Fat Loss Nutrition Series: Insulin

Make Insulin Work For You

I’d argue that the most important piece of the body composition transformation process (i.e., losing fat and/or gaining muscle) is getting your body to use the hormone insulin more efficiently. ‘Improved insulin sensitivity’ should be the #1 goal on your wish list.

Insulin is the most anabolic, anti-catabolic hormone in the body. It improves amino acid uptake by muscle tissue, which in turn initiates protein synthesis. It also prevents amino acids (from food or muscle) from being oxidized as a reserve fuel source.

On the flipside, it also can be the most lipolytic (fat storing) hormone in the body, shuttling fatty acids and glucose to fat cells to be stored as body fat.

Insulin and Body Composition

If you have poor insulin sensitivity you must produce a lot more of it when you eat a meal. This increases the workload on the pancreas and can further desensitize insulin receptors even (making you even less sensitive), which can both lead to diabetes.

From a body composition point of view, having to produce more insulin to do the job (because you are desensitized) makes losing fat significantly harder. As long as insulin is high, your body is in storage mode and energy mobilization is less efficient. This means that the longer insulin stays elevated, the harder it is to lose fat.

Poor insulin sensitivity, especially in the muscles, can also make it much harder to gain muscle mass. Insulin resistant muscle cells cannot absorb amino acids and glucose as efficiently, and these are important building blocks for muscle gain.

5 Steps Towards Insulin Sensitivity

1. Find Your Place on the Dietary Seesaw

For carbohydrate intake, I look at it as a seesaw approach. On one side, you have a person’s relative insulin resistance, on the other side, their suggested carbohydrate intake.

If someone’s insulin resistance level is high, then his/her carbohydrate intake should be low. If someone’s insulin resistance level is low (and insulin sensitivity is high), then his/her carbohydrate intake should be high. If it’s in the middle, carbohydrates should be moderate and targeted.

Since insulin resistance is closely correlated with body fat, I’ll put it in terms of approximate body fat percentages:

  • > 25% body fat: You’re likely so insulin resistant that any carbohydrates you eat will be stored in adipose tissue. Low-carb diets would be the best. Think Paleo, Ketogenic, Atkins, or Poliquin’s “run, fly, swim, green and grows in the ground” approach.
  • 12-25% body fat: Stick with the “earn your carbs” theme. If you’re consistently strength training, reintroduce carbs back into your diet. Start slowly, perhaps 0.5-1.0g/lb of lean body mass. Timing also matters – spread carbohydrate intake over periods where insulin sensitivity is at its highest (around your workout and/or early morning).
  • < 10% body fat: In addition to peri-workout nutrition and early morning, good carb sources should be a consistent part of the diet for this demographic.

2. Limit Fructose

Condemning all carbs as evil and cutting them across the board, regardless of the type or individual metabolic situation, isn’t the way to approach this. If pure starch really were the cause of insulin resistance and obesity, the Japanese (with all the rice and noodles they eat) would be the fattest, most diabetic people on Earth.

Although the traditional Japanese diet is high in carbohydrate/starch, it’s low in fructose/sugar, and that’s the true anthropological lesson. It is abnormally high amounts of fructose that’s causing widespread insulin resistance in America, not necessarily the generic carbohydrate.

A study in the American Journal of Physiology compared a starch-based diet with a sucrose/fructose-based diet, with the practical application being this:

Cut out high fructose corn syrup, fructose sweeteners, sugar, fruit juice, fruit smoothies, and dried fruit. 1-2 pieces of whole fruit a day is allowable. Use fructose-free, gluten-free starch (rice and potatoes) as your primary carbohydrate sources.

3. Eliminate Trans-Fats

Trans fats are horrendous for overall health. In the physique context, trans fats have been shown to inhibit glucose disposal, promote insulin resistance, and induce abdominal obesity.

Cut out anything with trans fats or (partially) hydrogenated oils on the label.

4. Improve Omega 6:3 Balance

I’ll be addressing this point in more detail in the next newsletter. For now, here are some practical applications for improving insulin resistance: Increase intake of Omega-3 fatty acids through wild fish, grass-fed beef, and/or supplement with a good fish or kill oil. Decrease your consumption of high Omega-6 vegetable oils such as corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and fried foods. 

brown wrapped tobacco

5. ‘Tis the Season For Cinnamon Spice and Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar and cinnamon are food compounds that has shown to exhibit positive nutrient partitioning effects. Numerous studies have shown it to improve the metabolic action of insulin resistance by increasing glucose uptake by the cells and enhancing the insulin-signaling pathway in muscle.

Add cinnamon to your daily drinks (i.e., milk, coffee, tea) and consume at least 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.


Take Action

To improve insulin sensitivity and start losing fat:

  • Determine your body fat percentage and look at the daily carb recommendations for your range (detailed below).
  • Cut out high fructose corn syrup, fructose sweeteners, sugar, fruit juice, fruit smoothies, and dried fruit. 1-2 pieces of whole fruit a day is allowable.
  • Use fructose-free, gluten-free starch (e.g., taro, potatoes, quinoa, etc.) as your primary carbohydrate sources.
  • Cut out anything with trans fats or (partially) hydrogenated oils on the label.
  • Increase intake of Omega-3 fatty acids through wild fish, grass-fed beef, and/or supplement with a good fish or kill oil.
  • Eliminate your consumption of high Omega-6 vegetable oils such as corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and fried foods.
  • Add cinnamon to your food/drinks (i.e., protein shakes, coffee, tea) and consume at least 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar daily.

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