Lower Insulin to Burn Fat

When you hear the term "insulin" you probably think of a diabetic person and their shots of insulin. While everyone requires insulin to survive, the name of the game is controlling it. First off, let's talk about your love for pizza.

The pizza delivery boy's name is Insulin. Upon your call, 555-1N5-UL1N, he will deliver pizza(s) directly to your home. "I'll take two large pepperonis please." Why did you call pizza delivery? Hungry. Late night. Lazy. Stressed. It's convenient. All of the above — we’ll get to this later.

Now imagine an infinite amount of pizza delivery boys, all oddly named Insulin. Always at your doorstep. One after the next. You’d just keep eating pizza! You never get sick of pizza because you're a pizza fiend, and you even dream of pizza!

If you really enjoy pizza or not, you’d constantly be eating stuck at home never able to leave or actually be productive! You couldn't do anything.

Essentially this is analogous to the role insulin plays in our bodies. Not a pizza boy, but a hormone that feeds our cells fuel as glucose (sugar), similar to the delivered pizza. In the presence of insulin or a bunch of delivery boys, your body can't burn that fuel. However, once insulin is absent and he finally stops delivering pizzas, this fuel can be converted to energy during physical exertion or times of fasting. 

Our main concern here is when excess glucose (fuel) is stored as visceral fat, the excess intra-abdominal jelly-like adipose tissue (fat) that accumulates around your organs. I’d show a picture, but it’s quite gross. Even if you're thin(ner), know that this can happen in skinny-fat people as well. Not showing through the typical size characteristics of obesity, but your organs could be internally coated in deadly visceral fat.

We will touch on a little bit of biology and molecular chemistry but only at a high-yet-simple-explainable level. Let's breakdown a few keywords first to make this discussion easier to follow and refer back if needed:

  • Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas when blood sugar levels rise (eating sugar and carbohydrates) critical for managing the body's metabolism, which promotes the lipogenesis (fat storage) and suppresses lipolysis (fat burning) [1]. With insulin present, the glucose transport (GLUT-4) shuttles glucose from the blood into liver, fat and skeletal muscle cells.
  • Lipogenesis (fat storage) metabolizes glucose producing fatty acids and triglycerides to be stored as fuel for energy in adipose tissue [1][2].
  • Lipolysis (fat burning) is the breakdown of triglycerides into fatty acids and glycerol stored predominantly in adipose tissue to be used for energy expenditure [1].
  • Insulin resistance is a condition where cells fail to respond normally to insulin resulting in high blood sugar [1]. Over time insulin resistance can lead to type-2 diabetes.
  • Diabetes or pre-diabetes are a group of metabolic disorders resulting in high blood sugar levels over a prolonged period due an improper or lack of insulin production [1]. Individuals with any of these disorders are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, chronic kidney disease, foot ulcers, and damage to the eyes. More than 1/3rd of the US has pre-diabetes or diabetes - holy cow!
  • Adipose tissue is body fat composed of adipocyte fat cells that store energy in lipid form and insulate the body [1].
  • Glycemic index (GI) indicates the effect of a carbohydrate food item has on a your blood sugar level. A value of 100 represents pure glucose [1]. Lower the better.

Why

Maybe you truly are a pizza lover, and the 8th wonder of the world able to eat anything you want while retaining a six pack. You may believe an endless pizza supply sounds amazing. As this isn't probable, externally your physical appearance may be fine, but your internals may be screaming for attention. Let's talk about why considering insulin control is important.  

At our jobs we are always surrounded by treats including pizza. Carol's home baked brownies, the boss brought in donuts for the morning meeting, and who can forget fun-food-Fridays! Meanwhile you're looking to complete work tasks, meet Q2's quotas, deliver your project design review, and/or get that next promotion. Consistently we can be in a bind for food throughout the workday. The steady availability of sugar-rich carb-heavy meals and snacks from coworkers, vending machines, and fast food restaurants are always tempting.

Stay alert, guys. Chronically and moderately consuming these glucose heavy sweets not only adds pounds to your waistline but drastically reduces today's performance. Even constantly snacking on pretzels or baked chips can alter your body's ability to burn your fat stores by ramping up insulin with each bite you take.

Reach for a few donuts before a presentation and a couple things could happen. First your blood sugar will rise causing a giant spike of insulin - here we go. Sure, you'll get a jolt from maxing out your energy stores, but don't be misguided here. A high intensity cross-fit competitor could burn this sugar 'jolt' because his muscles need backfills of glucose, but generally we are pretty lazy creatures. Note: Athletes are smarter than to eat refined sugar meals. They seek slow-carbs or a super-starch that gradually raises insulin and is more efficiently stored and converted to energy.

Our sedentary lives only require a small amount of sugar (if any) to fill our muscles and liver glucose energy stores.

The quick spike of insulin and flow of excess glucose from high Glycemic Index (GI) food will cause a hard crash. Along with excess glucose being stored as fat, in a few hours you'll encounter unclear thoughts, anxiety, fatigue, headaches, and more hunger - leading to repeat this vicious cycle. Good luck getting anything accomplished this afternoon after that donut sugar-high as your productivity and quality of work will drastically take a turn for the worse. Not to mention the addictive dopamine affects and inflammatory response of sugar ingestion.

Visualizing low vs high glycemic foods, the graph shows how we react through changes in blood sugar and insulin levels. The low-glycemic foods can represent ~1000 calorie low-carb meal consisting of meat and veggies diverse in fiber, protein, and fat. This low-glycemic meal allows your body to properly utilize and store glucose. 

On the contrary, the high-glycemic meal represents a few donuts and a Starbucks drink prior to your big presentation. You get a rapid rush of sugar AND insulin. The overcompensation spike of insulin causes a rollercoaster effect for glucose dipping well below your normal level of blood sugar (dotted horizontal line). Troubles arise when this happens because your body requires a normal level of blood sugar (see diabetes). Therefore, symptoms such as repeat-hunger, headaches, and lack of concentration originate as previously mentioned as your body tries to normalize blood sugar levels. 

Career long consumption of these treats will have you ending up like Gene in sourcing. Visibly you can tell he's addicted to sugar. He's a 'Mountain Dew in the morning' kind of guy. Expert in 10+ year old corporate workflows, but he's always sniffing, coughing, and taking medical leave for an ever growing list of medical concerns.

Internally Gene is fighting insulin resistance, diabetes, or pre-diabetes due to abuse of sugar. You may think, "I'll never end up like that." But look back to how many times you've reached for the easy-sugar-rich snack during a workday. I'd gamble you could reduce the moderation of that reach from a couple times a week to once a month or less. Doing so will serve you well not only today by increasing productivity and performance but will fend off chronic issues such as metabolic syndrome. 

MODERATION — I despise this word. Seems to be an easy way to cop-out of any diet or beneficial health behavior. Don't do yourself a disservice. Adhere to your fitness goals. I'm not a diet-nazi, and I understand everyone has a moderation. But that's the point.

Everyone has their own unique moderation to optimize fitness, and I'm sure yours is much less than you think. Only induldge on special social occasions — if you allow it.

Stay hungry in acheiving your goals not hungry for a quick tastebud fix. More to come on "moderation" post #comingsoon. - Jacob

Insulin directly controls 2 of the 5 diagnosis characteristics of Metabolic Syndrome: large waistline and elevated fasting glucose. Metabolic syndrome #comingsoon increases risk for a whole host of sever medical conditions: hypertension, lipid problems, heart disease, dementia, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin resistance, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.

Sure, Gene may have still retained his cubicle job and his tastebuds are always partying, but being dependent on expensive and embarrassing medication, insulin needles negatively impacts quality of life. Let's aim higher in our career and our healthspan

You also may have noticed Gene isn't married. He's probably a 50 year old playboy with a new smoke-show girlfriend every month ... definitely not. Like most over-worked and over-consumed guys, confidence and physical appearance hasn't been a priority. Losing the belly fat will improve both confidence and his look, but it takes a life change in eating habits. Most important of which is sugar that leads to increased (you guessed it) insulin levels. Remember to burn fat, insulin can not be present.

Outside of burning unwanted fat, the sheer metabolization of refined carbohydrates leads to anxiety and depression on it's own due to the inflammatory response. Focusing on a diverse meal is key here due to how macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein, fat) impact our blood glucose and insulin levels. Carbs drive the biggest spike, while proteins and fats are a more sustained energy response. 

Since you've learned insulin halts burning fat (lipolysis) and promotes fat storage (lipogenesis), are you ready to throw away the pizza and Gene-style habits by controlling your insulin levels? Yes. Because a low blood insulin level is a must to burn fat!

Side bar — Insulin is widely accepted as the primary driver of fat storage and burning. There is no question here. Once you're into the details involving one person's multi-hormone and microbiome interaction, there becomes more to the story. Insulin still remains most critical, but at the detailed level discussions arise around 'calorie quality' and 'calorie is a calorie'.

As an engineer, a simple thermodynamic equation should show this energy balance. Problem becomes where you draw your boundary condition. Currently scientists are still understanding the interplay between the hormones, cells, and gut microbiome. As we learn how each uses energy, I think this calorie dilemma will be a thing of the past. Honestly I'm sick of hearing how only eating in a caloric deficit is required to lose weight ... shown here by Professor Twinkie Hog.

If one thing is obvious, it's eating less equals less weight. Duh. Now if you worry about healthspan like I do, this discussion becomes unintellectual and unimportant. I will continually focus on calorie / food quality, and if I need to lose belly fat I'll exercise resulting in muscle growth AND a slight caloric deficit. Okay, rant over. - Jacob

How

The key here is to manage your insulin levels keeping them low and steady as possible. No spikes. No crashes ... we've all been victim of post pasta/pizza crashes. Do you remember that post-food-party scene from Disney's Heavyweights movie?!

"I think what we learned here is something about personal responsibility. From now on, each of us is going to be in charge of our own diets. We all have to learn some self control."

Counselor Pat - Disney's Heavyweights 1995

The following list is sorted by most impactful on lowering insulin levels. Each item can lower insulin levels because you're either restricting, limiting or burning glucose. And if you're not ingesting glucose/sugar, your body will convert over to burning off stored energy from your fat tissues and start burning ketones instead of glucose for fuel brain and function fuel. 

Glycemic Index Food List - Stay in the Orange

  • Fasting - Go on a 3 day water-only fast! Deplete your circulating glucose in the liver. Start burning fat (ketosis) and prove it! After just 24 hours of fasting insulin levels will drop 70% - wow! [12] This improves insulin sensitivity, enabling more efficient glucose storage after the fast is over. I try and fast every 3 months. Read more here for tips and tricks.
  • Time Restricted Eating (TRE) - TRE or intermitted fasting will give your body to fully metabolize and re-baseline your insulin/glucose levels. The sweet spot occurs after 18 hours of fasting. This is the time period that sees the greatest drop in insulin and increase in lipolysis (fat burn) [12]. 
  • Low-carb or ketogenic diets - No sugar. If any, eat good carbs (veggies, veggies, veggies, greens, sourdoughs, sprouted breads - in that order). Diversify your diet by adding slow-carbs #comingsoon, fiber rich, proteins, and especially fats. Fats and fiber have shown to lower the GI of meals decreasing your post-meal insulin spikes and helps you become full quicker. Note: Unique to your training goals, you may require more carbs than average or you may be metabolically adapted [6]. Look into a superstarch if you're not seeing muscle growth.
  • Eat low glycemic index foods - Not everyone handles sugar-rich foods equally. We all need continuous glucose meters, CGM, to fully understand how we react after each type of food - post on experimenting with a CGM #comingsoon. For me oatmeal is similar to cake, but for some it's a slow and efficient burn. Veggies are always low GI while grains are higher GI, but consult the chart for a list of foods and their respective GI. I try and stay in the Vegetables and Fruits columns and under 30 GI, but it's hard to pass up sweet potatoes coming in at a GI of 48.
  • Sleep / Circadian Rhythm - Give your body enough time for rest and metabolism. >7.5 hours of sleep should be your goal. 4 hours over 5 days was shown to deteriorate insulin sensitivity by 30 - 50% [5]. Meaning you'd wake up and appear to be pre-diabetic just because your sleep was terrible for 5 days. Get quality sleep!
  • Get your heart rate up - Get your exercise pump on and your heart rate up! Reducing your belly fat and adding core muscles at the same time with putting in gym time. High Intensity Interval Training improves your insulin sensitivity, glucose levels, and free fatty acids [7]. After a workout, or in place of a workout, hop in the sauna #comingsoon for ~20 min at ~170F to increase insulin sensitivity as well as many other benefits.
  • Gut microbiome - Gut microbial imbalances are now associated with insulin resistance [9]. Eating whole vegetables and fruits, fermented foods, ginger, apple cider vinegar, aloe vera juice, pre and probiotics promotes a diverse-healthy microbiome. Avoid sugar as it grows bad bacteria and increases inflammation. 
  • Avoid all things sweet - No sugar. That's a given. Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, aspartame and Sucralose have been shown to disturb the microbiome resulting in insulin resistance and increased risk of metabolic disease [10].
  • Reduce stress - Insulin sensitivity and acute stress (depressed/anxiety) have a bidirectional relationship. Meaning better one, the other improves as well. Evidence is clear [11]. If you're stressed out, chances are your insulin levels are raised as well. You read this and think "I'm stressed because I have this belly fat. This is paradoxical!" We hear you, and this isn't simple. Stress management post #comingsoon. Until then, use your favorite method and calm down y'all!
  • Portion size and frequency - Maintaining the same daily calorie intake, spread out or split up your meals over the course of the day. This creates smaller snack-size meals reducing the insulin spike. Note: mind your TRE windows and don't eat too late in the evening else disrupt your circadian rhythm and make you hungrier the next morning.
  • Biomarker improvements - To ensure YOUR weight-loss, get with your doctor and improve (lower) your fasting blood glucose and/or fasting insulin [8]. Note: use the above tactics to improve both biomarkers. A normal fasting blood sugar level is less than 100 mg/dL. A normal fasting insulin level is less than 25 mIU/L.

My fasting glucose levels have been around 80 mg/dL for the past two years ... I'm happy with that. Note that fasting insulin levels are something you'll have to request special outside of your typical bloodwork screening. You can believe me, it's on my to-do list at my next bloodwork screening! - Jacob

If you hit a wall or follow a strict no/slow carb, high fat diet with no fat results, you may have a metabolic dysfunction of sorts. For a variety of reasons, the hormones and/or metabolic processes involved in generating or storing cellular energy could not be fully functional. In this case, a deeper look into other areas of health is required. Using the biomarkers above as a toolkit consult your nutritionist, primary doctor, or specialist to present this finding.

Wondering what you do with this information? Self reflection is step one. Coincidentally our first week of Bachelor.Fitness training is just that. We set you up week by week to guide you through a 6 week program prioritized by ease and impact. For attacking insulin we'll dive into carbs, but only after understanding your baseline caloric intake, your macros make-up, and your fitness goal. Through implementing positive health behaviors, only then can you make a life change. If you're needing a life change of 180 degrees or just 5, join us and start your journey.


REFERENCES

[1] Wikipedia: insulin, lipogenesis, lipolysis, adipose tissue, glycemic index, diabetes, insulin resistance

[2] Mechanisms of nutritional and hormonal regulation of lipogenesis

[3] Fat body, fat pad and adipose tissues in invertebrates and vertebrates: the nexus. "Nutrients are stored in the form of fat, (which are esters of fatty acid and glycerol) and glycogen (a branched polymer of α-D-glucose) in tissues for use during period of scarcity of these resources. Storage and use of fat is, however, a more efficient and economical method of energy conservation because β oxidation of fatty acid yields more energy in terms of number of ATP molecules as fatty acid is converted to carbon dioxide and water."

[4] The Effects of a Ketogenic Diet on Exercise Metabolism and Physical Performance in Off-Road Cyclists. Low-carbohydrate diets help lower insulin levels in the body and may help with athletic performance for 28 yo males cycling.

[5] Sleep Restriction for 1 Week Reduces Insulin Sensitivity in Healthy Men

[6] Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. "Changes in energy expenditure, mitochondrial efficiency, and circulating hormone concentrations work in concert to attenuate further weight loss and promote the restoration of baseline body mass. Athletes must aim to minimize the magnitude of these adaptations, preserve LBM, and adequately fuel performance and recovery during weight reduction. To accomplish these goals, it is recommended to approach weight loss in a stepwise, incremental fashion, utilizing small energy deficits to ensure a slow rate of weight loss. Participation in a structured resistance training program and adequate protein intake are also imperative."

[7] High-Intensity Interval Training Attenuates Insulin Resistance Induced by Sleep Deprivation in Healthy Males. "HIIT before 24 h of sleep deprivation attenuated the increase of glucose, insulin, and free fatty acids."

[8] Fasting Blood Sugar And Fasting Insulin Identified As New Biomarkers For Weight Loss

[9] Human gut microbes impact host serum metabolome and insulin sensitivity. (Diabetesdaily.com)

[10] Sugar substitutes linked to obesity

[11] Acute Psychological Stress Results in the Rapid Development of Insulin Resistance

[12] Progressive alterations in lipid and glucose metabolism during short-term fasting in young adult men. "Of the total increase in lipid kinetics, 60% occurred between 12 and 24 h of fasting; the greatest interval change occurred between 18 and 24 h of fasting. ... Plasma insulin decreased by approximately 50% between 12 h (64.6 +/- 12.9 pmol/l) and 72 h (30.1 +/- 7.9 pmol/l) of fasting (P < 0.001). Of the total decline in plasma insulin, 70% occurred within the first 24 h of fasting. These results demonstrate that the mobilization of adipose tissue triglycerides increases markedly between 18 and 24 h of fasting in young adult men."