Harnessing the power of the food insulin index

You’ve probably heard of insulin, the vitally important but often misunderstood hormone.

insulin.png

Insulin helps to regulate the production of ketones from fat in the liver.[1]  If you want to increase the ketones in your blood, you need to reduce the components in your diet that require insulin.  The Food Insulin Index testing helps us to understand which foods trigger the most insulin.[2] [3]

The 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).

insulin index of foods.png

Jelly beans are the most insulinogenic, while foods like eggs, butter, bacon and olive oil require less insulin (over the three hours of that insulin was measured).

Bonus: No time to read now? Get this post in PDF to save, reference, email to friends. Click here to get it free.

Which foods raise insulin the most?

As you might expect carbohydrate foods tend to raise insulin the most.  However, foods with more protein (e.g. fish, steak and cheese shown to the far left of the chart below) also raise insulin significantly.

carbohydrates vs food insulin index.png

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

food insulin index - carbs + protein.png

Accounting for fat, fibre and fructose

Our recent refinement of the food insulin index data has also identified that:

  • both fibre[6] and fructose[7] require less insulin than starch and sugar, and
  • fat requires some insulin during the first three hours after a meal (note: the glycerol backbone in fat can be converted to glucose if the body doesn’t have any other glucose coming in).

The chart below shows that we get an even better prediction of the insulin response to the food we eat once we also consider the insulinogenic effects of fat, fructose and fibre (i.e. the R2 correlation coefficient increased significantly from 0.49 to 0.6).

pct insulinogenic vs food insulin index.png

This refined understanding of our insulin response to food is powerful and 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/or achieve ketosis), and
  • more accurately calculate insulin dosing for people managing diabetes.

Does protein increase insulin?

Foods with more protein tend to require less insulin because they contain less carbohydrates.  However, high protein foods like fish, tuna, prawns and steak still elicit a significant insulin response (as shown to the right in the chart below).

protein vs insulin.png

Part of the reason that high protein foods require insulin is that most of the amino acids (other than lysine and leucine which are essential and strictly ketogenic) can be converted to glucose (via gluconeogenesis) if there is not a lot of carbohydrates available in your diet.  The table below shows the amino acids that are ketogenic vs glucogenic.  The ones in the middle can go either way depending on the requirement.

ketogenic amino acids.png

While there is some concern about gluconeogenesis, keep in mind that it is an energy-intensive process.  The body would much rather get its energy from fat or carbs than protein.

We lose about 25% of the energy from protein 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]

thermic effect - protein.png

thermic effect - carbs.png

thermic effect - avocado.png

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 breaking down and 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 our diet.

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

insulin + glucagon brake.png

When you consume excess protein beyond what you need for essential bodily functions (muscle and program repose, neurotransmitters etc.), your pancreas will raise insulin to shut off the release of stored fuel from your body while we use up the food coming in from our diet.

Although fat doesn’t require as much insulin hold in storage, all foods require some insulin over the longer term (keep in mind that the food insulin index testing was only over three hours, so it may underestimate the full insulin release from fat and protein).

The bottom line of all this is that if you want to see your abs, manage your blood sugars, lower your insulin levels or reduce your chance of getting one of the modern metabolic diseases, you need to find a way to stack up less fuel (i.e. alcohol, protein, carbs and fat) in front of your body fat.

oxidative priority.png

Does protein raise blood sugar?

As shown in the chart below, consuming a higher percentage of protein will tend to lower your blood glucose.[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.

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.

It is a challenge for most people to overeat high protein foods because they are so satiating.  Increasing the protein content of your diet will likely have a net lowering of your insulin and blood sugars.  Increasing your % protein intake tends to lower your overall energy intake and hence reduce your body fat levels.  This, in turn, lower your basal insulin levels because you have less body fat to try to keep in storage.

protein vs satiety.png

A nutrient dense diet tends to contain plenty of protein.  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 “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.

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 the fat not burned on your body.

Some people believe that they can lower the insulin load of their diet to lose weight, a bit like someone with uncontrolled type 1 diabetes.  The photo below shows the same child who has type 1 before and after starting insulin therapy.

type 1 diabetic.jpg

However, the reality is that insulin is not only released in response to the food we eat (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 the high levels of insulin are working overtime 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 (see Systematising satiety: How to optimise your diet to manage hunger for some practical ideas and the Never Hungry Diet app to check the satiety score of your favourite foods).

The good news is, your fasting insulin levels will come down as your body fat levels decrease.[18]

The ultimate keto calculator

Is it keto?” is a question frequently asked by keto newbs and a common source of confusion on keto forums and Facebook groups.

So, to answer the question definitively, we created the free “Is it Keto?” web app that you can use to check if a particular food or meal is ketogenic.

The tool is designed to help people who:

  • require a therapeutic ketogenic diet (i.e. for the management of Alzheimer’s, dementia, epilepsy, Parkinson’s etc.),
  • are managing diabetes and want to stabilise their blood sugars,
  • are chasing nutritional ketosis (for a performance or cognitive boost), or
  • people who just want a nutritious lower carb diet.

[You can easily set up “Is it keto?” to run from the home screen of your phone like an app for easy reference.  For instructions on how to add a webpage to your smartphone home screen click here for Apple and here for Android.]

The Is it Keto? app will tell you if a food or meal is suitable for different goals based on its percentage of insulinogenic calories (see below for details) for that food or meal:

  • therapeutic ketosis – less than 15% insulinogenic calories
  • nutritional ketosis – less than 25% insulinogenic calories
  • low carb – less than 40% insulinogenic calories
  • not keto – greater than 40% insulinogenic.

Benefits of the keto calculator

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 match injected insulin with food perfectly.

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 moods/emotions, among other side effects that make it hard to function in everyday life.

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 reduce or eliminate their diabetes medications once they lower the insulin demand of their food to the point that their pancreas can keep up.

Fat loss

Many people think that ketosis is synonymous with fat burning and hence weight loss, but it not quite that simple.

Our modern food environment is set up to encourage us to buy and eat more food.  Meanwhile, 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 and, in turn, leads us to consume a lot more energy and gives us a 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 will often lead to improved appetite control, at least compared to a diet heavy in processed foods.

The chart below shows satiety versus carbohydrates, indicating that it’s the foods that are a mix of fat and carbs in the middle 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 more details).

carbs vs satiety.png

There seems to be a “sweet spot” when we consume less than about 30% carbs.  However,  very low carb diets can involve high levels of added refined 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, then 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!

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 a 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.

progression of diet satiety vs keto.png

Limitations

We don’t really know how much insulin we need in the long-term

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

The reality is that a large meal can digest for much longer than this.  So it is likely that the Food Insulin Index data does not fully account for the long-term effect of protein and fat.

While carbs raise insulin more in the short term, we don’t have any long-term data to help us understand how much insulin each of the macronutrients requires over the long run.

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 enhance satiety even more.  A high satiety diet will produce plenty of ketones as you burn your body fat.

A high satiety diet also tends to be nutrient dense 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.

satiety vs nutrient density.png

Don’t 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]

Nutrient density

A ketogenic diet with an emphasis on dietary fat 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 also make sure your food contains enough of the harder-to-find nutrients.

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

micronutrients - ketogenic foods.png

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

most nutrient dense foods.png

Nutritious keto foods tailored to your goals

To help you out all this theory into practice, we have assembled a range of nutrient dense food lists tailored to different goals.  The right-hand column shows the nutrient profile of each food list.  Click on the ‘food list’ links below to get a free printable pdf food list delivered to your inbox.

approach

Food list

Nutrients

the most ketogenic foods

nutrients

optimal foods for therapeutic ketosis

food list

nutrients

well formulated ketogenic diet

food list

nutrients

nutritious low carb foods

food list

nutrients

fat loss & blood sugar management

food list

nutrients

aggressive fat loss

food list

nutrients

the least ketogenic

nutrients

Keto macro calculator

If you are tracking your food and want to know what your target macros are, then we recommend running the Nutrient Optimiser Free Report to get your personalised carbohydrate, fat and protein targets.

nutrient optimiser.png

 

 

Reference

[1] http://www.jbc.org/content/132/1/423.full.pdf

[2] https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/handle/2123/11945

[3] https://www.gisymbol.com/what-is-the-food-insulin-index/

[4] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/30/food_insulin_index/

[5] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/23/most-ketogenic-diet-foods/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2995635

[7] https://www.foodinsight.org/Questions_and_Answers_About_Fructose

[8] https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/met.2016.0108

[9] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15507147

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specific_dynamic_action

[11] https://www.t-nation.com/diet-fat-loss/insulin-advantage

[12] https://www.muscleforlife.com/how-insulin-works/

[13] https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article-pdf/66/5/1264/24037376/1264.pdf

[14] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2017/06/03/why-do-my-blood-sugars-rise-after-a-high-protein-meal/

[15] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2017/06/03/why-do-my-blood-sugars-rise-after-a-high-protein-meal/

[16] http://livinlavidalowcarb.com/blog/tag/insulin-resistance

[17] http://2ketodudes.com/show.aspx?episode=51

[18] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2018/04/12/does-insulin-really-resistance-cause-obesity/

[19] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/07/20/the-glucose-ketone-relationship/

  • […] 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!

  • […] 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

  • […] The latest food insulin index data, and […]

  • 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 […]

  • 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.

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