Tag Archives: insulin load

how optimize your diet for your insulin resistance

Lately I’ve seen a number of common themes come up at low carb conferences and online.  The contentious questions tend to run along the lines of:

  1. I did really well on a low carb diet initially, but my fat loss seems to have stalled. What gives?  What should I do now?
  2. If protein is insulinogenic should I actively avoid protein as well as carbs if my goal is to reduce insulin because low insulin = weight loss?
  3. If eating more fat helped kick start my weight loss journey, then why does eating more fat seem to make me gain weight now?

This article outlines some quantitative parameters around these contentious questions and helps you chose the most appropriate nutritional approach.

The importance of monitoring blood glucose levels

Coming from a diabetes headspace, I’ve seen firsthand the power of a low carb diet in reducing blood glucose and insulin levels.  As a Type 1 Diabetic, my wife Moni has been above to halve her insulin dose with a massive improvement in energy levels, body composition and mood.

If your blood glucose levels are high, then chances are your insulin levels are also high.  Insulin is the hormonal “switch” that causes us to store excess energy as body fat in times of plenty.[1]  Lower levels of insulin in times of food scarcity then enable us to access to the stored energy on our body.[2]

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You can actively manage the fat storing potential of your diet by managing the insulin load of the food you eat.

The chart below shows that our glucose response is fairly well predicted by the carbohydrates we eat.  (note: The “glucose score” is the area under the curve of glucose response to various foods tested over the three hours relative to glucose which gets a score of 100%.) [3] [4]

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Having high blood glucose levels is bad news.[5]  The chart below shows the correlation between HbA1c (a measure of your average glucose levels over three months) and the diseases that will kill most of us, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and stroke.[6]  It makes a lot of sense to do whatever it takes to reduce our blood glucose to the levels of a metabolically healthy person to postpone the major diseases of aging.

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Optimal ketone levels

Ketones in our blood rise when our insulin levels are low.[7]  As shown in the chart below, even better than carbohydrates, insulin levels are better predicted by the net carbohydrates plus about half the protein we eat.[8] [9]

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You may have seen this ‘optimal ketone zone’ chart from Volek and Phinney’s ‘Art and Science of Low Carb Living’.

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The problem however with this chart is that it is difficult for most people to achieve “optimal ketone levels” (i.e. 1.5 to 3.0mmol/L) without fasting for a number of days or making a special effort to eat a lot of additional dietary fat (which may be counterproductive in the long run if you’re trying to lose weight).

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Recently I had the privilege of having Steve Phinney stay at our house when he spoke at a Low Carb Down Under event in Brisbane (btw, he’s also a passionate cook if you let him lose in the kitchen).  I quizzed Steve about the background to his optimal ketosis chart.  He said it was based on two studies, one with cyclists who the adapted to ketosis over a period of six weeks and another ketogenic weight loss study.  In both cases these ‘optimal ketone levels’ (i.e. between 1.5 to 3.0mmol/L) were observed in people who were transitioning into a state of nutritional ketosis.

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Since the publication of this chart in the Art and Science books, Phinney has noted that well trained athletes who are long term fat adapted (e.g. the low carb athletes in the FASTER study[10]) actually show lower levels of ketones than might be expected.  It appears that over time many people, particularly athletes, move beyond simple keto adaption and are able to utilise fat as fuel even more efficiently and their ketone levels reduce further.

Metabolically flexible people are able to access and burn fat efficiently and hence only release free fatty acids or ketones into the bloodstream when they need the energy.  If you’re metabolically healthy and can call on your fat stores as required there’s no need to be walking around with super high levels of glucose or ketones.

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If you’ve been following a ketogenic diet for a while and / or are metabolically healthy then your ketone levels may not be as high as you might expect from looking at Volek and Phinney’s “optimal ketone zone” chart.

And as discussed in my Alkaline Diet vs Acidic Ketones article, higher ketone levels could even be an indication that you have some level of metabolic acidosis.  People with untreated Type 1 Diabetes have very high ketone as well as blood glucose levels at the same time (i.e. ketoacidosis).

Phinney says he does not condone the “adolescent behaviour” of competing to see how high you can get your ketone levels and warns that you can risk loss of lean body mass by chasing high ketone levels with an inappropriately low insulin load approach (i.e. very low carb and very low protein).[11]

People with higher NAD+ levels (an important coenzyme which declines with aging[12]) and lower NADH levels are more likely to produce more breath acetone (which can be measured with the Ketonix) and less BHB ketones in the blood.   Hence, higher consistent levels of breath acetone may be a more useful indication than blood ketones that you are burning fat rather than just eating fat.[13]

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“The ratio of β-OHB to AcAc depends on the NADH/NAD+ ratio inside mitochondria; if NADH concentration is high, the liver releases a higher proportion of β-OHB.”[14]

While I think it’s good to have some ketones in the blood as an indication that your insulin levels aren’t too high, it can be hard to interpret what high or low level of blood ketones mean.

As noted in Peter Attia’s Fat Flux article, the BHB ketones you measure in your blood is a function of:

  • the dietary fat that you’re eating,
  • plus the fat being liberated from your body fat (lipolysis),
  • minus the BHB being used by your muscles, heart and brain.

High blood ketones could mean that your insulin levels are low and your level of lipolysis is high (i.e. lots of fat is being released from your body).  In this case, high ketones are an indicator of metabolic health and may facilitate healthy appetite regulation and enable you to burn your stored body fat.

However, high blood ketone levels could also mean that you are eating a lot of dietary fat (or consuming a lot exogenous ketones) and your body isn’t well adapted to using ketones for fuel and hence unused ketones are building up in your blood stream.  If this is the case, then loading up with more dietary fat in the pursuit of higher ketone levels may cause you to become more insulin resistant and inflamed as your ketone levels rise but the fat is not yet able to be efficiently oxidised for fuel.

The plot below shows a compilation of glucose and ketone values from a range of people following a low carb or “ketogenic” diet.  It seems that the most metabolically healthy people have low blood glucose levels and moderate ketones at rest, however they can easily access plenty of glucose and fat from the body when required.

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It makes sense to me from an evolutionary perspective that someone who is healthy would be able to conserve energy when not active (i.e. hiding in a cave) but then be able to quickly access stored energy when required (i.e. when being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger).  The body doesn’t always need super high blood ketone levels and hence we secrete insulin to remove both glucose and ketones back into storage.

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The exception to this seems to be in periods of extended fasting when the body is on high alert and we are in a super-fuelled state ready to chase down some food at a moment’s notice.

So, unless you’re fasting or exercising intensely, it seems that having a lower total energy (i.e. blood glucose plus blood ketones) might be a better place to be rather than having super high ketone levels.

There is also interesting emerging research suggesting that as we become more fat adapted we can obtain more fuel from fat and hence do not need to rely on ketones which are more of an emergency fuel source during starvation.  It’s as if, just like in time we no longer measure high ketones in the urine as we utilise them better, we also start to show less ketones in the blood.  Quoting my friend Mike Julian:

I think we become less ketogenic with further adaptation simply because as we improve our ability to utilize the fat we create spin off glucose from both glycerol and acetone that goes to restore beta oxidation of fatty acids.

The spin of glucose provides oxaloacetate and restores Krebs function in the liver and reduces ketogenesis in favour of complete oxidation of acetyl-CoA. In short, ketogenesis is a transitional state, not the end goal.

Ketones will be lower if you’re fit.  Even Phinney has said that very adapted individuals are in ketosis starting at 0.3mmol.  Look at how robust the GNG is in the low carb guys in the FASTER study. It is a direct result of the nearly doubled rate of fat oxidation.

All of the glycerol when fat is oxidised has to go somewhere and it is used to make glucose. This glucose is then used to restore the Krebs cycle which means that the can make even better use of fat etc, but reduces GNG via traditional means and in turn reduces ketogenesis.

It’s a system that feeds into itself.  The better fat burner you are, the more glucose you make from fat, the better you are at fat burning and so on.

As we get better at fat utilisation we also get better at deriving glucose from fat metabolism. This source of glucose reduces the need for ketogenesis.[15] [16]

So overall, measuring blood ketones is intriguing, but not always the most reliable measure of where your metabolic health status.  Moreover, eating more dietary fat in an effort to raise your blood ketone levels is no guarantee that you’re going to lose body fat.[17]

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You may be “ketogenic” in that you are able to generate ketones, though they may not necessarily show up in high levels in the blood if you are also athletic and able to use your blood glucose and ketones effectively for energy.

The relationship between ketones and glucose

The chart below shows the generalised relationship between blood glucose and blood ketones for different people with:

  • Type 2 Diabetes,
  • Pre-diabetes,
  • Mild insulin resistance, and
  • someone who is metabolically healthy.

(note: Someone with uncontrolled Type 1 Diabetes would be literally ‘off the chart’ with high blood glucose and high blood ketones.)

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The table below shows the HbA1c incident rates for cardiovascular disease, stroke and coronary heart disease from the chart above to average blood glucose levels and the corresponding ketone levels and glucose : ketone index values.   This gives us a useful understanding of what different HbA1c risk levels look like in terms of average blood glucose levels, ketones and the glucose : ketone index.

metabolic health level HbA1c average blood glucose ketones GKI
 (%)  (mmol/L)  (mg/dL)  (mmol/L)
low normal 4.1 3.9 70 2.1 1.9
optimal 4.5 4.6 83 1.3 3.5
excellent < 5.0 < 5.4 < 97 > 0.5 11
good < 5.4 < 6 < 108 < 0.3 30
danger zone > 6.5 7.8 > 140 < 0.3 39

While it can be interesting to measure ketones, as a general rule, if you have consistently high blood glucose levels you are likely to be insulin resistant and hence will benefit from a higher fat dietary approach.

If you have high insulin and glucose levels, when transitioning to a high fat diet your glucose and insulin levels will likely plummet to be closer to the levels of a metabolically healthy person and suddenly you will be able to access your body fat stores for fuel.  You might quickly find yourself losing weight like it was magic and you’ll think the keto diet is the best thing ever!  Amazingly, lots of people find that they can “eat fat to satiety” and still lose weight (at least during this initial stage).

For the last four decades we’ve been told to avoid fat, particularly saturated fat.  Imagine the excitement, enthusiasm, and maybe even anger, when someone who has been avoiding fat finds that they suddenly start losing weight when the do the opposite to what they’ve been told to do!

But it works until it doesn’t

The problem with adding more dietary fat is that it works until it doesn’t.

Let’s say (based on the levels of metabolic health in the table above) you are able to successfully “level up” from the “danger zone” though “good” blood glucose control to “excellent” blood glucose levels with a high fat dietary approach, but then your weight loss slows and then stops well short of your optimal body fat levels.

What gives?

What do you do now?

Do you listen to the people who say you should eat more fat or the people who say you should eat less fat?

It can be confusing on the interwebs!

I think the answer depends largely on whether you are insulin resistant or insulin sensitive.  You should ‘level up’ to the most nutrient dense nutritional approach that your current level of insulin sensitivity allows.

It’s worth noting that while many people can achieve ‘excellent’ blood glucose levels through dietary manipulation, the people that I’ve seen get to truly optimal blood glucose control tend to be working hard with both their nutrition and training to maximise their lean body mass.

What is insulin resistance anyway?

In order to understand what we need to do when we stop losing weight on keto I think it’s important to understand what causes insulin resistance.

Many people think that people who are fat are simply insulin resistant.  This is partly true.   However, while insulin resistance and obesity are related, it’s not quite that simple.  It’s useful to understand the difference.

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A metabolically flexible insulin sensitive person stores excess energy eaten for later use in the fat stores on the body (i.e. adipose tissue).  When they stop eating, someone who is insulin sensitive will experience a drop in blood glucose and insulin levels and stored body fat will be released.   For the lucky people who are insulin sensitive, calories in calories out (CICO) largely works as advertised.  They find it difficult to depart far from a healthy set point weight without a change in diet quality or insulin load.

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However, as we keep eating more and more low nutrient density foods to obtain the micronutrients we need, we get to a point where the adipose tissue can no longer hold all that excess energy and starts to channel it into the organs because the fat stores are full.

The body knows that this isn’t such a great idea though because our vital organs are, well, vital, so the body becomes insulin resistant as a defence mechanism to avoid damage to vital organs, and hence the levels of sugar in our blood rise to avoid storing the extra energy in the organs.   The body even starts dumping the excess sugar into the urine to avoid having to pump it into the liver, pancreas, eyes and brain.

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The a of the major problems with insulin resistance is appetite dysregulation.  That is, when you are insulin resistant your insulin levels stay higher for longer which then makes it harder for you to access your body fat for fuel between meals.   As shown in this chart, if your blood glucose levels are high the release of fat from your body (ketones) will be low, ghrelin will kick in[18], and it will be hard to go very long without food.  Your appetite will be more likely to win out over your willpower and thus make it hard to lose weight if your insulin levels are high.

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Eating “low carb” or “keto” enables us to lower insulin levels to the point that our appetite works more in line with the way it’s meant to when we were metabolically healthy / insulin sensitive / metabolically flexible.  Our appetite drives us to seek out nutrients and energy when required and stop when we have had enough.   (note: keep in mind though that lower insulin levels are due to eating a lower dietary insulin load, not necessarily due to more dietary fat.)

Once our appetite is restored and we can more easily access our own body fat I think we need to change focus, especially if adding more fat isn’t moving you toward your weight loss goals.

Be a nutrient chaser

Once your blood glucose levels are normalised but you’re stuck on a plateau and not sure where to turn I think it’s a good idea to turn your focus to chasing nutrients rather than ketones or even worrying about blood glucose levels quite so much.

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As your blood glucose and insulin levels decrease, you should be able to release more body fat stores and hence have less need for dietary fat.  When we focus on balancing micronutrients macronutrients largely look after themselves.

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As well as adequate energy, the body works hard to make sure it gets the nutrients it needs to thrive.  The vitamins and minerals that come with whole foods are like the spark that ignites the fuel they contain.[19]  We always get ourselves into trouble when we separate nutrients from energy.  While refined sugars and grains are particularly problematic because they spike insulin, neither refined sugars or purified fats contain the same level of nutrients necessary to power our mitochondria that whole foods do.

The problem comes when we eat nutrient poor foods.  We are left with a residual need for nutrients that are required to convert our food into energy (ATP).  Our appetite will drive us to seek out more food to obtain the required nutrients.

“Added sugars displace nutritionally superior foods from the diet and at the same time increase nutritional requirements. Specifically, vitamins such as thiamine, riboflavin and niacin are necessary for the oxidation of glucose, and phosphates are stripped from ATP in order to metabolise fructose, which leads to cellular ATP depletion. The metabolism of fructose also leads to oxidative stress, inflammation and damage to the mitochondria, causing a state of ATP depletion. Hence, the liberation of calories from added sugars requires nutrients, and increases nutritional demands, but these sugars provide no additional nutrients. Thus, the more added sugars one consumes, the more nutritionally depleted one may become. This may be particularly extreme in individuals whose habitual diet is already lacking in key micronutrients.”[20]

“A nourishing, balanced diet that provides all the required nutrients in the right proportions is the key to minimising appetite and eliminating hunger at minimal caloric intake.”[21]

“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.”[22]

If we don’t get enough amino acids to prevent loss of lean muscle mass the body will also up-regulate appetite (i.e. protein leverage hypothesis).[23] [24]   While we can track our food intake to try to actively manage our energy intake, in the end, appetite, driven by the body’s need for nutrients, tends to win out.

Even if we are successful in limiting our intake, our body senses an energy crisis and slows down to make sure it has enough energy and stored fat to run our inefficient metabolism.  However, when we consume whole foods with a higher nutrient density our appetite tends to be satisfied with less energy because it can run more efficiently with an optimal balance of the nutrients it needs.[25]

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If we want to lose weight we need to find a way to provide the body with the nutrients it needs to function optimally with the minimum amount of energy intake while still maintaining low enough blood glucose and insulin levels to allow energy to flow out of our fat stores. 

Ask the experts

There was an interesting panel discussion in Episode 1161 of Jimmy Moore’s Livin La Vida Low Carb Show “Q&A Medical Panel – 2016 Low Carb Cruise” where someone asked:

LCHF says calories don’t matter.  But I still gain weight even when in ketosis.  What’s up with that?

There was a range of responses from the panel of medical doctors, not all in agreement, but my favourite answer was from Dr Ted Naiman (pictured below on the cruise) who said:

I have tons of patients who absolutely plateau out on this diet.   Everyone who goes on LCHF loses a ton of weight, and then hits a plateau.  This is extremely common.  Almost universal.  

If you eat enough fat, the flow of fat into your adipose sites will equal the flow of fat out of your adipose sites and you’re just going to plateau. 

My number one priority is nutrient density.  Eat less fat bombs and instead eat the highest nutrient density foods you possibly can and then more of the fat that you’re burning comes from your internal body stores. 

I recommend really high fat diets for people who are really glucose dependent to help them get fat adapted.  Then, once you have reached your ideal body weight you have to eat a high fat diet then as well because you’re burning fat.  But there is a period in the middle when you’re plateaued when you do want to eat less fat because you want your fat to come off stored body fat.  

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Are you really insulin resistant?

I think the critical question here is whether you are really insulin resistant.  The most useful measure is simply to test your blood glucose levels.

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, then you will have a glucose meter and you’ll be able to easily test your blood glucose levels to know where you’re at.  Glucometers are fairly cheap to purchase and often come with a rebate.

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There are many people who are fatter than they want to be but still have reasonable insulin sensitivity and normal blood glucose.  For these people, eating more fat doesn’t always get them where they want to be.[26] [27]

At the same time, many skinny people are actually insulin resistant (TOFI).  It of depends on how much energy your belly is willing to store before it starts pumping the excess fat into your vital organs.

The irony here is that you may look healthier if you are skinny, but it may mean that your adipose tissue is able to store less energy before it transitions to start storing excess energy in your vital organs.

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For those of you that don’t like testing your blood glucose level I have outlined a number of other ways to determine whether you are actually insulin resistant.  This understanding can then be used to understand whether you may need more or less dietary fat.

Oral glucose tolerance test

An Oral Glucose Tolerance Test (OGTT) is the generally accepted medical test for insulin resistance and diabetes.  An OGTT measures someone’s rise in blood glucose in response to a large amount of ingested glucose.   If it goes up too much after a standard amount of glucose then you are deemed to be insulin resistant.

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The problem is most people following a low carb approach will likely fail an OGTT because of physiological insulin resistance.  Someone following a low carb diet won’t have a lot of insulin circulating in their body, so when they ingest a large amount of fast acting glucose their pancreas will respond from a “standing start” and has to pump out a lot of insulin to respond to the glucose.  The glucose levels of someone following a low carb dietary approach may rise quite a lot before the pancreas can catch up.

By comparison, someone eating more carbohydrates would have higher levels of insulin circulating that will act on the glucose as soon as it was ingested with only a little bit of extra insulin needing to be secreted in response to the food and hence the glucose response would be lower.

Kraft test

A Kraft Insulin Assay, which measures insulin response over time to a certain amount of glucose, will give you an accurate idea of whether you’re insulin resistant, however these tests are expensive and fairly hard to obtain.  A Kraft Test might be a useful way to see if your are becoming insulin resistant even if your glucose levels are keeping up, for now.

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Oral protein tolerance test

Whether or not your blood glucose levels rise or decrease in response to a high protein meal with no carbohydrate is also a useful way to understand if you are insulin resistant.

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Someone who is metabolically healthy will release glucagon and insulin in response to protein as it is metabolised to maintain a stable glucose level.[28]  Someone who is insulin resistant may not produce adequate insulin to counteract the glucagon released by the liver and hence they may see their blood glucose levels rise.

If you find your glucose levels do rise significantly response to protein, it may be a sign that you need to slow down a little on the protein (or at least limit processed protein powders and opt for whole food sources of protein which are harder to overeat).

Realistically though, unless you’re severely insulin resistant, have Type 1 Diabetes or are using therapeutic ketosis to manage a chronic health condition such as cancer, epilepsy, alzheimers or dementia, most people don’t need to micromanage their protein intake if they are eating a range of unprocessed whole foods.

Your ability to handle protein may improve with time as your insulin resistance improves or you build a bit more muscle mass.  Actively avoiding protein to minimise insulin may be counterproductive in the long term if it leads to loss of lean body mass.

Optimal dietary approach survey

While testing blood glucose is a pretty good indicator of your insulin resistance status, there are a number of reasons that you may not want to test, including:

  • you don’t yet own a blood glucose meter,
  • you don’t like the sight of your own blood, or
  • test strips can be expensive, especially if not covered by insurance.

Beyond testing your blood glucose and / or ketone levels, there are a wide range of other indicators that you may be insulin resistant and may need a higher fat dietary approach.   I have prepared this multiple choice survey to help people better understand which dietary approach might be ideal for them based on their situation and goals.

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You may be insulin resistant and / or benefit from a higher fat diet if you answer yes to most of these of these questions.[29]   If you answer no to most of these questions then you may do better if you focus on nutrient dense foods rather than more fat.

  1. Do you have a chronic health condition such as cancer, epilepsy, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, severe insulin resistance or traumatic brain injury?
  2. Have you been diagnosed with diabetes?
  3. Is your HbA1c greater than 6.4%?
  4. Is your fasting glucose greater than 7.0 mmol/L?
  5. Is your post meal glucose level greater than 11.0mmol/L or 200 mg/dL?
  6. Is your triglyceride : HDL ratio greater than 3.0?
  7. Are your triglycerides greater than 1.1mmol/L or 100mg/dL?
  8. Are your blood ketone levels less than 0.3mmol/L?
  9. Is your fasting insulin greater than 20 uIU/mL or 120 pmol/L?
  10. Is your C-reactive protein greater than 1.0 mg/dL?
  11. Does your blood glucose level rise significant after eating a large protein only meal?
  12. Do you have a big hard belly (fat stored around the organs not on the surface)?

Can I take my insulin levels to zero?

You cannot eliminate your need for insulin by eating a 100% fat diet, or even not eating at all.

Back in the 70s Dr Richard Bernstein worked out by self experimentation that people with Type 1 Diabetes require both basal and bolus insulin.  Basal insulin is required, regardless of food intake, to stop the body from breaking down its own lean body mass.  Bolus insulin is required to metabolise the food eaten.[30]

Someone on a typical western diet has about a 50:50 ratio of basal to bolus insulin.  Someone on a low carb diet will require less insulin, however 80% of their insulin dose required as basal insulin and the remaining 20% for their food.  While the body typically doesn’t secrete insulin in response to fat, and appetite is often reduced on a high fat diet, if we force an energy excess with high levels of processed fats there will always be enough basal insulin circulating in the blood to remove the excess energy to our fat stores.

Someone with Type 1 will modify their insulin sensitivity factor in their insulin pump to match their insulin sensitivity to optimise their blood glucose control.  People without Type 1 Diabetes can change their insulin sensitivity (and hence require less insulin) by, amongst other things, being exposed to less insulin[31] and improving our level of lean body mass (muscle) and mitochondrial function.  It is important to ensure your diet has adequate protein to build muscle as well as exercising that muscle to make sure our body is well trained and efficient at using that energy.

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Having well trained lean muscle mass is critical to glucose disposal and insulin action and thus reducing overall insulin levels.[32]  In addition to avoiding foods that quickly raise our blood glucose levels, we need to train our body to dispose of the glucose effectively and efficiently with less reliance on large amounts of insulin through building lean body mass.  This is achieved by (amongst other things like sleep, sunlight, reduced stress etc) eating nutrient dense foods that power up the mitochondria to enable us to burn the energy efficiently.

So just tell me what to eat!

I have prepared the table below to guide people to the most optimal foods based on their blood glucose levels and current level of insulin resistance and whether you need to lose weight (based on your waist to height ratio[33]).

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
nutrient dense maintenance < 97 < 5.4 < 0.5

There’s no nutrient poor processed grains or added sugars in any of these lists.

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The therapeutic ketosis foods have higher levels of added fat.  The nutrient dense weight loss foods contain more lean proteins and non-starchy veggies and less added fat.

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Someone with poorly controlled Type 2 Diabetes may start out on a high fat ketogenic approach (say 2:1 fat to protein by weight), in time they should be able to progressively ‘level up’ to more nutrient dense foods as their insulin sensitivity improves and they find their blood glucose levels can tolerate it.

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Someone who has long standing diabetes or who has Type 1 Diabetes may settle on a 1:1 for maintenance.  Someone who becomes more insulin sensitive may be able to cut their dietary fat down even more as they are more easily able to release fat from their body fat stores.  Even if someone wanting to lose weight got down to a 1:0.5 protein to fat ratio by weight the majority of their energy is still coming from fat, they’re just given their body a better chance of needing to use dietary fat.

I hope this helps you find the optimal approach for you.  I would love to hear how it goes.

references

[1] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/06/22/why-we-get-fat-and-what-to-do-about-it-v2/

[2] http://bja.oxfordjournals.org/content/85/1/69.long

[3] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/06/29/trends-outliers-insulin-and-protein/

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

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

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

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

[8] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/06/29/trends-outliers-insulin-and-protein/

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

[10] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0026049515003340

[11] https://youtu.be/r8uSv6OgHJE?t=2080

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicotinamide_adenine_dinucleotide

[13] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4737348/pdf/OBY-23-2327.pdf

[14] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4102118/

[15] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3140964/

[16] https://www.facebook.com/groups/198981013851366/permalink/261051057644361/?comment_id=261276760955124&comment_tracking=%7B%22tn%22%3A%22R4%22%7D

[17] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8uSv6OgHJE&feature=youtu.be

[18] http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/v67/n7/abs/ejcn201390a.html

[19] https://www.amazon.com/Nutritional-Approach-Revised-Model-Medicine-ebook/dp/B00CXECDI8/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

[20] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4975866/

[21] http://perfecthealthdiet.com/

[22] http://terrywahls.com/about-the-wahls-protocol/

[23] http://sydney.edu.au/science/outreach/inspiring/news/cpc.shtml

[24] http://www.nature.com/ejcn/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ejcn2016256a.html

[25] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2988700/

[26] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/06/13/low-energy-density-high-nutrient-density-foods-for-weight-loss/

[27] https://www.dropbox.com/s/n8tzuiixb1n1cxi/Weight%20Loss%20on%20Low-Fat%20vs.%20Low-Carbohydrate%20Diets%20by%20Insulin%20Resistance%20Status%20Among%20Overweight%20Adults%20and%20Adults%20With%20Obesity-%20A%20Randomized%20Pilot%20Trial%20(1).pdf?dl=0

[28] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2015/06/15/the-blood-glucose-glucagon-and-insulin-response-to-protein/

[29] http://www.thebloodcode.com/

[30] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lrbxITXAVA

[31] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21241239

[32] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2343294/

[33] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waist-to-height_ratio

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 you goal is to lose weight it will be hard to overeat if you limit your food choices to things like broccoli, 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 catabolise 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 talk 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 is hard to achieve with real food and is 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 grams per kilogram of lean body weight

Some people prefer to talk in terms of terms of percentages or grams 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 is 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 heath 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 a 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 trendline 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 macronutrient targets, but real foods don’t come in neat little packages of protein, fat and carbohydrates.  The chart below shows the macronutrient 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.

2016-12-03-3

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 gives 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 grams 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 grams) 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 a 180cm person with good glucose control but still wanting to lose weight, your initial target insulin load would be 156g from the superfoods from fat lost 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

choosing the right sized low carb band aid

  • This article identifies nutrient dense low insulin load foods that can help to stabilise your blood glucose levels and allow your own pancreas to keep up.
  • Once you normalise your blood glucose and lose some weight the progressive addition of nutrient dense low energy density foods may help continue your weight loss and improve your metabolic health.

how important is insulin sensitivity?

Managing your blood glucose levels through diet seems to be a major issue, if not THE most significant issue when it comes to health, longevity and reducing your risk of the leading causes of death (i.e. heart attack, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease).[1]

As indicated by the charts below the lowest risk of the diseases associated with metabolic disease occurs when your HbA1c is less than 5% (i.e. an average blood glucose levels less than 100 mg/dL or 5.4 mmol/L).[2]

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image12

image11

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Insulin is an anabolic hormone that helps store nutrients and prevent their breakdown.   High levels of insulin (hyperinsulinemia) can lead to excess fat storage.  Excess insulin can also prevents us from accessing stored body fat.

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is low carb the best approach for everyone?

There are people who will argue that you can eat as much fat as you want.

At the same time there are people who will argue that you can eat as much protein as you want.

And you guessed it, there are also people who argue that you can eat as much carbohydrate as you want.

So who is right?

It seems that Christopher Gardner’s recent study Weight loss on low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate diets by insulin resistance status among overweight adults and adults with obesity: A randomized pilot trial[3] might bring some clarity to the macro nutrient wars.[4]

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As always, context matters.

It seems that there is no one single approach that is optimal for everyone all the time.

As well as encouraging participants to eat nutrient dense whole foods, Gardener’s study divided the participants up based on their insulin sensitivity and asked them to restrict carbohydrates or restrict fat as much as they could over a period of six months living in the real world without tracking calories.

As you can see from the chart below:

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This observation from Gardener’s study also aligns with the findings of the results of a 2005 study Insulin Sensitivity Determines the Effectiveness of Dietary Macronutrient Composition on Weight Loss in Obese Women (Cornier et al, 2005)[5] which also found that people who were insulin resistant did better with LCHF while those who were insulin sensitive did better on the HCLF approach.

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Similarly, people who are insulin resistant improve their fatty liver on a low GI diet.[6]

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Again, the results from Pitas (2005) show that people who are insulin sensitive lose more weight on a high glycemic diet while the people who were insulin resistant lose more on the low glycemic load diet.

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In this video David Ludwig explains why someone who is insulin resistant might do better with a reduced carbohydrate approach.

am I insulin resistant?

So the obvious question then is whether or not you are insulin resistant and how do you tell?

Insulin resistance, and the compensatory hyperinsulinemia that follows, appear to be caused primarily by excess body fat, particularly around the abdomen and organs, which leads to inflammation, insulin resistance and elevated blood glucose levels.[7]

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So if you have big belly there’s a pretty good chance you are also insulin resistant and have elevated blood glucose and / or high insulin levels.  So having a waist circumference greater than half your height is a good indication you are insulin resistant.[8]  [9] [10]

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Unfortunately your size is not a perfect indicator of your metabolic health.  Some people manage to store more fat before inflammation and insulin resistance sets in.[11]  These people are called metabolically healthy obese.[12]    Conversely some people can look thin on the outside but still have fat around their organs which causes insulin resistance.  These people are called TOFIs (thin outside, fat inside).[13]

A more accurate way to ascertain if you are insulin resistant is to test your blood glucose levels. If your blood glucose levels are consistently above 5.0mmol/L or 90 mg/dL before meals then you might have a problem.  If you wanted to get more serious you could get a fasting insulin test, a HOMA-IR test, test your glucose : ketone ratio or get an oral glucose tolerance test.

If you have elevated blood glucose and insulin levels you probably need to eat less processed carbohydrates.  If you are obese but have great blood glucose levels then it’s probably time to incorporate some more lower energy density higher nutrient density foods to help you reduce your calorie intake.

nutrient dense low carb foods for blood glucose control

For most people, the nutrient dense foods shown in the ‘building a better nutrient density’ article would be a major improvement.

People who are insulin sensitive but still want to lose weight would do well with low calorie density high nutrient density foods.

However, for someone who is insulin resistant, the most nutrient dense foods, which have about 50% insulinogenic calories, may lead to unacceptable blood glucose swings.   People who are unable to produce enough insulin or are insulin resistant need to manage their insulin budget and make sure that the insulinogenic foods that they do eat maximise nutrient density in order to provide adequate amino acids for muscle growth and repair and sufficient vitamins and minerals.

Where this gets more interesting is when we combine nutrient density with the proportion of insulinogenic calories to optimise both glucose levels and nutrient density.   Listed below is a summary of the top 1000 foods of the 7000+ foods in the USDA database when we prioritise by both nutrient density and insulin load.

Included in the tables below are a number of parameters that may be useful:

  1. The nutrient density score is based on the number of standard deviations above the average that a particular food is from the average.
  2. The percentage of insulinogenic calories is the proportion of the energy in the food that can turn to glucose and require insulin.
  3. The net carbs per 100g is the amount of digestible non-fibre carbohydrates in the food that can raise your blood glucose levels.
  4. The insulin load is the weight of food per 100g that will require insulin to metabolise.
  5. The energy density is the number of calories per 100g of the food. If you’re watching your weight as well as your blood glucose numbers than keeping the energy density down will also be of interest.

Vegetables

Listed below are the highest ranking vegetables.

While many of these vegetables have a high proportion of insulinogenic calories (i.e. digestible non-fibre carbohydrates that can raise blood glucose levels) they are also highly nutritious and have very low levels of non-carbohydrates and energy per 100g.  Most people would have to eat a lot of these to have a significant impact on blood glucose levels.

Most of us would do well to focus on filling up on any of these vegetables to help keep overall calories down to assist with weight loss which is critical for improving insulin resistance.  If you typically avoid vegetables due to blood glucose concerns then you could start out slowly  and progressively increase your intake of these vegetables while keeping an eye on your blood glucose levels.

image06

food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
celery 2.63 49% 1 2 17
turnip greens 1.31 39% 1 4 37
rhubarb 1.46 57% 3 3 21
lettuce 1.34 52% 2 2 17
broccoli 1.21 57% 4 6 42
asparagus 1.12 46% 2 3 27
winter squash 1.22 80% 7 8 39
artichokes 0.83 33% 3 4 54
Chinese cabbage 1.02 60% 1 2 16
okra 0.94 57% 4 5 37
summer squash 1.00 65% 2 3 19
bamboo shoots 0.90 52% 3 4 28
seaweed (kelp) 0.74 43% 4 5 50
bell peppers 0.86 64% 6 7 43
cabbage 0.81 53% 3 4 30
snap green beans 0.74 47% 4 5 40
radishes 0.70 50% 2 2 19
peas 0.69 58% 5 7 51
kale 0.75 74% 8 10 56
dill 0.42 30% 2 4 52
thyme 0.27 21% 14 19 359
mushrooms 0.65 70% 2 5 30
jalapeno peppers 0.52 54% 4 5 35
collards 0.44 46% 2 5 40
paprika 0.19 17% 8 16 389
black pepper 0.24 36% 24 29 327
beets 0.34 44% 4 5 48
chives 0.27 34% 1 3 37
bay leaf 0.21 37% 34 38 406
mung beans 0.33 46% 1 3 26
onions 0.52 77% 7 8 41
mustard greens 0.27 45% 2 3 30

fruit

This list of diabetic friendly fruits is quite short compared to the veggies.

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food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
olives 0.02 15% 3 3 90
avocado 0.01 18% 5 6 131
raspberries 0.09 42% 6 6 58

nuts, seeds and legumes

The great thing about nuts and seeds is that they have a low percentage of insulinogenic calories and are often low in non-fibre carbohydrates.   The drawback is that they have a much higher energy density due to their higher fat content and are not as high in nutrients as the non-starchy green veggies.  Keep in mind that you can overdo the nuts if you are keeping an eye on your weight as well as your blood glucose levels.

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food ND % insulinogenic net carbs/100g insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
pecans 0.15 5% 4 9 762
pine nuts 0.16 11% 9 18 647
tahini 0.17 16% 13 26 633
peanuts 0.17 18% 7 28 605
sunflower seeds 0.18 20% 11 24 491
macadamia nuts 0.12 5% 5 9 769
hummus 0.26 32% 8 14 175
pistachio nuts 0.16 23% 19 34 602
sesame seeds 0.12 18% 14 27 603
almonds 0.11 16% 15 27 652
brazil nuts 0.09 9% 4 15 704
chia seeds 0.10 16% 8 21 511
tofu 0.17 28% 2 8 112
walnuts 0.10 15% 7 25 683
coconut meat 0.09 11% 16 20 703
hazelnuts 0.10 16% 15 27 692
cashew nuts 0.11 22% 24 33 609
flaxseed 0.08 12% 2 16 568

dairy and eggs

Eggs and cheese are great in terms of proportion of insulinogenic calories.   The nutrient density of these foods is above average but not as high as the non-starchy vegetables.  As with the nuts, keep in mind that the energy density of these foods is high so it is possible to overdo them if you are keeping an eye on your weight as well as your blood glucose levels.

dairy20and20eggs

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load  (g/100g) calories/100g
butter 0.11 0% 1 734
cream cheese 0.15 10% 8 348
goat cheese 0.18 22% 25 451
egg yolk 0.18 19% 15 317
Gruyère cheese 0.18 21% 22 412
sour cream 0.12 9% 4 197
Limburger cheese 0.17 18% 15 327
cream 0.10 5% 5 431
Edam cheese 0.18 22% 20 356
blue cheese 0.17 20% 18 354
Gouda cheese 0.18 23% 20 356
cheddar cheese 0.16 20% 20 403
Muenster cheese 0.16 20% 18 368
Camembert cheese 0.17 20% 15 299
Monterey 0.16 20% 19 373
Colby 0.16 20% 20 394
feta cheese 0.17 22% 14 265
brie cheese 0.15 19% 16 334
provolone 0.17 24% 21 350
Swiss cheese 0.18 26% 25 379
parmesan cheese 0.19 30% 31 411
mozzarella 0.15 23% 18 318
whole egg 0.17 29% 10 138

seafood

Getting an adequate intake of omega 3 essential oils is important and it’s hard to do without eating fish. Higher protein lower fat fish such as cod will require more insulin to process though this is typically not an issue unless you have type 1 diabetes and need to calculate and time your insulin doses or have advanced type 2 where your insulin response is not well matched to your glucagon response from the protein.

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

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
caviar 0.30 32% 22 276
anchovy 0.34 42% 21 203
herring 0.26 34% 18 210
sardine 0.24 36% 18 202
swordfish 0.28 41% 17 165
rainbow trout 0.28 43% 17 162
mackerel 0.28 45% 17 149
tuna 0.30 50% 17 137
sturgeon 0.26 47% 15 129
salmon 0.28 50% 15 122

animal products

Higher fat animal products will have a lower insulin response but but they also have a higher energy density.  All these foods have more nutrients than average but not as many as the non-starchy vegetables.

7450703_orig

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g
chicken liver 0.43 48% 20 165
beef liver 0.46 58% 24 169
bacon 0.18 23% 30 522
pepperoni 0.13 14% 17 487
chorizo 0.15 17% 19 448
foie gras 0.11 11% 13 459
pate 0.13 16% 13 315
beef ribs 0.11 13% 12 349
duck (with skin) 0.12 17% 14 331
salami 0.12 18% 12 258
lamb 0.14 24% 18 308
beef steak 0.16 28% 21 305
frankfurter 0.10 14% 11 322
ground turkey 0.19 37% 19 203
chicken drumstick 0.17 36% 22 238

is low carb a band aid or cure?

Some people say that a reduced carbohydrate approach only addresses the symptom (high blood glucose) rather than the cause (insulin resistance).  However, the studies highlighted above suggest that the low carb “band aid” also helps with the healing process (e.g. fat loss).

If you are insulin resistant, then reducing the insulin load of your diet using the foods listed above to the point you achieve excellent blood glucose levels will most likely be helpful.

insulin load (g)=total carbohydrates (g)-fiber (g) + 0.56*protein (g)

As shown in the plots below, it’s the non-fibre carbohydrates, and to a lesser extent the protein, that drives our insulin and blood glucose response to food.

image03

image02

I’ve hit a plateau in my low carb diet, what now?

Let’s say you’re someone who has done well with a low carb diet.  You’ve heard the message not to fear fat, reduced your carbs and seen a near miraculous improvement in your blood glucose and insulin levels.  But, you haven’t quite reached your goal weight yet.

Listed below is a range of pieces of advice that you might hear given to people in this situation:

  1. Just eat more fat.
  2. Reduce total carbs.
  3. Focus more on nutrient dense low calorie density more satiating foods.
  4. Reduce net carbs.
  5. Reduce the insulin load of your diet.
  6. Eat more fibre.
  7. Exercise more.
  8. Lift heavy things to build lean muscle.
  9. Develop a fasting routine.
  10. Eat more plant based foods.
  11. Get more sunshine.
  12. Get less blue light at night.
  13. Eat only during daylight hours.
  14. Sleep more.
  15. Do some high intensity exercise.
  16. Cut out nuts and dairy.
  17. Track your calories and reduce them until you start losing weight.
  18. Stop stressing about your blood glucose levels so much, you’re just raising your cortisol!
  19. Get another hobby and stop navel gazing so much!

In the list above I’ve crossed out (a) and (b) which I think could be counter productive.

As suggested by the studies noted above, there may be a point as you achieve normal blood glucose levels that someone would benefit from focussing on higher nutrient density and lower energy density rather than just low carbs.

The million-dollar question is, what is the cut over point where you can move on from the LCHF blood glucose rehabilitation approach and start focusing on weight loss in order to further improve your metabolic health?

I think the point at which you deem yourself to have become metabolically flexible is when your average blood glucose levels are less than 100mg/dL or 5.4mmol/L.  At this point you will also be starting to show low level blood ketones.[14]  It is at this point you can start adding some of the nutrient dense low energy density foods to see what effect they have on your blood glucose levels.

When to start focussing on high nutrient density low energy density foods

The chart below (click to enlarge) shows a comparison of the nutrient density for the following dietary approaches:

  1. all foods,
  2. high nutrient density foods,
  3. nutrient dense low carbohydrate foods, and
  4. nutrient dense low calorie density foods.

image09

The low carbohydrate foods listed above will be more nutritious compared to the average of all of the foods available.  However, if you have normal blood glucose levels it might be a good idea to try to incorporate more nutrient dense low energy density foods that may be more filling and nutritious to help you to continue to progress on your weight loss journey.

If your appetite is influenced by obtaining adequate nutrients from your diet and / or energy density then it may be wise to reduce the carbs in your diet only as much as you need to normalise your blood glucose levels, otherwise you may risk compromising the nutrient density of your diet.

image19

The extent of the carbohydrate restriction (or the size of the band aid required) depends on the extent of the metabolic damage that you have sustained.  It may not be sensible to sign up for a full body cast (e.g. very high fat therapeutic ketogenic diet) if you only have a broken toe (e.g.  mild insulin resistance).

image20

As you start to heal your insulin resistance you may be able to progress from the higher fat diabetic friendly list of foods above to incorporate more more nutrient dense, lower energy density foods.

Then maybe in the long run, once you optimise your weight loss, you might be able to focus on the most nutrient dense foods for optimal health.

references

[1] https://optimisingnutrition.com/2016/03/21/wanna-live-forever/

[2] http://www.diabetes.co.uk/hba1c-to-blood-sugar-level-converter.html

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

[4] The results of Gardner’s full study should be available in late 2016.

[5] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1038/oby.2005.79/epdf

[6] http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/84/1/136.full.pdf+html

[7] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25515001

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waist-to-height_ratio

[9] https://www.google.com.au/search?q=obesity+code&spell=1&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjpg8b94P7LAhUCE5QKHS63AP4QvwUIGSgA&biw=1218&bih=939

[10] http://bmcpediatr.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2431-13-91

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

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TOFI

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

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.

image13

image11

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.

image24

image22

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.

image17

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!

image16

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!

image07

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!

image15

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.

image06

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

image03

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.

image18

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.

image19

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)

image09

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.

image21

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.

image04

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.

image05

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.  

image08

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.  

image10

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

[2] https://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/

proportion of insulinogenic calories

Someone looking to “go low carb” will typically try to make a decision on whether a food meets their goals simply based on the number of carbohydrates per serving or per 100g shown on the label.

This approach has limited benefit though, as the food may or may not contain a lot of water which makes it hard to compare in terms of carbohydrates per calorie.

Another way is to look at the amount of protein and fat in relation to the carbohydrates, but again this is a difficult calculation to make when you’re looking at the nutritional label in the shopping isle.

If we take the concept of “net carbs” and the idea that protein has some insulinogenic effect we can calculate the proportion of insulinogenic calories using the following formula:

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This calculation could be useful to determine whether one food is better than another if you’re trying to reduce your insulin load to the point that your pancreas can keep up.

As demonstrated by the chart below, the lower the proportion of insulinogenic calories in your food the less likely your meal is going to require large amounts of insulin, raise your blood glucose or cause you to store fat.

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Sure, this is not a simple calculation we can quickly while we’re out shopping.  However using readily available nutritional data we can compare and rank a wide range of foods, making us better informed when we prepare our shopping list.

An extensive list of the foods with the lowest proportion of insulinogenic calories can be in this list of the most ketogenic diet foods.

Or we can combine it with other nutritional parameters to highlight ideal foods for weight loss, diabetes, therapeutic ketosis or athletic performance.

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[next article…  application of insulin load for type 1 diabetics]

[this post is part of the insulin index series]

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glycemic load versus insulin load

The glycemic index (GI) compares the rise in blood sugar for a particular food relative to glucose.  The theory goes that it is better to eat low glycemic index carbohydrates that will not raise our blood sugar too much and will take longer to digest.

Building on the glycemic index is the concept of glycemic load which is the GI of a food multiplied by the grams of carbohydrate eaten.  Watermelon has a very high GI value, however because watermelon only contains a small quantity of carbohydrates (watermelon is mostly water) the overall glycemic load is small.  A large glycemic load occurs when you eat a large quantity of a high glycemic index carbohydrate.

The limitation of the GI approach is that we can eat a diet full of low glycemic index carbohydrates and protein while still producing a large amount of insulin.  Even though they are slow to digest and do not raise blood sugar significantly, a low GI moderate GL diet will still require substantial amounts of insulin.  It’s the amount of insulin, not the grams of carbohydrates or even the rise in blood sugar that’s really at the nub of the problem.

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The chart below shows the relationship between the glycemic load and insulin index.  Reducing the glycemic load does not guarantee a low insulin response, particularly when it comes to high protein foods.

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Even if you’re eating low GI foods that don’t spike your blood sugars you may still be generating a sustained requirement for insulin.  Maintaining reasonable blood sugars in spite of a moderate glycemic load is just an indication that your pancreas is still keeping up, for now.

Various studies have shown that eating a low GI diet doesn’t help with weight loss. [4] [5]  We also now know that high insulin levels are also a massive health risk as well as high blood sugars. [6]

Rather than focusing on the glycemic load or the glycemic index, I believe it is more important to manage the overall insulin load of the diet, particularly if your aim is to achieve optimal blood sugars or reduce excess body fat.

 

references

[1] http://www.glycemicindex.com/

[2] http://sydney.edu.au/science/people/jennie.brandmiller.php

[3] https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/Living-with-Diabetes/Eating-Well/Glycaemic-Index-GI/

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17823436

[5] http://chriskresser.com/is-the-glycemic-index-useful

[6] http://high-fat-nutrition.blogspot.com.au/2014/12/accord-and-musings-on-insulin.html

superfoods for diabetes & nutritional ketosis

More than carbohydrate counting or the glycemic index, the food insulin index data suggests that our blood glucose and insulin response to food is better predicted by net carbohydrates plus about half the protein we eat.

The chart below show the relationship between carbohydrates  and our insulin response. There is some relationship between carbohydrate and insulin, but it is not that strong, particularly when it comes to high protein foods (e.g. white fish, steak or cheese) or high fibre foods (e.g. All Bran).

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Accounting for fibre and protein enables us to more accurately predict the amount of insulin that will be required to metabolise a particular food.  This knowledge can be useful for someone with diabetes and / or a person who is insulin resistant to help them calculate their insulin dosage or to choose foods that will require less insulin.  People wanting to following a ketogenic diet will want to select foods towards the bottom corner of this chart.

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If your blood glucose levels are high you are likely insulin resistant (e.g.  type 2 diabetes) or not able to produce enough insulin (e.g. type 1 diabetes) it makes sense to reduce the insulin load of your food so your pancreas can keep up.

This list of foods has been optimised to reduce the insulin load while also maximising nutrient density.  These low insulin load, high nutrient density foods will lead to improved blood sugar control and normalised insulin levels.  Reduced insulin levels will allow body fat to be released and be used for energy to improve body composition and insulin resistance.

As shown in the chart below this selection of foods is also nutrient dense and provides a substantially greater amount of nutrients compared to the average of all foods available.

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From a macronutrient perspective these foods have a similar protein content to the rest of the foods in the USDA database, more fibre but much less digestible non-fibre carbohydrate.  And the carbohydrates that are there come from nutrient dense veggies that are hard to overconsume compared to the processed nutrient poor carbs that are typically causing the issues for people.

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Included in the tables are the nutrient density score, percentage of insulinogenic calories, insulin load, energy density and the multicriteria analysis score (MCA) that combines all these factors.  Why not use these lists to inspire you next shopping trip at the grocery store?

vegetables and fruit

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food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
endive 17 23% 1 17 1.9
chicory greens 15 23% 2 23 1.8
alfalfa 12 19% 1 23 1.7
escarole 14 24% 1 19 1.7
coriander 14 30% 2 23 1.6
spinach 19 49% 4 23 1.3
curry powder 5 13% 14 325 1.3
beet greens 12 35% 2 22 1.3
basil 18 47% 3 23 1.3
zucchini 14 40% 2 17 1.3
asparagus 17 50% 3 22 1.2
paprika 8 27% 26 282 1.2
mustard greens 8 36% 3 27 1.1
parsley 14 48% 5 36 1.1
turnip greens 12 44% 4 29 1.1
banana pepper 7 36% 3 27 1.0
collards 8 37% 4 33 1.0
arugula 12 45% 3 25 1.0
lettuce 14 50% 2 15 1.0
chard 14 51% 3 19 1.0
eggplant 5 35% 3 25 1.0
pickles 8 39% 1 12 1.0
cucumber 8 39% 1 12 1.0
okra 13 50% 3 22 1.0
summer squash 10 45% 2 19 1.0
sage 4 26% 26 315 0.9
poppy seeds 1 17% 23 525 0.9
Chinese cabbage 14 54% 2 12 0.9
watercress 20 65% 2 11 0.9
chives 12 48% 4 30 0.9
broccoli 13 50% 5 35 0.9
edamame 8 41% 13 121 0.9
sauerkraut 6 39% 2 19 0.9
jalapeno peppers 4 37% 3 27 0.9
cloves 6 35% 35 274 0.9
cauliflower 11 50% 4 25 0.9
marjoram 4 31% 27 271 0.9
caraway seed 3 27% 28 333 0.8
thyme 5 34% 31 276 0.8
red peppers 6 40% 3 31 0.8
radishes 7 43% 2 16 0.8
celery 10 50% 3 18 0.8
portabella mushrooms 12 55% 5 29 0.8

eggs and dairy

dairy20and20eggs

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
egg yolk 5 18% 12 275 1.2
whole egg 6 30% 10 143 1.1
cream -6 6% 5 340 1.0
sour cream -5 13% 6 198 0.9
limburger cheese -1 19% 15 327 0.9
cream cheese -5 11% 10 350 0.9
camembert -1 21% 16 300 0.8
feta cheese -1 22% 15 264 0.8
Swiss cheese -0 22% 22 393 0.8
butter -7 2% 3 718 0.8
blue cheese -1 21% 19 353 0.8
gruyere cheese -0 22% 23 413 0.8
edam cheese -1 23% 21 357 0.8
cheddar cheese -2 20% 20 410 0.8
brie -3 19% 16 334 0.8
Monterey cheese -2 20% 19 373 0.8
goat cheese -3 21% 14 264 0.8
muenster cheese -2 21% 19 368 0.8
gouda cheese -1 24% 21 356 0.8
Colby -2 21% 20 394 0.7
ricotta -2 27% 12 174 0.7

nuts, seeds and legumes

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food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
sunflower seeds 3 15% 22 546 1.0
flax seed 0 11% 16 534 1.0
coconut milk -6 8% 5 230 1.0
sesame seeds -2 10% 17 631 0.9
brazil nuts -2 9% 16 659 0.9
coconut cream -7 8% 7 330 0.9
pumpkin seeds 1 19% 29 559 0.9
hazelnuts -2 10% 17 629 0.9
coconut meat -6 10% 9 354 0.8
walnuts -1 13% 22 619 0.8
almonds -1 15% 25 607 0.8
pine nuts -3 11% 21 673 0.8
almond butter -1 16% 26 614 0.8
pecans -5 6% 12 691 0.8
macadamia nuts -6 6% 12 718 0.7

seafood

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

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
mackerel 0 14% 10 305 1.1
fish roe 15 47% 18 143 1.1
caviar 9 33% 23 264 1.1
cisco 5 29% 13 177 1.0
trout 13 45% 18 168 1.0
sardine 9 37% 19 208 1.0
sturgeon 14 49% 16 135 0.9
salmon 15 52% 20 156 0.9
anchovy 11 44% 22 210 0.9
herring 7 36% 19 217 0.9

offal

food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
beef brains 3 22% 8 151 1.1
lamb brains 5 27% 10 154 1.1
sweetbread -3 12% 9 318 1.0
lamb liver 14 48% 20 168 1.0
turkey liver 13 47% 21 189 1.0
chicken liver 14 50% 20 172 0.9
liver sausage -4 13% 10 331 0.9
chicken liver pate 5 34% 17 201 0.9
lamb kidney 14 52% 15 112 0.9
veal liver 15 55% 26 192 0.8
liver pate -4 16% 13 319 0.8
lamb sweetbread 7 43% 15 144 0.8
beef kidney 11 52% 20 157 0.7

animal products

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food ND % insulinogenic insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
bratwurst 0 16% 13 333 1.0
ground turkey 5 30% 19 258 0.9
bacon -4 11% 11 417 0.9
pork sausage 1 25% 13 217 0.9
salami -1 18% 17 378 0.9
pork ribs -1 18% 16 361 0.9
kielbasa -3 15% 12 325 0.9
turkey bacon -3 19% 11 226 0.8
pork sausage -2 20% 16 325 0.8
knackwurst -4 16% 12 307 0.8
roast pork 8 41% 20 199 0.8
bologna -7 11% 9 310 0.8
pepperoni -4 13% 16 504 0.8
beef sausage -3 18% 15 332 0.8
lamb rib -2 19% 17 361 0.8
duck -3 18% 15 337 0.8
pork ribs 6 39% 21 216 0.8
blood sausage -5 14% 13 379 0.8
pork loin 7 41% 19 193 0.8
frankfurter -5 17% 12 290 0.8
meatballs -3 19% 14 286 0.8
headcheese -5 20% 8 157 0.8
roast ham 6 41% 18 178 0.8
chorizo -3 17% 19 455 0.8
roast beef 5 38% 21 219 0.7
turkey -2 20% 21 414 0.7
chicken (leg with skin) 6 42% 18 184 0.7
T-bone steak -1 26% 19 294 0.7
ground beef 1 30% 18 248 0.7

other dietary approaches

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

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

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

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