Insulin Resistance

Two phrases I’ve used quite a lot, and never fully explained, are “insulin resistance” and “insulin sensitivity”. If you know what these terms mean, and how to alter them, you can drastically improve your metabolism, and by extension, your health.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term insulin resistance before as it is commonly understood as a part of diabetes. This is a rather limited view of a complex process.

Whenever food is consumed, the pancreas releases insulin to notify the cells of the body to absorb and store nutrients. This process is particularly active whenever sugars are consumed because they must be used immediately or stored to prevent their toxic characteristics from damaging the body. However, if glycogen stores are already full, cells become resistant to this insulin, meaning they can’t absorb more, and the sugars ends up flooding the bloodstream. This starts a dangerous cycle where the pancreas continues to produce more insulin in an attempt to clear the sugars from the bloodstream and, eventually, the sugars are forced into fat storage.

An important detail to note is that, for average people, fat accumulation in the body is not attributable to consumption of dietary fat, but rather the overconsumption of carbohydrates that are all broken down into sugars.

This process of insulin release is repeated until the cells in the body cannot utilize fat as energy and the entire metabolic system becomes dependent on constant sugar feedings or insulin injections…also known as Type II diabetes.

During this process, the arteries harden from the inflammatory and toxic nature of sugars, causing atherosclerosis. Nerve damage can ensue, leading to blindness. Also, the cells become resistant to amino acids so the muscles can’t even use protein.

Some symptoms of insulin resistance include:

  • An energy crash, feeling of low-blood sugar, brain-fog, or fatigue within a few hours of consuming a large carb meal.
  • Increased hunger and sugar cravings.
  • Weight accumulation, particularly around the midsection and hips.
  • Elevated triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Insulin and carbs are not inherently bad. They both serve an important purpose of storing energy for intense activity or times of stress and famine. However, it is estimated that for the first 200,000 years of our existence, humans consumed about 80 grams of carbs a day (varying by location). These carb were in the form of tough, fibrous vegetables and roots. The insulin release would be so minor that the cells of the body would stay primed to receive glucose.

Insulin sensitivity is the exact opposite of insulin resistance. Insulin sensitivity suggests that the muscles are prepared to absorb glucose from the bloodstream with the aid of insulin.

I will list the most effective ways of promoting insulin sensitivity:

  • Moderating carb intake based on activity level.
  • Short periods of fasting where the body is encouraged to use fat as energy and break sugar dependence.
  • Consuming nutritious carbs such as fruits and vegetables that also contain fiber, mitigating insulin release.
  • Eating enough fat with every meal to blunt insulin secretion.
  • High-intensity interval training during which the body can only use glycogen as fuel.
  • Weight-lifting and other forms of exercise that place a demand upon the muscles and trains the metabolism to partition nutrients.

To put these tactics into a real-world context, I will explain my approach to maintaining insulin sensitivity:

On days I don’t work out, I limit my carb intake to a couple pieces of fruit and fibrous carbs. On my training days, I consume a large carb meal within 30 minutes of my workout to replenish glycogen stores.

On Friday, I have my last meal around 8 PM. On Saturday, around 11 AM, I walk to a steep hill where I do 10 to 15 sprint intervals in a fasted state. I walk home, stretch, shower, and have breakfast about an hour after my workout. In all, I fast about 16 hours. I’ll discuss fasting in another post because it can be a very effective, but potentially risky, method of improving health.

There are many other factors that can contribute to insulin resistance including vitamin D deficiency, heightened cortisol, highly acidic diets (building meals around grains instead of vegetables), consumption of trans-fats and oxidized poly-fats, and omega-3 deficiency.

Some studies suggest high-fat diets are a leading cause of insulin resistance but these studies merely replaced each gram of carbs with a gram of fat, resulting in an enormous calorie excess due to the fact that fats have 9 calories per gram and carbs only have 4. The most reliable study I have come across shows that after 12 weeks of replacing grains and dairy with vegetables and fruits, a type 2 diabetes diagnosis was completely reversed…meaning the body became insulin sensitive again.

So, if you experience sugar cravings or a blood sugar crash after eating, maybe try eating lower carb on the days you aren’t as active. Also, try to substitute nutritious carbs, such as vegetables and fruits, for less nutritious foods such as soda and snack bars filled with sugars and grains. Finally, throw in a tough workout every few days to create a demand within the muscles for any carbs you consume.

If you’d like me to recommend a more specific carb intake for your activity level, let me know!

Carbohydrates

Time to discuss the third and final macronutrient – carbohydrates!

Carbs are the only macronutrient that is not essential for life. However, this does not mean they are not an important part of a healthy diet.

There are many different forms of carbs but, let’s look at the top 3 that make up most foods.

There are starchy carbs like potatoes and grains. These contain glucose which is stored as muscle glycogen and used as fuel. The brain needs a small amount of glucose (about 30 grams a day) but this can be converted from protein via gluconeogenesis. The body can store between 300 and 500 grams of glycogen in the muscles.

There are sugary carbs such as fruit and honey. These contain fructose which is stored as liver glycogen but can also be hepatotoxic in high amounts. This isn’t a problem when consuming a few pieces of fruit but, soda, loaded with high fructose corn syrup can overwhelm the liver. The sugar floods the blood stream, causes a sugar spike and crash, accompanied with fatigue and hunger, and is ultimately stored as body fat. For this reason, I avoid processed foods containing sugar and enjoy fruit as a desert or pre-workout snack.

Finally, there are fibrous carbs such as vegetables. These have much more fiber which regulates healthy digestive function and stabilizes blood sugar. Vegetables are one of the most nutrient dense food groups next to maybe mussels or offal. When I eliminated grains, I simply replaced them with extra veggies…adding more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and color to every meal!

Most plants contain a combination of these. For example, an orange is about 70% sugar, 10% starch, and 20% fiber. A white potato is about 5% sugar, 80% starch, and 15% fiber. A cup of spinach is about 10% sugar, 10% starch, and 80% fiber.

To determine carb intake level, let’s examine goals and activity levels.

When the heart rate rises above 65% of its max (a brisk walking pace) the body starts burning more carbs than fat…at 65% it burns a 50/50 mix. An hour of walking burns approximately 250 calories and carbs have 4 calories per gram, so, about 30g of carbs are burnt in that one hour.

You don’t have to do all these calculations but it’s clear that, unless you are an athlete, you won’t be emptying your glycogen stores regularly.

The government recommends 65% of your calories come from carbs. This means, if you eat 2000 calories a day, you should consume 325 grams of carbs – more than most people could possibly utilize in one day!

If you are an athlete or attempting to gain weight, maybe 40-50% of calories from carbs may be beneficial. When I am attempting to gain muscle, I have about a pound of potatoes in every meal (totaling 300-400g carbs a day) to stimulate an insulin release. Insulin is a good topic for another post but, simply put, it helps shuttle nutrients to different parts of the body. If you are eating clean and training hard, the nutrients will be sent to the muscles. However, if you’re eating processed foods and not creating an adequate stimulus to recover from, the insulin forces excess calories into fat stores.

If fat loss is the goal, less carbs will make this easier due to the satiating nature and blood sugar stabilizing effect of protein and healthy fats. Perhaps have a sweet potato or piece of fruit post workout but focus mostly on meat and vegetables.

If the prevention or reversal of blood pressure or blood sugar issues is a concern, low carb eating would be advisable. Also, the blood sugar spike from too many carbs causes an increase in triglyceride levels in the blood, contributing to unfavorable cholesterol levels.

There are certain conditions or diseases that are treated by lowering carb intake. Epileptics are often put on ketogenic diets, consuming less than 50 grams of carbs a day, to prevent seizures. Forms of cancer require glucose so patients may be advised to restrict carbs to literally starve their cancer.

At this point, I would like to reiterate, I am not a doctor. I am merely suggesting you do a little research to understand the science behind your condition and bring this information to your doctor so both of you can make an informed decision together.

It is my opinion that most Americans consume more carbs than they need and this, in part, causes many modern health issues. However, I want this blog to be objective and useful for everyone; regardless of what I believe is best. So, like everything else – experiment.

For a couple months every year, I consume zero carbs (besides vegetables) to prime my fat metabolism and lean out. Other times of the year, when local starches, fruits, and grass-fed dairy are available, I consume more carbs.

I feel that a moderate level of carbs (around 150 grams a day) is optimal for exercise recovery and weight maintenance; low carb is ideal for leanness, stable energy, and mood; and high carb is best for muscle gain or frequent high-intensity training.  But, let me know what works best for you!

Well, that should do it for the 3 macronutrient groups. I tried to keep the info as simple as possible while still offering real-world application. As always, feel free to contact me directly for more specifics to satisfy your curiosity or to achieve your goals!

Going forward, I will continue to shoot for 1 post a week but will vary my topics more. If an interesting study is discussed in the news, I may dissect it. If one of my clients has remarkable success with a specific training protocol, I’ll talk about that. If I come up with a new recipe that is particularly tasty, I’ll share it with you…

I guarantee this blog will always be a source of valuable information. To stay up to date, just click the “+ Follow” in the right-hand corner and every post will be emailed directly to you.

Thanks!