Tracking Insulin Response?

I’ve often been asked, in various forms and fashions, why I don’t bother with tracking my insulin response to various consumption and/or activity inputs and events.  My response has always been, “what’s the point?”  The fact of the matter is that insulin will increase even following a strict Paleo meal — hell, insulin will increase in response to a tough workout.  Yes, insulin is the “mac daddy” hormone within the overall metabolic cascade, however, the modifying factor here is what that insulin is in the presence of, and this leads us back to what was consumed (or, maybe more importantly, what was not consumed).  In any event, Robb Wolf and Andy Deas cover this idea (among a slew of other topics) thoroughly in episode 23 of Robb and Andy’s Paleolithic Solution, podcast.

It’s my belief that one needs to track a questionable substance’s affect upon one’s body composition via a weeks-long n=1 assessment; tracking short term insulin response to that substance really isn’t going to give you very much practical information to work with.  Think dairy might be your bug-a-boo?  Cut it out for a while, and note how you respond.

Now I’m the biggest Paleo-geek there is, but the real-life, fact-of-the-matter is that we all have to function within the constraints of the real world.  Are you really going to tote a glucometer around for the rest of your natural-born days?  Look, I know that if I want to get ultra-cut, all I need to do to to eliminate my beer consumption (sad, but oh so true!), and up my sprint sessions.  No amount of glucometer-jockeying would have told me that — simple n=1 experimentation lead me to this conclusion.

By the way, huge hat tip to Brent Pottenger (the healthcare epistemocrat) for so deftly verbalizing and defining the n=1 concept as it applies to self-experimentation.

Another On-the-Fly, Paleo Chow Dinner –

One small sweet potato, one onion, a pound of grass-fed ground beef, olive oil, Tropical Traditions coconut cream concentrate, 1 can of coconut milk, raw butter, 1 packet (dry) Lipton mushroom onion soup.

Once again, I’m a piss-poor excuse for a gourmet; I’m sure as hell not going to starve, though, or cave to quick-fix, fast-food.  The above is what I happened to have on hand when I got home from work (among some other various items), so I set about an impromptu session in food bricolage.  Hat-tip x 2 to Brent for his ongoing commentary  honoring the Paleo bricoleur.

Anyway, nothing much, here: thin-cut and “stir fry” (in the olive oil, coconut cream and butter mix) the sweet spud; remove and set aside.  Same treatment to the onion, then add-in the ground beef and cook until about half done.  Pepper heavily.  Add-in the soup and coconut mix and simmer the concoction until ” all-the-way done”.  Ladled the meat-mix over the spud, and chowed-down.  Not too damn bad, if I do say so myself.  Note: the dry soup is not celiac-friendly, nor particularly Paleo-friendly, for that matter.  It is, in my opinion, one of those dose-relevant ingredients, though, and the amount used, relative to the meal, was negligible.

Some pics:

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Insulin Response

“Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives.”

Abba Eban

photo cred: DeathByBokeh

Inundate yourself with Paleo-minded information long enough, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that insulin is the consummate “bad guy” hormone.  That’s a little too simplistic a way to look at insulin, though — even for those of us who, though not trained specifically in the medical sciences, choose to enhance our lives through proper diet, exercise and well-rounded knowledge.  Insulin is, of course, critical for life and optimal health, and it’s not the hormone per se that is inherently evil, but the gross tilting of that hormone level beyond anything that the human body has evolved to handle that defines the problem.

In this clip (alternatively, you can jump to the Nov. 8th, 2009 WOD from the CrossFit home site), Robb Wolf discusses a case study in obesity, metabolic syndrome, and (though he doesn’t get into it here), the classic indicators of carbohydrate addiction.   If you’re a member of the CrossFit Journal (I highly recommend it, though I’m certainly no shill for CrossFit, nor do I fully endorse all of CrossFit’s ideologies), you can view a much larger portion of this video (over 7 minutes worth).

The take-away message here — and what we, as Paleo-minded, physical culturalists need to keep in mind — is that, within the body, insulin’s dictate (when excessively elevated) is to is promote/accelerate energy storage, maturation, reproduction and decline (death).  And from an evolutionary prospective, of course, this all makes perfect sense.  Quicker turnover equates to a more nimble and adaptive species.  In your grandma’s day, young girls matured in their later teens.  Nowadays, girls as young as 9 have reached reproductive maturity.  I’m not saying all of this can be laid at the feet of a hyper-insulin environment — there are plenty of other notable suspects lurking about in our diets — but I’d be willing to bet that an out-of-control insulin level has a big hand in this.

And just as Robb alluded to in the clip, the body can’t be fooled by artificial sweeteners.  The key is to successfully break the desire for the sweet taste (and thus eliminate the carb jonze), not placate that need by the use of artificial sweeteners — the equivalent of handing out methadone to heroin addicts.

Though we use the metaphor frequently, the body is not a simple furnace that serves solely to liberate energy from raw material.   There are complex storage and release components at work as well; hence the truth of a calorie not being a calorie.  The amount of energy contained in a calorie is, of course constant; what’s not constant is the hormonal impact that calorie source will have upon its host.  The first law of thermodynamics works fine for a closed system (the “furnace model”), but not for an open system, i.e., a living being.

In health,


A Calorie is not a Calorie, and Other Dietary Heresy

“A hypocaloric diet, whatever the proposed type, is an inadapted treatment to chronic disease, like obesity. All diets are inefficient on the long term. The weight loss is generally small, about 1-2 kg a year. The results are the same, independently of the type of diet, and the patient’s compliance is clearly the main key to succeed. About 80% of patients regain weight the first month following the diet, and only 1% can keep the obtained weight a year later. Nearly half of the patients involved in a diet program give up before the end. Finally, because of risks of macro and micro nutriments deficiency, certain diets are to be avoided and hypocaloric diet shouldn’t be proposed.”

~ from, Hypocaloric Diets: Which Ones to Advise/Avoid? Di Vetta V, Clarisse M, Giusti V.

Readers of this blog are, of course, not the least bit surprised by the above quote, as it is common knowledge within the larger Paleo community; conventional dieting fails miserably, and those currently engaged in conventional dieting are, for the most part, well — miserable. The 10,000-dollar question remains, however; why do these diets fail? Now, in my real-world, day-to-day comings and goings, I’m not much concerned with whether I’m hypercaloric or hypocaloric. I know that, by whatever mechanism is at work in my Paleo way of life, over the long-haul I’ll maintain single-digit body fat levels coupled with a stellar blood profile; my health will be excellent and my vitality vibrant. And all of this will come free of any feeling of depravity, gnawing hunger, rampant cravings or lethargy. I’ll have no need for a calculator or scale, nor will I ever be concerned with meal timing. I am a curious sort, though, and so I wonder: Am I, over the long haul, actually either ingesting fewer calories or burning more calories than in my pre-Paleo days? Is it a combination of the two? Or, does the total calorie content really not play that significant a role?

I know I’m not going to raise the eyebrows of any long-time TP readers by stating that, in my opinion total calorie ingestion plays a minor, short term role in weight control (body fat and lean tissue) when compared to the hormonal/enzymatic environment elicited by the ingestion of those calories. In other words, it’s the type of calorie ingested that trumps the amount of overall calorie ingestion.

Now, it’s obvious to the most casual of observers that caloric restriction below the basic metabolic rate (BMR) and total calorie expenditure will result in weight loss. But are all hypocaloric diets created equal? Again, TTP readers know the answer, but, for purposes of comparison, let’s take a look at this study:

Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and LEARN Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women. The A TO Z Weight Loss Study: A Randomized Trial

Now, let’s have a gander at the recent Harvard study (Diets That Reduce Calories Lead to Weight Loss, Regardless of Carbohydrate, Protein or Fat Content) that I wrote about here.

Just what, exactly, is going on here? We seem to be getting mixed signals. If a calorie is truly a calorie, then what is going on with this Atkins group?  Thanks to Chris, at Conditioning Research, for finding this apropo cartoon, from this very smart and witty collection.

The problem with scientific studies, though, lay in (1) the minutia and, (2) in the interpretation.  And, as the above cartoon so very well illiterates, correlation does not necessarily imply causation.

Well, here’s the short version of my take on the issue

There is a dramatic shift to fat burning when insulin levels are low and/or not overly released with each caloric ingestion. Insulin immediately shuts down fat burning (the release of stored FFAs – free fatty acids) and begins the process of moving FFAs, and excess glucose in the blood stream into body fat. By comparison to a high carbohydrate meal, very little insulin is released by eating the TTP/Paleo way, and this slight rise in insulin will occur over a period of hours — not seconds or minutes as would be the case from eating the usual high carbohydrate, high glycemic-value, high total caloric load (all contributing factors) typical of the “normal”, western diet.

It is very clear to me that the bodily chemical processes (especially the action of insulin) that entail the digestion of all foods work via certain, distinct pathways, and knowing these pathways gives us the tools to knowingly adjust our diets which, over time (and which is clearly demonstrated by empirical evidence), can cause us to correctly assume what is optimal for our individual body types, and to allow ultimate control of our body composition. My contention is that that function of determining how a fuel calorie (glucose and fatty acids) will be utilized — whether stored as fat, or burned as energy in the muscles,or in the act of bodily repair/replenish — is carried out primarily by the hormone insulin via interaction with the enzyme lipoprotein lipase (LPL). It is interesting to note as well (though a bit of-topic for this discussion), that sex hormones also interact with LPL, which is why men and women gain/lose/carry body fat differently. It is insulin, though, that acts as the primary gatekeeper, the traffic cop, so to speak, in the ultimate partitioning of the end-products of food ingestion.

So what does all of this mean in practical terms? Well, it means that it’s your insulin levels that will determine what is to become of the calories you’ve ingested. A high insulin level (resulting from consumption of a high carbohydrate meal) will do two things, primarily (1) it will shunt the excess ingested calories to be stored as fat, and (2) it will shutdown the release of FFAs from the body’s fat deposits. The flip side of this is the maintenance of a low insulin environment via the elimination of simple carbohydrates and the limitation of complex carbohydrates. In other words, and from a purely biological or homeostatic perspective, lean people are not those who have the willpower to exercise more and/or eat less. They are simply people whose bodies are programmed to send the calories they consume to the muscles to be burned rather than to the fat tissue to be stored —the precise reason that Lance Armstrong and his ilk can get away with the massive amounts of carbohydrates they consume with no (outward) noticeable affect. A less active a person would tend to go the other way, shunting off calories to fat tissue, where they continue to accumulate to excess. This shunting of calories toward fat cells to be stored or toward the muscles to be burned is a phenomenon known as fuel partitioning. It is also why I think of the body more as a capacitor, rather than a simple thermodynamic machine; a capacitor whose charge/discharge properties are controlled primarily via insulin, the level of which is primarily controlled by the type and amount of carbohydrate ingestion.

So, is a calorie just a calorie? Well, no more than a bullet is just a bullet, I suppose. Would you rather be shot by the rubber variety, or a “cop killer”? Keep that metaphor in mind before you fork-up that next mouthful of pasta.

In Health,


Polishing the Phyique, and Improving Health, with Intermittant Fasting

“Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.”

~ Publisher William Feather

These aren’t exactly the best two pictures in the world to convey the point I’d like to make in this post, but we’ll just have to roll with what we’ve got.



The preceding picture was taken in the spring of ’08, after having roughly a year’s worth of Paleo lifestyle under my belt. Not too bad from a body composition point of view, especially considering this was an “all the time look”. In other words, there was no “diet down” or dehydration measures taken before the photo. And, more importantly, no post-photo “photoshopping” to “nicen” things up. I chose this particular view, though, so that you could look closely at my lower back and oblique area from the rear. What you’ll see is the “last to go” remnants of stubborn fat retention and a bit of water accumulation. For most guys, this is body composition “ground zero”, where the war of “first on and last off” is waged. For females, this would be analogous to the notorious hips and thighs region. This is generalizing, of course. Everyone has their own, special, battlegrounds to contend with.

The following shot was taken just last week, and captures the oblique and intercostals region from another angle.


After 10 Months of Approximately 5, 24-Hour Fasts per Month

Now, I don’t know what difference in body fat level is represented between the two pictures – it’s not really all that much, whatever it is — though I do feel much tighter in the lower back/oblique/intercostals area currently as opposed to back in the spring of ‘08. What I can tell you this: Intermittent fasting (IF) is the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to stripping off the last of that stubborn fat from those “first on, last off”, problem areas; the perfect adjunct to the Paleo lifestyle.

And I should point out as well, that the second shot is representative of the way I look all the time; I can’t reiterate this enough. I don’t make this point to boast, but in order to demonstrate the effectiveness of this lifestyle and of appropriate use of the IF tool. Any other “after” shot you’re likely to see in a physique-related advertisement, or, for instance, a physique celebrity photo shoot, will be taken subsequent to a painstakingly elaborate (and miserable) diet-down and dehydration regimen, concocted specifically to better showcase the “ripped to shreds” look. It’s all an illusion, though, that doesn’t last more than a day or two past the shoot or the physique contest itself – the photos, however, live on in perpetuity, thus projecting the illusion of this being the subject’s year-round condition. One can only imagine the damage done to the subject’s metabolism and overall health by repeating this nonsense time and again.

But hey, that’s the vanity side of things. Lookin’ good “nekkid” is all fine and well – and, truth be told, it is a pretty good indicator of overall health (the above mentioned scenario not withstanding) — But what about the real, unseen and ultimately important underlying health related issues? Is IF really Paleo?  Is yin to yang, as Paleo is to IF?

Well, this is how I see it: Our pre-agricultural revolution ancestors lived their existence with varying periods of feast and famine. And every bit of current research on the subject of calorie restriction and/or intermittent fasting that I’ve come across indicates that these methodologies (calorie restriction and IF) improve overall health – everything from blood pressure control to inflammation reduction (C-reactive protein as a marker) to positive management of existing conditions, including, I might add, cancer. And I’m talking remission of the “big C”, here.

Note: Please, if anyone has run across studies contrary to what I’ve stated above, please, please, please clue me in. I’m much more concerned with being fully informed (and passing that along) than in being “right”.

Of course, chronic fasting (more properly termed here, extended low calorie consumption) – albeit healthy in and of the fact that it’ll put more years in the ol’ life reserves – is just an out-and-out miserable existance. Could this be the chief reason behind so many diet failures? Hmmmm. Me thinks it so. The good news is, though, that the positive health-related results obtained via the miserable chronic underfeeding route can be matched with an intermittent fasting regimen. Uh, let’s use the term “methodology” here, instead.

And why “methodology” vice “regimen”? Because I suggest going about IF in a totally random and organic fashion, the easy way. Never, never chronically; quite simply, your mind and body will not accept chronic IF and you’ll wind-up losing that hard-earned lean body (muscle and organ) mass. There’s a much, much better way to go about this. Easy intermittent fasting is simply skipping meals randomly and eating to fill later. Not much more to it than that. I like to skip random meals now and then – other times I’ll not eat for 24-hours or longer. Got a very busy day planned? A long day’s worth of travel ahead? Eat a hardy breakfast, then fast the balance of the day. It is best to be active when you fast so as to (1) keep your mind occupied (at least in the IF newbie stage – not so much a concern for the “experienced), and (2) signal your genes to conserve protein (muscle mass). Being active also deepens the temporary negative energy balance of the intermittent fast. For instance, I like to fast on sprint days, as the empty stomach makes me feel fleeter afoot. Everything I’ve studied thus far leads me to believe that it’s the transitory alternations between positive and negative energy balance, that accounts for the underlying mechanism – the silver bullet,if you will — for the positive effects attributed to IF. And for some individuals, this is the final tool required to bring down that stubborn, fasting insulin level. A personal observation of mine is that it is much easier to fast during the summer months, as opposed to the winter. I’d guess that this is due to an increase in the metabolism required to keep warm. It must have also served to keep northern climate Paleolithic man constantly on the move in the winter, hunting animals that had acquired thick layers of fat to carry them through the same period.  Something else that I’ve experienced in a fasted state is a heightened awareness and mental accuity.  You won’t ever get to this point, though, until you’ve successfully scaled the wall of carbohydrate addiction.

Essentially, we are designed to be intermittent eaters, but continuous metabolizers. We operate in a slight energy surplus during the day, followed by a negative energy balance during the night. In a healthy, lean individual, energy pool stores are constantly turning over; individuals whose insulin level is chronically high, however, cannot adequately access fat stores and, therefore, for them, the fat continues to accumulate, unabated. Insulin resistance can therefore be considered a survival mechanism, in the fact that it develops as a result of the body’s cells’ requiring protection against the continual onslaught of excess nutrients; a protection triggered due to the cells being already stressed from excessive nutrient content. The excess nutrient intake also serves to shut down autophagy, the consumption of damaged tissues within the muscle cell which fuels repair and regeneration. Growth Hormone release is stunted, and muscle gene expression is down regulated. The ancestral environment did not support chronic, elevated nutrient ingestion, nor was there ever  “a window of feeding opportunity” subsequent to a bout of energy expenditure (exercise, for us modern-day Paleolithics) to shovel in carbohydrate replacement drinks and protein powders.

Ideally, we’d eat only when the energy substrates in the blood fall to the point of triggering a need for replenishment. The true hunger signal is an elegantly simple energy management system, and one that you would, in fact, expect from evolution. Contrary to the continual drumbeat of mainstream “experts”, there is no “set point” level for body fat, body mass or metabolism. What evolution has endowed us with is a simple feeding strategy that endeavors to keep us on a random energy intake-to-expenditure path that favors the survival (and thriving, if conditions are right) of the organism. Now, if we’d only get out of the way and let this fabulous mechanism take its course.

In Health,