Metabolic disorders currently affect one third of America’s population, according to the CDC. That statistic continues to rise year after year, with waves of new people being diagnosed daily. Conditions like elevated blood sugar, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and increased waist to hip ratio are all risk factors for developing metabolic syndrome, a condition that often leads to major complications including diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and cancer. At the core of all these concerns lies an insulin problem that no one is talking about. The insulin index is something you need to know about to understand how to prevent a full-blown metabolic condition from taking hold of your life.

Most people have heard of the Glycemic Index (GI): the numeric value assigned to foods based on how fast or slow those foods increase blood sugar. Essentially, the glycemic index rates how sugary a food is. High glycemic foods raise blood sugar levels rapidly, while low glycemic foods affect blood sugar more slowly and steadily. In this chart published by Harvard Health, for example, where glucose is rated 100 on the glycemic index, a plain white baguette scores 95, instant oatmeal scores 79, and an apple 36. Next to processed sugary foods like soda and juice, refined carbohydrates and grains have the highest glycemic index ratings. Most doctors treating patients with certain metabolic symptoms may recommend a “low glycemic” diet. While this can certainly be beneficial, it doesn’t provide patients with the entire picture.

Oftentimes, patients will focus on foods with a low glycemic index, unknowingly ignoring the insulin index. Insulin plays a huge role in our overall health, but it should specifically be brought to light when looking at metabolism and metabolic conditions. In a recent blog post, we discuss what insulin is and why it’s so important that we be mindful of it. To quickly recap, insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas, which serves to escort glucose in the bloodstream into cells for energy. Without insulin, sugar can’t enter the cells. Insulin also plays a large role in storing excess energy (glycogen) from food into the liver. Once the liver is full of stored glycogen, insulin then begins to store excess energy in our fat cells (primarily in the midsection) and muscles. Proper insulin regulation is crucial to achieve optimal health.

 

The insulin index measures the body’s insulin response to various foods. Like the glycemic index, the insulin index assigns scores to foods based upon the resulting insulin surge after a particular food is eaten. As seen with the glycemic index, carbohydrates also receive high insulin index scores. The more insulin is needed to process a specific food, the higher the rating. What’s hugely important to note about the insulin index, however, is the fact that protein-rich foods cause marked insulin increases. For example, while beef has a glycemic score of 21, its insulin score is 51. Fish is another example, having a glycemic score of 28, and an insulin score of 59. Why is this important?

Photo credit: An insulin index of foods:the insulin demand generated by
1000-kJ portions of common foods by Susanne Holt, Jennie Brand-Miller and Peter Petocz

 

When people are trying to make lifestyle changes to improve metabolic conditions or lose weight, the first thing they think to do is cut carbs. The second thing? Increase protein consumption. We’ve been brainwashed into believing bad information. The no carb, high protein Atkins diet had good intentions, but if we remember correctly, people started getting really sick after being on that diet for prolonged periods of time. While eating less carbs and more protein might help shave off the first set of unwanted pounds or help lab markers leap toward the right direction, consuming a low carb, high protein diet long term can be disastrous. Protein causes insulin to spike as much as fruit and refined carbohydrates do. Eating too much protein can cause serious insulin surges that ultimately lead to major health complications such as metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. This doesn’t mean we need to stop eating animal protein by any means, but it does mean we need to be mindful of our protein consumption and eat it wisely…with fat.

Foods rich in fat score the lowest on the insulin index. Butter, avocado, olive oil, and walnuts all score under 10. Fat has been made out to the enemy of the century, but in reality, it’s the health-stabilizing buffer that we absolutely can’t live without in our diets. Our entire nervous system is coated in a fatty membrane layer. To think that we shouldn’t consume fat is nonsense. Fat consumption helps lower our body’s insulin secretion leading to weight loss and overall improved health. When we do eat protein and carbohydrates, it’s essential that we eat a healthy serving of fat. For example, if you’re going to sit down to a chicken salad at lunch, make sure that your salad dressing is based in either olive, avocado, or coconut oils and that you eat some fresh olives or avocado. If you’re having some lean ground turkey for dinner, melt some butter or duck fat and bathe your protein in healthy fat. In other words, don’t be afraid to eat fat!

We want to do all we can to avoid our insulin spiking throughout the day as we eat. The best ways of doing this are to eat foods that score low on the insulin index and be sure to include healthy fats with each meal so that those higher scoring foods have a buffer and don’t throw the body out of whack. It’s important to be mindful of both the glycemic and insulin indexes, especially if you’re experiencing any metabolic conditions or striving to lose weight.

The big takeaway? Low carb doesn’t necessarily mean low insulin. Yes, we want to avoid refined carbohydrates and insulin-spiking grains, but we also need to remember not to overdo our protein consumption. Eat protein, but make sure to eat healthy fats and plenty of them.

Have you noticed a difference in your health after monitoring your glucose and insulin? Do you need help navigating this process? Let me know in the comments below.