Insulin is an anabolic hormone produced by the beta cells in your pancreas. As most fitness trainees know, anabolic hormones are a good thing; they help build muscle tissue and as that’s the primary goal of weight training/bodybuilding, it’s worth getting insulin on your side.
However, insulin one of the hormones associated with digestion and is often vilified in discussions regarding weight management and fat loss. Is insulin a two-faced bad-boy hormone or merely misunderstood? In this short article I want to try clarify what insulin is, what it does and how it can be a friend or an enemy depending on how you manipulate it.
The role of Insulin in the body
Insulin’s main job is transporting nutrients into your cells. Whenever you eat carbohydrates (like rice, potatoes, bread, pasta or sugars), the carbs are converted to glucose and enter your blood stream. This rise in blood glucose levels triggers the release of insulin from your pancreas which lowers your blood glucose levels by allowing the glucose to leave your blood and enter your body’s cells.
Glucose can be then
1. pushed into your muscle cells,
2. stored in your liver,
3. used as fuel or
4. converted to body fat.
Number 4 only really happens if there is a significant and prolonged glucose excess – as is common in many overweight people’s diet and the Western diet in general.
In addition to driving glucose into cells, insulin also encourages the uptake of protein-derived amino acids into your muscles.
This is an essential part of recovery from exercise and muscle building. Some bodybuilders actually inject insulin after a bit meal to encourage the uptake of nutrients into their muscles and speed up their recovery after training. While these sort of makes sense on paper, the reality is that too much insulin can be drop-dead fatal and the potentially fatal risks outweigh any benefits.
As well as encouraging the uptake of nutrients into cells, insulin also interferes with the oxidation or burning of fat. This is why insulin gets a bad rap for dieter’s and why low carbohydrate diets are so effective for weight loss. Less dietary carbs mean lower insulin levels and therefore a better environment for fat loss is created.
This doesn’t mean you have to go down the no-carb Atkins diet route for fat loss but it certainly pays to be more carb aware if fat loss is your goal. More on that later.
Insulin sensitivity describes just how well your cells respond to insulin and therefore how well your body can deal with carbohydrates. An increased level of body fat tends to decrease insulin sensitivity and this condition is known as insulin resistance.
On the other hand, exercise, especially weight training, increases your insulin sensitivity and makes your cells are very receptive to the action of insulin. This increased insulin sensitivity lasts for hours after your workout but most experts agree that the window of insulin sensitivity closes after around two to three hours.
Interestingly, type 2 diabetics exhibit a high degree of insulin resistance and, despite the fact that their pancreas is working fine, have a real problem metabolizing glucose. This results in hyperglycemia or dangerously elevated blood glucose levels. Insulin resistance can, at least in part, be managed by adopting a regular exercise routine.
Combined with a carb-smart diet, many type 2 diabetics can effectively manage their condition by timing carb intake around exercise induced periods of increased insulin sensitivity.
In type 1 diabetics, the pancreas doesn’t actually produce enough or any insulin and the result is that same elevated blood glucose; it’s just caused by a different malfunction but that’s a whole different subject.
Why you should keep Insulin under control
Rather than label insulin as a good or bad hormone, it’s better to try and use it to your best advantage. This means that your carbohydrate consumption should be controlled and timed around periods of activity. This essentially means that you should eat according to what you have just done and what you are about to do.
Insulin is a highly anabolic hormone that can enhance your recovery from exercise and help you build muscle but if fat loss is your goal or you simply want to avoid gaining fat along with your hard-earned muscle it makes sense to try and manipulate your insulin levels for best results. To do this, try following these guidelines…
For breakfast, consume slow acting carbs like oatmeal or focus on protein foods such as eggs. Definitely stay away from sugary cereals and juices and their subsequent blood glucose spike. If you expect to be sedentary for most of the day; maybe it’s a day off from training or you are training in the evening, consider a protein-only breakfast.
The more sedentary you are, the less carbohydrates you need. Running marathons needs lots of carbs, 60 minutes of strength training four-times a week does not. For speedy, easy fat loss, swap carbs for protein. Even if you don’t actually alter the quantity of food you eat, keeping insulin levels low will promote fat burning.
Immediately after the workout, consume fast acting carbs and protein. A good ratio of carbs to protein is 1:1 or 2:1. The carbs and protein, in combination with your increased insulin sensitivity, means that almost all nutrients consumed at this time will be pushed into your muscles which will enhance recovery and promote muscle growth.
In summary; make insulin your friend by timing its release around periods of activity which maximize your insulin sensitivity. Constantly high blood glucose levels, as seen with people who eat a steady diet of processed sugars and refined grains and junk food and combined with inactivity, lead to sustained elevated insulin levels, fat gain and an inability to burn fat for energy. This is not only unhealthy but can lead to the opposite of what most of you reading this are trying to achieve; a fat belly rather than a chiseled six-pack!