Wednesday, 27 May 2015


In an earlier article I talked about the importance of focusing on nutrient density and quality and not just calories.  The first law of thermodynamics essentially boils down to:

Energy in (from food)-energy burned (physical activity and other metabolic processes) = energy balance

So if energy balance is positive, we gain weight and if it’s a negative we lose weight.  This has been the basis for many nutritional programmes whether the aim is to gain or lose weight.  I'm not here to argue with this rule as it’s completely correct, we must consider caloric intake for nutritional strategies.  What I do want to discuss is another major consideration we need to make when it comes to the food we eat.  The biological processes in our body are regulated by a number of hormones, and it’s important to understand these hormones and their functions for health, body composition and performance.  I am a strong believer that a better understanding of our bodily processes will lead to us making more positive diet and lifestyle choices.  In short knowledge is power. 
A hormone that most people will recognise is insulin.  Insulin one of the hormones responsible for the metabolism of carbohydrate, amino acids and fats.  It is a peptide hormone that is produced in the beta cells in the pancreas.

How it works
When carbohydrate is digested it enters the blood stream, this triggers both the synthesis and secretion of insulin from the beta cells.  To go a little deeper into the mechanism glucose in the blood stream stimulates calcium ions to move into the beta cells, thus triggering a calcium-dependant exocytosis of insulin through microtubules releasing it into the blood stream.  Amino acids, particularly leucine, fatty acids and ketone bodies have all been shown to exert a weak stimulation of insulin secretion, however these are dependent on the presence of glucose in the blood to be effective.
Insulin has many functions, however its main role is to act as a transporter for glucose into cells.  Glucose is an energy source for all cells in the human body.  Skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle and adipose (fat) tissue are heavily reliant on insulin to deliver the glucose they require.  Insulin stimulates the translocation of glucose transport type 4 (GLUT 4) from within cells to the outside membrane allowing it to accept glucose and transport it into the cell.
So when we consume carbohydrate, blood glucose levels rise, insulin is secreted and glucose is taken up by the cells to be used as energy.  The body is constantly working to maintain a stable blood glucose level of around 4mmol/l.

The condition most associated with insulin is diabetes.  There are two main types of diabetes type 1 and type 2.

Type 1 is characterised by a loss of beta cells in the pancreas therefore reducing the organs ability to secrete insulin.  The condition is usually a result of an autoimmune reaction.  It generally develops in childhood or early adulthood, and requires treatment with exogenous (from outside the body) insulin.

Type 2 occurs as a result of cells becoming insulin resistant, which I will go on to explain in more detail.  It normally presents in adulthood, however it is becoming more frequently diagnosed in children.   Type two diabetics can sometimes go on to require insulin to manage their condition.  Type 2 diabetes makes up around 90% of all cases of diabetes.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
When discussing insulin and nutrition glycemic index and glycemic load is often brought up.  According to Diabetes UK the glycemic index is “A ranking of carbohydrate-containing foods based on the overall effect on blood glucose levels. Slowly absorbed foods have a low GI rating, while foods that are more quickly absorbed have a higher rating.”  The scale goes from 0-100 with pure glucose being 100.  They define glycemic load as “A measure that takes into account the amount of carbohydrate in a portion of food together with how quickly it raises blood glucose levels.”  I quite like this is a measure, as it considers both the type of food and the portion size.  A low glycemic load is between 0-10, medium 11-19 and anything above 20 is considered to have a high glycemic load

Insulin Sensitivity/Resistance
So I have already mentioned the term insulin resistance so let’s delve into what it is.  Insulin resistance is a state in which the cells response to insulin is impaired.  As a result glucose cannot enter the cell and blood sugar levels remain elevated.  Now because blood glucose levels remain high the body reacts by creating and secreting more insulin, so now we have elevated levels of both blood glucose and insulin (hyperinsulinemia).  The pancreas will continue to release insulin until blood sugar levels drop back down to within normal limits.  With insulin resistance it’s not a case of you have it or you don’t, individuals will vary on a scale between being insulin sensitive and insulin resistant.  When someone has high insulin sensitivity it’s like insulin is communicating with the cells on the latest 4G smartphone, whereas being insulin resistance is not unlike the two bean cans tied together with string.  I should also point out our insulin sensitivity varies depending on a variety of factors including time of day, diet and training stimulus.

Insulin resistance is associated with an increased risk of a number of health conditions including diabetes, hypertension, atherosclerosis (a precursor to coronary heart disease), obesity and polycystic ovaries.

There are several genetic risk factors for insulin resistance, however diet and lifestyle plays a huge role in both the development and management of the condition.  Being overweight or obese and/or having a diet high in refined carbohydrate significantly increase the risk of an individual becoming more insulin resistant.  In terms of prevention a healthy balanced diet with an emphasis on single ingredient whole foods, alongside regular activity is certainly the way to go.  When an individual is already to some degree insulin resistant the dietary strategy becomes a little more complicated and debated.  Most recommendations are that when consuming foods rich in carbohydrate aim for those with a lower glycemic index (e.g. brown rice, beans, pulses and oats).  There is also evidence to support the use of low or moderate carbohydrate diets to manage and even reverse insulin resistance.  The purpose of this article is not to debate the varying dietary strategies, if you or someone you know is found to be insulin resistance or diagnosed as pre-diabetic, advice should be sought from primary care providers as dietary strategies should be ideally tailored on an individual basis.
Low Glycemic Index Foods
So to sum up here what we generally want is to maintain a high degree of insulin sensitivity and less insulin resistance.  To test for insulin resistance an oral glucose tolerance test can be performed.  This involves consuming a glucose drink in a fasted state and monitoring blood glucose levels before ingestion and 30, 60 and 120 minutes post ingestion.  The speed at which the body lowers blood glucose levels back to normal indicates how inulin sensitive or resistant an individual is.

Insulin as an Anabolic Hormone 
The final thing I wanted to touch on in regards to insulin is its use as an anabolic hormone.  Because insulin facilitates the transport of carbohydrate and amino acids into the cells it promotes an anabolic environment, as well as preventing catabolism.  It is essentially delivering your muscles the fuel they need to perform, recover and grow.  Strategically manipulating insulin is something body builders and athletes have been doing for years.  This is normally achieved by consuming fast acting (high GI) carbohydrate before and/or after work outs.  Now I would be completely naive to ignore the fact that insulin abuse is a problem in the body building community.    To take advantage of the anabolic properties of insulin some body builders give themselves insulin injections.  It’s certainly not something all of them do, however a survey of 450 body builders found that 10% admitted to abusing insulin.  This is extremely dangerous, it can cause hypoglycaemic events, pancreatitis, coma and even death.  So unless you require insulin for a medical reason, the risk of injecting more far outweighs any potential benefit.

So there we have a quick whistle stop tour about insulin and its role within the body.  Hope you enjoyed it.


Accurso, A., Bernstein, R., Dahlqvist, A., Draznin, B., Feinman, R., Fine, E., Gleed, A., Jacobs, D., Larson, G., Lustig, R., Manninen, A., McFarlane, S., Morrison, K., Nielsen, J., Ravnskov, U., Roth, K., Silvestre, R., Sowers, J., Sundberg, R., Volek, J., Westman, E., Wood, R., Wortman, J. and 
Vernon, M. (2008). Dietary carbohydrate restriction in type 2 diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome: time for a critical appraisal. Nutr Metab (Lond), 5(1), p.9.

Davies, A., Blakeley, A., Kidd, C. and McGeown, J. (2001). Human physiology. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone., (2015). Diabetes UK, UK Diabetes Resource, Diabetes Symptoms, Diabetes Diet, Gestational Diabetes. [online] Available at: [Accessed 25 May 2015].

Evans, P. (2003). Insulin as a drug of abuse in body building. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(4), pp.356-357.

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Kumar, P. and Clark, M. (n.d.). Kumar & Clark's clinical medicine.

Westman, E., Yancy, W., Mavropoulos, J., Marquart, M. and McDuffie, J. (2008). The effect of a low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet versus a low-glycemic index diet on glycemic control in type 2 diabetes mellitus. Nutr Metab (Lond), 5(1), p.36.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Nutritional Supplements

Nutritional science has come a long way in the last few decades.  Researchers are constantly finding new patterns and mechanisms, in the pursuit of improving and optimising health.  Coinciding with the advances in the field, the supplement industry has exploded.  Twenty years ago you might have been lucky, or unlucky enough to have grandma force feed you some cod liver oil.  Now supplements stores are popping up on the high street and online with a myriad of vitamins, minerals, plant extracts, individual amino acids and so much more.  The purpose of this article isn’t to detract from or promote a particular supplement but more to address the use of supplements in general.  I will however be using some examples to illustrate a point, I have no affiliation with any products or brands.   Do we need supplements?  When can they be useful?  Are they safe?

The oxford dictionary defines a supplement as “a thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it.”  So we take supplements to complete or enhance our diet and that’s what I want to focus on first.  I don’t believe we should look to dietary supplements to compensate for a poor diet.  Popping a multi vitamin does not make up for not consuming fruit and vegetables.  It may be better than nothing but is the notion of “I’ll just take this pill, eat whatever and be fine” promoting a healthy attitude?  My personal take is we should only consider supplementation in the following scenario’s

·         It would be extremely difficult to get the required amount through diet alone. (e.g. creatine has been shown to enhance performance but it would be extremely difficult to get the required dosage through just food).
·         You have a deficiency that would be difficult to address through diet alone (e.g. most of our vitamin D comes from being synthesised within our skin cells and requires sunlight particularly of the UVB variety which we lack in the UK most of the year).
·         You have an ailment where a specific nutrient in a specific quantity could help (e.g. the amino acid lysine can be used to fight of cold sores).
·         You have got your diet down to a tee and are really looking to optimise your health and performance.

If you are in the situation where you have been taking supplements to try and compensate for a poor diet, I think it’s time to start looking introspectively at what you’re currently doing.  

I have a few pet peeves when it comes to supplements and the way they are marketed
The first is, it seems we are always looking for a magic pill.  There is no greater example of this than the slimming pills that are currently on the market.  As much as there may be some evidence to support the ingredients in some, they send a terrible message to anyone trying to lose weight.  Losing weight isn’t about taking a pill and watching the fat just drop off, it’s about making sustainable lifestyle changes.  The problem is often people think they can just take a pill and eat whatever they like.  This isn't entirely the supplement industry’s fault, we ourselves have to be realistic.  If it were that easy why rates of obesity continuing to rise?  Facing up to reality and making changes isn't easy but it’s the first step to becoming healthier and happier, the answer isn't in the bottom of a slimming pill tub.

Secondly the benefits of certain supplements are often sold based on what I would call “half sciences”.  This would be a claim that is based on some scientific evidence but maybe doesn't tell the whole story.  An example of this would be collagen supplements. Our skin is made up of a lot of collagen hence it is popular supplement choice for those striving for healthy skin.  What is often not mentioned is that collagen is comprised of several amino acids, meaning it gets broken down in the gut like any other protein.  So once its broken down it needs to be reformed to make collagen, which is an incredibly complex biological process.  Furthermore once its broken down your body doesn’t care that you have consumed a collagen supplement, that could have been any protein rich meal full of amino acids.  Also if you lack the other nutrients required for collagen formation particularly vitamin C collagen supplements won’t necessarily lead to that perfect complexion.  So collagen supplements aren’t useless in fact several studies have found positive results in term of skin health, however it’s not as simple as we often lead to believe in the advertising. 

The price of supplements is a tricky subject.  Generally you get what you pay for, cheap supplements for the most part are not the same quality as more expensive varieties.  Some supplements can be quite pricey, which is why I urge people to do the research into exactly what each supplement contains and what are the potential benefits, do you really need it?  It goes back to the magic pill perception I mentioned earlier.  Often people view supplements as an easy option so they spend a fortune on them, when in reality a diet and lifestyle change could be more effective.  I generally tend to find the more educated an individual becomes in nutrition the less supplements they take and more specific they are about their supplements.  Currently the only supplements I take are Vitamin D in a subliqual form and fish oil.  There other supplements I may take for a specific purpose for example creatine or alpha lipoic acid but for the moment those are the only two.  This hasn’t always been the case let me rattle off the list of supplements I have taken in the past: fish oil, multi vitamin, 5 HTP, l-carnitine, BCAAs, green tea extract, acai berry extract, CLA and ZMA.  Again I’m not saying these aren’t good supplement choices, however I believe I was putting too much stock into the benefits they proposed rather than looking into my own diet and lifestyle habits.  This has been a big focus for me this year, to take stock of what I’m eating and what I’m doing activity wise and try and optimise that for me and my goals as best I can. As I’m kind of figuring that out then and only then will I consider adding in some additional supplements to further enhance my diet.

An important thing to consider when you’re doing your research is where is the information coming from.  If its from a supplement store or someone affiliated with a supplement company, bare in mind at the end of the day they are trying to sell you something.  Take your time check the credentials of the person selling you the supplement are they qualified to advise you on the supplement? do they actually know their stuff?  If it is an online article do they provide references to scientific literature, just saying “studies show that” really isn’t enough.

It’s important to get supplements from credible companies.  This is especially true when shopping online.  It’s so easy to set up an online store these days, anyone can do it.  This leads to a lot of non-regulated supplements being sold, these theoretically could have just about anything in them.  In fact I know in recent memory, some pre-workout supplements in America were found to have illegal stimulants in them.  The moral of the story is to not only research your particular supplement of choice, but also the retailer and company producing the products to ensure you are getting a legit supplement.

One final thing is to be wary of particularly high doses of anything.  Generally what we are looking for is what’s known in medicine as the lowest effective dose.  This is the dose large enough to illicit a positive reaction, but low enough that is causes the least amount of potential side effects.  It’s a case of you certainly can get too much of a good thing.  For example a recent study picked up by the media looked at vitamin E and cancer incidence.  I was expected that giving vitamin E supplements would reduce the incidence of cancer, due to its antioxidant action.  The results actually showed that taking a vitamin E supplement boosted the risk of developing high grade prostate cancer.  Now there were several flaws in the study design and the way the study was portrayed in the media.  For a full breakdown I urge you to watch this video, which explains the flaws very well.

What I took from this was that we should be wary of taking high doses of anything.  Be careful if you feel you need to increases the dosage, do it very slowly with small increments to find that lowest effective dose and do so under a medical professionals supervision. 

To conclude supplements can be great, there are so many benefits they can illicit.  However, they shouldn’t be relied on to make up for a poor diet.  Make sure you do your research, and preferably get your information from a unbiased or reliable source.