Type 1 diabetes presents various health implications, including weight gain. While some weight gain is completely normal, a significant increase can cause concern.
In this article, we’ll cover how type 1 diabetes and weight gain are linked, what foods to enjoy and which ones you should avoid, and weight management tips.
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Weight gain often occurs in people with type 1 diabetes due to taking insulin. This can cause distress in many type 1 diabetics because keeping weight within a healthy range is a crucial aspect of diabetes care. However, it is possible to regulate your weight while using insulin.
Type 1 diabetes (diabetes mellitus) is a chronic disease that affects glucose, protein, and lipid metabolism. The origin of this disease is thought to be due to an autoimmune reaction in which the body destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
Other triggers are thought to result from environmental factors that can also damage pancreatic cells.
Type 1 diabetes is a disorder where the body's natural insulin production is impaired. Insulin is a growth hormone that helps the body turn sugar (glucose) into energy.
People with type 1 diabetes must obtain insulin from outside the body to properly generate energy. This can be achieved with regular insulin injections with a syringe or insulin pump.
Weight increase as a result of insulin therapy can be a reflection of the body’s improved ability to process sugar, fat, and protein into energy.
Interestingly, weight gain can lead to the development of type 1 diabetes in those predisposed to the disease since it can promote resistance to insulin. The specific association between type 1 diabetes and obesity is still unknown, and more investigation is necessary.
Weight gain is linked to the remodeling of adipose tissue and an increase in the size of adipocytes. When individuals first present with type 1 diabetes, they often have symptoms of weight loss. Due to a shortage of insulin, energy reserves and protein mass are depleted.
However, weight gain typically happens when treatment begins, especially if the number of calories consumed exceeds the individual's requirements. Although an increase in weight can be beneficial in some situations, excess weight gain is often undesired.
Insulin therapy is the most likely cause of weight gain in those with type 1 diabetes. This is typically due to ineffective diabetes management, which causes blood sugar levels to become especially high. That can lead to cells receiving more sugar than they require, and this added sugar is stored as fat.
Weight gain can also result from eating more calories than what is expended from normal metabolic processes and physical activity. This may be due to elevated hunger levels since insulin increases hunger.
It could also be related to a variety of lifestyle or emotional issues as people try to cope with a condition that can negatively influence their quality of life.
Individuals with type 1 diabetes should not consume more calories than the maximum daily recommendation.
The US Dietary Guidelines¹ suggest the following daily targets:
Children aged 2-4
Females: 1,000 to 1,400 calories
Males: 1,000 to 1,6000 calories
Children aged 5-8
Females: 1,200 to 1,800 calories
Males: 1,200 to 2,000 calories
Children aged 9-13
Females: 1,400 to 2,200 calories
Males: 1,600 to 2,600 calories
Females: 1,800 to 2,400 calories
Males: 2,000 to 3,200 calories
Males: 2,400 to 3,000 calories
Females: 1,800 to 2,400 calories
It is common practice for people with diabetes to count carbohydrate consumption since that directly affects blood sugar levels.
However, the literature² suggests that there is no ideal percentage of calories from each macronutrient (type of food required in large amounts) group, including carbohydrates, proteins, or fats, for all diabetics.
Moreover, the American Diabetes Association³ does not provide any particular advice for macronutrient composition in the diet.
The total energy consumed matters more than the actual source when regulating weight and blood sugar levels. The ideal number of calories will naturally vary among individuals, highlighting the importance of seeking individualized advice from medical professionals.
Emphasis should be placed on foods that are both low in calories and have a high nutritional value. Unfortunately, there is limited research on weight loss strategies for those with type 1 diabetes.
Research⁴ shows that the following foods have been found to help those with type 1 diabetes maintain a lower weight and manage their blood sugar levels:
Fruits and vegetables and other foods rich in fiber
Foods with a low glycemic index
Healthy fats such as olive oil and nuts
Lean proteins that help reduce sugar cravings and assist in reducing appetite
Although these recommendations may provide some benefits to help with weight loss, they are still not specific for those with type 1 diabetes.
The current guidelines say that people with diabetes should collaborate with nutritionists to create customized meal schedules depending on their metabolic condition, personal circumstances, and dietary preferences.
The following foods are extremely high in calories and are commonly linked to weight gain. Type 1 diabetics should avoid these as much as possible when trying to maintain a healthy weight:
Refined carbohydrates: pasta, white bread, etc.
Processed foods: junk foods, cookies, cakes, chips
Foods high in sugar: fruit juices, candy, cereal bars, breakfast cereals, baked goods
Sodium: limited to less than 2,300 mg/day
Trans fats: margarine and fried foods
Research also shows that reducing the consumption of soft drinks can help lower the chances of weight gain with diabetes.
Insulin of any kind can contribute to weight gain. According to some research,⁵ one insulin type, insulin determir (Levemir), appears to cause less weight gain than another type known as insulin glargine (Lantus).
That may influence an individual’s preferences when selecting a particular treatment. However, because the study focused on those with type 2 diabetes, it's possible that persons with type 1 diabetes might experience a different outcome.
Maintaining consistent checkups with a medical professional and dietitian will help to ensure that weight stays within a healthy range. A dietitian can also provide a beneficial program tailored to the individual’s specific requirements and food preferences.
Though it may appear to be a quick way to lose weight, skipping meals usually has the opposite effect. That is because it increases hunger levels, leading to overeating or unhealthy food choices at the next meal.
Skipping meals, especially breakfast, can cause blood sugar levels to become out of balance, which is detrimental for individuals with type 1 diabetes. Glycemic control improves with regular, scheduled meals.
Keeping track of overall calorie consumption is vital even though diabetics frequently concentrate on controlling their carbohydrate consumption. Overeating can lead to elevated blood sugar levels and fat storage, which is more likely when insulin is used.
There are some useful methods to manage calories, including the following:
Portion control: Accurately measuring portion sizes is a great way to avoid unintentionally eating large amounts of food without realizing it.
Food journaling: Recording the types and amounts of foods gives an individual a good overall picture of what they are eating and a better understanding of their eating habits. Journaling what you eat can help guide healthier choices.
If these practices are adhered to for a decent period of time, individuals will eventually integrate these behaviors into their lifestyle without the need for strict tracking.
Exercising regularly keeps the body fit and healthy. In addition, it supports a healthy metabolism by assisting with energy burning, blood sugar stabilization, and weight loss.
Research from the American Diabetes Association suggests the following for those with type 1 diabetes:
For children, a minimum of 60 minutes of exercise per day is recommended.
For adults, at least 150 minutes per week is advised. The activities should be at a medium intensity and ideally separated into three sessions. Resistance and weight training are also beneficial.
While regular exercise programs are ideal, any movement is useful, and incidental exercise is highly beneficial. Hobbies and interests that involve physical activity are a great way to burn extra calories and can also be an enjoyable part of a person’s lifestyle.
Professional advice should be sought before starting an exercise program since an individual's particular complications and state of the disease should be taken into consideration.
Since insulin is thought to be linked to weight gain, it might be tempting for some individuals to skip doses if they begin to associate the hormone with storing fat.
People with type 1 diabetes who forgo insulin to lose weight risk serious long-term health implications. In addition, this dangerous practice can lead to eating disorders.
Type 1 diabetics may experience considerable weight gain following insulin therapy. However, many lifestyles and diet interventions can prevent unwanted weight gain or help in weight loss when necessary.
People with this condition should seek expert health advice to establish realistic goals to manage their weight in a way that also improves disease prognosis. Treatment should focus on creating healthy lifestyle habits that support long-term weight management.