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On Insulin and Weight Gain

By Eileen B. Wyner, NP
Bulfinch Medical Group

Eileen Wyner, NP

Does my insulin make me look fat? The answer to this question is …it might. That would make it the wrong answer because none of us want to take a medication that may cause weight gain, especially as maintaining a healthy weight is such a crucial aspect of good diabetes management. The purpose of this post is to discuss how insulin works and how it may affect your weight. I hope after reading this you’ll have fewer reservations about using insulin if it becomes necessary.

Maintaining a healthy weight is so important for general health and is particularly important for people with chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. A healthy diet and weight may mean fewer daily medications or a lower dose of medications you still require. Many medications have the potential for side effects; diabetes medications are no different. Weight gain IS a possible side effect of insulin, but it may also happen with oral medications.

Let’s talk about insulin as a first step. It is, simply put, a lifesaving medication. Insulin was discovered in 1921 at the University of Toronto and has been extensively studied and improved upon since. The job of insulin is to move the glucose from the food we eat into our cells so they’re able to stay healthy and work well. It then takes the remaining glucose from the bloodstream and stores it so it can be used for energy later. People with Type 1 Diabetes are totally dependent upon this medication for survival as their pancreas does not produce insulin. People with Type 2 Diabetes can manage their disease many different ways: diet, exercise, oral medications, and insulin. Diabetes is a progressive and chronic disease that as yet does not have a cure. That is why so many people with Type 2 Diabetes will require insulin as part of their management over time.

Two common symptoms of poorly controlled diabetes are significant weight loss and excessive urination. The weight loss happens because stored fat gets broken down to provide enough fuel for bodily functions (heart and lungs, for example) to operate and maintain life. You may start to notice the numbers on the scale decrease, regardless of what you eat or drink. This is because calories consumed aren’t being properly metabolized but rather directly excreted with urination.

The treatment for extreme hyperglycemia is insulin therapy. The insulin corrects the high blood sugar, correcting the excessive weight loss in the process. The insulin is helping the body work correctly; it’s not causing new weight but rather replacing what was lost when the body was in crisis. It’s a sign the body is healing and starting to work more normally again. This is a good thing, but it can also be frustrating for people who struggle with their weight regardless of their level of glucose control. If your weight is still creeping up after your blood sugar is better controlled, there are probably other reasons for this and further investigation is needed.

Frequent episodes of hypoglycemia (low blood sugars) can cause added weight. I’ve discussed hypoglycemia in more detail in the past, but I want to review a couple of points now. Under eating, over exercising, and both oral medicines and insulin are potential causes of this frightening and potentially life threatening condition. Proper treatment is key, but it’s common for people to over treat low blood sugars because they feel so poorly and think more is faster and better. This is not the case, and the extra calories may cause added weight over time.  The strategy I encourage my patients to use is trying things like glucose tablets and gels for treatment more often than juices or regular soda because they are pre-packaged for the correct carbohydrate (15grams). It can be hard to measure out 4 oz of juice or regular soda when you are feeling so poorly and anxious during an episode of low blood sugar. I also strongly encourage all of my patients to see our RD CDE on a regular basis to review meal plans and make any adjustments as needed to assist with better weight control. It is also important to be as active as possible as any type of movement will decrease insulin resistance and improve weight and blood sugar numbers.

Insulin initiation is a daunting prospect for some. Many of my patients, especially those who are really struggling with their weight, have told me the fear of gaining weight is why they refuse insulin. I hope that my explanation helps to minimize this fear. So, this brings us back to where we started. Does my insulin make me look fat? I prefer to answer this way: It makes your body healthy so you look marvelous!!!

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