Don’t Screw Up Your Progress Over Insulin

You know when people are heavily overloaded with information and then they start worrying about the smallest detail when it comes to their diet and training? But because they have to take care of so many things and they put so much pressure on themselves, that whole process has little to no longevity…

Well, meal timing and insulin spikes come up more and more frequently in conversation. Bring this seemingly sensitive topic up to any low carb dieter and you can virtually see them turn white as the blood drains from their face in abject of horror. To a lot of people, insulin is the big bad guy in the nutrition world because they refer to it as the “storage hormone”. And a lot of the time they will argue that any amount of insulin in the body will immediately cause you to lay down new fat cells, put on weight and lose any degree of leanness and definition…

Fortunately, I am going to wrangle this topic and dispute that is not quite the case.

Insulin’s Purpose


Protein World
Shot with my iPhone 6S.

Okay. So let’s face the facts. Insulin is a storage hormone (as I previously touched on a wee while back). One of its main roles is to shuttle carbohydrate that you eat around the body and to deposit it where it’s needed. However that doesn’t necessarily mean that all the carbs you eat are stored as fat. You store glycogen (carbohydrate) in your liver, your muscle cells and your fat cells. And it will only get shoved into those pesky adipose sites (fat tissue) when the muscles and the liver are full. Additionally, unless you’re in a calorie surplus, you simply cannot store fat.

Let’s look at it from a different perspective. Insulin is like the workers in a warehouse. Calories are the boxes and crates. You could fill that warehouse fit to burst with workers (insulin) but if there are no boxes (calories) to stack, those shelves won’t get filled.

So if you’re burning 3,000 calories per day but are only eating 2,500 calories (or even 2,999), then your body can’t store fat. It doesn’t matter if all those calories come from carbs or sugar, you simply won’t store them, as your body needs them for fuel.

Granted, this wouldn’t be the world’s healthiest diet, but as far as science is concerned, it comes down to calories in versus calories out, NOT insulin.

Not All About Carbs

Vegetable Dish
Shot with my iPhone 6S.

People fret over carbs having the biggest impact on insulin levels and how carbs (particularly the simple, high sugar and high GI variety) spike insulin levels, but plenty of other foods raise insulin too.

Whey protein for instance is highly insulogenic and can cause a spike, particularly when consumed post workout. Dairy foods too will have a relatively large effect due to the natural sugars they contain and even fats can raise insulin levels. Moreover, the insulin effect is drastically lowered when you eat a mixed meal – for example one that contains carbs plus protein and/or fats. This will slow down the digestion and the absorption of the carbs, leading to a much lower insulin response. Add fibre into the mix and the raise in insulin will be minimal. With that in mind, I guess the solution is simple – eat balanced, nutrient-dense meals and you needn’t worry.

Insulin Builds Muscle

Blueberries
Shot with my iPhone 6S.

Beside carbohydrates, insulin also delivers nutrients to your cells. With that said, if you are forever going to keep insulin levels low in fear of fat gain, it’s highly unlikely that you will be building muscle optimally.

For this reason alone I would never put my clients looking to bulk up and make lean gains on a low-carb diet.

The Diabetic Conundrum

Strawberry Pancakes
Shot with my iPhone 6S.

Many advocates of low-carb plans will point to the fact that in diabetics, inulin management issues can be potentially dangerous. And that is true. But it is also important to note that diabetics are a different matter altogether. In an otherwise healthy individual, insulin management isn’t a concern, particularly if you’re training really hard!

Insulin = Fat Storage

Raspberry Waffle
Shot with my iPhone 6S.

Contrary to all those low-carb diet practitioners once again, it is possible to store fat when insulin levels are low. If you are a in a calorific surplus and consume dietary fat, that will actually be converted to body fat tissue far more readily than carbs are, proving once again that fat gain or fat loss comes down to calories in versus calories out, not insulin levels. So keep things simple and focus on your intake.

Why Do Low-Carb Diets “Work”


Well, it’s simple. When you cut carbs, you typically cut calories, which puts you in a deficit. Additionally, the average person will eat more protein and more vegetables when going on a low-carb diet so they keep fuller for longer, whilst eating less food. Plus, the protein and fibre both have a high thermic effect, meaning they actually burn more calories during the digestion process.

So I won’t argue that a low-carb diet where insulin release is kept to a minimum can certainly work, but it has very little to do with the hormone itself.

Bottom Line


If you train hard and regularly, if you eat a balanced macronutrient split (i.e. ample protein, fat and carbs to suit your activity levels and personal preference), if you are relatively lean, eat mostly nutrient-dense foods and have no issues with diabetes, you DO NOT need to worry about insulin spikes!

You can still store fat with low insulin levels and you can burn fat and build muscle when insulin is present. Looking at insulin in isolation as either “good” or “bad” really is a prime example of missing the forest for the trees, so chill out, and let insulin do its thing while you focus on the big picture.

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1 comment

  • Reply
    Cojocaru Gabriel
    13th July 2017 at 09:56

    Frumoase poze. Misto postul

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