Losing weight can be difficult for anyone, and living with type 1 diabetes definitely doesn’t make it easier.
However, there ARE people who set out to lose weight and end up so extraordinarily successful that you wonder if they have some inside information you don’t.
That information EXISTS. I’m here to give you the rundown on how to lose weight with type 1 diabetes (or any type of insulin-dependent diabetes).
Without further ado…lets GET TO IT!
Table of Contents
Temper expectations at the start
People these days have this intensive need for instant gratification. They want that 15 lbs gone by yesterday!
While I’m all for efficiency, I’m going to be short and sweet and show reality with a pop quiz:
True or false: it took more than a week to gain the weight you are trying to lose.
The answer is undeniably “True”. So if it took you X number of months to gain weight, why would it take you a week or two to lose it?
It doesn’t. It takes time and some concerted effort. Don’t expect to lose all of the weight immediately, but know that with proper habit formation and consistency, you WILL see the results you are after.
The general rule for healthy weight loss is to aim for A MAX of 1-2 lbs. per week.
It’s also quite common for people living with diabetes to take as long as 2-3 weeks before seeing any weight loss at all on a new diet.
“Why?” you ask.
Changing caloric intake and workout routines may require a reduction of insulin (or other diabetes medication) as well as diet manipulation, which takes a little trial and error to adjust.
Once the ball is rolling, a slow and controlled weight loss makes it much more likely that the weight will come off and STAY off than if you crash dieted and lost a lot of weight quickly.
To learn more about setting realistic goals, read “How to set Realistic Diabetes and Fitness Goals and Find Your Positive Motivation”.
How many calories should you eat?
Weight loss can be summed up as follows:
Calories in (eating) < Calories out (burning) = weight loss.
From a thermodynamics standpoint, if you are eating fewer calories than you are expending, you should THEORETICALLY lose weight. No system is perfect, but this is the general premise.
However, this whole “eat less than you expend” advice gets blown out of proportion quite often as you see people slashing their diets to nearly nothing or eating just grapefruits all day. This will work in the very short term, but will seriously decrease your metabolism while you mostly lose water weight that will come right back when you finish your diet.
The first step in any weight loss program is, therefore, to calculate how many calories you should eat per day for a healthy weight loss.
Luckily, there is a guide here on Diabetes Strong that explains how to do this in 5 easy steps. So before reading on, please go to “How to Find Your Daily Calorie Need” and calculate your daily calorie need. Then come back here and continue this guide.
How about protein, carbs, and fat?
I’m not going to stand here and tell you that there is only one way to lose weight with type 1 diabetes. I’ve had experience losing weight on a high carb diet, low carb diet, and moderate carb diet.
They’re all predicated on the aforementioned “calories in, calories out” equation.
But, a couple tips to consider as you plan your diet:
Protein is helpful in satiety AND retaining muscle mass
In other words, protein will help keep you fuller for longer after meals, which is key in a situation where you are eating less than you may be accustomed to normally.
Additionally, when people lose weight, the composition is typically 75% fat and 25% muscle2. However, a higher protein diet has been linked to a reduction in the amount of muscle lost during a caloric deficit.1
I could go on and on all day, but I’ll leave you with this:
Recommendation: Increase protein to 0.5-0.8g/lb of bodyweight per day. It will help you keep your hard-earned muscles while losing weight.
Fun fact: to everyone out there who is concerned about the effect on the kidneys on a higher protein diet, there is little evidence a high protein diet is dangerous for a healthy individual3. In fact, a lower protein diet may aid in the DECLINE of your kidney function!4
Eat up, friends.
Carbs and Fat are FRIENDS (and food)
So. Many. People. Fear. Fat. And. Carbs.
Their reputation is shot. It is too bad people won’t give them a chance and get to know them…
…and recognize that there is NOTHING scary about them, they deliver a great deal of benefits, and they are delicious!
You need them to live. Straight up.
Carbs are great for those quick bursts of energy you need during a workout. They also provide fiber, which is critical for digestive health and increasing satiety.
Fat will come in handy during a long, sustained workout as the primary energy source. Fat also provides omega-3s, which are useful for anti-inflammatory effects as well as visual acuity, and additionally is the building block for hormones, like testosterone and estrogen.
The keys are the sources from which you get them. Try to stick to the whole food, lesser processed varieties of fat and low-glycemic carbs, rather than the Frankenfoods that have been sitting on the shelf at the grocery store for ages.
The other key is HOW MUCH of each to eat.
At the end of the day, it truly comes down to what works best for you and your blood sugar management. Maybe fewer carbs work for you but more carbs work for me.
But, after determining calorie and protein needs, try to partition the remaining calories pretty evenly for fat and carbs.
For example, if your calorie requirement is 2000 per day and your protein needs require 800 calories, try to split the remaining 1200 calories evenly between fat and carbs (600 calories each) and work from there to determine the optimal amount for you and your goals.
Exercise is great, but nutrition is the key
Raise your hand if you’ve heard the saying “you can’t out-train a bad diet.”
Maybe you’ve heard it, maybe not. Either way, it is very true.
It’s really difficult to overcome a poor nutritional intake. Really, REALLY difficult.
Don’t get me wrong. Exercise is CRUCIAL for a healthy lifestyle and for a successful weight loss initiative. It provides a ton of benefits that otherwise wouldn’t be attainable.
But, in isolation, exercise alone will not result in as much weight loss as dieting will.5
However, what if we…dare I say it…utilize BOTH?
Both anecdotally and in the research, combining diet and exercise will result in the best outcomes while also setting you up for sustained success, as ideally, this weight loss should kick off a lifestyle change.
How much should you exercise, and what type of exercise?
If you are just starting out, you don’t want to go 0 to 100 real quick, because you may burn out or get discouraged.
I recommend a combination of resistance training and cardiovascular training for optimal results.
People overlook resistance training in the context of weight loss. This is what is going to help you KEEP your hard-earned muscle mass during the calorie reduction.
That muscle mass will keep your metabolism firing. Your metabolism firing means you’ll burn more calories ALL the time, working out or not!
Recommendation: Make resistance training a STAPLE in your exercise program. For help in designing your first routine, check out my post about how to design a resistance training program.
Combine this with some form of cardiovascular training multiple times a week for 20 minutes – get creative here and find something you enjoy – and you’ve got a recipe for success on the exercise front.
I love insulin…and you should too
When people first are diagnosed with diabetes, they typically start insulin. When they start insulin, they typically gain weight. Therefore, insulin is often associated with weight gain.
Insulin is necessary for us to live. You already know this.
What you probably don’t realize, however, is that insulin is not what is causing weight gain.
What causes weight gain is a hamster wheel of blood sugar control issues:
Low blood sugar → correct with carbs (aka calories) → overcorrecting leading to a high blood sugar and a correction bolus → too much insulin → low blood sugar
The cycle is like a roller coaster that you just can’t get off, seemingly forever. You’re eating more calories than expected for your goals, and suddenly, BAM! There are a few pounds you did not plan to gain, or your weight loss goals derailed.
Yes, insulin is a part of the equation, but not THE equation.
I get it: lows can be tough, and some of them you make you want to eat the whole fridge. But, for lows and weight loss, consider the following idea:
- Keep a “carb/calorie reserve” for lows. If your calorie goal is 2000 per day, consider eating 1900 and leaving those last 100 calories for treating lows. If you end up low, you’ve already built it into your goal as opposed to exceeding it.
- See your blood sugar trending downwards? Consider a decreased temporary basal (if you use an insulin pump). The exact amount for basal decrease is determined through trial and error, but it could ultimately lead to fewer calories consumed to treat your low.
All in all, don’t worry about how much insulin you’re using – worry about keeping your blood sugars in great control and preventing lows, and the insulin amount will take care of itself.
To learn more about the best ways to treat lows, read “How to Treat a Low Blood Sugar (Without Eating Everything in Sight)”.
This journey may seem daunting, but just remember, slow and steady wins the race. Develop good, healthy habits with diet and exercise, focus on optimal blood sugar control, and stick to your calorie goal – the rest will all fall into place.
To lose weight with type 1 diabetes:
- Set realistic goals
- Calculate your daily calorie need and create a calorie deficit
- Consume enough protein and split remaining calories between carbs and fat
- Perform a combination of resistance and cardiovascular training
- Don’t be afraid of insulin. It doesn’t cause weight gain
- Strive to maintain good glycemic levels and have a plan for dealing with lows without over-eating
- Be patient! Healthy and sustainable weight loss takes time
You got this!
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