Learn about how Signos can improve health and learn more about nutrition and healthy habits on Signos’ blog. Or, take a quick quiz to find out if Signos is a good fit for you!

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References

  1. Klein, S., Gastaldelli, A., Yki-Järvinen, H., & Scherer, P. E. (2022). Why does obesity cause diabetes?. Cell metabolism, 34(1), 11–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cmet.2021.12.012
  2. Leidy, H. J., Clifton, P. M., Astrup, A., Wycherley, T. P., Westerterp-Plantenga, M. S., Luscombe-Marsh, N. D., Woods, S. C., & Mattes, R. D. (2015). The role of protein in weight loss and maintenance. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 101(6), 1320S–1329S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.114.084038
  3. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Physical activity guidelines for Americans 2nd edition presentation. health.gov. https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition_Presentation.pdf
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, December 30). Diabetes Symptoms. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/symptoms.html

About the author

Chelsea Rae Bourgeois is a registered dietitian nutritionist with several years of experience working in the clinical setting. Once a track and field athlete on a competitive stage, she now finds joy in combining her passions as a health writer to help people embrace their wellness through nutrition and fitness.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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