Category Archives: insulin index

how to optimise the insulin load of your diet

Insulin is the primary hormone that controls your metabolism.

You need some to survive.

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But too much can be bad news.

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Insulin helps drive amino acids into your muscles to help them grow.

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Insulin helps glucose enter the cells to fuel your mitochondria to produce energy.

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Meanwhile, insulin also works as a brake to keep energy in storage.

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When you eat, your pancreas secretes insulin to slow the release of energy from body fat stores through your liver until the energy coming in from your mouth and in your bloodstream are used up.

How do we become insulin resistant?

I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to resist the yummy food that always seems to be available.

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We no longer have to hunt or gather our food.  It is always available, relatively cheap and flavoured to ensure we can easily eat lots of it.

In our modern food environment, it’s hard to ‘eat to satiety’ without usually eating a little bit too much.  It’s like we’re saving for a winter that never comes.

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Then, to make it even harder, the food industry optimises their products for ‘bliss point’ (with just the right amount of sugar, salt, fat and artificial colours and sweeteners) and creates hyper-palatable foods to drive profit.

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Unfortunately, this all has an impact on more than just our taste buds.

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Eventually, as you continue to consume more energy than you can use, your fat stores become inflamed and can’t take in any more energy.[1] [2]

Your pancreas ramps up its efforts to hold back the pressure of excess energy in our liver and body fat stores.[3] [4]

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If excess energy keeps coming in, the pancreas re-doubles its efforts to clear the glucose from the blood with more and more insulin.

First, the fat stores become full, then the bloodstream and eventually insulin drives the excess energy into other areas in the body that are still insulin sensitive such as your liver, heart, pancreas, eyes and brain.

Over the long term, this combination of high insulin levels and high energy leads to heart disease, fatty liver, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and a whole host of modern diseases.[5] [6] [7]

Type 1 diabetes

People with type 1 diabetes, like my wife Monica, give us an opportunity to understand how insulin works.

The picture below shows “JL” one of the first type 1 diabetics to receive insulin treatment in 1922.  The picture on the left is after diagnosis with diabetes but before treatment with insulin.  The photo on the right is the same child two months.

With insulin injections, he can stop the uncontrolled release of his fat and muscle stores and quickly put weight back on.

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For reasons we don’t fully understand, the pancreas can stop producing insulin.  People with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin to “cover” the food they eat as well as “basal insulin” to mimic what a healthy pancreas does automatically between meals.

Wise food choices are critical to stabilising blood sugar levels.  Foods that require a significant amount of insulin tend to cause large swings in blood sugar levels.

If your blood levels are high, you will feel tired and will need to take a large dose of insulin to slow the release of glucose from your liver.

If your blood sugars are low, you will feel the need to eat food, preferably something sweet to raise your blood sugars quickly!

It’s hard to control your appetite with these rollercoaster-like swings in blood glucose like the one shown in the chart below.  Our appetite and survival instincts are strong, and we will eat to raise our blood glucose levels to feel good again.

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daily blood sugar data of type 1 diabetic on typical western diet

Foods with a lower insulin load allow people with type 1 diabetes to smooth out their blood sugar swings and stabilise their food cravings.

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daily blood sugar data for the same person with type 1 diabetes on a low carb diet

Type 2 diabetes

While the cause of the disease is different, people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes are in a similar situation.  They both have an overall insulin insufficiency.  People with type 1 don’t produce enough insulin and need to inject insulin.

The insulin resistance in people with type 2 diabetes means that their pancreas cannot produce enough insulin to keep their blood sugar levels stable.   Their fat stores cannot hold all the energy in the system, so it spills out into the bloodstream, and we see elevated blood glucose levels.

For people with type 2 diabetes, reducing the insulin load of the food they eat will enable their pancreas to keep up to maintain more stable blood sugars.  Once the wild swings of glucose and insulin stabilise, it is often easier to go longer between meals or make better food choices.

Insulin sensitivity

While insulin resistance and diabetes are often associated with obesity, you can be fat and still have normal blood sugars and be insulin sensitive.

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People who are insulin sensitive can easily store energy in their adipose tissue and release energy easily later when they are not eating.

Their fat stores of insulin sensitive people are still functioning well.  They take in energy from the food they eat and relatively quickly release it when they are not eating.[8]

If you are insulin sensitive with stable blood sugar levels and want to lose body fat you will probably do well if you focus on eating foods with a higher nutrient density and a lower energy density.  However, if you are insulin resistant, you will likely also benefit from eating foods with a smaller insulin load, at least until your blood sugars stabilise.

Which approach is best for you?

Nutrition is complex, and there is still a lot of disagreement about the role that insulin resistance plays in health and weight loss.  However ultimately, most of us are trying to hack our system to get the nutrients we need without excessive energy.

The Nutrient Optimiser algorithm considers your blood sugars, HbA1c, triglyceride:HDL ratio and waist:height ratio to optimise your blood sugars are while also maximising nutrient density as much as possible.

The food insulin index data

Now we’re going to take a quick look under the hood of the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm to see how the insulin load parameter works.

The chart below shows the relationship between the carbohydrate content of our food and our insulin response.[9] [10] [11] [12]

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carbohydrates vs insulin response (click to enlarge)

The quantity of carbohydrate in your diet explains the majority of your insulin response.  However, if you look carefully in the bottom left corner of the chart above, you will see that there are high protein foods that cause a large insulin response and high fibre foods that cause a smaller insulin response.

Once we account for the effect of fibre and protein, we get a much better prediction of our insulin response to food.  This understanding of the various factors that influence insulin response enables you to prioritise foods that cause a smaller insulin response, as well as more accurately calculate insulin dosing for people with diabetes.

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insulin load (carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 * protein) vs insulin response

If you are injecting insulin to manage your diabetes then understanding how to quantify the insulin load of your diet can help you more accurately calculate your insulin dose (as detailed in this post).  If you require therapeutic ketosis, you can also identify foods that will minimise your insulin response.

Protein

While protein does require some insulin to build and repair our muscles, the chart below shows us that increasing the proportion of energy from protein will typically force out processed carbohydrates and trigger a lower insulin response.

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Higher levels of protein also tend to generate a smaller glucose response compared to carbohydrates.

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It’s also important to note that protein is the most satiating macronutrient.  If you want to reduce your energy intake without having to meticulously track calories and without excessive hunger it’s important not to avoid protein.  Reducing the amount of energy in your diet will allow the energy in your bloodstream (i.e. glucose, ketones and free fatty acids) to be used up and your insulin levels will come down even further.  

Fat

Obtaining more of your energy from fat will decrease your insulin response…

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…as well as your glucose response.

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However, keep in mind that, as well as the food you eat, your insulin levels are influenced by the food you eat as well as the amount of energy already in your system.

High-fat foods are often energy dense and easy to overeat.  Your pancreas will still need to elevate insulin levels while your body uses up the energy from your diet, so they can still drive insulin resistance if eaten to excess.

The insulin load is a great tool to manage the short-term volatility of your blood sugar levels.  However, if you look at the big picture, lower insulin levels correspond to lower energy in your system (i.e. from your diet and body fat).

Once your blood sugars are stable, it may be prudent to focus on reducing the fat in your diet if you want to use your excess body fat.  This will help to further reduce your blood sugars and insulin levels floating around in your blood towards optimal levels.

Insulin load vs nutrient density

Like many things in life, there is a trade-off as we push things to extremes.  The chart below shows that we tend to optimise nutrient density with about 40% insulinogenic calories.[13]

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If you are insulin resistant, you will probably do better if you maintained less than 40% insulinogenic calories.   If you have diabetes, then you’ll probably need to stay below 25% insulinogenic calories.  If you require a therapeutic ketogenic diet (i.e. for the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, dementia or Parkinson), then you will need to maintain a very low insulin load, which typically means consuming more fat and even reducing your protein intake.

It may not be ideal to maintain such a low insulin load for a long time.  The more you push the insulin load of your diet to either extreme the more you will compromise your micronutrient profile.

What do I do with all this information?

While you may find all this detail a little confusing, you don’t have to worry too much about all the numbers.

We have designed the Nutrient Optimiser algorithm to calculate your target macronutrient ranges to suit your goals and suggest foods and meals that will help you keep your blood sugars stable and normalise your insulin levels while also maximising the nutrient content of your diet.

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Once you attain normal blood sugars, you will ‘level up’ to the next stage of your nutritional journey.

Stay tuned…

In our next instalment, where we will discuss how we can manage the energy density of your food to enable you to get more calories in if you are running a marathon, or help you to feel more satiated with less energy if you are trying to lose weight.

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References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25733684

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25515001

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i2WRi7mP1ck

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdork0TA90U

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

[6] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/22/diabetes-102/

[7] https://cardiab.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2840-12-164

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metabolically_healthy_obesity

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

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

[11] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter_Petocz/publication/13872119_Holt_SHA_Brand_Miller_JC_Petocz_P_An_insulin_index_of_foods_the_insulin_demand_generated_by_1000-kJ_portions_of_common_foods_Am_J_Clin_Nutr_66_1264-1276/links/00b495189da41714fa000000.pdf/download?version=vs

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

[13] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2017/10/30/nutrition-how-to-get-the-minimum-effective-dose/

[14] https://examine.com/nutrition/low-fat-vs-low-carb-for-weight-loss/

[15] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1551714416302166

[16] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/oby.21331/full

[17] https://drruscio.com/high-carb-low-carb-science-actually-says-episode-43/

is ‘too much protein’ on keto really a thing?

  • There is a lot of confusion in keto land about ‘excess protein’.
  • Insulin and protein are used to build and repair your muscles, organs and the other important parts of your body.  This is an important and beneficial use of protein and insulin.
  • Foods that contain the harder to find nutrients (e.g. potassium, magnesium, choline, vitamin D) typically contain plenty of protein.
  • Actively avoiding protein and can lead to a less nutritious diet.
  • Unless you require therapeutic ketosis for the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimers, Parkinson or dementia, you should be chasing vitality, health and nutrition along with stable blood sugar levels rather than some arbitrary ketone level.
  • There are a range of different ways to quantify protein intake.  Thinking in terms of percentages can be more confusing than helpful.
  • It’s hard to over-consume protein because it is highly satiating.  However, if you avoid protein your body may drive you to consume more calories until you get the protein it needs.
  • If you follow your appetite and focus on foods that contain the vitamins and minerals you need you will probably get enough protein.

Virta Facebook Live Q&A

I recently had the opportunity to pose some questions about protein intake to the Godfather of Keto, Dr Stephen Phinney in a recent Facebook live Q&A.

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Dr Phinney’s response to my question is shown below, including his recommended protein intake levels of 1.2 to 1.75 g per kg reference body weight of protein.

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While I largely agree with Dr Phinney’s response, I think it’s worth elaborating on some of the issues that are causing so much confusion at the moment.

Will too much protein kick me out of ketosis?

If you’ve read previous posts on Optimising Nutrition you’ve probably seen my analysis of the food insulin index data that shows that our carbohydrate intake alone doesn’t explain our insulin response to food.

The food insulin index data shows that our insulin response to food is more accurately predicted when we consider the fibre and protein content of our food, not just the carbohydrate.

However, I fear that many people have used the insulin load concept as a reason to avoid protein.  I now understand that this is far from optimal within the broader context of good nutrition for health, weight loss and vitality.

If you are interested in learning more the implications of the insulin index data I recommend you check out the following articles:

Effect on blood sugar and insulin

While trading your calories from butter for steak will increase your requirement for insulin, the food insulin index data suggests that as a general rule, getting more of your energy from protein will reduce your insulin requirements as it forces out processed carbohydrates as shown in the chart below.

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Getting more energy from protein tends to decrease our glucose response as it forces out nutrient-poor refined high carb foods.  Your body can convert protein to glucose (i.e. gluconeogenesis) if it really needs to but it’s a lot of work, so it would much rather get energy from carbs or fat.

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Protein is also very satiating.  Once we have enough protein, our body tends to crave more fatty and carby foods for energy.[10] 

While it is both financially and metabolically expensive, protein is the most important component of your diet.  Different people will need different amounts of protein depending on their life stage and activity levels.

While you probably don’t need to be going out of your way to binge on more protein than you can comfortably consume, actively avoiding protein containing foods is a recipe for nutritional disaster.  If you are exercising or lifting heavy then you will naturally crave more protein.

If you actually need higher levels of blood ketones for therapeutic ketosis, it may be a good strategy to consciously restrict protein.  However, I don’t’ think the vast majority of people chasing ketones are looking for therapeutic keto for the management of cancer, Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, dementia or Parkinson’s but rather fat loss or diabetes control.

Protein number crunching

The numbers around protein can be confusing due to the units used.

  • Dr Phinney uses ‘reference body weight’ (RW) (which he says is ‘the weight you were when you were in college’).
  • The mainstream nutrition world talks in terms of total body weight (BW).
  • Meanwhile, the sports nutrition community talk in terms of lean body mass (LBM).

In order to understand what this means in practice, let’s look at an example of a woman who is currently 40% body fat but was 25% in college (i.e. her reference weight).  For argument’s sake let’s say she was 70 kg in college but she is currently 87 kg or 193 lb.  The images below will give you an idea of what these level of body fat levels look like.

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In the table below I have calculated what Dr Phinney’s recommended protein intake looks like for this person in terms of:

  • reference body weight (RW),
  • lean body mass (LBM), and
  • body weight (BW).

Based on Dr Phinney’s guidance, this person should be eating between 84 and 123 g of protein per day.

  body fat weight (kg) weight (lbs) lower limit upper limit
reference weight 25% 70 154 1.2 g/kg RW 1.75 g/kg RW
lean body mass 0% 52.5 116 1.6 g/kg LBM 2.3 g/kg LBM
body weight 40% 87.5 193 1.0 g/kg BW 1.4 g/kg BW
protein (g/day)       84 123

On a practical note, there is nothing low about 2.3 g/kg LBM protein.  While I do track my intake I find it hard to get above 2.2 g/kg LBM even when trying to maximise protein.  At the same time, the lower limit is well above the official Recommended Daily Intake of 0.84 g/kg for men and 0.75 g/kg for women which are set to maintain nitrogen balance and prevent disease (i.e. not achieve optimal health and vitality).

What about percentages?

Talking about protein in terms of percentages of energy intake can be confusing as it depends on your activity levels or whether you are dieting.   Theoretical energy intake requirements are based on your lean body mass and activity levels.

The table below shows what Dr Phinney’s protein recommendation of 1.2 to 1.75 g/kg RW (or 1.6 to 2.3 g/kg LBM) look like for our hypothetical woman above in terms of percentage of energy intake for different energy intakes depending if she was trying to lose weight, maintain weight or was more active.

scenario calories lower upper
30% deficit 1158 29% 42%
sedentary 1654 20% 30%
lightly active 1852 18% 27%
moderately active 2084 16% 24%
vigorously active 2431 14% 20%
protein (g)   84 123

Protein intake in terms of percentage energy intake can vary widely to the point that it’s practically useless.  It’s generally much more useful to talk in terms of protein intake in grams per weight lean body mass rather than percentages.

Protein and nutrient density

Since stumbling across the insulin index, one thing I have found consistently is that nutrient-dense foods are not low in protein.

If you are focusing on the foods that contain the harder to find nutrients (e.g. magnesium, magnesium, choline, vitamin D etc) you will be getting plenty of protein.

Conversely, the only way to really get the ultra-low protein intakes being recommended by many people without an energy deficit is to avoid most solid foods and prioritise macadamia nuts, butter and oils.  It should not be a surprise that it will be hard to get a broad spectrum of essential nutrients with this sort of dietary approach.

As shown in the chart below, nutrient density tends to increase up to about 50% of energy intake.   If you’re eating more than 50% protein you’re likely relying on processed foods and supplements.[11]

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The chart below shows the nutrient profile of the most nutritious foods in the USDA database.  If you could stick to these foods you would easily be getting a lot of the essential nutrients without having to consume too much energy.

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The problem with these foods is that they can be very satiating which makes it hard to get enough energy in if you are active.  However, if you are trying to lose weight these foods may help to ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need with less energy without being hungry.

It’s interesting to see many people who have been experimenting with the Nutrient Optimiser have commented on how little food they can get away with while experiencing minimal levels of hunger.   Nutrient dense foods tend to be hard to overeat and also provide you with the nutrients to prevent cravings and hence reduce appetite.

For comparison, the chart below shows the nutrient profile of the ketogenic diet foods.  That is, the foods that have the lowest percentage insulinogenic calories.   These foods are 80% fat, 15% protein and 3% net carbs).  Ironically, an individual consuming these foods will be meeting the minimum levels of protein but they will be missing out on a large number of other vitamins and minerals.

I find that it’s often the people who are trying to actively avoid protein that find themselves at the bottom of the Nutrient Optimiser Leaderboard with a very poor nutrient profile.

The chart below shows the nutrient profile that we get when we actively avoid protein.  The only nturients that we get enough of in this scenarios is sodium and vitamin C!

Unless you are chasing therapeutic ketosis for the treatment of cancer, epilepsy, Alzheimers or dementia I think your focus should be on building health and maximising nutrition rather than higher ketone values.

If you are getting the micronutrients you need to thrive you will be getting plenty of protein and won’t need to worry too much about getting adequate protein intake.  Conversely, if you are actively avoiding protein you will be unnecessarily sacrificing your other micronutrients (especially if you are replacing your calories from protein and carbs with refined fat).

But will too much protein kick me out of ketosis?

As I write this I have been experimenting with adequate protein with less fat and carbs and maximal nutrients on the Ketogains Bootcamp.  A typical daily Cronometer summary is shown below.

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My protein is sitting at about 2.2g/kg LBM for me given that I’ve been spending a lot of time in the gym lifting heavy during this time.  I’ve also been able to hit many of the nutrients targets while maintaining a significant calorie deficit.

Leading up to this period my blood glucose levels were sitting in the mid 5s (approx 100 mg/dL).  However, once I introduced the energy deficit my glucose levels plummet to the mid 4s (approx 80 mg/dL).

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And although I don’t worry much about ketones, they seem to be sitting at around 0.7 mmol/L, which I’m pretty happy with.

I know if I keep my blood glucose around this level I will continue to lose weight and continue to improve my glucose control and HbA1c.

I also get plenty of breath acetone from endogenous ketones as shown on my Ketonix below.

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Don’t forget the basal insulin!

While there has been a lot of focus on what we can do to not have too much insulin, we need to remember that insulin has a number of important roles including:

  1. to help us get glucose into cells to be used by our mitochondria,
  2. to help build and repair our muscles, and
  3. to control the release of glucose from our liver while the energy in our bloodstream is used up.

People with type 1 diabetes demonstrate happens if we don’t have enough insulin.  Not only would we not be able to store the energy we eat as fat and muscle, the brake comes off the liver and all the stored energy in our body comes flowing out in the form of excess glucose and ketones (i.e. diabetic ketoacidosis).

The image below is the same child, “J.L.”, in the 1920s before and after receiving insulin therapy.  In a healthy person, insulin suppresses the fuel flow from the liver to healthy levels.

In someone on a standard western diet, basal insulin represents about 30% of the today daily dose.  Basal insulin drops to about 50% for someone on a low carb or keto diet.  But you can never drop your insulin requirements to zero.  You always need this basal to stop the uncontrolled flow of fuel from your liver into your bloodstream.

We focus so much on the effect of the food we eat but we forget that it’s also the excess fuel on your body and floating around in our bloodstream that also plays a massive role in the insulin demand on our pancreas.

Whenever there are high levels of energy sitting in our bloodstream (from glucose, ketones or fat) the pancreas has to ramp up basal insulin production until the fuel in our bloodstream is used up.  The more fat there is on our body the harder our pancreas has to work to hold back the pressure of excess fat on our body from being released into our bloodstream.

So, you may believe that your mug of Bulletproof coffee or the fat bomb may not be raising your insulin levels because it does not contain glucose or protein.  However, your pancreas is still working overtime to produce more insulin to hold the fat on your bum and until the energy coming in via your mouth is used up.

You may be able to ramp up your energy expenditure for a while by shivering and fidgeting, more but after a time of overdriving energy you’ll likely end up fat and insulin resistant.

If you really want to reduce your insulin levels you need to work on reducing the excess level of energy floating around in your bloodstream (from any source, including fat, carbs, protein or exogenous ketones) so your pancreas will decrease its production of insulin to allow body fat to be used.

Focusing on obtaining the nutrients you need without too much energy seems like common sense to me.

Therapeutic ketosis

Someone targeting therapeutic ketosis to assist with the management of chronic conditions such as cancer, epilepsy, dementia or Alzheimer’s may benefit from higher levels of ketosis and less reliance on glucose.  But I don’t think the vast majority of people who are Googling “keto” at the moment are looking for a therapeutic treatment.

therapeutic keto

Understanding how to quantify the insulin load of our food enables us to accurately tailor or food choices to suit our goals.  When it comes to insulin load we need to keep it low enough to get the results we need without compromising the nutritional value of the food we eat too much.

The chart below shows that nutrient density peaks at around 40% insulinogenic calories.

  • If you are insulin resistant it would be prudent to have less than 40% insulinogenic calories.
  • Someone on a low carb diet might have less than 25% insulinogenic calories.
  • Someone targeting therapeutic keto will likely need to have less than 15% insulinogenic calories to see therapeutic levels of ketones.

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Unless you really require therapeutic keto then I don’t think there is a need to worry too much about the impact of protein on your blood ketone levels.  Actively avoiding protein tends to lead to compromising nutrient density unnecessarily which may lead to nutrient cravings or deficiencies in the long term.

The glucose : ketone index

People who require therapeutic ketosis should also ensure that they are not driving the total energy in their system too high.  To do this they can track their glucose as well as ketones.  The glucose:ketone ratio (GKI) which was developed by Dr Thomas Seyfried to measure the degree of therapeutic ketosis.[12]

If you’re interested, your GKI can be calculated by dividing your glucose (in mmol/L) by your ketone values.  For example, if your blood glucose is 108 mg/dL and your blood ketones are 0.5mmol/L, GKI = blood glucose / ketone = (108 mg/dL / 18) / 0.5 mmol/L = 6 mmol/L / 0.5mmol/L = 12.

People who are chasing therapeutic ketosis typically do not need to worry about ingesting too much energy.   Driving a hypercaloric state with refined fats is not a major concern for someone trying to keep weight on (e.g. cancer cachexia).  However, ensuring that they are achieving lower glucose levels will ensure that they are not driving insulin resistance.

For reference, the table below shows the relationship between HbA1c, average glucose, ketones and GKI for different scenarios showing how your GKI and ketones correlate with HbA1c and blood glucose.

 metabolic health HbA1c average blood glucose blood ketones GKI
 (%)  (mmol/L)  (mg/dL)  (mmol/L)  
low  4.1 3.9 70 > 0.3 < 4
optimal 4.5 4.6 83 > 0.3 < 15
excellent < 5.0 < 5.4 < 97 > 0.3 < 20
good < 5.4 < 6 < 108 < 0.3 < 40
danger > 6.5 7.8 > 140 < 0.3 > 40

Really low GKI values (i.e. very high ketones and very low glucose) are typically seen in extended fasting when glucose levels to drop and ketones from body fat increase in a low insulin state.

The chart below shows my blood ketone and glucose levels during a seven day fast.  Amazingly, as my blood glucose levels dropped below 4.0 mmol/L my ketones drifted up to 8 mmol/L.  During more recent, however, I haven’t been able to achieve such high ketone levels.

While we can get these high ketone levels during fasting, we typically don’t see them in the fed state.  To give you an idea of what to expect, the chart below shows GKI values over time during fasting for RD Dikeman (from Type 1 Grit), Jimmy Moore, Simon Saunders (Keto Island) and myself.   As a rule of thumb, you might expect to see a GKI value less than 2 after two or three days of water fasting.

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Nutrient density analysis

Being a big fan of Dr Phinney and the Art and Science books, I couldn’t help running his recommended diet through the Nutrient Optimiser.  I entered all the meals in the Art and Science of Low Carb Living into Cronometer and ran it through the Nutrient Optimiser.

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If you’re interested, you can see the full report here and where these meals rank on the leaderboard here.

So what should you do with all this information?

So, to summarise:

  1. If you have great blood sugars and just want to lose weight then you should focus on maximising nutrient density while reducing the energy levels in your bloodstream.  There is no need to worry about “being in ketosis”.  You will produce ketones if you are successfully achieving an energy deficit and burning your own body fat stores.
  2. If you are insulin resistant then you will want to limit your insulin load to a maximum of 2.9 g/kg LBM.  This will restrict carbohydrates in your diet so your blood sugars stabilise.
  3. If you are trying to manage diabetes then you want to keep your insulin load under 1.8 g/kg LBM.  This will restrict carbohydrates and may reduce your protein intake a little.
  4. If you require therapeutic keto then you will want to keep your insulin load less than 1.1 g/kg LBM and may need to consider limiting protein.

The recommended values for protein and insulin load are shown in the table below.

approach

min protein

(g/kg LBM)

max insulin load

(g/kg LBM)

therapeutic ketosis 0.8 1.1
diabetes / nutritional ketosis 1.8 1.8
weight loss (insulin resistant) 1.8 2.9
weight loss (insulin sensitive) 1.8

Can run the numbers for me?

I realise all this data can be confusing if nutrition is not your hobby.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working with a very talented programmer, Alex Zotov, to develop some handy software to help people navigate all this information and put it into practice.

The first instalment of the Nutrient Optmiser is a free calculator that will help you identify the ideal macronutrient ranges to suit your goals as well as a shortlist of optimal foods and meals.  The table below shows how we can determine the optimal approach for you based on your metabolic health, waist to height ratio and goals.

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We’d love you to check it out the Nutrient Optimiser.  We’d love to hear what you think and how we can refine it to suit your goals.

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We hope it will be really helpful for a LOT of people on their journey towards health through optimal nutrition

 

references

[1]https://www.amazon.com.au/Keto-Clarity-Definitive-Benefits-Low-Carb/dp/1628600071

[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4737348/

[3]http://assets.virtahealth.com/docs/Virta_Clinic_10-week_outcomes.pdf

[4]http://www.ncl.ac.uk/press/articles/archive/2017/09/type2diabetesisreversible/

[5]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25515001

[6]https://cardiab.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2840-12-164

[7]http://circoutcomes.ahajournals.org/content/3/6/661

[8]https://www.perfectketo.com/how-too-much-protein-is-bad-for-ketosis/

[9]https://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-great-protein-fiasco/

[10]https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijes/vol10/iss8/16/

[11]https://optimisingnutrition.com/2017/10/30/nutrition-how-to-get-the-minimum-effective-dose/

[12]https://nutritionandmetabolism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12986-015-0009-2

optimising protein and insulin load

  • “Low carb”, “ketogenic” or “nutrient dense” mean different things to different people. Defining these terms numerically can help us to choose the right tool for the right application.
  • Decreasing the insulin load of your diet can help normalise blood glucose levels and enable your pancreas to keep up. However, at the same time, a high fat therapeutic ketogenic approach is not necessarily the most nutrient dense option, and may not be optimal in the long term, particularly if your goal is weight loss.
  • Balancing insulin load and nutrient density will enable you to identify the right approach for you at any given point in time.
  • This article suggests ideal macro nutrient, protein and insulin load, and carbohydrate levels for different people with different goals to use as a starting point as they work to optimise their weight and/or blood glucose levels.

context matters

Since I started blogging about the concepts of insulin load and proportion of insulinogenic calories many people have asked:

“What insulin load should I be aiming for?” 

Unfortunately, it’s hard to give a simple answer without some context.

The answer to this question depends on a person’s current metabolic health, age, activity level, weight, height and goals etc.

This post is my attempt to provide an answer with some context.

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disclaimers

Full disclosure…  I don’t like to measure the food I eat.  I have developed the optimal foods lists to highlight what I think are the best foods to suit different goals and levels of metabolic health.

I think food should be nutritious and satiating.  If your goal is to lose weight it will be hard to overeat if you limit your food choices to things like broccoli (which contains sulforaphane), celery, salmon and tuna.

At the same time, some people like to track their food.  Tracking food with apps like MyFitnessPal or Cron-O-Meter can be useful for a time to reflect and use as a tool to help you refine your food choices.  If you’re preparing for a bodybuilding competition you’re probably going to need to track your food to temporarily override your body’s survival to force it to shed additional weight.

Ideal macronutrient balance is a contentious issue and a lot has already been said on the topic.  I’ll try to focus on what I think I have to add to the discussion around the topics of insulin load and nutrient density.

If you want to and skip the detail in the rest of this article, this graphic from Dr Ted Naiman does a good job of summarising optimal foods and ideal macronutrient ranges.   If you’re interested in more detail on the topic, then read on.

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insulin is not the bad guy

The insulin load formula was designed to help us more accurately understand the insulin response to the food we eat, including protein and fibre.

insulin load = total carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 * protein

The first thing to understand is that insulin per se is not bad.  Insulin is required for energy metabolism and growth.  People who can’t produce enough insulin are called Type 1 Diabetics and typically don’t last long without insulin injections after they catabolize their muscle and body fat.

Insulin only really becomes problematic when we have too much of it (i.e. hyperinsulinemia[1]) due to excess processed carbohydrates (i.e. processed grains, added sugar and soft drinks) and/or a lack of activity which leads to insulin resistance.

The concepts of insulin load and proportion of insulinogenic calories can provide us with a better understanding of how different foods trigger an insulin response and how to quantitatively optimise the insulin load of our diet to suit our unique situation and goals.

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different degrees of the ketogenic diet

Words like “ketogenic”, “low carb” or “nutrient dense” mean different things to different people.   This is where using numbers can be useful to better define what we’re talking about and tailor a dietary approach.  For clarity, I have numerically defined a number of terms that you might hear.

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ketogenic ratio

The therapeutic ketosis community talks about a “ketogenic ratio” such as 3:1 or 4:1 which means that there are three or four parts fat (by weight) for every part protein plus carbohydrate.[2]

For example, a 3:1 ketogenic diet may contain 300g of fat plus 95g of protein with 5g of carbs.  This ends up being 87% fat.  A 4:1 ketogenic ratio is an even more aggressive ketogenic approach that is used in the treatment of epilepsy,[3] cancer or dementia and ends up being 90% fat.

These levels of ketosis are hard to achieve with real food and are hard to sustain in the long term.  Hence, it is typically used as a short term therapeutic treatment.

ratio of fat to protein

People in the ketogenic bodybuilding scene (e.g. Keto Gains) or weight loss might talk about a 1:1 ratio of fat to protein (by weight) for weight loss.    A diet with a 1:1 ratio of fat to protein could be 120g of fat plus 120g of protein.  If we threw in 20g of carbs this would come out at 66% fat (which is still pretty high by mainstream standards).   A 1:2 protein:fat ratio would end up being around 80% fat.

protein grammes per kilogramme of lean body weight

Some people prefer to talk in terms of terms of percentages or grammes of protein per kilo of lean body mass.  For example:

  • The generally accepted minimum level of protein is 0.8g/kg/day of lean body mass to prevent malnutrition.[4] This is based on a minimum requirement of 0.6kg to maintain nitrogen balance and prevent diseases of malnutrition plus a 25% or two standard deviations safety factor.[5]
  • In the Art and Science of Low Carb Performance Volek and Phinney talk recommend consuming between 1.5 and 2.0g/kg of reference body weight (i.e. RW). Reference weight is basically your ideal body weight say at a BMI of 25kg/m2.  So, 1.5 to 2.0kg RW equates to around 1.7 to 2.2g/kg lean body mass (LBM).
  • There is also a practical maximum level where people just can’t eat more lean protein (i.e. rabbit starvation[6]) which kicks in at around 35% of energy from protein.

The table below shows a list of rule of thumb protein quantities for different goals in terms of grams per kilogram of lean body mass and as a percentage of calories assuming weight maintenance.[7]

scenario % calories g/kg LBM
minimum (starvation) 6% 0.4
RDI/sedentary 11% 0.8
typical 16% 1.2
strength athlete 24% 1.8
maximum 35% 2.7

gluconeogenesis

You may have heard that body will convert ‘excess protein’ to glucose via gluconeogenesis, particularly if there are minimal carbohydrates in the diet and/or we can’t yet use fat for fuel.

For some people, this is a concern due to elevated blood glucose levels, but it may also mean that more protein is required because so much is being converted to glucose that you need more to maintain muscles growing your muscles.  As we become more insulin sensitive we may be able to get away with less protein because we are using it better (i.e. we are growing muscles rather than making glucose).

Most people eat more than the minimum level of protein to prevent malnutrition.  People looking to gain muscle mass will require higher levels.  Although keep in mind you do need to be exercising to gain muscle, not just eating protein.

Ensuring adequate protein and exercise is especially important as people age.  Sarcopenia is the process of age related muscle decline which is exacerbated in people with diabetes.

Sadly, many old people fall and break their bones and never get up again.   When it comes to longevity there is a balance between being too big (high IGF-1) and too frail (too little IGF-1).

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carbohydrate counting

Then there is carb counting.

  • People on a ketogenic approach tend to limit themselves to around 20g (net?) carbohydrates.
  • Low carbers might limit themselves to 50g carbs per day.
  • A metabolically healthy low carb athlete might try to stay under 100g of carbs per day.

Limiting non-fibre carbohydrates typically eradicates most processed foods (e.g. sugar, processed grains, sodas etc).   Nutrient density increases as we decrease the amount of non-fibre carbohydrates in our diet.

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protein, insulin load and nutrient density

In the milieu of discussion about protein, I think it’s important to keep in mind that minimum protein levels to prevent the diseases of malnutrition may not necessarily optimal for health and vitality.

Protein is the one macronutrient that correlates well with nutrient density.  Foods with a higher percentage of protein are typically more nutrient dense overall.

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Considering minimum protein levels may be useful if you are looking to drop your energy intake to the bare minimum and while still providing enough protein to prevent loss of lean muscle mass (e.g. a protein sparing modified fast).   However, if you are looking to fill up the rest of your energy intake with fat for weight maintenance then you should be aware that simply eating foods with a higher proportion of fat will not help you maximise nutrient density.

Practically though very high levels of protein will be difficult to achieve because they are very filling, thus it is practically difficult to eat more than around 35% of your energy from protein.  Protein is also an inefficient fuel source meaning that you will lose around 25% of the calories just digesting and converting it to glucose via digestion and gluconeogenesis.

If you are incorporating fasting then I think you will need to make sure you are getting at least the minimum as an average across the week, not just on feasting days to maintain nitrogen balance.  That is,  you might need to try to eat more protein on days you are eating.

what is ketosis?

“Ketogenic” simply means “generates ketones”.

An increase in ketosis occurs when there is a lack of glucogenic substrates (i.e. non-fibre carbohydrates and glucogenic protein).  It’s not primarily about eating an abundance of dietary fat

I think reducing insulin load (i.e. the amount of food that we eat that requires insulin to metabolise), rather than adding dietary fat, is really where it’s at if you’re trying to ‘get into ketosis’.   We can simply wind down the insulin load of our diet to the point that out blood glucose and insulin levels decrease and we can more easily access our stored body fat.

insulin load = total carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 * protein

Whether a particular approach is ketogenic (i.e. generates ketones) will depend on your metabolic health, activity levels and insulin resistance etc.

Whether you want to be generating ketones from the fat on your excess belly fat rather than your plate (or coffee cup) is also an important consideration if weight loss is one of your goals.

While people aiming for therapeutic ketosis might want to achieve elevated ketone levels by consuming more dietary fat, most people out there are just looking to lose weight for health and aesthetic reasons.  For most people, I think the first step is to reduce dietary insulin load until they achieve normalised blood glucose levels (i.e.  average BG less than 5.6mmol/L or 100mg/dL, blood ketones greater than 0.2 mmol/L).   People with diabetes often call this “eating to your meter”.

Once you’ve achieved normal blood glucose levels and some ketones the next step towards weight loss is to increase nutrient density while still maintaining ketosis.  Deeper levels of ketosis do not necessarily mean more fat loss, particularly if if you have to eat gobs of eating processed fat to get there.

Ray Cronise and David Sinclair recently published an article “Oxidative Priority, Meal Frequency, and the Energy Economy of Food and ACtivity:  Implications for Longevity, Obesity and Cardiometabolic Disease”  which does an interesting job of looking at the ‘oxidative priority’ of various nutrient and demonstrate that the body will burn through nutrients in the following order:

  1. alcohol,
  2. protein (not used for muscle protein synthesis),
  3. non-fibre carbohydrate, and then
  4. fat.

What this suggests to me is that if you want to burn your own body fat you need to minimise the alcohol, protein and carbohydrate which will burn first.  To me, this is another angle on the idea that insulin levels are the signal that stops our body from using our own body fat in times of plenty.   And if we want to access our own body fat we need to reduce the insulin load of our diet to the point we can release our own body fat.

insulin load versus nutrient density

The risk however with the insulin load concept is that people can take things to extremes.  If our only objective is to minimise insulin load we’ll end up just eating bacon, lard, MCT, olive oil… and not much else.

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In his “Perfect Health Diet” book Paul Jaminet talks about “nutrient hunger”, meaning that we are more likely to have an increased appetite if we are missing out on particular nutrients.  He says

“A nourishing, balanced diet that provides all the nutrients in the right proportions is the key to eliminating hunger and minimising appetite.“

In the chart below shows nutrient density versus proportion of insulinogenic calories.  The first thing to note is that there is a lot of scatter!  However, on the right-hand side of the chart, there are high carb soft drinks, breakfast cereals and processed grains that are nutrient poor.  But if we plot a trend line we see that nutrient density peaks somewhere around 40% insulinogenic calories.

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If you are metabolically challenged, you will want to reduce the insulin load of your diet to normalise blood glucose levels.  But if you reduce your insulin load too much you end up living on purified fats that aren’t necessarily nutrient dense.

If we are trying to avoid both carbohydrates and protein we end up limiting our food choices to macadamia nuts, pine nuts and a bunch of isolated fats that aren’t found in nature in that form.  Rather than living on copious amounts of refined oils I think we’re in much safer territory if we maximise nutrient density with whole foods while still maintaining optimal blood glucose levels.

The chart below shows the proportion of insulinogenic calories for the highest-ranking basket of foods (i.e. top 10% of the foods in the USDA foods database) for a range of approaches, from the low insulin therapeutic ketosis, through to the weight loss foods for someone who is insulin sensitive and a lot of fat is coming from their body.  At one end of the scale, a therapeutic ketogenic may only contain 14% insulinogenic calories while a more nutrient dense approach might have more than half of the food requires insulin to metabolise.

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macronutrient splits

It’s one thing to set theoretical macro nutrient targets, but real foods don’t come in neat little packages of protein, fat and carbohydrates.  The chart below shows the macro nutrient split of the most nutrient dense 10% of foods for each of the four nutritional approaches.  The protein level for the weight loss approach might seem high but then once we factor in an energy deficit from our body fat it comes back down.

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In reality, you’re probably not going to be able to achieve weight maintenance if you just stick to the nutrient dense weight loss foods.  You’ll either become full and will end up using your stored body fat to meet the energy deficit or you will reach for some more energy dense foods to make up the calorie deficit.  If you look at the macronutrient split of the most nutrient dense meals for the different approach you find they are lower in protein and higher in fat as shown in the chart below.

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nutrient density

The chart below shows the percentage of the daily recommended intake of essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids you can get from 2000 calories for each of the approaches.

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You can meet most of your nutritional requirements with a therapeutic ketogenic diet, however, you’ll have to eat enough calories to maintain your weight to prevent nutritional deficiencies.

As you progress to the more nutrient dense approaches you can meet your nutrient requirements with less energy intake.   The beauty of limiting yourself to nutrient dense whole foods is that you can obtain the required nutrition with less energy and you’ll likely be too full to overeat.

As far as I can see the holy grail of nutrition,  health and longevity is adequate energy without malnutrition.

If we look in more detail we can see that the weight loss (blue) and nutrient dense approaches (green) provide more of the essential micronutrients across the board, not just amino acids.

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While the protein levels in the “weight loss” and “most nutrient dense” approaches are quite high, keep in mind that the food ranking system only prioritises the nutrients that are harder to obtain.

The table below shows the various nutrients that are switched on in the food ranking system for each approach.

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This table shows the number of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids counted for each approach.

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In the weight loss and nutrient dense approach, of the twelve essential amino acids, only Tyrosine and Phenylalanine has been counted in the density ranking system.

It just so happens that protein levels are high in whole foods that contain essential vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. 

It appears that if you set out to actively avoid protein it may be harder to get other essential nutrients.  The risk here is that you may be setting yourself up for nutrient hunger, and rebound/stall inducing cravings in the long term as your body becomes depleted of the harder to obtain nutrients.

choosing the right approach for you

I believe one of the key factors in determining which nutritional approach is right for you is your blood glucose levels which give you an insight into your insulin levels and insulin sensitivity.

As shown in the chart below, if your blood glucose levels are high then it’s likely your insulin levels are also high which means you will not be able to easily to access your fat stores.  I have also created this survey which may help you identify whether you are insulin resistant and which foods might be ideal for you right now.

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While you may need to start out with a higher fat approach, as your glucose levels decrease and ketone levels rise a little you will be able to transition to more nutrient dense foods.

The table below shows the relationship between HbA1c, glucose, ketones and GKI.   Once you are getting good blood glucose levels you can start to focus more on nutrient density and weight loss.

 Risk level HbA1c average blood glucose ketones GKI
 (%)  (mmol/L)  (mg/dL)  (mmol/L)
low normal 4.1 4.0 70 5.5 0.7
optimal 4.5 4.6 83 2.5 1.8
excellent < 5.0 < 5.3 < 95 > 0.2 < 30
good < 5.4 < 6.0 < 108 < 0.2
danger > 6.5 7.8 > 140 < 0.2

more numbers

The table below shows what the different nutritional approaches look like in terms of:

  • ketogenic ratio
  • ratio of fat to protein
  • protein (g)/kg LBM
  • insulin load (g/kg LBM)
approach keto ratio fat : protein protein g/LBM insulin load (g/LBM)
therapeutic ketosis 1.8 2.2 1.0 0.9
diabetes 0.9 1.0 1.8 1.5
weight loss (incl. body fat) 0.5 0.6 2.5 2.4
nutrient dense 0.3 0.3 3.0 2.8

The 1.0g/kg LBM for therapeutic ketosis is greater than the RDA minimum of 0.8g/kg LBM so will still provide the minimum amount while still being ketogenic.  It’s hard to find a lot of foods that have less than 1.0g/kg LBM protein in weight maintenance without focussing on processed fats.

At the other extreme most nutrient dense foods are very high in protein but this might also be self-limiting meaning that people won’t be able to eat that much food.  As mentioned earlier, it will be hard to eat enough of the nutrient dense foods to maintain your current weight.  Either you will end up losing weight because you can’t fit as much of these foods in or reaching more energy dense lower nutrient density foods.  Also, if you found you were not achieving great blood glucose levels and some low-level ketones with mean and non-starchy veggies you might want to retreat to a higher fat approach.

The table below lists optimal foods for different goals from most nutrient dense to most ketogenic.    Hopefully, over time you should be able to work towards the more nutrient dense foods as your metabolism heals.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
therapeutic ketosis download

what about mTOR?

Many people are concerned about excess protein causing cancer or inhibiting mTOR (Mammalian Target of Rapamycin).[8]  [9]

From what I can see though, the story with mTOR is similar to insulin.  That is, constantly elevated insulin or constantly stimulated mTOR are problematic and cause excess growth without being interspersed with periods of breakdown and repair.

Our ancestors would have had times when insulin and mTOR were low during winter or between successful hunts.  But during summer (when fruits were plentiful) or after a successful hunt, insulin would be elevated and mTOR suppressed as they gorged on the nutrient dense bounty.

These days we’re more like the futuristic humans from Wall-E than our hunter gather ancestors.   We live in a temperature controlled environment with artificial lighting and tend to put food in our mouths from the moment we wake up to the time we fall asleep.[10]

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Rather than chronic monotony (e.g. eating five or six small meals per day every day), it seems that periods of growth (anabolism) and breakdown and cleaning (catabolism) are optimal to thrive in the long term.  We need periods of both.  One or the other chronically are bad news.

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As my wise friend Raymund Edwards from Optimal Ketogenic Living says

“FAST WELL, FEED WELL.” 

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how much protein?

Optimal protein levels are a contentious topic.  There is research out there that says that excess protein can be problematic from a longevity perspective.  Protein promotes growth, IGF-1, insulin and cell turnover which can theoretically compromise longevity.  At the same time, there are plenty of studies that indicate that we need much more protein than the minimum RDI levels.[11]

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In the end, you need to eat enough protein to prevent loss of lean muscle and maintain strength.  If you’re trying to build lean muscle and working out, then higher levels of protein may be helpful to support muscle growth.  If you are trying to lose weight, then higher levels of protein can be useful to increase satiety and prevent loss of lean muscle mass.  Maintaining muscle mass is critical to keeping your metabolic rate high and avoiding the reduction that can come with chronic restriction.[12] [13]

In addition to building our muscles, protein is critical for building our bones, heart, organs and providing many of the neurotransmitters required for mental health.  So protein from real whole foods is generally nothing to be afraid of.  It’s typically the processed high carb foods that make the detrimental impact on insulin and blood glucose levels.

The table below shows a starting point for protein in grammes depending on your height.  This assumes that someone with a lean body mass (LBM) of 80 kg is burning 2000 calories per day and your lean body mass equates to a BMI of 20 kg/m2.  LBM is current weight minus fat mass minus skeletal mass which again is hard to estimate without a DEXA.

There are a lot of assumptions here so you will need to take as a rule of thumb starting point and track your weight and blood glucose levels and refine accordingly.  It’s unlikely that you will get to the high protein levels of the most nutrient dense approach because either you would feel too full or your glucose levels may rise and ketones disappear, so most people, unless your name is Duane Johnson, will need to moderate back from that level.

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Example:  Let’s say for example you were 180cm and were managing diabetes and elevated blood glucose levels.  You would start with around 117g of protein per day as an initial target and test how that worked with your blood glucose levels.  If your blood glucose levels on average were less than say 5.6mmol/L or 100mg/dL and your ketones were above 0.2mmol/L you could consider increasing transitioning to more nutrient dense foods. 

If you want to see what this looks like in terms of real foods and real meal meals check out the optimal food list and the optimal meals for the different approaches.

insulin load

Using a similar approach, we can calculate the daily insulin load (in grammes) depending on your height and goals.  The values in this table can be used as a rule of thumb for the insulin load of your diet.

If you are not achieving your blood glucose or weight loss goals, then you can consider winding the insulin load back down.  If you are achieving great blood glucose levels, then you might consider choosing more nutrient dense food which might involve more whole protein and more nutrient dense green leafy veggies.

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Example:  Let’s say for example you are an 180cm person with good glucose control but still wanting to lose weight, your initial target insulin load would be 156g from the superfoods for fat loss list.  If you were not losing weight at this level, you could look to wind it back a little until you started losing weight.  If you are consistently achieving blood glucose levels less than 5.6mmol/L or 100mg/dL and ketones greater than 0.2mmol/L you could consider transitioning to more nutrient dense foods. 

summary

In summary, reducing the insulin load of your diet is an important initial step.  However, as your blood glucose and insulin levels normalise there are a number of other steps that you can take towards optimising nutrient density on your journey towards optimal health and body fat.

  1. Reduce the insulin load of your diet (i.e. eliminate processed carbage and maybe consider moderating protein if still necessary) to normalise blood glucose levels and reduce insulin levels to facilitate access to stored body fat.
  2. If your blood glucose levels are less than say 5.6 mmol/L or 100mg/dL and your ketone levels are greater than say 0.2 mmol/L then you could consider transitioning to more nutrient dense foods.
  3. If further weight loss is required, maximise nutrient density and reduce added fats to continue weight loss.
  4. Consider also adding an intermittent fasting routine with periods of nutrient dense feasting. Modify the feasting/fasting cycles to make sure you are getting the results you are after over the long term.
  5. Once optimal/goal weight is achieved, enjoy nutrient dense fattier foods as long as optimal weight and blood glucose levels are maintained.
  6. If blood glucose levels are greater than optimal blood glucose levels, return to step 1.
  7. If current weight is greater goal weight return to step 3.

 

 

references

[1] http://diabesity.ejournals.ca/index.php/diabesity/article/view/19

[2] http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/treating-seizures-and-epilepsy/dietary-therapies/ketogenic-diet

[3] http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/treating-seizures-and-epilepsy/dietary-therapies/ketogenic-diet

[4] http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096

[5] https://intensivedietarymanagement.com/how-much-protein-is-excessive/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein_poisoning

[7] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/08/31/optimal-protein-intake/

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yv-M-5-s9B0

[9] http://nutritionfacts.org/video/prevent-cancer-from-going-on-tor/

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPpAvvPG0nc

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27109436

[12] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/5/1558S.long

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protein-sparing_modified_fast

 

post last updated July 2017

the complete guide to fasting (review)

Considering the massive amount of research and interest in the idea of fasting, not a lot has been written for the general population on the topic.

Brad Pilon’s 2009 e-book Eat Stop Eat was a great, though fairly concise, resource on the mechanisms and benefits of fasting.

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Martin Berkhan’s LeanGains blog had a cult following for a while in the bodybuilding community.

image17Michael Mosley’s 2012 documentary Eat, Fast and Live Longer documentary piqued the public interest and was followed by the popular 5:2 Diet book.

Then in 2013, Jason Fung emerged onto the low carb scene with his epic six part Aetiology of Obesity YouTube Series in which he detailed a wide range of theories relating to obesity and diabetes.

Essentially, Jason’s key points are that:

  • simply treating Type 2 diabetes with more insulin to suppress blood glucose levels while continuing to eat the diet that caused the diabetes is futile,
  • people with Type 2 diabetes are already secreting plenty of insulin, and
  • insulin resistance is the real problem that needs to be addressed.

Jason’s Intensive Dietary Management blog has explored a lot of concepts that made their way into his March 2016 book, The Obesity Code.  However surprisingly, given that Jason is the fasting guy, the book didn’t talk much about fasting.

my experience with fasting

I have benefited personally from implementing an intermittent fasting routine after getting my head around Jason’s work.  I like the way I look and perform, both mentally and physically, after a few days of not eating.  I also like the way my belt feels looser and my clothes fit better.

Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.

St Augustine

I recently did a seven day fast and since then I’ve done a series of four day fasts, testing my glucose and blood and breath ketones with a range of different supplements (e.g. alkaline mineral mix, exogenous ketones, bulletproof coffee/fat fast and Nicotinamide Riboside) to see if they made any difference to how I feel and perform, both mentally and physically.

Fasting does become easier with practice as your body gets used to accessing fat for fuel.

I love the mental clarity!   My workout performance and capacity even seem to be better when I’ve fasted for a few days.

My key fasting takeaways are:

  1. Fasting is not that hard. Give it a try.
  2. You can build up slowly.
  3. If you don’t feel good. Eat!

The more I learn about health and nutrition, the more I realise how critical it is to be able to burn fat and conserve glucose for occasional use.  We get into all sorts of trouble when we get stuck burning glucose.

Our body is like a hybrid car with a slow burning fat motor (with a big fuel tank) and high octane glucose motor (with a small fuel tank).  If you’re always filling the small high octane fuel tank to overflowing, you’ll always be stuck burning glucose and your fat burning engine will start to seize up (i.e. insulin resistance and diabetes).

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Reducing the processed carbs in our diet enables us to lower our insulin levels and retrain our body to burn fat again.  But nothing lowers insulin as aggressively and effectively as not eating.

Even though lots of Jason’s thoughts on fasting seem self-evident, his blog elucidating them has been very popular, perhaps because the concept of fasting is novel in the context of our current nutritional education.

We’ve been trained, or at least given permission, to eat as often as we want by the people that are selling food or sponsored by them.[1]

context

Jason’s angle on obesity and diabetes comes from his background as a nephrologist (kidney specialist) who deals with chronically ill people who are a long way down the wrong track before they come to his office.  Jason also talks about how he had tried to educate his patients about reducing their carbs, however, after eating the same thing for 70 years, this is just too hard for many people to change.

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Desperate times call for desperate measures!

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Many of these patients come to him jamming in hundreds of units a day of insulin to suppress blood glucose levels, even though their own pancreas is still likely secreting more than enough insulin.

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Rather than continuing to hammer more insulin to suppress the symptom (high blood glucose), the solution, according to Jason, is to attack the ultimate cause (insulin resistance) directly.

Jimmy Moore is well known to most people that have an interest in low carb or ketogenic diets.  Whether you agree with his approach, it’s safe to say that low carb and keto would not be as popular today without his role.

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Meanwhile, Jason talks about trying to educate people about reducing the processed carbs from their diet not working, not because of the science but more due to people not being able to change their eating habits after 70 years.

the Complete Guide to Fasting

You’ve probably heard by now that Jason has teamed up with Jimmy to write The Complete  Guide to Fasting which captures Jason’s extensive thoughts on fasting from the blog along with Jimmy’s n=1 experiences and wraps them up in a cohesive comprehensive manual with a colourful bow.

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Jason and Jimmy both sent me a copy of their new 304-page book, The Complete Guide to Fasting, to review (thanks guys).   So here goes…

Similar to The Obesity Code, TCGTF is a compilation of ideas that Jason has developed on his Intensive Dietary Management blog.  Blogging is a great way to get the ideas together and thrash them out in a public forum.   Some people love to read the latest blog posts and debate the minutiae, however, most people would rather spend the $9 and sit down with a comprehensive book and get the full story.

Unlike The Obesity Code, TCGTF is a bright, ffull-colourproduction with great graphics that will make it worth buying the hard copy to have and to hold.

TCGTF did originally have the working title Fasting Clarity as a follow on from Jimmy’s previous Cholesterol Clarity and Keto Clarity.   However, other than Jimmy’s discussion of his n=1 fasting experiences, TCGTF is predominantly written in Jason’s voice building from his blog, so it wouldn’t be appropriate for it to have become the third in Jimmy’s Clarity series.

What is similar to Jimmy’s clarity series is that it’s easy to read and accessible for people who are looking for an entry level resource.  This book will be great for people who are interested in the idea of fasting.  It is indeed the complete guide to fasting and is full of references to studies, however, it doesn’t go into so much depth as to lose the average reader with scientific detail and jargon.

The book covers:

  • Jimmy’s n=1 experience with fasting,
  • Dr George Cahill’s seminal work on the effects of fasting on metabolism, glucose, ghrelin, insulin, and electrolytes,
  • the history of fasting over the centuries,
  • myth busting about fasting,
  • fasting in weight loss,
  • fasting and diabetes, physical health, and mental clarity,
  • managing hunger during a fast,
  • when not to fast, and
  • when fasting can go wrong.

The book is complete with a section on fasting fluids (water, coffee, tea, broth) and a range of different protocols that you can use depending on what suits you.  What did seem out of place are the recipes for proper meals.  Apparently, the publisher insisted they include these to widen the appeal (If you don’t like the fasting bit you’ve still got some new recipes?)

Overall, the book will be an obvious addition to the library (or Kindle) of people who are already fans of Jason and / or Jimmy and want a polished, consolidated presentation of all their previous work with a bunch of new material added.

TCGTF will also be a great read for someone who is interested learning more about fasting and wants to start at the beginning.   TCGTF is the most comprehensive book on the topic of fasting that I’m aware of.

my additional 2c…

Jason doesn’t mind weighing into a controversial argument, using some hyperbole or dropping the occasional F-bomb for effect and Jimmy’s no stranger to controversy either, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to give you my 2c on some of the topical issues at the fringe that aren’t specifically unpacked in the book.  We learn more as we thrash out the controversial issues at the fringes.   Many arguments come down to context.

target glucose levels

Jason has come under attack for using the word ‘cured’ in relation to HbAc1 values that most diabetes associations would consider non-diabetic,[2] though are not yet optimal.[3]

In the book Jason does discuss relaxing target blood glucose levels during fasting.  This makes sense for someone taking a slew of diabetic medications.   They’re probably not going to continue the journey if they end up in a hypoglycaemic coma on day one.

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The chart below shows the real life blood glucose variability for someone with Type 1 Diabetes on a standard diet.  With such massive fluctuations in glucose levels, it’s impossible to target ideal blood glucose levels (e.g. Dr Bernstein’s magic target blood glucose number of 4.6 mmol/L or 83 mg/dL).

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If your glucose levels are swinging wildly due to a poor diet coupled with lots of medication, your glucose levels are simply going to tank when you stop eating.  Hence, a safe approach is to back off the medication, at least initially, until your glucose levels have normalized.

Being married to someone with Type 1 Diabetes, I have learned the practical realities of getting blood glucose levels as low as possible while still avoiding dangerous lows.[4]  My wife Monica doesn’t feel well when her blood glucose levels are too low, but neither does she feel good with high blood glucose levels.  Balancing insulin and food to get blood glucose levels as low as possible without experiencing lows requires constant monitoring.

The chart below shows how scattered blood glucose levels can be even if you’re fairly well controlled.   Ideally you want the average blood glucose level to be as low as possible while minimising the number of hypoglycaemic episodes (i.e. below the red line).  If you can’t reduce the variability you just can’t bring the average blood glucose level down.  The last thing you want is to be eating to raise your blood glucose levels because you had too much blood glucose lowering medication.

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Pretty much everyone agrees that it’s dumb to be eating crap food and dosing with industrial levels of insulin to manage blood glucose levels.   High levels of exogenous insulin just drive the sugar that is not being used to be stored as fat in your belly, then your organs, and then in the more fragile places like your eyes and the brain.

Jason’s perspective is that people who are chronically insulin resistant and morbidly obese are likely producing more than enough insulin.  The last thing they need is exogenous insulin which will keep the fat locked up in their belly and vital organs.  Dropping insulin levels as low as possible using a low insulin load diet and fasting coupled with reducing medications will let the fat flow out.

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fasting to optimise blood glucose levels

In the long run, neither high insulin nor high glucose levels are optimal.

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Once you’ve broken the back of your insulin resistance with fasting, you can continue to drive your blood glucose levels down towards optimal levels.

One of the most popular articles on the Optimising Nutrition blog is how to use your glucose meter as a fuel gauge which details how you can time your fasting based on your blood glucose levels to ensure they continue to reduce.

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Your blood glucose levels can help calibrate your hunger and help you to understand if you really need to eat.  I think this is a great approach for people whose main issue is high blood glucose levels and who aren’t ready to launch into longer multi day fasts.

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In a similar way, a disciplined fasting routine can help optimise blood glucose levels in the long term.  The chart below shows a plot of Rebecca Latham’s blood glucose levels over three months where she used her fasting blood glucose numbers AND body weight to decide if she would eat on any given day.

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While there is some scatter in the blood glucose levels, you can see that regular fasting does help to reduce blood glucose levels over the long term.

Once you’ve lost your weight , broken the back of your insulin resistance and stopped eating crap food, you may find that you still need some exogenous insulin or other diabetic medication to optimise blood glucose levels if you have burned out your pancreas.

fasting frequency

The TGTF book covers off on several fasting regimens such as intermittent fasting, 24 hours, 36 hours, 42 hours and 7 to 14 days.  One concept that I’m intrigued by, similar to the idea of using your glucose meter as a fuel gauge, is using your bathroom scale as a fuel gauge.

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The reality, at least in my experience, is that we can overcompensate for our fasting during our feasting and end up not moving forward toward our goal.

If your goal is to lose weight I like the idea of tracking your weight and not eating on days that your weight is above your goal weight for that day.

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Again, Rebecca Latham has done a great job building an online community around the concept of using weight as a signal to fast through her Facebook group  My Low Carb Road – Fasting Support.

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The chart below shows Rebecca’s weight loss journey through 2016 where she initially targeted a weight loss of 0.2 pounds AND a reduction of 0.25 mg/dL in blood glucose per day.   After three months, she stabilized for a period (during a period when she had a number of major family issues to look after).  She is now using a less aggressive weight loss goal as she heads for her long-term target weight at the end of the year.

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The chart below shows the fasting frequency required to achieve her goals during 2016.  Tracking her weight against her target rate of weight loss has required her to fast a little more than one day in three to stay on track.

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Eating quality food is part of the battle, but managing how often you eat is also an important consideration.  After you’ve fasted for a few days, you can easily excuse yourself for eating more when you feast again.  And maybe it’s OK to enjoy your food when you do eat rather than tracking every calorie and trying to consciously limit them.

The obvious caveat is that there are a lot of other things that influence your scale weight such as muscle gain, water, GI tract contents etc, but this is another way to keep yourself accountable over the long term.

FAST WELL, FEED WELL

Fasting is a key component of the metabolic healing process, but it’s only one part of the story.

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Fasting is like ripping out your kitchen to put in a new one.   You have to demolish and remove the old stovetop to put the new shiny one back in.  You don’t sticky tape the new marble bench top over the crappy old Laminex.  You have to clean out the old junk before you implement the new, latest, and greatest model.

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In fasting, the demolition process is called autophagy, where the body ‘self eats’ the old proteins and aging body parts.   The great thing about minimising all food intake is that you get a deeper cleanse than other options such as fat fast, 500 calories per day or a protein sparing modified fast (PSMF).

But keep in mind that it’s the feast after the fast that builds up the shiny, new body parts that will help you live a longer, healthier, and happier life.

“Fasting without proper refeeding is called anorexia.” 

Mike Julian

Even fasting guru Valter Longo is now talking about the importance of feast / fast cycles rather than chronic restriction.  In the end you need to find the right balance of feasting / fasting, insulin / glucagon, mTOR / AMPK that is right for you.

In TCGTF, Jason and Jimmy talk about prioritising nutrient dense, natural, unprocessed,  low carb, moderate protein foods after the fast.  I’d like to reiterate that principle and emphasise that nutrient density becomes even more important if you are fasting regularly or for longer periods.

In the long term, I think your body will drive you to seek out more food if you’re not giving it the nutrients it needs to thrive.  Conversely, I think if you are providing your body with the nutrients it needs with the minimum of calories I think you will have a better chance of accessing your own body fat and reaching your fat loss goals.

optimising insulin levels AND nutrient density

It’s been great to see the concept of the food insulin index and insulin load being used by so many people!  In theory, when people reduce the insulin load of their diet they more easily access their own body fat and thus normalizes appetite.

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Some people who are very insulin resistant do well, at least initially, on a very high fat diet.  However, as glycogen levels are depleted and blood glucose levels start to normalise, I think it is prudent to transition to the most nutrient dense foods possible while still maintaining good (though maybe not yet optimal) blood glucose levels.

The problem with doubling down on reducing insulin by fasting combined with eating only ultra-low insulinogenic foods is that you end up “refeeding” with refined fat after your fast.

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While lowering carbs and improving food quality is the first step, I think that, as soon as possible you should start focusing on building up your metabolic machinery (i.e.  muscles and mitochondria).   A low carb nutrient dense diet is part of the story, but I don’t see many people with amazing insulin sensitivity that don’t also have a good amount of lean muscle mass which is critical to ‘glucose disposal’, good blood sugar levels and metabolic health.

This recent IHMC video from Doug McGuff provides a stark reminder of why we should all be focusing on maximising strength and lean muscle mass to slow aging.

The chart below shows a comparison of the nutrient density of the various dietary approaches.  Unfortunately, a super high fat diet is not necessarily going to be as nutrient dense and thus support muscle growth, weight loss, or optimal mitochondrial function as well as other options.

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The chart below (click to enlarge) shows a comparison of the various essential nutrients provided by a high fat therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach versus a nutrient dense approach that would suit someone who is insulin sensitive.

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I developed a range of lists of optimal foods that will help people in different situations with different goals to maximise the nutrient density that should be delivered in the feast after the fast.   The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs.  The table is sorted from highest to lowest nutrient density.   In time, you may be able to progress to a more nutrient dense set of foods as your insulin resistance improves.

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

protein

Jason had  a “robust discussion” with Steve Phinney over the topic of ideal protein levels recently during the Q&A session at the recent Low Carb Vail Conference.

To give some context again, Phinney is used to dealing with athletes who require optimal performance and are looking to optimise strength.  Meanwhile Jason’s patient population is typically morbidly obese people who are on kidney dialysis and probably have some excess protein, as well as a lot of fat that they could donate to the cause of losing weight.

I also know that Jimmy is a fan of Ron Rosedale’s approach of minimising protein to minimise stimulation of mTOR.  Jimmy and Ron are currently working on another book (mTOR Clarity?).  Protein also stimulates mTOR which regulates growth which is great when you’re young but perhaps is not so great when you’ve grown more than enough.

The typical concern that people have with protein in a ketogenic context is that it raises blood insulin in people who are insulin resistant.  ‘Excess protein’ can be converted to blood glucose via gluconeogenesis in people who are insulin resistant and can’t metabolise fat very well.

Managing insulin dosing for someone with Type 1 Diabetes like my wife Monica is a real issue, though she doesn’t actively avoid protein.  She just needs to dose with adequate insulin for the protein being eaten to manage the glucose rise.

The chart below shows the difference in glucose and insulin response to protein in people who have Type 2 Diabetes (yellow lines) versus insulin sensitive (white lines) showing that someone who is insulin resistant will need more insulin to deal with the protein.

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As well as insulin resistance, these people are also “anabolic resistant” meaning that some of the protein that they eat is turned into glucose rather than muscle leaving them with muscles that are wasting away.

People who are insulin resistant are leaching protein into their bloodstream as glucose because they can’t mobilise their fat stores for fuel.  They are dependent on glucose and they’ll even catabolise their own muscle to get the glucose they need if they stop eating glucose.

While it’s nice to minimise insulin levels, I wonder whether people who are in this situation may actually need more protein to make up for the protein that is being lost by the conversion to glucose to enable them to maintain lean muscle mass.  Perhaps it’s actually the people who are insulin sensitive that can get away with lower levels of protein?

As well as improving diet quality which will reduce insulin and thus improve insulin resistance, in the long term it’s also very important to maintain and build muscle to be able to dispose of glucose efficiently and also improve insulin resistance.

In TCGTF Jason talks about the fact that the rate of the use of protein for fuel is reduced during a fast and someone becomes more insulin sensitive.  He goes to great lengths to point out that concern over muscle loss shouldn’t stop you trying out fasting (which is a valid point).

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A big part of the magic of fasting is that you clean out some of your oldest and dodgiest proteins in your body and set the stage for rebuilding back new high quality parts.   But the reality is that you will lose some protein from your body during a fast (though this is not altogether a bad thing).[5] [6]

Bodybuilders often talk about the “anabolic window” after a workout where they can maximise muscle growth after a workout.  Similarly, one of the awesome things about fasting is that you reduce your insulin resistance and anabolic resistance meaning that when at the end of your fast your body is primed to allocate the high quality nutrients you eat in the right place (i.e. your muscles not your belly or blood stream).

In the end, I think optimal protein intake has to be guided to some extent by appetite.  You’ll want more if you need it, and less if you don’t.

I think if we focus on eating from a shortlist of nutrient dense unprocessed foods we won’t have to worry too much about whether we should be eating 0.8 or 2.2 g/kg of lean body mass.

However, avoiding nutrient dense, protein-containing foods and instead “feasting” on processed fat when you break your fast will be counter-productive if your goal is weight loss and waste a golden opportunity to build new muscle.

are you really insulin resistant?

Insulin resistance and obesity is a continuum.

Not everyone who is obese is necessarily insulin resistant.

If you are really insulin resistant, then fasting, reducing carbs, and maybe increasing the fat content of your diet will enable you to improve your insulin resistance.  This will then help with appetite regulation because your ketones will kick in when your blood glucose levels drop.

However, if you continue to overdo your energy intake (e.g. by chasing high ketones with a super high fat, low protein diet), then chances are, just like your body is primed to store protein as muscle, you will be very effective at storing that dietary fat as body fat.

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I fear there are a lot of people who are obese but actually insulin sensitive who are pursuing a therapeutic ketogenic dietary approach in the belief that it will lead to weight loss.  If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and whether you are insulin resistant, this survey may help you identify your optimal dietary approach.

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optimal ketone levels

Measuring ketones is really fascinating but confusing as well.

“Don’t be a purple peetone chaser.”

Carrie Brown, The Ketovangelist Podcast Ep 78

Urine ketones strips have limited use and will disappear as you start to actually use the ketones for energy.

In a similar way blood ketones can be fleeting.  Some is better than none, but more is not necessarily better.  As shown in the chart of my seven day fast below I have had amazing ketones and felt really buzzed at that point but since then I haven’t been able to repeat this.  I think sometimes as your body adapts to burning fat for fuel the ketones may be really high but then as it becomes efficient it will stabilise and run at lower ketone levels even when fasting.

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If your ketone levels are high when fasting then that’s great.  Keep it up.  They might stay high.  They might decrease.  But don’t chase super high ketones in the fed state unless you are about to race the Tour de France or if you want your body to pump out some extra insulin to bring them back down and store them as fat.

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The chart below shows the sum of 1200 data points of ketones and blood glucose levels from about 30 people living a ketogenic lifestyle.  Some of the time they have really high blood ketone levels but I think the real magic of fasting happens when the energy in our bloodstream decreases and we force our body to rely on our own body fat stores.

the root cause of insulin resistance is…

So we’ve worked out that large amounts of processed carbs drive high blood glucose and insulin levels which is bad.

We’ve also worked out that insulin resistance drives insulin levels higher, which is bad.

But what is the root cause of insulin resistance?

I think Jason has touched on a key component in that, as with many things, resistance is caused by excess.  If we can normalise insulin levels, then our sensitivity to insulin will return, similar to our exposure to caffeine or alcohol.

However, at the same time, I think insulin resistance is potentially more fundamentally caused by our sluggish mitochondria that don’t have enough capacity (number or strength) to process the energy we are throwing at them, regardless of whether they come from protein, carbs, or fat.

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A low carb diet lowers the bar to enable us to normalise our blood glucose levels.  However, the other end of the spectrum is focusing on training our body and our mitochondria to be able to jump higher.  In the long term this is achieved through, among other things, maximising nutrient dense foods and building lean body mass through resistance exercise.

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summary

  1. The Complete Guide to Fasting is, as per the title, the complete guide to fasting. It’s the most comprehensive guide to the nuances of fasting out there and there’s a good balance between the technical detail, while still being accessible for the general public.
  2. Fasting can help optimise blood glucose and weight in the long term, with a disciplined regimen.
  3. Fasting makes the body more insulin sensitive and primes it for growth. When you feast after you fast, it is ideal to make sure you maximise nutrient density of the food you eat as much as possible while maintaining reasonable blood glucose levels.
  4. Understanding your current degree of insulin resistance can help you decide which nutritional approach is right for you. As you implement a fasting routine and transition from insulin resistance to insulin sensitivity you will likely benefit from transitioning from a low insulin load approach to a more nutrient dense approach.

references

[1] https://intensivedietarymanagement.com/of-traitors-and-truths/

[2] https://www.diabetes.org.uk/About_us/What-we-say/Diagnosis-ongoing-management-monitoring/New_diagnostic_criteria_for_diabetes/

[3] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/22/diabetes-102/

[4] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/08/17/balancing-diet-and-diabetes-medications/

[5] https://www.dropbox.com/s/h3pi53njcfu4czl/Physiological%20adaptation%20to%20prolonged%20starvation%20-%20Deranged%20Physiology.pdf?dl=0

[6] https://www.facebook.com/groups/optimisingnutrition/permalink/1602953576672351/?comment_id=1603210273313348&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R9%22%7D

energy density, food hyper-palatability and reverse engineering optimal foraging theory

In Robb Wolf’s new book Wired to Eat he talks about the dilemma of optimal foraging theory (OFT) and how it’s a miracle in our modern environment that even more of us aren’t fat, sick and nearly dead.[1]

But what is optimal foraging theory[2]?   In essence, it is the concept that we’re programmed to hunt and gather and ingest as much energy as we can with the least amount of energy expenditure or order to maximise survival of the species.

In engineering or economics, this is akin to a cost : benefit analysis.  Essentially we want maximum benefit for minimum investment.

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In a hunter-gatherer / paleo / evolutionary context this would mean that we would make an investment (i.e. effort / time / hassle that we could have otherwise spent having fun, procreating or looking after our family) to travel to new places where food was plentiful and easier to obtain.

In these new areas, we could spend as little time as possible hunting and gathering and more time relaxing.  Once the food became scarce again we would move on to find another ‘land of plenty’.

The people who were good at obtaining the maximum amount of food with the minimum amount of effort survived and thrived and populated the world, and thus became our ancestors.  Those that didn’t, didn’t.

You can see how the OFT paradigm would be well imprinted on our psyche.

OFT in the wild

In the wild, OFT means that native hunter-gatherers would have gone bananas for bananas when they were available…

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… gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain energy dense honey …

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… and eat the fattiest cuts of meat and offal, giving the muscle meat to the dogs.

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OFT in captivity

But what happens when we translate OFT into a modern context?

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Until recently we have never had the situation where nutrition and energy could be separated.

In nature, if something tastes good it is generally good for you.

Our ancestors, at least the ones that survived, grew to understand that as a general rule:

 sweet = good = energy to survive winter

But now we have entered a brave new world.

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We are now surrounded by energy dense hyper-palatable foods that are designed to taste good without providing substantial levels of nutrients.

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Our primal programming is defenceless to these foods.  Our willpower or our calorie counting apps are no match for engineered foods optimised for bliss point.

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These days diabetes is becoming a bigger problem than starvation in the developing world due to a lack of nutritional value in the foods they are eating.[3]

The recent industrialisation of the world food system has resulted in a nutritional transition in which developing nations are simultaneously experiencing undernutrition and obesity.

In addition, an abundance of inexpensive, high-density foods laden with sugar and fats is available to a population that expends little energy to obtain such large numbers of calories.

Furthermore, the abundant variety of ultra processed foods overrides the sensory-specific satiety mechanism, thus leading to overconsumption.”[4]

what happens when we go low fat?

So if the problem is simply that we eat too many calories, one solution is to reduce the energy density of our food by avoiding fat, which is the most energy dense of the macronutrients.

Sounds logical, right?

The satiety index demonstrates that there is some basis to the concept that we feel more full with lower energy density, high fibre, high protein foods.[5] [6]   The chart below shows how hungry people report being in the two hours after being fed 1000 kJ of different foods (see the low energy density high nutrient density foods for weight loss article for more on this complex and intriguing topic).

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However the problem comes when we focus on reducing fat (along with perhaps reduced cost, increased shelf life and palatability combined with an attempt to reach that optimal bliss point[7]), we end up with cheap manufactured food-like products that have little nutritional value.

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Grain subsidies were brought in to establish and promote cheap ways to feed people to prevent starvation with cheap calories.[8]  It seems now they’ve achieved that goal.[9]

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Maybe a little too well.

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The foods lowest in fat, however, are not necessarily the most nutrient dense.     Nutritional excellence and macronutrients are not necessarily related.

In his blog post Overeating and Brain Evolution: The Omnivore’s REAL Dilemma Robb Wolf says:

I am pretty burned out on the protein, carbs, fat shindig. I’m starting to think that framework creates more confusion than answers.

Thinking about optimum foraging theory, palate novelty and a few related topics will (hopefully) provide a much better framework for folks to affect positive change. 

The chart below shows a comparison of the micronutrients provided by the least nutrient-dense 10% of foods versus the most nutrient dense foods compared to the average of all foods available in the USDA foods database.

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The quantity of essential nutrients you can get with the same amount of energy is massive!  If eating is about obtaining adequate nutrients then the quality of our food, not just macronutrients or calories matters greatly!

Another problem with simply avoiding fat is that the foods lowest in fat are also the most insulinogenic, so we’re left with foods that don’t satiate us with nutrients and also raise our insulin levels.  The chart below shows that the least nutrient dense food are also the most insulinogenic.


what happens when we go low carb?

So the obvious thing to do is eliminate all carbohydrates because low fat was such a failure.  Right?

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So we swing to the other extreme and avoid all carbohydrates and enjoy fat ad libitum to make up for lost time.

The problem again is that at the other extreme of the macronutrient pendulum we may find that we have limited nutrients.

The chart below shows a comparison of the nutrient density of different dietary approaches showing that a super high fat therapeutic ketogenic approach may not be ideal for everyone, at least in terms of nutrient density.  High-fat foods are not always the most nutrient dense and can also, just like low-fat foods, be engineered to be hyperpalatable to help us to eat more of them.

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The chart below shows the relationship (or lack thereof) between the percentage of fat in our food and the nutrient density.   Simply avoiding or binging on fat does not ensure we are optimising our nutrition.

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While many people find that their appetite is normalised whey they reduce the insulin load of their diet high-fat foods are more energy dense so it can be easy to overdo the high-fat dairy and nuts if you’re one of the unlucky people whose appetite doesn’t disappear.

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what happens when we go paleo?

So if the ‘paleo diet’ worked so well for paleo peeps then maybe we should retreat back there?  Back to the plantains, the honey and the fattiest cuts of meat?

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Well, maybe.  Maybe not.

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For some people ‘going paleo’ works really well.  Particularly if you’re really active.

Nutrient dense, energy dense whole foods work really well if you’re also going to the CrossFit Box to hang out with your best buds five times a week.

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But for the rest of us that aren’t insanely active, then maybe simply ‘going paleo’ is not the best option…

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… particularly if we start tucking into the energy dense ‘paleo comfort foods’.

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If we’re not so active, then intentionally limiting our exposure to highly energy dense hyper palatable foods can be a useful way to manage our OFT programming.

enter nutrient density

A lot of people find that nutrient dense non-starchy veggies, or even simply going “plant-based”, works really well, particularly if you have some excess body fat (and maybe even stored protein) that you want to contribute to your daily energy expenditure.

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Limiting ourselves to the most nutrient-dense foods (in terms of nutrients per calorie) enables us to sidestep the trap of modern foods which have separated nutrients and energy.  Nutrient-dense foods also boost our mitochondrial function, and fuel the fat burning Krebs cycle so we can be less dependent on a regular sugar hit to make us feel good (Cori cycle).

Limiting yourself to nutrient dense foods (i.e. nutrients per calorie) is a great way to reverse engineer optimal foraging theory.

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If your problem is that energy dense low nutrient density hyperpalatable foods are just too easy to overeat, then actively constraining your foods to those that have the highest nutrients per calorie could help manage the negative effects of OFT that are engrained in our system by imposing an external constraint.

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But if you’re a lean Ironman triathlete these foods are probably not going to get you through.  You will need more energy than you can easily obtain from nutrient-dense spinach and broccoli.

optimal rehabilitation plan?

So while there is no one size fits all solution, it seems that we have some useful principles that we can use to shortlist our food selection.

  1. We are hardwired to get the maximum amount of energy with the least amount of effort (i.e. optimal foraging theory).
  2. Commercialised manufactured foods have separated nutrients from food and made it very easy to obtain a lot of energy with a small investment.
  3. Eliminating fat can leave us with cheap hyperpalatable grain-based fat-free highly insulinogenic foods that will leave us with spiralling insulin and blood glucose levels.
  4. Eating nutrient dense whole foods is a great discipline, but we still need to tailor our energy density to our situation (i.e. weight loss vs athlete).

the solution

So I think we have three useful quantitative parameters with which to optimise our food choices to suit our current situation:

  1. insulin load (which helps as to normalise our blood glucose levels),
  2. nutrient density (which helps us make sure we are getting the most nutrients per calorie possible), and
  3. energy density (helps us to manage the impulses of OFT in the modern world).

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I have used a multi-criteria analysis to rank the foods for each goal.  The chart below shows the weightings used for each approach.

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The lists of optimal foods below have been developed to help you manage your primal impulses.  The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs for a range of dietary approaches that may be of interest depending on your goals and situation.

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 you identify your optimal dietary approach.

survey

I hope this helps.  Good luck out there!

post last updated OCtober 2017

 

references

[1] http://ketosummit.com/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimal_foraging_theory

[3] http://www.hoajonline.com/obesity/2052-5966/2/2

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24564590

[5] http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/fullness-factor

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7498104

[7] https://www.nextnature.net/2013/02/how-food-scientists-engineer-the-bliss-point-in-junk-food/

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy

[9] http://blog.diabeticcare.com/diabetes-obesity-growth-trend-u-s/

a fresh perspective on nutrition

Warning: This post is a celebration of how data analysis can help us understand how to optimise our nutrition to suit different goals.  It may contain novel ideas based on large amounts of data.   

I was flattered when Chris Green (@heuristics) recently posted a graphical presentation of the food insulin index and my nutrient density data analysis using Tableau.

If you click on the image below you can see where the different foods sit on the plot of nutrient density versus proportion of insulinogenic calories or click on individual data points to learn more about a particular food and find out why it ranks well or poorly.

I think presenting the data in an interactive format using Tableau makes large amounts of data more accessible compared to a static chart or spreadsheet that can be produced in Excel.

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Inspired by Chris’s chart, I uploaded the Food Insulin Index data for 147 foods from Kirstine Bell’s thesis Clinical Application of the Food Insulin Index to Diabetes Mellitus.

Click on the chart below to see a larger version or, better yet, open the interactive Tableau version here.   Click on the different tabs to see how your insulin response relates to different parameters such as carbohydrates, fat, protein, glycemic index, glycemic load and sugar.

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I think the food insulin index data is exciting because it helps us better understand what drives blood glucose, insulin, Hyperinsulinemia, metabolic syndrome, and the diseases of western civilisation that are sending us to an early grave and bankrupting our western economy.

I’ve included some brief notes on the interactive charts in order to unpack what I think the data is telling us, but if you want a more detailed discussion of the data I encourage you to check out the articles:

investing your insulin budget wisely

I think being able to better understand our insulin response to food is exciting for people with Type 1 diabetes (like my wife) to more accurately calculate their insulin dose or people trying to achieve therapeutic ketosis for the treatment of epilepsy or cancer.

Understanding exactly how fibre and protein affect insulin and glucose demonstrates quantitatively why a low carbohydrate moderate protein approach works so well for people who are insulin resistant.

While lots of people have found the food insulin index data useful, I want to highlight in this article that insulin load is only one factor that should be considered.

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If we only consider insulinogenic properties of food there is a risk that we unnecessarily demonise nutrient dense foods that happen to elicit an insulin response.  Rather than avoiding insulin, I think it’s better to think in terms of investing a limited insulin budget.  And just like different people have different levels of income, different people have a different (but still finite) “insulin budget”.  For example…

  • Someone using therapeutic ketogenic approach to battle epilepsy or cancer will want to minimise the insulin load of their diet by eating very high amounts of fat, fasting, and perhaps supplementing with MCTs or exogenous ketones. Someone pursuing therapeutic ketosis will need to pay particular attention to making sure they obtain adequate nutrition within their very small insulin budget.
  • If you have Type 1 Diabetes large doses of insulin will send you on a blood glucose roller coaster that might take a day or two to get under control. Eating a Bernstein-esque low carb diet with moderate to high protein levels and lots of non-starchy veggies will make it possible to manage blood glucose levels with physiologic (normal) amounts of insulin without excessive blood glucose and insulin swings.[1] [2]
  • For a type 2 diabetic who struggles to produce enough insulin to maintain their blood glucose within normal ranges, a lower carb moderate insulin load diet will help their pancreas to keep up and achieve normal blood glucose levels while minimising fat storage.
  • People using a ketogenic approach for weight loss need to keep in mind that reduced insulin levels and ketosis occur due to a lack of glucose and not higher levels of dietary fat. If your primary goal is weight loss, fat on the plate (or in the coffee cup) should be just enough to stop you from going insane with hunger.  Too much dietary fat will mean that there will be no need to mobilise fat from the body.
  • Athletes and people who are metabolically healthy can be more flexible in their choice of energy source and perhaps focus more on more nutrient dense foods as well as energy dense foods.

insulin is not the bad guy

Humans are great at thinking in absolutes (good/bad; black/white) while ignoring context.  We all like to grab hold of our favourite bit of the elephant of metabolic health and hold on tight.

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While many people suffer from hyperinsulinemia and its vast array of associated health consequences we need to remember that insulin is critical to life and growth and is required to metabolise protein for muscle growth/repair as well as all the other important functions of amino acids (neurotransmitters etc).[3]

Ideally, we should make every bite count if we want to maximise health and longevity.  Every calorie should contain the maximum amount of nutrients possible.  In a similar way, every unit of insulin that we “invest” should be associated with the maximum amount of nutrition (think of the nutrient density of spinach or liver versus than nutrient a soft drink or white bread).

So let’s look at how we can “leverage” our “insulin investment” to maximise our health outcome.

show me the data

In this article, I’m going to risk overloading, overwhelming, and confusing you, the reader, with too much data.  But at the same time, with all the data available you won’t have to take my word for it.  You can make your own conclusions.

If the idea is far out, you need to see the data. All the data. Not the hazard ratio, not just the conclusions from the computer.

My new grand principle of doing science: habeas corpus datorum, let’s see the body of the data. If the conclusion is non-intuitive and goes against previous work or common sense, then the data must be strong and all of it must be clearly presented.

So, how should you read a scientific paper? I usually want to see the pictures first.[4]

Richard David Feinman, The World Turned Upside Down

I am trying to draw conclusions from more than 6000 foods in the USDA foods database.  These are hard to present accurately in single charts, so I’ve used a few.  If something that you see doesn’t make sense at first you can drill down into the data to check out the detailed description.  I have also included as much micronutrient and macro nutrient as I can.  Just ‘mouse over’ a data point that you’re interested in to see how it compares to another data point.

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In the sections below I have given an overview of different ways to look at nutrient density with a more detailed discussion in the appendices at the end of this article.   Unfortunately, this post is probably not going to work well on your phone.

You’ll need to view it on a big screen for best effect.

Sorry.

My 2c on nutrient density

Lots of people talk about nutrient density, however, most of the time this is in relation to a few favourite nutrient(s) rather than a broad range spectrum of essential vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids.

We hear that butter is high in Vitamin K2 and Vitamin D and hence we should eat more of it[5] or that whey protein is high in essential amino acids (e.g. leucine and lysine) and therefore everyone should be buying tubs of it.[6]

A lot of time these claims are used to advertise a product or to argue a particular philosophical position (e.g. zero carb, vegan, plant based, paleo etc).  The problem here is that many of these so call ‘nutrient dense superfoods’ do not contain a well-rounded range of the nutrients that are required for health, but rather a narrow slice of nutrients.

Paleo, Just Eat Real Foods[7] or ‘plant based’ is a good start, however I think there are some foods that are more useful than others.  As detailed in the Building a Better Nutrient Density Index article there are also some nutrients that are harder to obtain in adequate quantities.

Once we identify the nutrients that are harder to obtain we can focus on the foods that contain the highest amounts of these nutrients.   At the same time, it is also useful to think about nutrient density in the context of specific goals, whether that be therapeutic ketosis, weight loss, diabetes or optimal athletic performance.

The more I try to get my head around what it means to optimise nutrition, the more important nutrient density seems to be.  The irony is that many people retreat from insulin to the safe haven of high-fat diets that don’t actually have the micro nutrients required to optimally power mitochondria, the power plants of our bodies.  Like most things, we need to find the right balance.

Most people now seem to understand that hammering high blood glucose with more insulin is dumb because the problem is insulin resistance and poor glucose disposal, not high blood glucose.

But then the next question is what causes insulin resistance?

It seems to me that part of the answer is sluggish mitochondrial that aren’t running at optimal efficiency to burn off the energy we throw at them.  Part of the reason for this is that we’re not powering them with the right nutrients.

To produce ATP efficiently, the mitochondria need particular things.  Glucose or ketone bodies from fat and oxygen are primary.

Your mitochondria can limp along, producing a few ATP on only these three things, but to really do the job right and produce the most ATP, your mitochondria also need thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, minerals (especially sulfur, zinc, magnesium, iron and manganese) and antioxidants.

Mitochondria also need plenty of L-carnitine, alpha-lipoic acid, creatine, and ubiquinone (also called coenzyme Q) for peak efficiency.

Dr Terry Wahls

The Wahls Protocol

Terry%20Wahls,%20M.D.%20Photo%20and%20Book%2003272014[1]

This video gives an excellent overview of the role that nutrients play to drive the Krebs cycle to enable our mitochondria to produce ATP, the energy currency of our cells.

We can then moderate that using insulin load to work within the limits of your current metabolic health (i.e. insulin resistance, muscle mass, activity levels, pancreatic function etc).

You need to eat to maintain the blood glucose levels of a metabolically healthy person.

Robb Wolf

robbwolf-468x468[1]

Nutrient density vs proportion of insulinogenic calories

The plot below shows nutrient density versus proportion of insulinogenic calories.   The size of the data points is proportional to the energy density of the foods they represent (e.g. the size of the markers for celery with a low energy density are smaller than for butter which has a high energy density).

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There is a lot of data here!  You can click on the image below to see a larger version of the chart or better yet look at the interactive online Tableau version (which I think is pretty cool!).  If you ‘mouse over’ the foods that you’re interested in you can see more details of the foods from the USDA food nutrient database.  Click through the various tabs to see how things look for specific food groups.

The x-axis on these charts is nutrient density/calorie.  You can find out more about how this is calculated in the Building a better nutrient density index article.  Essentially zero is average (or zero standard deviations from the mean) while greater than zero is better than average and less than zero is worse than the average of the 6000 foods analysed.

The nutrient density calculations are based on the USDA database which provides the nutrient content of more than 6000 foods.  It does not account for species specific bioavailability or issues such as fat soluble vitamins.  

I don’t think we can use this to say that plant foods are better or worse than animal foods, but rather it shows us which foods to avoid due and which foods are the best choices within particular categories.  

Personally, I think optimal involves getting a balanced range of the most nutrient dense plant and animal based foods. 

So what does this data mean and how could it be practically useful?

  • If you’re metabolically healthy then I think you’d do well eating the most nutrient dense foods on the right-hand side of the chart (i.e. celery, spinach, mushrooms, onions, oranges etc). While many of these nutrient dense foods may have a higher proportion of insulinogenic calories I think it’s hard for most people to overeat them.
  • The foods most people should avoid are the highly insulinogenic low nutrient density foods on the top left of this plot (i.e. soft drinks, fruit juice, sport drinks etc).
  • If you’re insulin resistant or aiming for therapeutic ketosis (e.g. as an adjunct treatment for cancer or epilepsy or dementia) you will want to move down the chart to the higher fat low insulinogenic foods while keeping to the right as much as possible.
  • It’s important to note that the high fat foods typically have a lower nutrient density because they do not contain as broad a range of nutrients.

Energy density versus nutrient density

While 60 to 70% of the western population seem to be suffering some level of metabolic syndrome and are insulin resistant[8] some people who are metabolically healthy are still obese.[9]  For these people simply reducing the energy density without consideration of carbs or insulin load (i.e. lowering their fat intake with higher amounts of water and fibre) will help them to consume less calories.

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Someone who is metabolically healthy (i.e. excellent blood glucose levels etc) yet still obese would do well to focus on the nutrient dense low energy density vegetables, fruits, seafood and meat in the top right of this chart.

This is basically where I’m at after normalising my glucose and HbA1c but I’d still like to drop some more weight.  I now need to take my own advice and focus on more nutrient dense proteins and vegetables and indulge less on the yummy high fat foods.

The typical problem with a low fat approach typically comes not from eating too much vegetables or fruit (top right of this chart) but rather when your energy comes from highly insulinogenic, energy dense low nutrient density foods (e.g.  processed grains and softdrinks) which end up on the top left of all of these charts.

The only real ‘problem’ with a high nutrient density low energy density approach is that it is physically difficult to get enough food down to achieve an energy surplus.  The benefit is that it typically leads to weight loss while still maintaining very high levels of nutrition.

A high nutrient density low energy density approach could still be ketogenic due to the low level of processed carbohydrates and low insulin load.

Click here to view the interactive Tableau version of nutrient density versus energy density.

Net carbs versus nutrient density

Lots of people like to count carbohydrates or net carbohydrates (i.e. carbohydrates minus the indigestible fibre).  In my view I think it’s better to think in terms of net carbohydrates when eating real foods to make sure you don’t miss out on nutrient dense vegetables.

The chart below shows nutrient density versus net carbohydrates.  Focusing on the foods on the top right and avoiding the soft drinks, cereals and breads at the bottom will be a pretty good strategy.

The limitation of net carbs is that it doesn’t account for the impact of protein which is an important consideration for people with type 1 diabetes or advanced type 2 diabetes.

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Click here to view an interactive Tableau version of nutrient density versus net carbs.

Insulin load versus nutrient density

This brings us to my favourite way to look at nutrient density… insulin load.

Thinking in terms of insulin load involves consideration of net carbs plus about half the protein as requiring insulin.  Insulin load per 100g of food is neat because it means that we also end up with lower energy density foods as well which is not a bad thing for most people who often wouldn’t mind losing some weight (note: low energy density foods like celery may not be so great if you’re trying to fuel for a marathon).

I think it’s good to also consider the insulin effect of protein because insulin is a finite resource.   While people who are metabolically healthy will be able to eat high protein foods without seeing a substantial rise in their blood glucose levels, people who are very insulin resistant or have type 1 diabetes will see their  glucose levels rise with protein and may need to inject insulin to cover the protein they eat.  This doesn’t mean though that people who are insulin resistant should avoid high protein foods, because they are typically very nutrient dense.

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Again, we can see that it’s the soft drinks, breakfast cereals and breads at the bottom of this chart that we really need to be avoiding!

This thinking seems to align with common sense wisdom.  Tick.

Click here to view an interactive version of insulin load versus nutrient density.

Summary

Hopefully you can see how thinking about nutrient density graphically in combination with other parameters can be useful to refine your food selection for different goals.

The appendices to this article below show more charts for different food groups with a little more discussion of my observations.

Or better yet, why not dive into the interactive data in Tableau and see what you can make of it yourself.

  • Appendix A – Nutrient density vs proportion of insulinogenic calories for therapeutic ketosis
  • Appendix B – Nutrient density vs energy density for weight loss and / or the metabolically healthy
  • Appendix C – Nutrient density vs net carbohydrates for people on a low carb diet
  • Appendix D – Nutrient density vs insulin load for diabetes and therapeutic ketosis

Appendix A – Nutrient density vs proportion of insulinogenic calories for therapeutic ketosis

Foods with a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories can be useful for people trying to achieve therapeutic ketosis, however at the same time we can see at the bottom of this plot that high fat / low insulin load foods are not necessarily the most nutrient dense.

People should ideally choose foods with the highest nutrient density (right hand side) while keeping the proportion of insulinogenic calories in their diet low enough to achieve their goals (e.g. blood glucose, insulin, tumour growth or seizure control).

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Click here to view the interactive Tableau version of nutrient density proportion of insulinogenic calories.

Vegetables

Vegetables are typically have high levels of vitamins and minerals as well as some protein but not much fat.

Most people, particularly those who are not severely insulin resistant, will do well to focus on the most nutrient dense vegetables on the right hand side of this chart (i.e. celery, spinach, squash, cabbage, broccoli, mushrooms, artichokes, kale) as their energy density, insulin load and net carbs are also low.

Celery is an example of a food with high amounts of vitamins and minerals with a very low energy density, hence it does really well on the nutrients / calorie scale.

The foods in the chart below with the lowest proportion of insulinogenic calories typically have added fat (e.g. french fries, onion rings which are not ideal) or are very high in fibre (e.g. asparagus, spinach and soybeans which is better).

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Seafood

Seafood is really the only substantial source of essential omega 3 fatty acids (i.e. DPA, DHA, EPA, ALA) and hence is an important part of a balanced diet.

The highest nutrient density seafoods are cod, anchovy, salmon, caviar and tuna.  The lowest insulin load fish are mackerel, herring, salmon and caviar.

Again, we should ideally focus on the most nutrient dense foods on the right hand side of the chart, but move down the chart to the least insulinogenic foods depending on our level of metabolic health.

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Animal products

Liver is the most nutrient dense of the animal products (right hand side) while processed meats are less nutrient dense (left hand side).  High fat meats are also typically less nutrient dense (bottom of chart).

Non-processed meats are typically well worth the investment of your limited insulin budget.

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Nuts seeds

Many nuts and seeds are high fat while also being fairly nutrient dense (i.e. pine nuts, coconut and pecans).  Nuts have a low proportion of insulinogenic calories and hence help to normalise blood glucose levels, but possible to overdo if weight loss is your primary goal.

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Dairy and egg

Some dairy products are both high fat and nutritious (e.g. parmesan cheese, egg yolk).

Cream and butter are high fat and energy dense so are useful for managing blood glucose levels but are possible to overdo if weight loss is your primary goal.

Low fat dairy products such as skim milk and whey are typically very nutrient poor overall.

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Fruit

Some fruits are nutrient dense, but are typically highly insulinogenic (tangerines, cherries, grapes, apricots, oranges and figs).  Only olives and avocados have a low proportion of insulinogenic calories, however they are not particularly nutrient dense.

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Cereals and grains

Unprocessed grains such as oatmeal, teff, spelt, brown rice and quinoa can be nutrient dense but are highly insulinogenic.  Unprocessed grains may be fine if you are metabolically healthy, but choose carefully and don’t go adding sugar, honey or molasses.

However breakfast cereals and most breads are typically highly insulinogenic while also having a poor nutrient density and hence are a poor investment of your limited insulin budget.

This analysis supports the idea that dropping processed grains, packaged breakfast cereals and soft drinks would be a pretty good place to start for most people!

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Legumes

Navy beans, lima beans and lentils are nutrient dense but highly insulinogenic.

Peanuts, peanut butter and tofu do OK in terms of both being low insulinogenic as well as nutrient dense.

Processed soy products and meat replacement products are typically highly insulinogenic and have poor nutrient density.

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Fats and oils

Fish oil is the most nutritious of the fats.  However as a general rule pure fats are not particularly nutrient dense.  Margarines and salad dressings are very nutrient poor.

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Beverages

Soft drinks, sports drinks and sweetened iced teas are bad news and are an extremely bad investment of your limited insulin budget.  Fruit juices are not also not particularly nutrient dense.  Better to eat your fruit whole.

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Appendix B – Nutrient density vs energy density

Low energy density, high nutrient density foods are a great way to lose weight, particularly for those who are insulin sensitive.  As we avoid processed carbs as well as high levels of dietary fat while maintaining high levels of nutrition we can allow the fat to come from our belly rather than our plate.

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Click here to view the interactive Tableau version of nutrient density versus energy density.

Vegetables

It’s hard to go wrong with the low energy density high nutrient density foods in the top right of this chart (i.e. celery, mushrooms, spinach, onions, broccoli, seaweed, kale etc).

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Seafood

Some seafood is nutrient dense and lower in fat (e.g. oysters, tuna, lobster).

Seafood is important because it provides the essential omega 3 fatty acids that are hard to obtain in significant amounts from vegetables and it provides higher levels of protein.

If you are serious about losing weight you’d do pretty well if you limited yourself to the vegetables in the top right of the chart above and the seafood in the top right of the chart below.

Animal products

There are many nutrient dense low energy density animal foods as shown in the chart below.  Liver does pretty well followed by game meat.  Processed meats are not so good.

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Nuts seeds

Nut are low insulin but not necessarily low energy density or spectacularly great in terms of nutrients per calories.  Consider limiting your nuts and seeds if your primary goal is weight loss.

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Dairy and egg

Whole egg (top right corner) is probably your best option from the dairy and egg category.

Butter and full fat cheese have a high energy density (bottom).

Low fat dairy is nutrient poor (top left corner)!

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Fruit

If your goal is weight loss then low energy density fruits such as tangerines / mandarins, cherries, apricots and pears will be more helpful than energy dense fruits such as bananas, prunes, raisins and dried fruits.

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Cereals and grains

Some unprocessed grains are nutritious and have a low energy density (top right), however as a general rule, breakfast cereals and processed grains are a poor investment of your limited insulin budget (bottom of chart).

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Legumes

Lima beans, navy beans, tofu, mung beans and hummus are nutrient dense and low energy density (top right).   Peanuts have a  low insulin load and solid nutrient density but a high energy density (bottom).

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Appendix C – Nutrient density vs net carbohydrates for diabetes

Most people keeping track of their carbohydrate intake think in terms of net carbs or total carbohydrates, however this does not consider the insulin demand from protein which is a real consideration if you have diabetes.

Thinking in terms of net carbs will be the best approach for most people; however, if you are highly insulin resistant or have type 1 diabetes you may be better to consider insulin load which considers the effect of protein on insulin.

Choosing foods to the top right of these charts will help you keep nutrition high and net carbohydrates low.

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Click here to view an interactive Tableau version of nutrient density versus net carbs.

vegetables

There are plenty of vegetables on the top right of this plot that have minimal net carbs while being very nutrient dense (e.g. celery, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms).

Low water foods such as mushrooms, leeks, shallots (at the bottom of the plot) will be hard to eat large quantities of although they have a higher amount of net carbs per 100g.

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seafood

Most seafood has minimal levels of net carbs, though it’s interesting to note that some seafoods such as oysters have a glycogen pouch depending on what time in the season they are harvested.

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animal products

Similar to seafood, most animal products have negligible amounts of net carbs.  The amount that is contained in muscle glycogen is not significant.

Liver and game meats are consistently the most nutrient dense of the animal products.

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nuts seeds

Nuts and seeds have some non-fibre carbohydrates.  Pine nuts, macadamias and almonds are low in carbs with moderate nutrient density.

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dairy and egg

Many dairy and egg products have a high nutrient density as well as being low in net carbs which is why they are popular with low carbers.  Fat free cheeses have more carbohydrates.

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fruit

There are some lower carb fruits however, it may be wise for people with insulin resistance to avoid many of the higher carbohydrate fruits at the bottom of this chart.

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cereals and grains

This chart demonstrates why many breakfast cereals and processed grains (at the bottom of this chart with high levels of carbohydrates and minimal nutrition) are a bad investment of your limited insulin budget.  This style of analysis demonstrates why the common wisdom that soft drinks and breakfast cereals are bad news.

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legumes

Not all legumes are created equal.  Choose wisely.  Navy beans, legumes, lima beans and peanuts are probably your safest bet.

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beverages

Soft drinks and sports drinks are a very poor investment of your limited insulin budget as they are very low in nutrients.

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Appendix D – Nutrient density vs insulin load

Thinking in terms of nutrient density versus insulin load enables us to more intelligently consider how we invest our insulin budget.  Again, it’s not that insulin is bad, but rather we should use it wisely for the most nutrient dense foods.

Soft drinks, breakfast cereals and bread at the bottom of this chart are a poor way to invest the limited capacity of your pancreas.

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Click here to view an interactive version of insulin load versus nutrient density.

vegetables

Don’t be afraid of vegetables.  Most of them have a very low insulin load.  They should take up a large amount of your plate.  But choose wisely from the top corner (e.g. celery, spinach, squash cabbage, broccoli).

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seafood

There are lots of good investments to be made in the top right of this chart of seafood (oyster, salmon, lobster, mackerel).

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animal products

Animal products require insulin but they are rich in amino acids which play an important role in the body.   The amount you need will be dependent on your situation and your goals (e.g.  someone aiming for therapeutic ketosis will want less while someone looking to build muscle or retain muscle while dieting will want more protein).

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nuts seeds

Looking at nuts in terms of insulin load rather than net carbs enables better differentiation based on how much insulin these foods will demand from your system.   Pine nuts, macadamia nuts and coconut have the lowest insulin load while being nutrient dense.

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dairy and egg

Dairy can be insulinogenic, however the higher fat butter, cream and egg still have a fairly low insulin load.

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fruit

Grapefruits, cherries, apples, grapes and oranges have a large amount of nutrition with a low insulin load versus more concentrated or dried fruit options.

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cereals and grains

The breakfast cereals at the bottom of this chart with high amounts of insulin demand and lower levels of nutrients are bad news people who are insulin resistant.

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legumes

Lima beans, navy beans, and lentils have a fairly low insulin load and high nutrient density.  However if you are insulin resistant you will need to eat to your metre and make sure your blood glucose levels don’t rise too much if you eat legumes.

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fats and oils

Just because it is low insulin doesn’t mean that it is good for you.  Not many very high fat foods have substantial nutrient density.  When it comes to nutrient density, fats in whole foods are a better than trying to consume refined oils.

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Beverages

Soft drinks are bad news as they will stimulate large amounts of insulin while providing minimal amounts of nutrition and satiety.

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references

[1] https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuJ11OJynsvHMsN48LG18Ag

[2] http://www.diabetes-book.com/

[3] http://www.moodcure.com/

[4] Feinman, Richard David (2014-12-12). The World Turned Upside Down: The Second Low-Carbohydrate Revolution

[5] http://chriskresser.com/vitamin-k2-the-missing-nutrient/

[6] http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=38

[7] https://iquitsugar.com/jerf-just-eat-real-food/

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=horIrfmLvUY

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metabolically_healthy_obesity

insulin load… the greatest thing since carb counting?

In previous articles I have outlined the idea of the insulin load[1] [2]  which is similar to carbohydrate counting, but also accounts for the effect of protein, fibre ad fructose.

insulin load = total carbohydrates – fibre + 0.56 x protein

show me the data!

Most people understand that dietary carbohydrate is the primary nutrient that influences blood glucose and insulin as shown in the charts below.  However, indigestible fibre[3] and glucogenic amino acids (protein)[4] [5] also affect our blood glucose and our insulin response to food.

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We can better predict the insulin and glucose response to our food if we also account for the effect of protein and indigestible carbohydrates (i.e. fibre).  People aiming to follow ketogenic diet will want to eat foods towards the bottom left of these charts.

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I was pleased to see Jason Fung even mention the food insulin index and the Optimising Nutrition blog at the recent low carb conference in Vail Colorado  and it has been great to see a handful of people like Patricia and Mike put this theory into practice with great results as detailed in this article.

Patricia Berry Moore

This comment from Patricia Berry Moore made my day.

Marty! Are you the Low Carb Down Under Marty??!

You and Sarah Hallberg are why I started LCHF.  And went from a very unhealthy type 2 diabetic at 156 lbs to a very healthy 113 lbs.

THANK YOU!

Patricia had seen my presentation on the food insulin index, applied the theory, and it worked!

Patricia said:

I use the insulin load concept.

I find it helps me refine my macros.  A little less protein a bit more carbs and you can find that sweet spot.  For me 50g per day is perfect.

My doctor threatened me with insulin and so I started went digging and found your lectures. 

Over 10 months I lost 43 lbs (I’m 5’2″).  I was pre-diabetic for ten years and then type 2 diabetic for ten years. 

I am now off all my meds.  I was on eight different ones for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, re-flux, diabetes.

I’m never going back, so thank you!

This is Patricia’s “before photo.”  You can see a ‘puffiness’ in her face characteristic of insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia, which causes fluid retention.  I showed this photo to my 12 year old daughter who said “that’s how you used to look.”  Thanks dear…  I think.

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If you’ve hit a plateau it might be worth tracking the insulin load of your food for a while to fine tune your diet.   Patricia says:

I use the app Lose it! which helps me track macros. So it’s pretty easy to keep a running total of my insulin load too. 

I started at around 80g per day.  As I decreased it, my blood sugars improved. 

At this point my fasting blood glucose run at 65 – 75 mg/dL with an insulin load around 50g per day or so. 

LCHF has really saved my life Marty.

This is Patricia now.  Congratulations Patricia!

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a little closer to home

As mentioned by my daughter, this is me before and after trying out my low insulin load, high nutrient density foods.  I don’t think my hair moved in the 18 months between when these work profile photos were taken, but some inflammation and weight certainly did.  My family assures me that at my worst I was bigger and unhealthier looking than the photo on the left!

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The photo below on the left is my daughter’s “before photo” after spending 9 months in a high insulin environment.  Children born to mothers who are type 1 diabetic and dosing with lots of insulin tend to be delivered early via C-section due to their excessive size caused by the high levels of insulin from the mother.  The photo on the right is her twelve years later, all grown up!

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The photos below are the same child, “JL,” who was one of the first type 1 diabetic children to receive insulin treatment in 1922.  Without insulin he’s wasting away, literally eating his own fat and muscle, unable to metabolise carbohydrate.  Two months later the photo on the right shows that he’s been able to make a full recovery with insulin injections.

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The photo below is of another Type 1 sufferer before and after receiving exogenous insulin.  

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Hopefully from these photos you can see how there’s a “Goldilocks zone” for insulin.  Not too little.  Not too much.  Just right.  You can use the quantification of insulin load to find your sweet spot.

Mike Alward

I received similar feedback recently from Mike Alward who has also successfully applied the insulin load theory.  Mike says:

I just wanted to say thanks for your work on insulin load, food insulin index and glucose : ketone index.  It really helped me to understand what was holding me back from reaching and being able to maintain a state of optimal ketosis. 

I manage my insulin load to ~75g per day.  My BG has come down and my ketones are now in the optimal range.  My GKI is now below 3. 

I used to be pre-diabetic with blood glucose up around 6.5 mmol/L.  Now, I am in the 4.5 – 4.7mmol/L range. 

Being in optimal ketosis has helped to control my appetite and cravings (especially sugar), which has made intermittent fasting so much easier.

Keep up this important work!  

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With this reduced insulin approach Mike is able to accommodate a solid amount of protein into his diet while maintaining excellent blood glucose and ketone levels.  Like anything, you can have too much of a good thing, including protein.

Many people find that as their insulin resistance improves they are able to handle a higher insulin load diet which may enable a higher nutrient density and less fat.   If you are highly insulin resistant you may need to focus on a very low insulin load, high fat approach.  As your blood glucose levels stabilise you will be able to transition to more nutrient dense foods that may have a higher insulin load.

Mike says:

My insulin load target is ~90g – 100g of protein / day.  I am 6’0″.

Mike likes to track a range of different health makers.

I track my weight calories, macros, calculated insulin load, blood glucose, blood ketones and GKI.

Not everybody “geeks out” on this stuff.  I am totally into “nerd safaris” to research non-conventional wisdom health. 

I just got several folks to calculate their insulin load, and their heads almost exploded when I introduced them to GKI.  

You can see in the chart below how Mike’s ketones have increased as he has reduced the insulin load of his diet.

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The chart below shows how Mike’s glucose : ketone index (an approximation of insulin levels) has decreased as he lowered the insulin load of his diet.

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Tracking the insulin load of your diet is a little more complex than just counting carbs, but not that much more work if you’re already tracking your food intake.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of tracking everything you eat forever, but it can be useful to keep a food diary for a time to reflect and refine.

If you just want to know what you should eat these lists of optimal foods for different goals may be useful for you.

how to calculate your insulin load

So how do you calculate the insulin load of your diet?

If you’re already tracking your food intake it’s a pretty simple thing to do.  Below is an example output from MyFitnessPal[6] showing the food intake for the day comprising of:

  • carbohydrates (70g),
  • fibre (63g), and
  • protein (104g)

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So we start with the insulin load formula:

insulin load = carbohydrates (g– fibre (g) + 0.56 x protein (g)

Insert our values:

insulin load = 70g carbohydrates – 63g fibre + 0.56 x 104g protein

and calculate insulin load:

insulin load = 65g

It’s not that much different to tracking net carbs, but instead you also account for protein which also requires insulin.

I initially developed this calculation for people with Type 1 Diabetes (like my wife) who need to calculate their insulin dosage but it can work in a similar way for someone wanting to reduce the demand on their pancreas to the point that it can keep up and maintain normal blood glucose levels.

Reducing your insulin levels to normal healthy levels will allow your stored fat to be used for energy and manage your appetite.   As you track your insulin load you can keep eliminating the foods that are driving it up until the point that you see the weight loss and blood glucose levels that you’re chasing.  More recently I have incorporated this as a metric you can track in the Nutrient Optimiser to achieve your target glucose and ketone levels.

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The appropriate insulin load will vary from person to person.  A small woman aiming for weight loss using a lower protein ketogenic approach might have an insulin load as low as 40g per day while a larger man looking who is active and looking build muscle might have an insulin load as high as 300g per day.

A higher insulin load diet would allow more plant based foods, less fat and potentially a higher nutrient density (e.g. 40 to 50% of insulinogenic calories).  The first priority will be to reduce the insulin load of your diet to the point where you can normalise your blood glucose levels and reduced insulin (e.g. 20 to 30% of insulinogenic calories).

The best idea is to start tracking where you’re currently at and look to reduce your daily insulin load until you achieve excellent blood glucose levels (i.e. average less than 5.6 mmol/L or 100 mg/dL).  Once you normalise your blood glucose levels you could keep winding it down further until you achieve your desired level of ketones.  As your body heals and you start to reduce the amount of fat around your organs you may be able to tolerate a higher insulin load diet and more nutrient dense diet in time.

a little more on the insulin load theory

So is it all about the insulin load?  What about calories and conservation of energy?

In a metabolic ward context we typically find conservation of energy / CICO holds true.  If anything someone on a high fat diet may be able to maintain their weight with less calories because fat is easier to digest and products less wasted energy (enthalpy).  But in a free living environment how much we eat is influenced by our appetite which is influenced by the nutrient density of our food choices as well as our levels of insulin resistance.

This video gives a good overview of how insulin (either injected or from our own pancreas) affects  whether we store fat on our body or release it to be used for fuel and how excess insulin can be problematic.

Most people think of macro nutrients in terms of carbohydrates, protein and fat as per the the picture below.   They think that if we eat too much fat it will be stored as body fat.  But the reality is a little bit more complex than that.

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In the chart below the grey slices of the pie chart (i.e. the non-fibre carbohydrate and the glucogenic protein) are the components of your food that are glucogenic and will require insulin to metabolise.

The blue components are ketogenic (i.e. the dietary fat and the ketogenic protein) and do not require insulin to metabolise.  If you’re lucky enough to be insulin sensitive you will burn the food you eat and your appetite will be well regulated with minimal change in body weight.

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Indigestible fibre (black slice) doesn’t significantly affect our insulin response or even contribute to calories for us but rather is used to feed the bacteria in our gut.  Fibre is a true ‘free food’.

If the insulin load of our diet is too high we are more likely to store a portion of the food.  If we are insulin resistant our body will have to generate more insulin to deal with the non-fibre carbohydrate and glucogenic protein while increasing our chances that some of the food we eat will be stored on our body.  We feel hungry and need to keep eating to obtain adequate energy.  Calories still matter, but outside a controlled metabolic ward, body fat accumulation is more about managing fat storage and appetite than about counting calories.  

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Calories still matter, but outside a controlled metabolic laboratory, body fat accumulation is more about managing fat storage and appetite than consciously counting calories. Many people refer to insulin as the thermostat that controls our metabolism and our fat storage.

The good news here is that we can use our understanding of the storage properties of insulin to our advantage.  If we are able to decrease the insulin load of our diet we are less likely to store fat and more likely to be able to use some of our stored body fat for energy.  This will mean that we feel less compelled to eat because we are able to use up our own body fat rather than constantly eating.   This reduced dietary insulin load scenario will lead to lower insulin levels, less storage, more use of body fat for fuel, a decreased appetite and a reduction in energy intake.  

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So, to reduce the insulin load of diet include you can:

  1. eat more fibre,
  2. eat less digestible carbohydrates, and
  3. make sure your protein intake is not excessive.

can you eat too much fat?

Can you still eat too fat much while keeping the insulin load of your diet low?

The short answer is yes, especially if you’re chasing a certain macro nutrient value or high ketone values.  Some people are able to stay very lean on a high fat ketogenic diet, but others need to also manage their dietary fat inputs to achieve their goal of body fat output.

The good news is that a low insulin load nutrient dense diet diet will typically lead to increased satiety and reduced energy intake.

The bad news is that excess energy, whatever the source, will lead to fat gain, inflammation and insulin resistance.

Many people recommend that you should eat ‘fat to satiety’.  Unfortunately, high fat foods can be easy to overeat, at least for some individuals. There is no need to force yourself to eat extra fat if you are trying to lose weight.  There’s no need to go out of your way to add extra fat and oils to your food.  If your goal is weight loss, you can obtain more than enough fat from whole-food sources.

basal insulin and insulin resistance

The other unfortunate fact is that the insulin produced in response to food is less than half of the amount of insulin that your body produces.  You pancreas is constantly producing basal insulin to manage the flow of energy out of your liver and to remove excess energy from your blood stream.

In addition to reducing the insulin load of your diet you may also need to increase the periods between your meals (intermittent fasting) and focus on building lean muscle mass to improve your insulin sensitivity.  This will allow your insulin levels to decrease even more so that body fat can be accessed for fuel.

Implementing an intermittent fasting regimen can be useful for people who find that reducing the dietary insulin load doesn’t lead to enough reduction in appetite.

As detailed in the how to use your glucose metre as a fuel gauge article, waiting until your blood glucose levels drop can be a useful way to increase the timing between meals and to understand whether your hunger is real.  Once your blood glucose levels normalise you can even use your your bathroom scale to help time your fasting / feasting cycle to achieve your weight loss goals.

You can get a substantial decrease in insulin levels with a regular 18 to 24 hour fast.  After this drop in insulin you may find your hunger levels actually decrease after a longer period of not eating.  image23.png

summary

  • To regain control of your appetite you need to insulin load of your diet to the point that your pancreas can keep up and maintain normal blood glucose levels consistent with your personal metabolic health and level of insulin sensitivity.
  • If your blood glucose and insulin level are high then you should work to decrease the insulin load of your diet.
  • As the insulin load of your diet decreases you should see your blood glucose levels come down, your appetite reduce and your ketone levels come up.
  • If you’re still not seeing the results you want then the next step is to try intermittent fasting to further reduce your insulin and blood glucose as well as mitigate your overall food take.
  • As your blood glucose levels start to normalise you can start to focus on more nutrient dense foods with a lower energy density that may be helpful if weight loss is your goal.

The foods lists in the table below have been optimised to suit different levels of insulin resistance and tailored to your weight loss goals.

approach

average glucose

waist : height

(mg/dL)

(mmol/L)

therapeutic ketosis

> 140

> 7.8

diabetes and nutritional ketosis

108 to 140

6.0 to 7.8

weight loss (insulin resistant)

100 to 108

5.4 to 6.0

> 0.5

weight loss (insulin sensitive)

< 97

< 5.4

> 0.5

bulking

< 97

< 5.4

< 0.5

nutrient dense maintenance

< 97

< 5.4

< 0.5

 

post last updated: April 2017

references

[1] http://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/23/most-ketogenic-diet-foods/

[2] http://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/03/22/ketosis-the-cure-for-diabetes/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietary_fiber

[4] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/07/06/insulin-index-v2/

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glucogenic_amino_acid

[6] https://www.myfitnesspal.com/

Low Carb Down Under Videos

Back in November 2015 I had the privilege to present at Low Carb Down Under events in Melbourne and Brisbane.  While I was a bit out of my comfort zone stepping out from behind the keyboard, it was a great opportunity to share some thoughts from the blog and meet some amazing people.  

managing insulin to optimise nutrition

The first video, Managing Insulin to Optimise Nutrition, outlines my take on the Food Insulin Index and how we can use it to rank foods based on their insulin demand.  To date the article, the most ketogenic diet foods, has received more than 125,000 views and the video has been viewed more than 3000 times.  I hope the video will help to get the word out there more about what I think is a very useful concept!

engineering the optimal diet

The second video, Engineering the Optimal Diet, outlines how we can quantify nutrient density and combine it with the food insulin index to prioritise foods selections for different goals.   The full article, optimal foods for different goals and the lists of optimal foods for different goals is what I’m most excited about on the blog and hope it will will have the greatest long term impact on what people eat and their health.   

thanks LCDU!

I stayed with Dr Rod Tayler in Melbourne and got to chew Dr Kieron Rooney’s ear for the whole weekend.   Meeting Gary Fettke, Grant Schofield, Peter Bruckner, Ken Sikaris, Shae Wheeler and a whole pile of other wonderful people was a real honour.  

Thanks again to Dr Rod Tayler for the labour of love that is LCDU and to Peter Williams who is a gentleman and the consummate professional with his video production.  Together they have not only facilitated some great events but have also created a massive free resource of online videos.  

want to live forever?

Living a long, vibrant, healthy life is a common goal.  But what can we do to extend our health span?

Should we eat more fruit and veggies?  Less processed foods?  More protein?  Less protein?  Exercise more?  Lose weight?  Sleep more?  Get more sun?  Less blue light?

Confused yet?

The numerous facets of health and longevity are complex and above my pay grade.  However, I am willing to add my two cents to the discussion in the areas of insulin, blood glucose, fasting and nutrition along with some input from people I respect.

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Dr Ted’s top tips

My wise mate Dr Ted Naiman recently commented on the topic of longevity.

I see centenarians at work, and as far as I can tell it is important to be:

– insulin sensitive,

– active, and

– relatively strong

Extreme careful protein restriction? Not so much.  I for one will focus on the first three.

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Not only is Ted enviably buff, he also has a neat way of condensing wisdom into short bites that are worth unpacking a little further.

insulin sensitive

The leading causes of death in adults in the western world (i.e. heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s)[1] all have something in common.  They are diseases of modern society, related to metabolic health and exacerbated by excessive insulin and / or high blood glucose levels.

People who live longer still die from these same diseases, they just succumb to them later.

This chart (from Barbieri, 2001) shows that insulin resistance generally deteriorates with age.  However if you’re one of the few to make it past 90 then chances are your insulin resistance is pretty spectacular!

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Ted’s infographic below explains how insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome leads to hyperinsulinemia (elevated insulin) and hyperglycaemia (elevated blood glucose) and then to heart disease and many of the other diseases of modern society.

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The chart below indicates that you have a much better chance of delaying the top two causes of death in western society (i.e. heart attack and stroke) if you have a lower HbA1c.[2] [3]

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And your chance of maintaining a big brain that is free of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s (causes of number four and five)[4] seems to be greatly improved if you keep your blood glucose levels low.

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We’ll come back to cancer, cause of death number three, a little later.

relatively strong

While you might be able to make an argument for longevity around restricting protein or even calories based on laboratory experiments, people live in the real world and need adequate strength to move around, stay active and be relatively strong.  People who are lean and strong intuitively look healthy and attractive to us.

Longevity research is typically done in yeast, worms, mice or other animals who live protected in captivity.  Unfortunately, real people don’t live in protected laboratory environments in a petri dish.  We live in the real world where real people break.

Loss of muscle as we age (i.e. sarcopenia) is a major issue.  Many older people become brittle and weak.  They take a fall, break their hip and never get up.  Maintaining strength and lean muscle mass is important.

You don’t see many fat animals in the wild, but at the same time you don’t see skinny animals, unless they are sick.  Animals that survive in their natural environment are lean, strong and fast.  They have to be to survive, to catch food and avoid being eaten.

Humans in the wild also tend to be strong and lean.

Similar to Ted Naiman, Ian Rambo (pictured below), 62, is a fan of intermittent fasting and a moderate protein diet.  Rambo doesn’t look like he’s about to trip and break his hip any time soon.

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active

A lot can be said about exercise, longevity and metabolic health.

Peter Attia, who recently left NUSi to go back to practice medicine with a focus on longevity, says:

Glucose disposal is everything. The best way to get there is by increasing the muscle’s capacity to take up glucose and make glycogen, and that’s best accomplished through lifting heavy weights. Doing so also increases health span (i.e. reducing injuries, lowering pain, and increasing mobility through life).[5]

Exercise depletes the glucose in our blood, liver and muscles and causes us to tap into our fat stores.  But it’s more than just about using up energy.

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As metabolic health and mitochondrial density improves through exercise, our fat oxidation rate increases.  We become metabolically flexible which means that we can easily use glucose or fat for fuel.  Once we improve our fitness and insulin sensitivity we get to the point that we can even obtain some of the glucose we need from fat.

My friend Mike Julian commented:

Every triglyceride that is broken down gives up one glycerol molecule.  Two glycerol molecules will make one glucose.   So the more fat we are capable of burning, the more glucose we can make from fat oxidation, thus the better we get at restoring muscle glycogen without eating carbohydrates.

Also the glycogen that we do burn produces lactate, which is then recycled to make more glucose in the cori cycle, which also contributes to muscle glycogen stores during recovery.

The goal is to increase mitochondrial density so that we are very good at oxidizing fats. When we have poor mitochondrial density we are far more prone to switching over to anaerobic metabolism at low activity levels and anaerobic activities require glucose.

So if we can’t burn fat at high rates due to low numbers of mitochondria, we can’t make much glucose from glycerol via fat oxidation, so in turn our bodies go to plan B which is to make it out of amino acids in order to make up for the rest of what it needs.

So if you increase your mitochondrial density through exercise, you’ll oxidize a higher volume of fat, which will give a higher yield of glucose from glycerol and thus reduce your body’s need to break down aminos from dietary protein and lean mass.

Post exercise increased fat oxidation due to mitochondrial density produces more ketones during the recovery period which get used preferentially so the increased glucose production during that time can go towards refilling of glycogen stores rather than be oxidized for energy. This is why many top keto athletes will fast for a few hours post training. If they eat straight away they miss out on this phenomenon and actually will recover slower.

caloric restriction

Building on the prior trials in yeast and worms, the current dietary restriction longevity experiments in rhesus monkeys are looking positive.  You can see the monkey on the right who has been living on 30% less calories looks younger and healthier than the monkey on the left who is the same age.

The monkeys who eat less have less age related disease and live longer.[6]

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While avoiding excess energy intake is beneficial, there are differing opinions on how this translates to humans in the real world in terms of increased life span.

Peter Attia says:

Most people in this space, the super-in-the-weeds people on this topic that I’ve spoken with at length, do not believe caloric restriction actually enhances survival in the wild. 

Nobody disputes that for most species it enhances survival in the laboratory, but once you get into the wild, you’re basically trading one type of mortality for another.[7]

So many things in life are a balance and involve compromise.  While you need adequate nutrition to be strong and active, our bodies also age more slowly if we don’t subject ourselves to excess energy.

Another problem with calorie restriction is that unfortunately most of us don’t have the self-discipline to limit our food intake all the time.  When we do eat we find it hard to stop until we are satisfied.  Our survival instincts don’t know about the studies in the monkeys, the worms and the yeast.

Most people find it hard to maintain constant caloric restriction when they have free will and unlimited access to food.  And then the cruel trick for people who do have the discipline to consistently reduce their energy intake is that the body will scale back its energy expenditure to stay within the reduced energy intake.

intermittent fasting

 “Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.”

Saint Augustine[8]

So if caloric restriction doesn’t necessarily work, then what’s the solution?  Jason Fung makes a compelling case for the benefits of intermittent fasting rather than chronic calorie restriction.

When there is a lack of food a process called autophagy (from the Greek auto, “self” and phagein, “to eat”) kicks in and we turn to our own old cells for nutrients.  Autophagy is nature’s way of getting the energy we need when we don’t eat in addition to cleaning out the old junk in our bodies and brains.  When we get to eat again we build up new, fresh healthier cells.

But this process of cell clean up and regeneration cannot occur without giving the body the chance to clean out the old cells first.[9]  We regenerate and slow aging when we don’t always have a constant supply of energy.  One of the advantages of intermittent fasting over simply reducing calories is that you get a deeper cleanse of the old cells with total restriction of energy inputs.

In the video below David Sinclair explains how our body makes a special effort to repair itself when there is a lack of food.  In a famine your body senses an emergency and sends out Sirtuin proteins to maximise the health of our mitochondria to increase the chance that you will survive the famine and have the best chance of living until a time when food is more plentiful and you can reproduce and pass on your genes.  Unfortunately, this emergency repair function just doesn’t happen when food is plentiful.  They’re working on drugs that will mimic this effect, but in the meantime, intermittent fasting is free.

As detailed in the how to use your glucose meter as a fuel gauge article, it can be useful to track blood glucose or weight to help guide the frequency and duration of intermittent fasting to make sure you’re moving towards your goals.

protein restriction?

Many people hypothesise that restricting protein is an important component to slow aging.

Dr Ron Rosedale talks a lot about the dangers of glycation and the kinase mTOR.  His hypothesis, as articulated in the Safe Starches Debate and AHS 2012, is that we should avoid carbohydrates to avoid the dis-benefits of glycation, particularly as we can get the glucose we need from protein and to a lesser extent from fat.  When you see that all the major diseases of aging are correlated with high blood sugars and high insulin levels you might think that he is onto something.

In his AHS 2012 talk Rosedale discusses the dangers of mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin).  mTOR is activated when we eat protein and raise insulin and leads to suppression of autophagy.  In view of this Rosedale recommends relatively low levels of protein for people with diabetes (e.g. 0.6g/kg) and even lower for people who are battling cancer (e.g. 0.45g/kg).

Vegan luminary Dr Michael Gregor points to the various drawbacks of excess dietary protein and makes a compelling case for restricting animal protein by focusing on plant foods rather than caloric restriction or intermittent fasting.

There’s a fascinating August 2015 paper by Valter Longo et al that gives an overview of the current thinking in longevity.[10]   While it mentions protein restriction as a possible area for future investigation, discussion of protein restriction generally seems to be in the context of intermittent restriction with subsequent re-feeding.

To date, very few studies have been performed in humans on the potential beneficial effects of protein and/or amino acid restriction on aging processes or age-associated chronic diseases. [11]

There are obvious benefits in having periods where the body can clean out old proteins, however you also need high quality nutrition to build back the new shiny parts.

While I have gone to great lengths to bring attention to the fact that protein contributes to the insulin load of the diet, I struggle with the concept of chronic protein avoidance when so many of the things I read talk about the mental health benefits of protein,[12] [13] the benefits of lean muscle mass for metabolic health, the satiety benefits of protein and the importance of lean muscle as we get older to ensure we can be active and strong rather than brittle.[14]

Like everything though it’s a balancing act.  Binging on protein supplements and egg whites to get big and jacked is not going to lead to optimal health and longevity.  Some of these guys are even injecting extra insulin for its anabolic hypertrophy effects on top of the anabolic hormones.  This is not healthy and not natural.

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So how much protein do you need when you do eat?   I think you need enough to be strong and active but at the same time without raising insulin and blood sugars and decreasing ketones.

Lean muscle = good

Insulin sensitivity = good

Excess body fat = bad

High insulin = bad

cancer

There’s also a growing momentum around the metabolic theory of cancer (the number three leading cause of death) which hypotheses that excess glucose feeds cancer growth and restricting glucose through a therapeutic ketogenic diet with intermittent fasting will reduce your risk of cancer.

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There is some great work by Thomas Seyfried, Travis Christoferson and Domonic D’Agostino that is well worth your time if you haven’t already seen it.

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When you hear Seyfriend talk he seems very proud of and excited about the glucose : ketone index (GKI) which he developed as a proxy for a person’s insulin levels.  As you can see in the chart below, as our blood glucose levels decrease ketone levels rise.

image19

More than blood glucose or ketones alone, the relationship between your blood glucose and ketones seems to be a good proxy for your insulin sensitivity.

It seems that someone with a GKI of less than 10 has fairly low insulin levels, someone with a GKI of less than 3 has excellent metabolic health, while someone battling cancer might want to target a GKI of 1.0.

Reducing the insulin load of your diet can reduce your glucose levels, increase your ketones and reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome and the most prominent causes of death (i.e. heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s).

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Just to be clear, you people who achieve these excellent insulin resistance levels don’t get get there by simple adding more fat to their morning coffee but through disciplined intermittent fasting which tends to lead to reduction in body fat which improves insulin resistance.

finding the optimal balance

On one extreme too much food will make us fat and insulin resistant and stop the body from repairing itself.

On the other extreme calorie restriction will make us frail and vulnerable to disease and accidents.

So how do we find the middle ground?

On the topic of carbohydrates Peter Attia says:

You want to consume basically as much glucose as you can tolerate before you start to get out of glucose homeostasis. For me there’s a different number than for the next person, and you have to find what the level is.

I’ve been wearing a continuous glucose monitor for several months now. Every day I just have it spit out my 24-hour average of glucose plus a standard deviation, and I now know my sweet spot. I like to have a 24-hour average of between 91 and 93 mg/dL with a standard deviation less than 10.

We can’t measure insulin in real time. To me, the Holy Grail would be to have an area under the curve of insulin, but this becomes a pretty good proxy.

It’s fascinating to see that Attia, who is a super fit semi pro athlete is going to the effort of wearing a continuous glucose meter full time.  CGMs are generally worn by people with type 1 diabetes like my wife.

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The process he is describes of reducing dietary glucose intake to a point where blood glucose levels are normalised is essentially the process used by the people we see who are managing type 1 diabetes as well as possible.

The food insulin index testing measured the area under the curve response to various foods (i.e. what Attia describes as the Holy Grail) and has been really useful for us to understand which dietary inputs cause the greatest blood glucose swings and require largest amounts of insulin.

I think the reason that Attia is recommending ‘as much glucose as you can tolerate’ is to fuel your energy needs for activity, maximise nutrition and dietary flexibility.  This level of blood glucose control will give him an HbA1c of 4.8% which will put him in the lowest risk category for the most common diseases of aging.  But to maintain such a tight standard deviation he’s going to be managing the net carbs and protein in his diet so his blood sugar doesn’t go over 100mg/dL or 5.6mmol/L too often.

Dr Roy Taylor recently released an interesting paper where he proposes that each person has a personal fat threshold[15].  Rather than the BMI chart or body fat, there is a certain level at which the body fat becomes inflamed and insulin resistant which leads to diabetes and all the issues related to metabolic syndrome.  What this means in practice is if your blood glucose levels are rising above optimal you need to eat less to lose body fat.

When it comes to protein Attia says:

What I’m telling my patients is really you only need as much protein as is necessary to preserve muscle mass.

You have a sliding scale, which is carbohydrate goes up until you hit your glucose and insulin ceiling, protein comes down until you’re about to erode into muscle mass and slip into positive nitrogen balance, and then fat becomes the delta.

So in somebody like me, that’s probably about 20% carb, 20% protein 60% fat.

I’ve done everything from vegan to full ketogenic.  I’ve experimented with the entire spectrum of religions, but nevertheless, that’s the framework.[16]

It’s worth noting here that this quote from Peter is in the context him talking at length about mTOR, ROS, glucose control and protein restriction.  Attia is one of the smartest guys in nutrition, medicine and anti-aging science, but he’s not avoiding protein.  He’s making sure he gets enough to maintain lean muscle mass but not so much that it messes with his glucose levels or requires a significant glucose response.

Attia also talks about maximising glucose and minimising protein to normalise blood glucose and insulin.  Given that the focus is on managing insulin levels, I think you could also take the opposite approach to minimise carbs and maximise protein as much as you can without disrupting glucose or losing ketones.   People with type 1 diabetes will tend to consume medium to higher protein levels (which provide glucose but without the same degree of glucose swing) with lower levels of carbohydrates.

Or alternatively find your own balance of net carbs and protein that gives excellent blood glucose levels and some ketones.

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When it comes to finding the optimal level of protein and energy Dr Tommy Wood said:

The anti-IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor) crowd confuse me. Lots = bad (cancer). Very little = also bad (sarcopenia and broken hips).[17]

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caloric restriction

One of the pioneers in the field of longevity is Roy Walford,[18] who developed the concept of Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition (CRON).  Many of the ideas in this article and the blog overall are built around Walford’s ideas regarding optimising nutrition for health and longevity.

While Walford lived his theories in practice, he unfortunately died at 79 of ALS so we didn’t really get to find out whether calorie restriction delayed the major diseases of aging for him.  The pictures below are taken of Dr Walford before and after two years living in Biosphere 2.[19]

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Walford was the crew’s physician and meticulously recorded the health markers of the Biosphere 2 ‘crew members’[20].  It’s interesting to see how markers like the BMI chart, glucose, insulin and HbA1c all improved markedly with the semi-starvation conditions during the experiment, however they reverted to more normal levels after resuming normal eating.

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optimal nutrition

If we are going to fast and / or restrict calories to optimise our metabolic health it’s even more important that we make sure that the food we do eat, when we eat it, provides all the nutrients that we need to thrive and build back new shiny parts of our body.  Unfortunately it seems that the optimal nutrition component of Walford’s CRON concept is not discussed much these days.

In the article optimal foods for different goals I have detailed a system that can be tailored to identify nutrient dense foods for different goals to balance nutrient density and insulin load.  I hope this will help to spark further discussion around the topic of nutrient density and which foods would be most helpful for different people.

summary…

So what does all this mean?  What do we know about maximising our metabolic health and avoiding the primary diseases of aging?

Is too much energy bad… yes.

Is eating all the time bad…. yes.

Is excess protein bad… maybe, maybe not, however the vegans would say that we should avoid animal protein and stick to only plant based foods.

Are excess carbohydrates bad… maybe, maybe not, however the low carb / keto crowd would say that you need to avoid carbohydrates because they raise your insulin.

Is excess protein and excess non-fibre carbohydrates bad… most likely, yes.

Both carbohydrates and protein will raise insulin, blood glucose, IGF-1 and upregulate mTOR which all accelerate aging.

In the end though we have to eat.  We are programmed for survival.   While not eating too much and intermittent fasting are important considerations, when we do eat though we should maximise the nutrient density and prioritise foods that do not not raise our insulin and blood glucose levels.  I think if you get that right a lot of the other things will follow.

There is no perfect dietary solution for all.  What is best for you will come down to your situation, goals and preferences.

Some people will prefer zero carb with lots of meat.

Some people feel strongly about avoiding animal products and do well on a plant based diet with minimal processed foods.

Some will aim for a therapeutic ketosis approach to tackle major metabolic issues.

All of these extremes are viable but a balance somewhere in the middle might be easier to maintain in the long term while also maximising the nutrient density of the calories we consume.

What is almost certainly dangerous for most people is the low fat, high insulin load approach that has been recommended for the past few decades and seems to have led to increased consumption of low nutrient density highly processed food products by many.

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references

[1] http://chriskresser.com/the-keys-to-longevity-with-peter-attia/

[2] http://cardiab.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2840-12-164

[3] http://cardiothoracicsurgery.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1749-8090-3-63

[4] http://chriskresser.com/the-keys-to-longevity-with-peter-attia/

[5] http://chriskresser.com/the-keys-to-longevity-with-peter-attia/

[6] http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2014/140401/ncomms4557/fig_tab/ncomms4557_F1.html

[7] http://chriskresser.com/the-keys-to-longevity-with-peter-attia/

[8] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/6741-complete-abstinence-is-easier-than-perfect-moderation

[9] https://intensivedietarymanagement.com/fasting-and-autophagy-fasting-25/

[10] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4531065/

[11] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4531065/

[12] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2738337/

[13] https://www.moodcure.com/safe_alternatives_to_antidepressants.html

[14] http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/sarcopenia-with-aging

[15] http://www.clinsci.org/content/128/7/405

[16] http://chriskresser.com/the-keys-to-longevity-with-peter-attia/

[17] http://press.endocrine.org/doi/full/10.1210/jc.2011-1377

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Walford

[19] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biosphere_2

[20] https://m.biomedgerontology.oxfordjournals.org/content/57/6/B211.full

[21] http://www.walford.com/cronmeals1.htm

[22] https://www.drfuhrman.com/library/andi-food-scores.aspx

[23] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVQmPVBjubw

the most ketogenic foods

Ketosis occurs when the body’s glucose stores and insulin levels are low and the body increases its use of fat for fuel.  The insulin load of a food is related to its carbohydrate, protein and fibre content.

Calculation of the percentage of insulinogenic calories enables us to prioritize of foods with a lower insulin demand which will lead to nutritional ketosis and improved blood glucose control.

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Listed below are the most ketogenic foods based on the percentage of insulinogenic calories (excluding fats and oils).  Also included in the tables below are:

  • the nutrient density score (ND) ,
  • net carbohydrates or insulin load which will be of interest if you are insulin resistant and / or managing blood glucose levels, and
  • energy density (calories/100g) which will be of interest if you are watching your weight.

vegetables

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
chicory greens -0.28 27% 1 28
artichokes 0.71 33% 3 54
chives 0.21 34% 1 37
cilantro -0.46 36% 1 28
parsnip 0.64 38% 7 76
turnip greens 1.15 39% 1 37
banana pepper 0.19 41% 3 39
spinach -0.54 41% 1 29
seaweed (kelp) 0.78 43% 4 50
beets 0.28 44% 4 48
mustard greens 0.19 45% 2 30
collards 0.36 46% 2 40
mung beans 0.63 46% 1 26
alfalfa (sprouted) -0.54 46% 1 31
asparagus 0.94 46% 2 27
snap green beans 0.64 47% 4 40
pickled cucumber -0.87 48% 1 13
celery 2.67 49% 1 17
parsley 0.11 49% 3 44
radishes 0.66 50% 2 19
lettuce 1.10 52% 2 17
bamboo shoots 0.74 52% 3 28
endive -0.62 52% 2 20
cabbage 0.67 53% 3 30
arugula -0.03 54% 2 31
jalapeno peppers 0.54 54% 4 35
Brussels sprouts 0.19 54% 5 52
carrots 0.14 55% 5 39
cauliflower -0.61 57% 3 28
okra 0.92 57% 4 37
rhubarb 1.22 57% 3 21
broccoli 1.06 57% 4 42

fruit

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
olives 0.00 15% 3 90
avocado 0.01 18% 5 131

nuts and seeds

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food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g calories/100g
macadamia nuts 0.12 5% 5 769
pecans 0.15 5% 4 762
coconut milk 0.03 8% 4 246
Brazil nuts 0.09 9% 4 704
pine nuts 0.15 11% 9 647
coconut meat 0.09 11% 16 703
flax seed 0.08 12% 2 568
walnuts 0.10 15% 7 683
hazel nuts 0.10 16% 15 692
chia seeds 0.10 16% 8 511
tahini 0.16 16% 13 633
almonds 0.11 16% 15 652
sesame seeds 0.12 18% 14 603
sunflower seeds 0.18 20% 11 491
cashew nuts 0.11 22% 24 609
pistachio nuts 0.15 23% 19 602

 dairy and egg

dairy20and20eggs

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
butter 0.11 0% 1 734
cream 0.10 5% 5 431
sour cream 0.12 9% 4 197
cream cheese 0.15 10% 8 348
Limburger cheese 0.17 18% 15 327
brie cheese 0.15 19% 16 334
egg yolk 0.18 19% 15 317
muenster cheese 0.16 20% 18 368
Camembert cheese 0.17 20% 15 299
Monterey Jack 0.16 20% 19 373
blue cheese 0.17 20% 18 354
feta cheese 0.17 22% 14 265
mozzarella 0.15 23% 18 318
ricotta cheese 0.09 25% 11 174
Greek Yogurt 0.02 27% 9 130
whole egg 0.17 29% 10 138

seafood

seafood-salad-5616x3744-shrimp-scallop-greens-738

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
caviar 0.28 32% 22 276
herring 0.24 34% 18 210
sardine 0.22 36% 18 202
swordfish 0.28 41% 17 165
anchovy 0.31 42% 21 203
rainbow trout 0.27 43% 17 162
mackerel 0.25 45% 17 149
sturgeon 0.23 47% 15 129
tuna 0.27 50% 17 137
squid 0.16 50% 21 170
salmon 0.26 50% 15 122

animal products

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food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
foi gras 0.12 11% 13 459
beef ribs 0.12 13% 12 349
pepperoni 0.16 14% 17 487
frankfurter 0.11 14% 11 322
pate 0.13 16% 13 315
chorizo 0.15 17% 19 448
duck (with skin) 0.13 17% 14 331
salami 0.13 18% 12 258
lamb 0.15 24% 18 308
veal brain 0.09 25% 8 133
bratwurst 0.05 25% 11 171
polish sausage 0.10 26% 17 259
beef steak 0.16 28% 21 305
salami 0.11 29% 12 166

Depending on your goals, the following lists may also be of interest: