Maximizing Your Insulin Response

“Carbohydrate” has become a dirty word in recent years due to the popularity of high-protein diets like the Paleo Diet and the Keto Diet.  These diets strive to maximize the body’s fat burning abilities by keeping insulin levels low and forcing the body to use fat as fuel.  

Unfortunately, these high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets do not maximize a weightlifter’s muscle building potential.  Consider these facts–

Anabolic hormones stimulate muscle growth and development. 

The body has three primary anabolic hormones:

  • Testosterone
  • Growth Hormone
  • Insulin  

Insulin is required to build muscle.  

USA Weightlifting’s sports dietitian, Meagan O’Connor explains:

Insulin helps to maintain blood glucose within a normal range. As you consume carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose for energy into the bloodstream. When glucose levels rise, insulin is then secreted to help store glucose in the muscles, liver, and fat cells. So, insulin is an anabolic hormone (promotes building) of muscles. 

Insulin is even more anabolic than growth hormone, so diets that suppress the body’s insulin response hinder the body’s ability to create and maintain muscle mass.  

The body is very sensitive to insulin during and just after intense physical activity, especially weight training.  

A weightlifter can maximize this phenomenon by consuming fast-acting glucose forms during and just after lifting weights.  

USA Weightlifting’s sports dietitian, Meagan O’Connor explains:

Since weightlifting is using the stored glucose in our muscles for energy, it is important to consume fast-acting glucose forms (such as a sports drink or a granola bar made with refined grains). These break down faster in our bodies to get into the bloodstream and secrete the insulin to then rebuild and repair the muscles.

Fast-acting glucose forms are simply foods that are high on the glycemic index (GI). High GI foods are fast-digesting carbohydrates that enter the bloodstream quickly causing insulin to spike.

High GI foods Include:

  • Sugar
  • Candy
  • Sports Drinks
  • Soda
  • White Bread
  • Instant Oatmeal
  • Sugary Cereals
  • White Rice
  • Pasta
  • White Potatoes
  • Pretzels 
  • Rice Cakes 
  • Popcorn

A weightlifter can maximize muscle building and repair by consuming high GI foods during and just after training.

Caution: More is Not Better.  Inducing an insulin spike during and just after weightlifting boosts your body’s muscle building and repair potential.  However, eating high GI foods throughout the entire day is not beneficial.  High GI foods spike insulin. When the body has high levels of insulin, it will not burn fat.  It will simply use the carbohydrates available as fuel and store any excess in the muscles and fat cells.

Give your body a chance to burn fat by limiting your high GI foods to during and just after your workouts.  Through the rest of the day, strive to eat low GI foods, which will digest more slowly and not create a large insulin spike.

Photo Credit: Matthew Bjerre

References: 

  1. Ishii, Tomofusa, et al. “Resistance training improves insulin sensitivity in NIDDM subjects without altering maximal oxygen uptake.” Diabetes care21.8 (1998): 1353-1355.
  2. DC, Clay Hyght. “The Insulin Advantage.” T NATION, www.t-nation.com/diet-fat-loss/insulin-advantage.
  3. “Glycemic Index and Diabetes.” American Diabetes Association, www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/glycemic-index-and-diabetes.html.
  4. “What Are Anabolic Hormones?15+ Ways To Boost It for Muscle Growth.” Total Shape, totalshape.com/supplements/how-to-boost-your-anabolic-hormones/.

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