Is Protein Spiking You Blood Sugar?
One of the most popular ways to choose types of carbohydrates for blood sugar balance is the Glycemic Index, which measures how fast and how much a particular food raises blood sugar levels. However there is a lesser known and more effective way to calculate how a food will affect your blood sugar, this is the Insulin Index!
Before getting into all of this, let's first cover how insulin works. When we eat a food, particularly a carb or protein, glucose (blood sugar) enters into the bloodstream and the pancreas secretes insulin. Insulin is a hormone which helps the body direct the glucose to where it needs to go, shuttling it into cells to be used as energy or stored for later use. This process lowers the blood sugar in the bloodstream and allows the body to properly use the blood sugar.
The problem is however that because of a lifetime of highly refined and processed foods and sugars, our bodies become confused on how much insulin to secrete and end up overshooting the marker. Too much insulin secretion can stress the pancreas. When this process happens for an extended period of time, it can eventually lead to the pancreas not releasing insulin the way that it should. Another side effect to chronically high insulin levels can also be insulin resistance, this is when our cells basically become "numb" to the insulin and stop responding to it the way they should.
Excess blood sugar must be stored somewhere if it is not being used, because of this poor insulin sensitivity or too much insulin almost always leads to fat storage. This is one of the reasons why high insulin levels make it nearly impossible to lose weight. Low, balanced insulin levels, low blood sugar and insulin sensitivity are all essential in managing a healthy weight.
Blood sugar should rise and fall slowly and evenly, this will ensure a steady, even supply of energy rather than riding the blood sugar roller coaster that most people are all too familiar with. Symptoms of imbalanced blood sugar include jitteriness, dizziness, fatigue, and cravings throughout the day, along with all the classic symptoms of being "hangry". Longterm imbalanced blood sugar can lead to weight gain, obesity, fatty liver, PCOS, high blood pressure, acne, as well as other chronic health issues.
The glycemic index is used and became popular to give guidance on what foods to eat to keep blood sugar low. Each food is given a numerical score on a scale of 0 to 100 based on how much it will cause blood sugar to rise once consumed. All foods on the scale are compared to pure glucose, which has a GI value of 100, to determine their glycemic index score. The higher the number, the faster the food raises blood sugar. The lower the number, the slower the food will raise blood sugar.
Unfortunately, the glycemic index can be deceiving and is not actually the most useful or practical for real life. A better representation of the impacts of food on blood sugar is glycemic load. Glycemic load is a combination of the glycemic index of a food multiplied by its available carbohydrate content in grams, in a standard serving. This tells you both how quickly the glucose will enter your bloodstream along with how much glucose per serving it contains.
For example, let's take a watermelon which is a high GI food. A watermelon has a GI of 72, but its glycemic load is only 7, because the amount of carbohydrate in a slice of watermelon is low due to high water content. This example shows the importance of knowing and understanding the glycemic load of a food through taking into account the serving sizes.
Now let's look at insulin index. Insulin index is different than glycemic index because it accounts for foods with little to no carbohydrates as well as looking at the effects of a food on insulin level regardless of carbohydrate content. The insulin index takes into account foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, butter and olive oil on blood sugar, while the glycemic index does not. This gives a more comprehensive look at predicting the insulin demand of foods on the body.
Carbohydrates are not the only dietary factor affecting insulin levels, which is why the insulin index is so useful. Protein is often overlooked in its affects on insulin, but is another macronutrient which can create an insulin response, especially when combined with carbohydrates. There are some low-glycemic foods that have a higher insulin index than you might expect, such as dairy, beef and fish.
The insulin index can be especially helpful for individuals who are still experiencing insulin spikes even with a lower carb, whole-foods diet. For many, these nuances are insignificant but for those who are extremely sensitive to blood sugar, such as diabetics, this scale can be incredibly useful.
While not every food has been studied, there are at least 120 foods in the insulin index. You can find a full list of foods here, although it can be a little difficult to sort through.
It is important to notice that there are many foods with and insulin index twice as high as their glycemic index, especially foods like low-fat dairy products. This index shows the importance of eating foods the way they were found in nature. Foods that are high in protein but don’t have any fat attached to them, like they would have in nature, might still be spiking your insulin. This makes sense because it is rare to find a natural form of protein that doesn’t have fat attached to it. This is why choosing fatty cuts of meat and full-fat products is important for blood sugar.
When we look at lean protein foods, the insulin index values are higher as opposed to protein foods with a higher fat content such as butter and bacon which have the lowest insulin index scores. Once again, we see that protein with fat attached fares much better on blood sugar than protein with little or no fat. This is why fat is so great! It has the smallest effect on insulin and acts to lower the insulin response of proteins and carbs.
Looking at insulin response of some protein-rich foods vs. carb-rich foods can be very surprising. For example beef and fish have a higher insulin index than porridge, muesli, and brown pasta. Beef and fish release about the same amount of insulin as brown.
However, protein also stimulates glucagon, which is a fat-burning hormone that acts as insulin's opposite. Through stimulating the release of glucagon, protein is able to stabilize the end blood sugar response. Protein also triggers growth hormone, which helps us burn fat. Through the release of both of these hormones, protein enables people to lose weight especially on high protein diets. Protein is so essential for so many reasons and understanding the insulin index gives us the knowledge to couple proteins and fats and not just cling to lean proteins.
With all this said, it is important to understand that foods will affect the body much differently for a diabetic than those with a normal blood sugar response.
Insulin index levels of proteins and other foods can be very beneficial to those who are still struggling to balance blood sugar even while eating a high-fat, low-carb paleo diet.
The insulin index is still important for the day to day person to draw awareness to the importance to eating fatty cuts of protein. Also don't let this index lead you to fear protein! In fact, you probably need to increase your protein intake, as many people are drastically under eating protein. Protein is essential for muscle mass, satiety, amino acid and neurotransmitter levels and blood sugar balance. When it comes to protein make sure to couple it with fats and find the right amount for you!