While we commonly think of weight gain when we think of diabetes, the truth is that both undiagnosed diabetes and improper diabetes management can lead to low body weight. But what causes this and what can be done about it? In this article, we're going to take a look at these questions, discuss how to gain weight with diabetes, and share some proven techniques to get your weight back up in the normal range and keep it there.
What Causes Diabetic Weight Loss?
In a word, insulin—or, rather, the body's response to this important hormone.
To describe the process that leads to diabetic weight loss, it may be helpful to first illustrate the role insulin plays in insulin resistance.
Insulin is released by the pancreas so that glucose can be transported into the cells for use as energy. However, if blood sugar levels are consistently elevated, the pancreas must produce more and more insulin to keep up with the demand.
Over time, rising blood glucose levels eventually overwhelm the ability of the pancreas to keep up. This results in damage to the pancreatic cells that produce insulin, which in turn can lead to symptoms of prediabetes and, eventually, type 2 diabetes mellitus.
In a somewhat ironic twist, when the cells of the pancreas become damaged to the point where they can no longer keep up with the demands for insulin, the body's ability to move blood sugar into the cells for use as energy is compromised.
But the cells must have energy to survive, so if insufficient insulin is available, the body turns to its next best sources of energy: fat and muscle.
As you might imagine, a side effect of turning to fat and muscle for energy can be a decrease in body mass index (BMI)—a process that can occur quite suddenly.
In fact, sudden unexpected weight loss, which is seen with both type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes, is often the first symptom to alert an individual something is wrong.
How to Gain Weight with Diabetes
If you've been diagnosed with diabetes and are underweight, how do you regain the weight and find your way back to a healthier you?
And, perhaps more importantly, how do you reverse diabetic weight loss without spiking your blood sugar?
1. Track Your Calories
Before you can begin to reverse diabetic weight loss, you first need to know how many calories you have to consume each day to get back to your ideal weight. The easiest way to ensure you get and stay on the right track is by working with a dietitian, certified diabetes educator, or other qualified health care professional.
There are also a number of apps available that can help you track your caloric intake as well as the impact different foods may have on blood sugar levels. Some of the most popular are:
- Diabetes In Check
2. Eat Frequent Small Meals
To keep your body gaining weight and not burning through fat and muscle tissue, it's important to make sure you're consuming a steady supply of calories. And this means eating multiple times a day—even if you're not hungry.
So if you're currently eating the standard three meals a day, you should instead up that to six smaller meals so you're eating approximately every 2 to 3 hours.
While this may seem like a lot of eating, it's actually the best way to keep your metabolism functioning at its best. In addition, smaller, more frequent meals are a great way to avoid both high and low blood sugar levels.
3. Eat Plenty of Healthy Foods
When it comes to eating to gain weight—especially when you're already dealing with diabetes—it's all about quality.
While loading up on extra calories in the form of saturated fat and sugar may seem like the fastest way to pack on the pounds, it's also a disaster waiting to happen for anyone diagnosed with diabetes. Luckily, it's possible to up your calorie count and still maintain healthy blood glucose levels.
What's the secret?
Eating a diet that emphasizes nutrient-rich foods like lean protein, healthy fats, and low-glycemic carbohydrates.
When choosing protein, try to avoid fatty and processed meat. Instead, opt for healthier forms of protein, including:
- Lean beef
- Grass-fed dairy products
- Nut butters, such as almond and peanut butter
- Nuts, such as cashews and walnuts
- Seeds, such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds
It's a fact of life that the body can't survive without fat. However, not all fats are created equal, especially when you're living with diabetes, which automatically puts you at higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
So limit your intake of common sources of saturated fat, including fried and processed foods, margarine, and vegetable shortening. Instead, load up on:
- Fatty fish
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Chia seeds
Just like protein and fat, carbs can be either good or bad. While foodstuffs like white bread, soda, pastries, and chips can spike your blood sugar, other carbs are more slowly digested. Good carbs to include in your weight-gaining meal plan are:
- Low-glycemic fruits, such as berries, apples, and pears
- Whole grains
4. Start Resistance Training
While you may think of exercise as something you do to lose weight, resistance exercise can actually help you gain weight.
By increasing muscle mass.
Earlier we mentioned how difficulties with the utilization of insulin can lead the body to turn to its own fat and muscle stores as it searches for ways of providing itself with the energy it needs to survive.
Although many of us would be happy to lose a few pounds, we never want to lose muscle mass. Not only can loss of muscle compromise the ability to engage in physical activity, but excessive muscle loss can also increase the risk of disease.
But engaging in resistance training can help you hold on to the muscle you have and rebuild anything you've lost. Plus, whether you decide to hit the free weights and weight machines at the gym or work with resistance bands or your own body weight against gravity in the comfort of your own home, resistance exercises are some of the simplest exercises to do.
What's more, increasing your activity level also boosts your appetite—and that can help you gain weight even faster.
5. Take Amino Acids
In addition to a healthy diet, frequent small meals, and resistance exercise, one of the best ways to help reverse diabetic weight loss is to supplement with amino acids.
As mentioned in the previous section, excessive muscle loss is associated with an increased risk of disease. So when you're working to regain weight lost as a result of diabetes, it's important that the majority of your gains come from muscle, not fat.
And that's where amino acids come in.
As the building blocks of protein, amino acids are vital for muscle growth. In fact, without a balanced supply of the 20 amino acids required for protein-building—especially the 9 essential amino acids we must obtain from our diet—our muscles begin to break down.
However, by eating plenty of high-quality protein, including the sources mentioned earlier—as well as various protein powders—and supplementing with a balanced blend of essential amino acids, muscle growth is enhanced and resistance training becomes even more effective.
If you've been experiencing unexplained weight loss of more than 5% of your body weight, be sure to seek the medical advice of a qualified health care professional. If diabetes is found to be the cause, your health care provider or dietitian can help you get your blood glucose levels under control and provide the guidance and support you need as you find your way back to a healthy weight.