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nutrient dense insulinogenic foods for athletes and bulking

As well as identifying nutrient dense diabetic friendly foods, we can use the food insulin index to highlight more insulinogenic nutrient dense higher energy density foods for use by athletes or people wanting gain weight.

This article highlights more insulinogenic nutrient dense foods that could be used by metabolically healthy people to strategically “carb up” before events, to intentionally trigger insulin spikes (e.g. Carb Back-Loading, Alt Shift Diet or the targeted ketogenic diet) or to maximise growth for people who are underweight while still maintaining high levels of nutrition.

insulin load, a refresher

Many people with diabetes will try to reduce the insulin load of their diet to normalise blood glucose levels.  It’s the non-fibre carbohydrates, and to a lesser extent protein, that drive insulin and blood glucose, particularly for someone who is insulin resistant.


Managing the insulin load of your diet is an effective way to get off the blood glucose roller coaster and stabilise blood glucose levels.  We can calculate the insulin load of our diet based on the carbohydrates, fibre and protein using the formula shown below.


We can also calculate the percentage of insulinogenic calories to identify the foods that will affect our blood glucose levels the least, or the most.


but why would you want to spike your glucose levels?

Much of the nutrition and diabetes world is focused on helping people who are struggling with insulin resistance and trying to normalise blood glucose.  However, there are others who are blessed to be metabolically healthy who may want to strategically refill their glycogen tanks or raise their insulin levels.

  • Some follow a targeted ketogenic diet and strategically replenish glucose around workouts by eating higher carbohydrate foods.
  • Some bodybuilders use a cyclical ketogenic diet where they deplete glucose and then replenish glucose periodically.
  • Some fat adapted endurance athletes will look to ‘carb up’ before an event so that they have both glucose and fat based fuel sources (a.k.a. train low, race high).

  • Others find success with dietary approaches such as the AltShift Diet, Carb Back-Loading which alternating periods of extreme high and low carb dietary approaches (not always with the most nutritious high carb foods).

the mission…

Recently Dr Tommy Wood approached me to design a high insulin load and a low insulin load diet regimen that he could try for a month of each to see how his body responded. The constraint was that both the high and low insulin load foods would have to be nutrient dense whole foods so as to be a fair comparison of the effect of insulin load.


The foods listed below represent the top 10% of the USDA food database prioritised for higher insulin load, higher nutrient density and higher energy density.  In terms of macronutrients they come out at 30% net carbs and 16% fat on average.  While these foods might not be ideal for someone with diabetes they actually look like a pretty healthy list of foods compared to the “food like products” that you’d find in the isles of the supermarket.

The chart below shows that this “nutrient dense bulking” approach does quite well in terms of nutrient density relative to the other approaches analysed coming in at #3 of the thirteen approaches analysed.


This chart shows the nutrients provided by the top 10% of the foods using this ranking compared to the average of all foods in the USDA foods database.


The foods listed below represent the top 10% of the USDA food database using this ranking system.  Also included in the table are the nutrient density score, percentage of insulinogenic calories, insulin load, energy density and the multicriteria analysis score score (MCA) that combines all these factors.



food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
watercress 26 65% 2 11 1.38
broccoli 25 36% 3 22 0.90
spinach 21 49% 4 23 0.89
shiitake mushrooms 5 82% 72 296 0.88
seaweed (wakame) 11 79% 11 45 0.83
brown mushrooms 13 73% 5 22 0.78
Chinese cabbage 18 54% 2 12 0.74
Tomato powder 3 79% 70 302 0.70
white mushroom 13 65% 5 22 0.69
parsley 17 48% 5 36 0.66
mung beans 10 74% 4 19 0.66
spirulina 11 70% 6 26 0.66
asparagus 17 50% 3 22 0.64
chard 16 51% 3 19 0.62
lettuce 16 50% 2 15 0.58
cauliflower 15 50% 4 25 0.58
portabella mushrooms 14 55% 5 29 0.57
seaweed (kelp) 7 77% 10 43 0.57
zucchini 18 40% 2 17 0.55
okra 15 50% 3 22 0.54
chives 14 48% 4 30 0.51
shallots -2 80% 75 348 0.50
radicchio 9 67% 4 23 0.49
yeast extract spread 6 59% 27 185 0.45
peas 9 65% 7 42 0.44

animal products


food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
beef liver 17 59% 25 175 1.04
veal liver 17 55% 26 192 1.01
lamb liver 19 48% 20 168 0.95
lamb kidney 19 52% 15 112 0.93
veal 12 65% 24 151 0.80
lean beef 13 61% 23 149 0.79
chicken (skinless) 12 60% 22 148 0.73
ham 13 59% 17 113 0.73
turkey 11 65% 22 138 0.73
turkey liver 14 47% 21 189 0.71
chicken liver 14 50% 20 172 0.70
beef kidney 14 52% 20 157 0.70
pork liver 11 59% 23 165 0.67
pork chop 11 57% 23 172 0.66
ground beef 10 59% 20 144 0.59
pork shoulder 10 56% 22 162 0.57
ground pork 10 54% 25 185 0.57
leg ham 10 56% 22 165 0.57
sirloin steak 8 57% 24 177 0.48
beef heart 9 52% 23 179 0.48
bison 9 53% 22 171 0.48
chuck steak 9 51% 25 194 0.47


food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
blue crab 19 71% 14 83 1.18
cod 13 71% 48 290 1.16
salmon 21 52% 20 156 1.13
lobster 16 71% 15 89 1.06
halibut 17 66% 17 111 1.06
shrimp 16 69% 19 119 1.03
pollock 14 69% 18 111 0.95
oyster 17 59% 14 102 0.91
rockfish 15 66% 17 109 0.91
haddock 13 71% 19 116 0.88
trout 18 45% 18 168 0.88
octopus 11 71% 28 164 0.88
fish roe 18 47% 18 143 0.87
crayfish 14 67% 13 82 0.86
white fish 11 70% 18 108 0.80
whiting 12 66% 18 116 0.78
flounder 15 57% 12 86 0.75
sturgeon 15 49% 16 135 0.71
tuna 13 52% 23 184 0.71
scallop 8 77% 22 111 0.71
perch 12 62% 14 96 0.68
clam 8 73% 25 142 0.67
anchovy 13 44% 22 210 0.65
caviar 13 33% 23 264 0.55
orange roughy 4 70% 17 105 0.36
herring 9 36% 19 217 0.30



food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
cowpeas 2 79% 68 336 0.72
soy protein isolate 3 72% 69 335 0.65
soy sauce 8 78% 12 57 0.63
navy beans 2 72% 63 337 0.61
black beans 0 73% 63 341 0.55
pinto beans -0 73% 64 347 0.53
kidney beans -0 74% 63 337 0.51
garbanzo beans -2 69% 67 378 0.43
soybeans 3 44% 49 446 0.39
broad beans 1 61% 54 341 0.38



food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
baker’s yeast 13 53% 16 105 0.62
wild rice -3 87% 80 357 0.59
brown rice -5 86% 79 367 0.49
oat bran 3 65% 65 246 0.44
white rice -9 95% 84 365 0.41
egg noodles -6 83% 79 384 0.41
cornmeal -7 89% 81 370 0.40
rice flour -8 92% 82 366 0.39
wheat bran 10 38% 34 216 0.37



food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
whey protein powder 5 95% 82 339
cream cheese (low fat) 9 76% 19 105
cottage cheese (low fat) 7 63% 13 81

other dietary approaches

The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs detailing optimal foods for a range of dietary approaches (sorted from most to least nutrient dense) that may be of interest depending on your situation and goals.   You can print them out to stick to your fridge or take on your next shopping expedition for some inspiration.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
autoimmune (nutrient dense) download
alkaline foods download
nutrient dense bulking download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
autoimmune (diabetes friendly) download
zero carb download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
vegan (nutrient dense) download
vegan (diabetic friendly) download
therapeutic ketosis download
avoid download

If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and whether you are insulin resistant, this survey may help identify the optimal dietary approach for you.


30 thoughts on “nutrient dense insulinogenic foods for athletes and bulking”

  1. Hi Marty,

    I think I may have missed something, please help me understand.

    You say “This article highlights more insulinogenic nutrient dense foods that can be used by metabolically healthy athletes to strategically carb up before events or to trigger insulin spikes”.

    Within those “insulinogenic nutrient dense foods” you list things like rice cakes, pasta, ramen noodles, bagels and spaghetti…

    Is there a formatting issue where you meant to list them as nutrient poor insulinogenic foods? Or are you saying these are nutrient dense foods?



    1. Good question. The multi criteria analysis is based on both nutrient density and percentage insulinogenic calories, so if one of these is really high it will still make the list. I might tabulate with some more numbers to help clarify for inquisitive people like yourself. Thanks again for the feedback.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Marty,
    Thanks for all your amazing work.
    I’m having trouble matching some your insulin load numbers. Do you think there is just a range of nutrition numbers for foods on the web or have you changed your formula from NC+.56*protein?
    thanks, Jeff


      1. If you don’t count all protein the same then that and differences on different web sites would explain a lot of it. The two very large differences were for shallots and shitake. I must have read something wrong. Other smaller differences were for foods like goat cheese, seaweed, peas, brie, eggplant, and shrimp.
        thanks, Jeff


      2. Thanks. I’ll double the numbers for those foods. The databases can differ sometimes, particularly when it comes to fibre data. Feel free to send me your calcs and I’ll check them against mine.


  3. Maybe off-topic, but a question re protein intake with int fasting. Should one calculate a ‘weekly’ recommended protein load, then try to eat this total during a week? I ask because ‘daily’ protein (as well as everything else) is skipped completely 2 or 3 days a week. Assume a middle-aged IR guy w moderate exercise.

    Right now my ‘eat’ days are basically normal FII days w added fat as needed. Need I bump protein on eat days? Thx!


  4. Thank you for sharing your work, this is such a great reference!

    If you don’t mind, I have a few questions.
    1. This list seems to be positioned for bulking, but bulking implies being in a caloric surplus and (usually) eating more carbs (due to higher, on average, volume training). But I personally don’t see at all how I could construct my daily meals based on these foods alone to hit my calorie and carb requirements. At 180 pounds, to be in +15% surplus, I need about 2.2K calories on rest days and about 2.9-3.3K calories on workout days. I’m also shooting for about 0.5-1g of carbs per pound of bodyweight on rest days and about 2-2.5g of carbs on workout days. This means ~90-180g on rest days and ~360-450 on workout days. I cannot see how one can get as many carbs without using some starches, fruits or grains.

    Someone who is at, let’s say, 220lb but low bodyfat %, trying to bulk to 240lb would need even more.

    It’d be interesting to see how fruits, starches, and grains compared in terms on nutrient density and relative insulin load. In other words, if I _have_ to use these to get enough carbs, it’d be interesting to look into things like buckwheat vs quinoa vs potatoes vs sweet potatoes bananas vs apples vs blueberries vs brown rice vs oats, etc. I noticed that fruits are not on any of your lists – I realize that in your framework the nutrient density of fruits might not be sufficiently high to justify the insulin load, but these might be necessary trade-offs for someone trying to bulk.

    Anyway, I thought you might be interested in expanding the list and including more calorie-rich foods that are necessary for bulking, but providing guidance into which ones are “lesser evils” and at least come with relative decent nutritional value.

    To be honest, even the “maintenance” list seems to be a bit of a stretch – it’s not going to be easy to get enough calories from the foods listed alone. Of course, one can always add a lot of fat, such as olive oil to up the overall calories without breaking the whole idea around not consuming foods that are too insulinogenic, but this would come with some sacrifices on nutrient density side too.

    2. Is there any chance you could share your working spreadsheets? I know I could theoretically build something like this from the ground up based on the USDA database, but it would be a lot of work and you probably already did a lot of cleaning of data, etc. The reason I ask is that I wanted to experiment with excluding some nutrients from the calculation. For instance, I supplement with high-dose B-vitamins anyway, so I thought about excluding these from the “nutrient density” calculation to tailor the index to the nutrients that I actually care about.

    Thanks so much! for sharing again.

    PS I’m sorry about the lengthy comment.
    PPS I’ll subscribe to new comments on this thread so that I could see your response (in case you find time to respond)


    1. 1. Yeah. The ‘problem’ is that nutrient dense foods are typically not highly energy dense. This is not really a problem for most people because they may need less energy. I have prioritised for higher energy density but you can only go so far while keeping nutrient density high. I’d you really need more energy you could add some more energy dense foods to these once you have got your nutrients.
      2. The spreadsheet is pretty unwieldy so it would be hard for someone else to pick up without an extensive tutorial. Given how important b vitamins are I would worry about doubling up. The system only prioritises the harder to get nutrients anyway.


      1. Hi Marty,

        Thanks for the response! Would you perhaps mind sharing ND values for potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, quinoa, buckwheat, and oatmeal? Only if you already have them, of course. I can calculate insulin and glycemic index myself, but it’d be nice to have ND values calculated using the same methodology as the ones in your post to compare with rice and other items above. Thanks!


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