Are all Calories Equal, Pt. 2: Insulin - How and Why?

October 21, 2009

People throw out the “all-important” glycemic index or glycemic load a lot as a counter-example to why a calorie is a calorie. True, these are real phenomenon. But how many people really understand it?

Insulin response is fairly simple, at least topically. Insulin secretion is dictated by:

  1. The amount of non-fibrous (i.e., digestible) carbohydrate eaten &
  2. The rate at which these carbs (the sugar derived from them) reaches the bloodstream.

Number 2 is where the glycemic index comes from, and the product of number 2 and number 1 is where we get glycemic load. Therefore glycemic load is more accurate than glycemic index (carrots, for example, have a high glycemic index but a very low glycemic load). It is also important to note that these measures do not take into account what happens to the food when it is eaten with other foods, especially proteins, fats, and fiber. The same white rice that is such a “dangerous” food for body composition looses its edge when combined with some steak and veggies. This ISwhy glycemic measures above don’t have the real world application you would think; how many people eat carbohydrates by themselves? (If you do this, stop immediately, or you really will die).

Theyre ghosts for a reason, eat them without protein at your own risk. Image courtesy of clevercupcakes.

They're ghosts for a reason, eat them without protein at your own risk. Image courtesy of clevercupcakes.

So this isn’t quite the handy pocket bible people make it out to be. Ice cream, for example, has a low glycemic index and a moderate glycemic load. “Wait,” you cry, “ice cream isn’t good for you! It’s got tons of calories.” Or, “there’s no protein in it!” People know this! They inherently know CALORIC load is bad when it’s presented in that framework. Then why, oh why, do they not understand that the type and amount of carbohydrates and fats (excluding trans fats) matters little when compared to total caloric intake and protein intake?

Let me play devil’s advocate (again). Here’s a picture of Martin Berkhan:

Martin Berkhan, circa 6% bodyfat

Martin Berkhan, circa 6% bodyfat

Martin is a really smart guy from Sweden that I’ve corresponded with on some message boards. Martin got to 8% bodyfat (just a little bit less conditioned than the picture above) eating a moderately sized bowl of ice cream every night before bed. “Impossible!” those same naysayers decry. It’s entirely possible, however. Why?

Because Martin:

  1. Accurately set his calories to lose weight at an appropriate rate.
  2. Ate adequate amounts of protein.

(More here if those rules seem like blasphemy to you.)

Please understand that I’m not openly condoning this approach, but I’m not against it either. Many roads lead to Rome.

Rome -- see? Many roads. Pick one that lets you eat ice cream along the way =]. Image courtesy of Giampaolo Macorig.

Rome — see? Many roads. Pick one that lets you eat ice cream along the way.

It works simply because Martin fulfilled the two requirements above and everything else he did in his diet paled in importance compared to those two overriding principles. Those insulin “fluctuations” Martin may have gotten from his bowl of ice cream were not enough to offset the main principles of his diet (hint, hint: see items 1 & 2 above), and I’m sure the mental relief he got from his bowl of ice cream was a pleasant reprieve from the doldrums of dieting.

So that’s it. Insulin, the “omnipotent” hormone, fails to overthrow sound dieting principles and adequate protein intake. Hopefully you learned how glycemic index differs from glycemic load, and why they may not be as useful as once thought.

Finally, a legal disclaimer so I can avoid all subsequent lawsuits: If you eat carbohydrates by themselves you won’t die. Just don’t do it (exception: during training, although it is still preferable to take them with amino acids).

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