The Role of Insulin in Fat Loss for Women with PCOS

“I can’t lose weight, I have PCOS.”

I’ve heard that so many times with a lot of my weight loss clients and the truth is that’s not true…but it’s not a false statement either.

Let me break it down.

First off, what IS the role of insulin? Insulin is a hormone which plays a number of roles in the body’s metabolism. It helps control blood glucose (aka sugar) levels by signaling the liver and muscle and fat cells to take in glucose from the blood. It also regulates how the body uses and stores glucose and fat. Basically, this hormone helps your body harness the energy provided by food by “unlocking” your cells, helping to move sugar (aka glucose) inside each one, where it’s used for fuel. Cells obtain energy from glucose or convert it to fat for long term storage.

Based on the above, this is why untreated Type 1 diabetic people re: those who don’t know that their body isn’t producing enough insulin to regulate sugar levels tend to lose weight rapidly. Their body’s insufficient insulin prevents them from getting sugar from the blood into the body’s cells to use as energy. When this happens, their body starts burning fat and muscle for energy resulting in body weight loss. Type 1 diabetics can be described as being insulin dependent versus Type 2 diabetics whose body is insulin resistant.

Insulin resistance is where over time insulin becomes less able to lower the level of sugar in the blood resulting in high blood sugar levels which over time may damage the organs of the body. Once you start to have blood sugar problems is where the difficulties start with regard to weight gain because it becomes tough for insulin-resistant cells to take the sugar from your blood. This is because the high or extra blood sugar signals your pancreas to make more insulin. This becomes a problem because the more insulin your body releases the easier the weight piles on because it also encourages your body to store the extra sugar as fat. Type 2 diabetics are the opposite of Type 1 diabetics in this way because they are generally associated with those who are overweight or obese.

So what does all of this have to do with PCOS? A lot of women diagnosed with PCOS struggle with weight gain and have complained that this is one of the more challenging symptoms of this condition. This is because a lot of women with PCOS have insulin resistance. The first time I was diagnosed with PCOS by my gynecologist I was prescribed Glucophage (also called Metformin) as I’m sure a lot of first time PCOS diagnosed women also were. Metformin can help to control high blood sugar levels and in doing so helps the body become more insulin sensitive. Metformin is usually used in patients with type 2 diabetes and if used with a proper diet and exercise program can significantly reduce the symptoms of insulin resistance.

The above analysis has always lead me to ask the following question when it comes to PCOS related weight gain; does the weight gain a lot of women complain about actually happen because of PCOS or because they are insulin resistant?

The truth is that there are a lot of reasons we become insulin resistant that are not PCOS related. For example:

  • If you have a high calorie, high carb or high sugar diet
  • If you have a sedentary lifestyle aka very little physical activity
  • High chronic stress
  • Take high doses of steroids over an extended period of time

The truth is also that there is some link to insulin resistance and PCOS. The ovaries of women with PCOS have been shown to produce too much androgen (aka male hormones) and this can result in missed periods, body hair growth, weight gain, infertility and acne etc. Insulin resistance can also cause increased androgen levels.

This brings me back to the first point; can you lose weight when you have PCOS? Of course you can. Here’s the hard truth though; it will NOT be easy. Making the body insulin sensitive again and repairing some of the damage done by high blood sugar levels will take time.

When I ask women with PCOS who say they can’t lose weight how long they’ve been exercising or eating better they usually say they ‘tried’ to do both for about a month or less and didn’t see results so they stopped. Here’s a dash of reality: did you really think you could repair all those cells and lose all the weight you gained over the years in just 3 weeks?

Here’s another hard truth; if you have PCOS related weight gain or type 2 diabetic weight gain the reality is that there is no special fat loss plan other than what I’ve been stating all along when it comes to sustained fat loss. There is one formula that I have seen work time and time again BUT ONLY if you are CONSISTENT and PATIENT.

It is:

  • Creating a caloric deficit re: consuming or burning more calories. I will always encourage people to create a calorie deficit through a combination of diet AND exercise (even though you don’t need to exercise to lose weight you should anyways because it’s good for you)
  • Learn to portion control by eating less but more often
  • Get more protein in your diet
  • Manage your carb intake: moderate your consumption of high glycemic foods like potato & white rice etc and have more vegetables (veggies are carbs by the way)
  • Manage your fat intake by consuming less saturated or trans-fat and more good fat like unsaturated fats and most importantly,
  • Manage your sugar intake to increase your body’s insulin sensitivity

As a specialist in Fitness Nutrition and having successfully dealt with both women with PCOS and Type 2 diabetic clients I can assure you that doing the above will not only get you the fat loss results you want over a period of time but it will also help you to keep it off once you remain CONSISTENT!

So to reiterate the entire point of this post; Yes, insulin is a contributing factor when it comes to weight gain HOWEVER the role it plays does not make it impossible to lose weight as some believe. It will make it harder to lose weight but far from impossible. It means that you will have to work twice as hard and longer than a person that has stable insulin levels. I make no mistake when I say that weight management and PCOS must include a lifestyle change. I speak from experience as I have PCOS and have managed my weight since I was diagnosed over 5 years ago by remaining vigilant to the aforementioned points.

Stay tuned for my next blog that goes into more details regarding the above points.

If you would like a free consultation, please email me

‘Consistent action creates consistent results.”


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