Nutrient dense insulinogenic foods for bodybuilding

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

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

insulin load, a refresher

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


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


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


but why would you want to spike your glucose levels?

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

  • Some follow a targeted ketogenic diet and strategically replenish glucose around workouts by eating higher carbohydrate foods.
  • Some bodybuilders use a cyclical ketogenic diet where they deplete glucose and then replenish glucose periodically.
  • Some fat adapted endurance athletes will look to ‘carb up’ before an event so that they have both glucose and fat based fuel sources (a.k.a. train low, race high).
  • Others find success with dietary approaches such as the AltShift Diet, Carb Back-Loading which alternating periods of extreme high and low carb dietary approaches (not always with the most nutritious high carb foods).

the mission…

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


The foods listed below represent the top 10% of the USDA food database prioritised for higher insulin load, higher nutrient density and higher energy density.  In terms of macronutrients they come out at 36% protein, 15% fat and 44% net carbohydrates.

While these foods might not be ideal for someone with diabetes they actually look like a pretty healthy list of foods compared to the “food like products” that you’d find in the isles of the supermarket.

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

2017-02-19 (7).png

Also included in the tables below are the nutrient density score, percentage of insulinogenic calories, insulin load, energy density and the multicriteria analysis score score (MCA) that combines all these factors.



food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
watercress 19 2 11 1.2
seaweed (wakame) 13 11 45 1.0
shiitake mushrooms 5 72 296 0.9
spinach 17 4 23 0.9
brown mushrooms 11 5 22 0.7
asparagus 15 3 22 0.7
chard 14 3 19 0.7
seaweed (kelp) 9 10 43 0.7
yeast extract spread 8 27 185 0.6
white mushroom 11 5 22 0.6
spirulina 10 6 26 0.6
mung beans 9 4 19 0.6
Chinese cabbage 12 2 12 0.5
celery flakes 4 42 319 0.5
portabella mushrooms 11 5 29 0.5
broccoli 11 5 35 0.4
parsley 12 5 36 0.4
lettuce 12 2 15 0.4
radicchio 8 4 23 0.4
shiitake mushroom 9 7 39 0.4
peas 7 7 42 0.4
dandelion greens 9 7 45 0.3
endive 15 1 17 0.3
okra 10 3 22 0.3
pumpkin 6 4 20 0.3
bamboo shoots 8 5 27 0.3
beet greens 12 2 22 0.3
snap beans 8 3 15 0.3
zucchini 11 2 17 0.3

animal products


food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
ham (lean only) 11 17 113 0.7
veal liver 9 26 192 0.7
beef liver 9 25 175 0.7
lamb liver 11 20 168 0.7
lamb kidney 11 15 112 0.6
chicken breast 8 22 148 0.5
pork liver 7 23 165 0.5
chicken liver 9 20 172 0.5
pork chop 7 23 172 0.5
veal 6 24 151 0.5
beef kidney 8 20 157 0.5
lean beef 7 23 149 0.5
leg ham 7 22 165 0.5
turkey liver 8 21 189 0.5
pork shoulder 6 22 162 0.4
ground beef 6 20 144 0.4
sirloin steak 6 24 177 0.4
ground pork 6 25 185 0.4


food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
cod 14 48 290 1.5
crab 15 14 83 1.1
lobster 14 15 89 1.1
crayfish 12 13 82 0.9
shrimp 11 19 119 0.9
pollock 11 18 111 0.8
octopus 9 28 164 0.8
halibut 11 17 111 0.8
fish roe 13 18 143 0.8
haddock 10 19 116 0.8
white fish 10 18 108 0.8
clam 9 25 142 0.8
scallop 8 22 111 0.7
rockfish 10 17 109 0.7
salmon 11 20 156 0.7
whiting 9 18 116 0.7
perch 10 14 96 0.7
oyster 11 14 102 0.7
flounder 11 12 86 0.6
anchovy 9 22 210 0.6
trout 10 18 168 0.6
caviar 10 23 264 0.6
sturgeon 10 16 135 0.5
tuna 6 23 184 0.3
orange roughy 4 17 105 0.3
sardine 7 19 208 0.3



food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
cowpeas 2 68 336 0.8
black beans 2 63 341 0.6
soybeans 3 49 446 0.6
pinto beans 1 64 347 0.6
kidney beans 1 63 337 0.6
broad beans 2 54 341 0.5
peas 0 57 352 0.4



food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
oat bran 6 65 246 0.7
baker’s yeast 10 16 105 0.5
baking powder 2 45 97 0.4
wheat bran 8 34 216 0.4
rye flour 0 58 325 0.4
quinoa 1 22 120 0.1



food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
whey powder 10 82 339 1.6
cream cheese (low fat) 12 19 105 1.0
cottage cheese (low fat) 6 14 72 0.5
parmesan cheese 3 35 420 0.4
cottage cheese (low fat) 7 13 81 0.4
cheddar (non-fat) 6 20 173 0.3
mozzarella 4 26 304 0.3
kefir 6 7 41 0.3
gruyere cheese 3 23 413 0.3
low fat milk 6 8 56 0.2
Greek yogurt (low fat) 5 11 73 0.2
Swiss cheese 3 22 393 0.2
gouda cheese 3 21 356 0.2
cheddar cheese 3 20 410 0.2
egg yolk 6 12 275 0.2
edam cheese 3 21 357 0.1

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

Marty Kendall

  • raphaels7 says:

    Hi Marty,

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

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

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

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


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

    • I’ve just updated the list with some more numbers and filtered for anything with a nutrient density score of less than zero, hence the rice cakes and noodles drop out. Thanks for the feedback.

  • Nick says:

    Are these ordered by any rankings? Eg is the top of a list more insulinogenic than the bottom?

    • Hey Nick. I’ve just updated the list with some further details of the scoring for each. The ranking is based on a combination of nutrient density and % insulinogenic calories.

  • Jeff says:

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

    • For which foods. My spreadsheet actually tallies up the insulinogenic proteins so it may be different and the numbers in different databases are always slightly different.

      • Jeff says:

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

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

  • Robert PK says:

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

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

  • […] If you’re gonna eat insulin-spiking foods, they might as well be nutrient-dense. […]

  • Hemming says:

    So what was the result of the two diets? Or is Tommy still trying it out?

  • Lita says:

    Just discovered your website through a link from Jason Fung. Thank you very informative.

  • […] The Most Insulinogenic Nutrient Dense Foods […]

  • Max says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Thanks so much! for sharing again.

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

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

      • Max says:

        Hi Marty,

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

  • mARK says:

    i noticed a couple of duplications in the food lists: shiitake mushrooms, with quite different numbers, and cottage cheese (low fat), with pretty similar numbers.
    btw, why only low fat? especially in dairy products that tends to mean high carb, and not good carbs either.

  • brian says:

    you should list jasmine rice on there since its way up there on the index. Seems that all the foods highest on the scale cause me the most inflammation and that explains why I experience more inflammation from consuming whey protein.

  • >