“Insulin Control” – what it’s all about!

I subscribed to Mike OD’s The IF Life1 awhile back. Mike is a personal trainer with years of experience who is a big advocate of incorporating intermittent fasting into your life. However, his site isn’t merely about IF. From what I can tell, the IF Life aims to be a holistic resource on living a healthy and happy life. Mike’s site is a great resource — check it out.

In two recent posts on The IF Life, Mike used the phrase “insulin control” to sum up one of the key tenets of effective diets (See here and here).

In the first post, Mike alludes to the fact that insulin control is the chief goal of all effective diets, whether the diets know it or not (I.e. diets that advocate six meals a day are aiming to control insulin spikes, even if they don’t say so explicitly).

In the second linked post, titled Diet Book Insanity. When did Eating become this Complicated?, Mike states:

Now I know what many may say, but diets can work right? Sure … at the heart of all diets you see 2 main things that will get people results: Insulin control (see the carbs are not the enemy post and insulin and sugar post) and Calorie Deficit Intake (so the body burns from internal fuel sources, which is what you need if you want to burn that stubborn body fat).

Mike smartly tacks on caloric restriction to insulin control as the two overarching diet-advice mantras that tend to get results (Almost certainly so when used together). And though this wasn’t really the point of his diet insanity post (and I know I didn’t coin the phrase), I’m still going to take some credit for distilling the diet madness down to two simple words:

They’re all about insulin control!

Update 09/10/08: Robb Wolf, another blogger I’m subscribing to these days, happened to use the phrase “insulin control” back in October of 2007:

Super simple: Our nutritional recommendations are focused at insulin control. You could also say that our nutritional recommendations are what we are designed to eat and thrive on …

The post is about CrossFit, overexercising, and dialing in nutrition in order to see body composition changes. In my (limited) experience, his post rings absolutely true for me: exercise did little in the way to improve my body composition until I reigned in insulin.

1 “IF” stands for “Intermittent Fasting”, of course, and you gotta love the play on words the acronym creates!


Vacationing and diet setbacks

I’m back from my two-week hiatus whereby I partied with old college buddies at my best friend’s wedding in Olympia, Washington, and then took a week-long vacation with my wife — we drove around Mount Rainier and toured Seattle and Vancouver. The vacation was much-needed, and I took the opportunity to disconnect entirely from work for most of it.

Of course, the five days in Olympia were spent consuming untold amounts of junk food and drinking immense amounts of alcohol, day after day, all on reduced sleep and fighting jet lag. Said differently, I lost control of my insulin and fell off the health wagon! And of course, once off the wagon, I took full advantage, eating every cinnamon roll and chip in sight.

It happens, I guess. Setbacks happen.

The downside to this admittedly enjoyable carbfest is that I gained probably eight pounds of non-lean tissue. I’m ballparking that a bit as my weight went up about that much and based on some skinfold calipers, my body fat percentage went up maybe 2 – 3%. Using pre-vacation figures and comparing lean tissue to post-vacation figures, my lean tissue stayed virtually constant, thus the reasonably accurate guess that I put on about seven pounds.

Amazing what a couple weeks of bad-eating can do, right?

We got back this past Sunday and I’ve since embarked on getting back on track. This has involved some mini-fasts, exercising, et cetera. I can already tell some improvement from just a few days ago in my torso adipose tissue.

Thus, maybe there’s a bright side to this diet setback. I’m learning about my body — or at least, formulating various conjectures as to what is going on. Here are some thoughts:

  • Caloric restriction and eating a low-carbohydrate diet will key your body in certain helpful ways. Insulin sensitivity will rise, for example. The body will cycle through waste-proteins and move to cell maintenance and repair. I liken this process to battening down the hatches, throwing overboard unnecessary baggage and running lean.
  • The flip side of caloric restriction and low-carbing is that heightened insulin sensitivity means both a more acute reaction to carbohydrates when consumed and, well, your body has been running lean and is all about replenishing lost resources. So in a period of abundant carbohydrates and the utter lack of exercise, your body is going to go into full storage mode.
  • All of the above demonstrates how dynamic our bodies are. Flip a few variables and you will get an entirely different result. Fat stores are incredibly dynamic.
  • The first two or three nights after consuming immense amounts of alcohol and carbohydrates, I had to sleep above the covers as I could not get cool. Pure speculation, but I’m guessing that my body simply wasn’t ready to produce enough insulin to reduce my blood sugar to appropriate levels, so it was heat cycling away the excess calories (Adaptive thermogenesis?).

What I’m really curious about is how long it will take me to get back to my pre-vacation weight. Is two weeks too much to hope for? A month?

In the coming days, I’m going to experiment with different concoctions of fasting and exercising. I’m curious to try out Lyle McDonald‘s Stubborn Fat Protocol, which is essentially:

  • Drink 100 – 200mg of caffeine an hour prior to working out
  • Do ten minutes of high intensity interval training
  • Rest five minutes
  • Do 30 – 40 minutes of low-intensity cardio
  • Eat some protein an hour or two after working out, and then back to a meal a few hours after that

What I’m finding difficult in implementing the above is that I’m still fighting the reverse jet lag, which makes going to sleep at a decent time very difficult. In turn, I wake up late, and the SFP is almost certainly best implemented in the morning fresh off a fast.

Ideally, I can combine SFP with CrossFit to get a nice training regiment going. Regarding CrossFit specifically, I’m leaning to implementing a 3x week CrossFit training schedule whereby the days are not back to back. That level of high-intensity, in my opinion, puts too much stress on my body: I’d rather integrate CrossFitting with some SFP and/or low-intensity “activity”. Any suggestions?

Apologies for the brain-dump here, just been working through some ideas and brainstorming them out here on the blog. Whether they make for good reading is moot!

Feedback is welcome.

Update 09/05/08

Seems a week’s worth of dieting and exercise has already made some impact on getting me back on track. Of course, to echo my real interest — I want to see how long it takes me to get back to pre-vacation definition. I’m hoping it will be “easy come, easy go” while fully realizing that its a lot easier to gain weight than it is to lose it, particularly when that weight is fat.


Insulin Control: The Common Denominator of the Low-Carb / Fasting / Caloric Restriction Diets.

Over the past four months, I’ve turned into a staunch advocate of Paleo / low-carb / intermittent fasting (See IF/low-carb, caloric restriction, ketosis, hormesis). I proselytize because this diet lifestyle has had a significant impact on my physical health and my understanding of nutrition. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before my advocacy spurred the comment that there is “No zealot like the converted.” Oof!

The retort stuck with me. I am a passionate about spreading good ideas. And this idea concerning the health of my friends and family was not only a good idea in theory, but also one in practice. The last thing I wanted was for my zeal to turn individuals away. I needed a better in than “low-carb” or “fasting”.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of pre-conceived notions and pent-up negative biases towards “low-carb” in specific and diets in general. Most people have experienced nothing but disappointment from dieting and/or strict exercise regiments. When the low-carb meme went mainstream a few years ago, non-believers and skeptics rightfully vocalized their doubt. My own curiosity brought me to read a good portion of Atkins New Diet Revolution; however, I was unconvinced. Atkins’ rhetoric was all pathos and little ethos: I needed the science. Not surprisingly, I never even tried the diet, more or less writing it off as just another fad.

Fast-forward to today. There is an ever-growing number of branded low-carbohydrate diets, and additionally, there are a growing number of diets that incorporate caloric restriction or fasting (Popular examples of low-carb and/or fasting include Paleo / DeVany, Protein Power, Atkins, South Beach, Warrior Diet, The Zone, Eat Stop Eat, Fast-5, UpDayDownDay, Bantingism, etc.). Such a plethora of similar yet nuanced regiments is confusing. Who wants to wade through them all to explain their own method? Who wants to lay caveat upon caveat on a diet to tailor fit it to your own experience just to explain it to an inquisitor? My eyes glaze over just thinking about it!

There is a better way. All of these diets have a clear, underlying purpose: to control insulin. Why not just call it Insulin control?

By starting with this core tenet, I can transcend the diet denominational mess.

Insulin control gets to the heart of the matter, which is that excess or chronic insulin in the blood leads to fat storage, loss of insulin sensitivity / increased insulin resistance, downregulation of fat mobilizing hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, glucagon and human growth hormone), and can ultimately lead to symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including hypertension, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. How do you control insulin? Insulin control can be accomplished via reduction in carbohydrate intake or via controlling feeding times (via fasting) so that insulin levels sufficiently drop, which allows fat mobilization to resume.

Calling what we do “insulin control” focuses on the problem and implies the solution. It also grounds the diet/lifestyle to its fundamental science while avoiding the pitfalls of bias-loaded words. Starting an argument from “insulin control” gets me to low-carb, to fasting, to evolution, to metabolic syndrome, to higher-fat consumption, to more natural/less process foods. Why bother with the varying brands when it’s all about insulin control!

Further reading:

  • Go here to get started on some fantastic quotes on insulin, sugar, glucose, etc. If you’re not already practicing a low-carbohydrate lifestyle, read up.
  • Art De Vany wrote a reasoned response to the contention that the Paleo / “EF Way of eating” (See how muddled that is!?) was a fad diet. His most excellent point was that the current American diet is much more a fad having been around for merely decades relative to the stacked millennia of two million years (Tyranny of Present fallacy).
  • In mentioning Johnson’s UpDayDownDay diet, Patri Friedman notes how excellent it is that such a variation of research is occurring surrounding caloric restriction. What I wonder: is caloric restriction / fasting an emerging diet trend? I plan on doing a tiny blog on this later. Stay tuned.
  • While I was writing this entry, the IF life published a diagram that lays out how to stay on track for weight loss. It’s a useful, informative and simple diagram. And what will you note in the middlemost bubble? Control insulin!

Caloric Restriction, Red Wine, and Aging

First, a summary:

  • The physiological stress resulting from caloric restriction may extend your life. It could accomplish this by switching resources from reproduction to self-preservation. Alternatively (or additionally), it might accomplish this by helping downregulate insulin, thereby reducing the diseases associated with metabolic syndrome.
  • Resveratrol (Via red wine, for now) might also slow aging via some SIRT-1 mechanism or by somehow signaling to the body that stressful times lay ahead.
  • The stress from exercise3 might slow aging by activating physiological mechanisms of tissue self-preservation, as well.
  • And finally, I can chalk another one up for intermittent fasting, which personal experience says is the easiest way to practice caloric restriction.

The Details

My brother sent me a NYTimes article that talks about resveratrol, a molecule found in red wine, and its possible link to slowing aging. Resveratrol may thwart aging by spurring the production of sirtuins a.k.a. SIRT1 in humans. Per the Times:

[T]he door has now been opened to drugs that exploit an ancient biological survival mechanism, that of switching the body’s resources from fertility to tissue maintenance. The improved tissue maintenance seems to extend life by cutting down on the degenerative diseases of aging.

The reflex can be prompted by a faminelike diet, known as caloric restriction, which extends the life of laboratory rodents by up to 30 percent but is far too hard for most people to keep to and in any case has not been proven to work in humans [See Footnote 1 for discussion on this last sentence].

Whereas the Times article focuses on resveratrol, summarily dismissing caloric restriction, a 2006 article from The Economist does the opposite, going into more detail on the impact of caloric restriction on human aging and a recent study on the matter:

[E]vidence has been accumulating since the 1930s that calorie restriction … extends lifespan and delays the onset of age-related diseases in rats, dogs, fish and monkeys. …

Amid the hype, it is easy to forget that no one has until now shown that calorie restriction works in humans. That omission, however, changed this month, with the publication of the initial results of the first systematic investigation into the matter. This study, known as CALERIE2 (Comprehensive Assessment of Long-term Effects of Reducing Intake of Energy), was sponsored by America’s National Institutes of Health. …

CALERIE suggests the [advantages of caloric restriction] are real. For example, those on restricted diets had lower insulin resistance … and lower levels of low-density lipoprotein [LDL] cholesterol. They showed drops in body temperature and blood-insulin levels?both phenomena that have been seen in long-lived, calorie-restricted animals. They also suffered less oxidative damage to their DNA.

The Economist article goes on to talk about resveratrol and even exercise:

Resveratrol is produced when a vine is under stress?for example, due to dehydration or over-exposure to sunshine. According to Dr Sinclair’s theory, which he calls xenohormesis, animals rely on such botanical stress signals to give them extra information about their own environments, in the same way that the alarm calls of one species warn others of danger. If bad things are happening to plants, he surmises, that is a reason for pre-emptive animal action. Animal bodies thus react to molecules such as resveratrol by activating their own defence mechanisms. These, in turn, protect their cells from stress-related damage.

Xenohormesis is a variation of a more general theory, hormesis … A good example of hormesis is exercise. In theory, this should damage cells because it increases oxygen uptake, and oxidative stress is bad for things like DNA. Of course, exercise is not actually bad for cells?and the reason is that the body activates defence mechanisms which overcompensate for the stress the exercise creates, producing beneficial effects. So, while chronic stress is always bad for you[3], a short period of mild stress followed by a period of recovery can be good.

More on hormesis here.

So what’s the common denominator between exercise, resveratrol, and caloric restriction? Stress. The introduction of acute stress may switch the body’s resources from reproduction to self-preservation4. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. If a band of human beings were facing environmental hardship, such as a famine, their bodies would need to self-preserve until times more suitable for the ultimate biological imperative, reproduction.

Beyond acute stress causing self-preservation and thereby slowing aging, there may be another angle here: insulin. Caloric restriction will reduce insulin loads on the body as entering a fasted state will require the body to switch from glucose-burning (Insulin upregulated) to fat-burning (Insulin downregulated). As I’ve blogged before, chronically high insulin (via diets high in carbohydrates) in the blood is positively correlated to metabolic syndrome or Syndrome X. The connection to slowed aging and lower insulin levels could just be the other side of the same coin, but if nothing else, it’s more support for incorporating some amount of caloric restriction in your life.


1 I’ve got a question out to the author, Nicholas Wade, as to his last claim regarding caloric restriction and its impact (or lack thereof) on humans. I’m fairly certain that Wade means that the life-extending impact of caloric restriction has yet to be proven for humans, even though the CALERIE study mentioned above would contradict such a claim.

I take serious issue with Wade’s ambiguity here. Most of his article is about resveratrol and sirtuins and their potential link to slowing aging in humans. He goes into detail about a pharmaceutical company that is working on producing a drug that might induce the same effects. That’s fine, but why slam the door on an alternative (caloric restriction) that might slow aging for free? Is it because it’s “far too hard for most people”? How did he determine that?

Update 2008-06-13: Received a response to my email to Nicholas Wade. From part of my email:

Or do you mean that sufficient testing on caloric restriction’s impact on human aging has not occurred, thereby the theory remains unproven?

He indicated that the above interpretation was the one he intended. I will let him know about the CALERIE study.

2 Here is the official CALERIE website.

3 Perhaps therein lies some support for the claim that endurance training is unhealthy as it puts a chronic load of stress on the body.

4 Not surprisingly, Art De Vany mentions as much in passing here:

I practice intermittent caloric deprivation. This is a known enhancer of the immune system. This is pure evolutionary reasoning. During deprivation, the system reallocates resources from reproduction to repair and maintenance. The immune system is part of that adaptation.