How to harness the power of the insulin index of foods

The Insulin Index Of Foods is a powerful tool that can help you understand which foods raise insulin levels more than others.  This enables you to make wiser dietary choices to maintain stable blood sugar levels.[2] [3]

The insulin index food chart below shows the results of the insulin index testing (from An Insulin Index of Foods:  the insulin demand generated by 1000 kJ portions of common foods, Holt et al., 1997).  Jelly beans are the most insulinogenic, while foods like eggs, butter, bacon and olive oil require less insulin.

insulin index of foods.png

Which foods raise insulin the most?

Since the original 1997 testing, the database of foods has been expanded to contain more than one hundred foods.  This enables us to understand how our food choices affect our insulin response to the food we eat.

While processed carbohydrates tend to raise insulin the most, foods with more protein (e.g. fish, steak and cheese shown to the far left of the chart below) also raise insulin significantly (check out the interactive Tabluea version of this chart here).

carbohydrates vs food insulin index.png

We can more accurately calculate the short term insulin demand of the food we eat once we account for the insulinogenic effect of protein.[4] [5]

food insulin index - carbs + protein.png

Accounting for fat, fibre and fructose

Looking further into the data, we also see that:

  • both fibre[6] and fructose[7] require less insulin relative to starch and sugar, and
  • fat has a smaller insulin response and over a more extended period.

We are able to more accurately predict our insulin response to food once when we consider the insulinogenic effects of fat, fructose and fibre (see the interactive version here).

pct insulinogenic vs food insulin index.png

This refined understanding of our insulin response enables us to:

  • rank foods based on their % insulinogenic calories (i.e. foods that are more or less ketogenic),
  • quantify the insulin load of your diet (to help you stabilise your blood sugars), and
  • more accurately calculate exogenous insulin dosing for people managing diabetes.

Does protein increase insulin?

While protein does elicit an insulin response, foods with more protein tend to require less insulin because they contain fewer carbohydrates (see interactive Tableau version here).

protein vs insulin.png

Which amino acids are glucogenic?

As shown in the table below, most of the amino acids can be converted to glucose (via gluconeogenesis) if there is not a lot of carbohydrates available in your diet.

ketogenic amino acids.png

But unless you are injecting insulin to maintain stable blood sugar levels, you probably don’t need to worry about gluconeogenesis or excess protein overflowing into your bloodstream as glucose.

Gluconeogenesis is a highly energy-intensive process, and your body would much rather get its energy from fat or carbs than protein.

We lose about 25% of the energy from the protein we eat in the conversion to ATP to be used in our cells.  By comparison, we only lose about 8% of the energy from carbohydrates and 3% of the energy from fat.[8] [9] [10]

So, although protein can be used for energy, your body would much rather not have to convert protein to energy.  Hence, you will get a powerful satiety response when you have consumed enough protein.

What does insulin actually do?

While we often think of insulin as an anabolic hormone (to build things up), it can be much more helpful to think of insulin as anti-catabolic (to stop your body from falling apart).[11] [12]

The body uses insulin as a brake to control the flow of energy from storage (via the liver) when there is plenty of food coming in from your diet.

When there is less energy available from food, glucagon stimulates the release of stored energy and balances the effects of insulin.

insulin + glucagon brake.png

When you consume more protein than you need for essential bodily functions (muscle protein synthesis, neurotransmitters etc.), your pancreas will raise insulin to shut off the release of stored fuel from your body while you use up the food coming in from our diet.

Although fat doesn’t require as much insulin, all foods trigger an insulin response over the longer term.

Note:  It’s important to keep in mind that the food insulin index testing was only over three hours, so it may underestimate the insulin response from protein which elicits a rise over eight hours or so while fat raises insulin for much longer.

Our insulin response to the different macronutrients seems to be proportional to their oxidative priority how easy they are to keep in storage and how much storage capacity we have for each of them.

We only have limited space to store carbohydrate.  It has to be burned off quickly, so the body raises insulin sharply to hold back your glycogen and adipose tissue in storage.  Any excess protein needs to be burned off fairly quickly, so we get a lower insulin response.

However, fat is easy to, store so we get a much smaller insulin response to fat over a more extended period.   What this means in practice is that, while consuming a diet with more fat is helpful if you are trying to stabilise blood sugar and insulin doses, it is not necessarily optimal if you are trying to lose body fat.

Does protein raise blood sugar?

As a general rule, consuming a higher percentage of protein will lower your blood glucose because it drives satiety and decreases the highly-processed carbs from your diet (see interactive version of this chart here).[13]

protein vs glucose.png

When you eat protein, you release both glucagon and insulin.  In most people, insulin and glucagon are balanced, so your blood sugars remain stable after a high protein meal.

But if you are insulin resistant, this signal becomes imbalanced and leads to a more dominant glucogen response from the liver and some elevation of blood sugars.[14]

If you are injecting insulin, you may need to top up with some extra so you can metabolise the protein to repair your muscles while also keeping your blood sugars stable.

Increasing the percentage of protein in your diet tends to lower your overall energy intake and hence reduce your body fat levels.  This, in turn, will lower basal insulin requirements (i.e. the insulin that you need when you are not eating) because you have less body fat to try to keep in storage.

A nutrient-dense diet tends to contain plenty of protein.  So, unless you require a therapeutic ketogenic diet (for the management of Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinsons or epilepsy), there is no need for most people to worry about eating “too much protein”.

For people with a functioning pancreas (i.e. you are not injecting insulin), focusing on reducing carbohydrates should be adequate to stabilise blood sugar levels. [15]

Insulin response to fat

Higher fat foods tend to cause a smaller insulin response.  However, there is still some insulin response (even over the first three hours) (see interactive Tableau version of this chart here).

fat vs food insulin index.png

Fat is the last macronutrient to be burned (after alcohol, ketones, excess protein and carbohydrate).  Fat is easily converted to energy or stored, so only a small amount of insulin is required to store any fat that is left over.

Some people like to believe that they can lower the insulin load of their diet to lose weight (a bit like someone with uncontrolled type 1 diabetes).

However, insulin is not only released in response to the food we eat (i.e. bolus insulin), but basal insulin is also required to keep the energy stored in our fat and muscles from leaching into the bloodstream.

If you are making your own insulin, your pancreas will not produce any more insulin than is required to hold your fat in storage while you use up the energy coming in from your mouth.

The more body fat you have, the more insulin will be required to keep our body fat locked away in storage.  This is why many people who are obese also have high fasting insulin levels.   It is not that insulin is causing them to be fat but rather that their pancreas is working overtime to keep insulin high to hold their fat in storage.[16] [17]

obesity vs insulin.png

If your goal is fat loss, then you need to find a way of eating that allows you to be satisfied with less energy.  Your fasting insulin levels will reduce as your body fat levels decrease.[18]

Benefits of the insulin index of food

Insulin index for therapeutic ketosis

Many people with Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, dementia or Parkinson’s do well on a therapeutic ketogenic diet.

Ketones can supply much-needed fuel to the brain when glucose can no longer be used effectively due to insulin resistance that can develop after years of a poor diet.

Titrating down the insulin load of your diet to low levels can help to provide fuel to the brain for people who have become insulin resistant.

Diabetes

Understanding how much insulin is required for different foods is essential for people who are injecting insulin or taking diabetes medications (i.e. people with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes).

It is impossible to perfectly match injected insulin with food.  The larger the dose of exogenous insulin, the larger the errors you make due to a wide range of factors such as insulin absorption, inaccurate food labelling and measurement.

A highly insulinogenic diet will leave you on a blood sugar roller coaster all day and feeling hangry.  It can also leave you feeling very fatigued and wreak havoc on your emotions.

blood sugar rollercoaster.png

Foods that require less insulin help stabilise blood sugars.  Less variation in blood sugars allows better control and lower blood sugars overall.  Dr Richard Bernstein calls this “The Law of Small Numbers”.

low of small numbers.jpg

People injecting insulin will benefit from considering the insulin required for protein when calculating their insulin dose.  Improved blood sugar control can be achieved by titrating down the insulin load of your diet.

Many people find that they can signficantly reduce or eliminate their diabetes medications once they lower the insulin demand of their food to the point that their pancreas can keep up (see Guess what happened to body fat, lean mass and waist measurements when a hundred people tried the Nutrient Optimiser?)

Insulin Index for Fat loss

Some people think that ketosis is synonymous with burning fat from their body and weight loss, but it is not that simple.  Unfortunately, our modern food environment is set up to encourage us to buy and eat more food.  By contrast, whole foods are mainly carbs or fat+protein depending on the season and latitude.

processed foods.png

Given the opportunity, we gravitate towards foods that are a mix of fat and carbs that enable us to fill up our glucose and fat stores at the same time.  this leads us to be able to store and consume a lot more energy.  This process also gives us massive dopamine hit that drives us to keep eating these foods.

supra additive dopamine hit carbs + fat.png

Removing processed carbs from your diet and not fearing fat typically leads to improved appetite control.

The chart below shows satiety response versus carbohydrates, indicating that it’s the foods that are a mix of fat and carbs that tend to be the easiest to overeat, while less processed foods that are lower or higher carb tend to be harder to overconsume (see Systematising Satiety).

carbs vs satiety.png

There seems to be a “sweet spot” when we consume between 20 to 30% carbs.  Hoever, very low carb diets can end up being high levels of dietary fat which can have an adverse effect on satiety.

Unfortunately, some people end up fatter and more insulin resistant after pursuing high blood ketone levels with lots of added fat and ketogenic foods.  “Fat to satiety” doesn’t seem to work when we consume refined fat with minimal protein.

fat vs satiety.png

If your goal is fat loss, there is no need to go out of your way to consume high-fat foods.  You will produce plenty of ketones as you burn your stored body fat!  As you get better at fat burning, especially fat from your body, you wll likely see your blood ketone values decrease as they continue to lose weight and improve their metabolic health.

ways tobe in ketosis.jpg

The vast majority of the benefits of a ketogenic diet occur when ketones are coming from burning your body fat (endogenous ketosis) rather than from your dietary fat (exogenous ketosis).

Once you have stabilised your blood glucose levels with reduced carbohydrate intake, the next step on the weight loss journey is to focus on foods that maximise satiety (i.e. less starch+fat and more protein+fibre).

protein fat satiety.png

The chart below shows a plot of the satiety score vs insulin load.  While high-fat ketogenic foods are more satiating than highly processed junk food, if your goal is fat loss, you will benefit from progressing to more satiating whole foods towards the right on this chart (check the interactive version of this chart here).

progression of diet satiety vs keto.png

Limitations of the Food Insulin Index

One of the most significant limitations of the insulin index data is that it only considers the short term insulin and blood sugar response to food (i.e. over the first three hours after eating).

The reality is that a large high fat meal can take a lot longer than three hours to digest and metabolise.  So it is likely that the Food Insulin Index data does not fully account for the long-term effect of protein or fat.

Insulin Index and Satiety

Reducing carbs and moving away from a highly processed diet will improve satiety and reduce hunger.  However, in time, you may also need to focus on reducing dietary fat to improve satiety even more and continue your fat loss journey.

A nutrient-dense diet also tends to be a high satiety diet, meaning you will be able to get the nutrients you need with fewer calories which will, in turn, lead to lower levels of body fat and insulin requirements.

satiety vs nutrient density.png

You don’t need to worry if your blood ketones decrease as you approach your goal weight.  Metabolically healthy people tend to have lower levels of energy floating around in their blood (i.e. blood sugar, blood ketones, and free fatty acids) as well as lower body fat levels.[19]

Effects of low insulin index foods on nutrient density

Unfortunately, a high fat ketogenic diet can limit the amount of vitamins and minerals per calorie (aka nutrient density) in your food.

If you require a therapeutic ketogenic diet, you should pay extra attention to ensuring you get more of the harder to find vitamins and minerals in your diet.

The chart below shows that a highly ketogenic diet will also contain lower levels of vitamin A, choline, folate, potassium, calcium and omega 3.

micronutrients - ketogenic foods.png

By contrast, the chart below shows the micronutrients contained in the most nutrient-dense selection of foods.

most nutrient dense foods.png

The Nutrient Optimiser

To help you harness the power of the Food Insulin Index we have developed the Nutrient Optimiser to help you identify the foods and meals that will help you stabilise your blood sugars and achieve nutritional ketosis or a therapeutic levels of ketosis (if required).

You can start out with the Nutrient Optimiser Free Report, which will give you target macro ranges to suit your goals along with some recommended foods and meals.  From there, the Nutrient Optimiser will guide you to help you dial in your blood sugars, weight and body fat levels to ensure you achieve your goals.

Further reading

To kickstart your journey towards optimal get your free program and one of 70+ food lists personalised just for you!  

Marty Kendall
 

  • […] that protein appears to contribute to insulin demand I ran a number of scenarios with the food insulin index data to see if insulin requirement is better predicted by carbohydrate in a food plus some proportion of […]

  • Alec Collins says:

    But the foods which cause the least insulin secretion, according to the above graph, are low carb. So, “independent of calories or carbohydrates” seems a little misleading.

  • martykendall says:

    I had the same question Alec. But if you read the actual thesis and the associated papers you’ll see that they actually kept the calories and carbohydrates consistent. They weren’t really testing a low carb approach. The only variable was the insulin index of the foods. In effect they would have been choosing foods with more fibre and less protein. A much better improvement would be achieved by adopting a low insulin load approach. Hopefully they can repeat a similar study in the future with this approach.

  • […] [next article… the latest food insulin index data] […]

  • […] [next article…  latest food insulin index data] […]

  • stenbj says:

    Great information ! I would have liked to see “lite” or skim milk included. The Swedish “Keyhole marking” requires less than 0.7% fat and in my opinion it is a pure early disease and widow maker! A 12 year study of 1600 men showed that those with lowest intake of milk fat compared to those with most high fat dairy had 3x = 300% higher incidence of central obesity = lots higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and risk for death of all causes. The study is here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3656401/
    As also well known, skim milk was used to fatten pigs when pig fat was more important than lean pork. It would not surprise me if skim milk was also given to geese with grain to speed up fois gras. But for now its insulin index is most interesting!

  • stenbj says:

    Thanks for reply!
    Full cream milk comes out at insulin index 25% from the diagram in your “The most ketogenic foods”. What am I missing to arrive at 40% ?

    One more thing to address is probably the carbohydrate fructose as has a very low insulin response but produces liver fat and leads to insulin resistance in a different pathway than through (over-) exposure to insulin. It may deserve an exclusion and a special goodbye? Is it one reason raisins are coming out good in the insulinogenic index, its 28% fructose? Looking forward to your analysis!

    • Maybe you have fattier milk than we do.

      The 40% in the list is based on the USDA food database.

      I just ran the numbers using the full cream milk that we have in the fridge (4.4g fat, 3.2g protein and 4.6g carbs) and I get 36.1% insulinogenic calories.

      Here’s the link to the calculator… http://www.burnfatnotsugar.com/calc/

    • That’s a really good observation about fructose meaning that the insulin response is very low. I will have to look into that in more detail.

  • […] being irritable all the time.  I came across the Optimising Nutrition blog discussing an “insulin index” – much more useful to me than a “glycemic index” since my goal is shifting […]

  • […] Kendall from Optimising Nutrition posted an incredibly dense set of tabled data. Luckily he is an awesome person and took the time to […]

  • […] are two graphs from Marty Kendal of optimisingnutrition.com. The first shows the insulin response of some typical foods from the Standard American Diet. The […]

  • rothschild86 says:

    what are the dots without labels?

  • mstickles says:

    Found it interesting that in the study, the Australian version of Kellogg’s Special K has an FII of 48, while the U.S. version has an FII of 86. And there’s not much difference in the macros. Be interesting to find out why such a huge difference.

  • Leo Tat says:

    Hey Marty

    Excellent information.

    One major premise of a low carb diet is that carbs increases insulin.

    So instead of looking at how many carbs foods contain, and draw a correlation, its even better to look simply at how much insulin foods raises.

    Your table list of foods is particularly useful to diabetics.

    p.s. low fat yogurt could be renamed high insulin yogurt.

  • Danni says:

    Thanks Marty,
    Do you have list the new Food Insulin Demand (FID) not the Food Insulin Index (FII) ? Which Do you think the most accurate to determine insulin shots? GI, GL, FII, FID, or Carb content?

    Thanks

  • […] I came across the insulin index data, it was Robb Wolf and Mat Lalonde’s thinking on nutrient density that made me believe there might […]

  • fadiaboona says:

    Do you have a youtube channel? What’s more important to maintain healthy insulin level? Insulinogenic or Insulin load?

  • Nereda Boundy says:

    Hi Marty, have been on a low carb, high fat diet now for 4 weeks, but am flying by the seat of my pants re insulin dosing. I’ve printed out the superfoods table, but have no idea how to translate this info into insulin requirements. Also,blackberries seem the only fruit on the list, unless I’m missing something. Can you clarify?

  • Danni says:

    Hai Marty, I have read Bell Thesis 1,page 214, how to count FID of the white bread of 26 (1 slice white bread has FII of 73 and contains 310 kj so 73 times 310/1000 is 22.63)? FID, Food Insulin Demand. (FID = FII x kJ in food portion /1000) scaled using the FID and carbohydrate content of 1000 kJ of glucose powder (100/59)).

  • tk says:

    How do substances that trigger insulin, but which don’t contain any calories, factor in? How do you calculate the insulin load of an artificial sweetener like Aspartame that has an insulin response? Is there a way?

    • stenbj says:

      From The book Brain Maker: David Perlmutter.

      “We used to think that sugar substitutes like saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame didn’t have a metabolic impact because they don’t raise insulin, it turns out that they can indeed wreak tremendous metabolic havoc and cause the same metabolic disorders as real sugar. How so? They do this by changing the microbiome in ways that favor dysbiosis, blood sugar imbalances, and an overall unhealthy metabolism. And yes, the food and beverage industry has a splitting headache over this latest study, which was published in 2014 in the journal Nature.
      https://www.nature.com/news/sugar-substitutes-linked-to-obesity-1.15938
      Just forget Coke’s Zero. It is like drugs. Always side effects.

  • Eric says:

    The research out of Israel and Stanford on personalised diets and gut micro biome see eran Segal’s ted talk one published research should help one size does not fit all.
    Eric

  • Isabella says:

    Hi
    Okay, I’m sorry if I sound stupid but I’m not getting it. According to the graphs withe pasta has a lower insulin response than beef. But that goes against everything everybody is saying. What am I missing? Why does it matter how far to the right the foods are on the x-axis? Surley the insulin response (y-axis) is the more important factor, which would mean all the foods towards the bottom of the graph are the ones to dig into. I’m completely confused. Can somebody please explain? I’d really appreciate it.
    Isabella

  • Eugene Leong says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this post ! =D

    It was really helpful

    I notice that most insulin indexes were done based on the 1000 Kj standard, it may startle people to think for example Potatoes which has 121 insulin index value is so much worse than brown pasta which has 40 insulin index value

    However when we do compare the actual caloric value per 100g for potatoes and brown pasta , we get 77 calories for potato and 242 calories for brown pasta

    Hence if we calculate to estimate the amount we need to eat in order to achieve 100 insulin index, potatoes and brown pasta is actually about the same with Potatoes being slightly ahead of brown pasta

    256.52g of Potatoes needed to activate 100 insulin while
    246.90g of Brown pasta is needed to activate 100 insulin

    so technically that means we can eat more potatoes before we reach the same level of insulin as brown pasta

    In my opinion, using this food weight per 100 insulin interpretation may be a more practical way of comparing food quality types for different foods

    I have taken the liberty to extrapolate a table of the foods for the purpose of comparison here https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/13VPPFQpsCryqwu9MQ-Lo1f24PxxfVN4Jo0JQAv22d5g/edit#gid=0

    I also written more on longevity here today https://www.facebook.com/notes/eugene-leong/the-problem-of-health-the-key-to-living/10155929180121084/

    Any feedback please feel free let me know =D

    Thank you so much everyone !

    God bless

    • Marty Kendall says:

      There are certainly pros and cons of using cals vs grams, but in the end I’ve chosen calories as most people need to eat about the same amount of calories per day to maintain their body weight.

  • Dohn Joe says:

    In the second graph is Special K so special because it is both low insulinemic and high insulinemic at the same time much like a quantum particle? Data with brand names is dubious at best.

  • […] insulin index data suggests that higher fat foods have a lower insulin response.  But is this simply because the […]

  • […] first, why was dairy a problem? I was studying about the insulin index on Marty Kendall’s outstanding website, a site I read often. Since I was eating minimal carbs, what else was raising my insulin? I drank […]

  • Krissy says:

    Is FII and controlling insulin load good for reactive hypoglycemia? Mine is non-diabetic. I spike then crash but my A1C is actually low.

  • […] I found this article: https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/30/food_insulin_index/ by someone everyone interested in insulin should read regularly. Marty Kendall Of Optimizing […]

  • […] being irritable all the time.  I came across the Optimising Nutrition blog discussing an “insulin index” – much more useful to me than a “glycemic index” since my goal is shifting […]

  • […] Óptima e completa  explicação da aplicação do índice insulínico (ou Insulinêmico), do ponto de vista de alguém que usa para gestão de diabetes tipo 1 https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/30/food_insulin_index/ […]

  • I’m 73, female and following LCHF most of my adult life (since 1972). My age group is largely ignored in all the research being done. The Science of ketogenesis and it’s long-term effects on health and mobility in postmenopausal women could use a bit of interest. We’re pretty much left to swing in the wind when attempting to refine our macros. Today I utilized your Nutrient Optimizer for the first time in hopes that I can stabilize my intake and output.

  • […] the core concepts of nutrient density, satiety and insulin load, the Nutrient Optimiser enables you to pinpoint the optimal foods and meals that enable you to […]

  • […] density and satiety.  Participants whose primary goal was to reduce blood sugar used a lower insulin load meal plan. […]

  • […] with nutrient density and insulin load, satiety is a key component of the Nutrient […]

  • […] carb or keto) can be helpful to enable you to stabilise your blood sugars and insulin demand (see Harnessing the power of the food insulin index for more […]

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