The Anabolic Power of Insulin

An Interview with John Berardi

Testosterone readers were orginally introduced to John Berardi last year and since then, he’s keystroked several groundbreaking articles. He’s also been instrumental in designing Biotest’s new postworkout recovery drink, Biotest Surge. Within a week or two, we’ll even be introducing John’s new nutrition column. (We haven’t decided on a title yet, but we’ve narrowed it down to two choices; either “An Appetite for Construction,” or, “Eat Me, I’m a Tuber!”)

Given his involvement with Testosterone and Biotest, it seems somehow unnatural to present an interview with him as interviews are usually done to either introduce someone to the audience, or to pick the brain of an outsider who’s not associated with the staff. However, since this interview with John was free-lanced and ended up covering topics that were so dang interesting, we thought we’d just break tradition and run it. Hence this exchange between John Berardi and Rob Wilkins, a Technical Sergeant in the US Air Force stationed at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.

Recently, Biotest and Testosterone magazine held their very first “No Holds Barred” bodybuilding workshop in Orlando, Florida. During the workshop, members of the Testosterone science team provided the audience with the latest and greatest information related to training, supplements, and nutrition to help them take their training to the next level.

One of the speakers was John Berardi, who presented a fascinating presentation on insulin and the insulin index. Insulin is a hormone that regulates the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and starches in the body, and it promotes muscle uptake of amino acids for making proteins.

Berardi is a scientist and PhD candidate in the area of Exercise and Nutritional Biochemistry at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. As an athlete, he’s been a successful powerlifter, former NABBA Jr. Mr. USA bodybuilding champion, and a member of nationally ranked rugby and track and field teams.

John is highly regarded for his expertise in hormonal regulation of muscle mass and body composition; the interactions between exercise, diet, and nutritional supplementation; methods of strength training and conditioning; and the testing and design of nutritional supplements.

He’s currently conducting exercise and nutritional supplement research with renowned exercise and nutrition researcher Dr. Peter Lemon, one of the world’s leading experts on protein. John’s also famous for conducting experiments on himself and his friends to put his theories to use. Sometimes they work, and sometimes they go terribly awry, as former friend, Larry “Two Headed Freak” Dumbrowski can attest.

RW Thanks for your time John. First off, can you give us a brief background on yourself and what stimulated your interest in exercise and supplementation?

JB – Well Rob, I think the introduction you gave was pretty comprehensive. As you said, I’m currently a researcher but have an extensive background in competitive athletics. And that’s what holds my passion. I love training and consulting with elite athletes in order to apply my university and real-world training in order to take their games to superior levels. And with each new athlete that becomes part of my clientele, I get supercharged about the new challenges that await us! And that’s where the research ties in. Every research project I’ve conducted and every nutritional supplement I’ve designed has been done with one goal in mind – to figure out how to make better, stronger, leaner and meaner athletes.

Lately I’ve been branded by some of my athletes as “the recovery specialist.” This is due to my research that’s been focusing on the recovery of ATP, glycogen, and protein balance, and the prevention of overtraining. In addition, I’ve been working on some nutritional programs and supplements that manage the hormone insulin.

RW – So let’s talk about insulin. What is insulin and why should athletes and those involved in health and fitness care about it?

JB – The current rage in health and fitness is to manage the hormone insulin. But few people really understand this temperamental hormone. You see, insulin is an anabolic giant. It’s the most anabolic hormone because it stuffs nutrients like amino acids and carbs into muscle cells to promote growth. But, while it sounds great, getting aggressive with it can lead to serious fat gain. For instance, here are some basics:

Insulin is a hormone released into the blood by an internal organ called the pancreas. Insulin functions in many ways as an anabolic or a storage hormone; in fact it’s been called the most anabolic hormone. When insulin is released into the bloodstream, it acts to shuttle glucose [carbohydrates], amino acids, and blood fats into the cells of the body. “Which cells?” you ask. Well, fat and muscle cells are the important ones in terms of quantity. Now, if these nutrients go predominantly into muscles, then the muscles grow and body fat is managed. If these nutrients go predominantly into fat, then muscle mass is unaffected and body fat is increased.

So obviously if there were a way to send nutrients preferentially into muscle rather than fat, trainees would have more muscle mass and less fat mass. That’s the goal of my recommended training and eating programs – to increase the muscle uptake of nutrients preferentially. Isn’t that the goal of every trainee whether they know it or not?

RW – So how can one manage this hormone to promote muscle gains and fat losses?

JB – Well, this is where things get tricky. Because insulin is a storage hormone, most people think that since insulin stores nutrients, it should be avoided because it has the potential to store fat. This is a mistake for several reasons. First, there’s no way to avoid insulin in the blood. Whenever you eat food, insulin is released.

Secondly, if you theoretically could eliminate insulin, you would abolish all of its anabolic effects and its ability to store energy in the muscle. In fact, type 1 diabetics don’t produce insulin and as a result, if left untreated, they die.

But don’t go the opposite route, either. If blood levels of insulin are always highly elevated, trouble results. Chronic elevation of insulin leads to large amounts of fat gain, risk for cardiovascular disease, and ultimately to type 2 diabetes. This second type of diabetes is characterized by obesity, cardiovascular disease, and the poor ability of the muscle to store nutrients, which leads to muscle wasting and tons of fat storage. This is called insulin resistance.

So my point is that you need insulin, but you must learn how to balance the anabolic effects against the fat storage effects; to trick it into making you muscular while making you lean at the same time. And this is done two major ways; first by increasing insulin sensitivity in the muscle while decreasing insulin sensitivity in the fat cells and, second, by controlling the insulin released during specific times of the day.

RW – Please explain the difference between insulin resistance and insulin sensitivity?

JB – Simply put, insulin resistance is bad. If you’re insulin resistant, your cells – especially the muscle cells – don’t respond to the anabolic effects of normal levels of insulin, i.e. they resist insulin’s effects. If this is the case, the body then releases massive amounts of insulin to promote nutrient storage in the resistant cells. Remember, though, that chronic high levels of insulin in the blood are very bad and can cause type 2 diabetes.

Insulin sensitivity is therefore very good. In this case, your cells – especially the muscle cells – respond very well to small levels of insulin. Therefore, they need very little insulin stimulation to get into an anabolic state. So high insulin sensitivity at the muscle level is very desirable.

One way to remember the difference is as follows. If you’re dating someone who responds or reacts to any affection you show them, then he or she is sensitive. So they’re a good model for insulin sensitivity. It only takes a little affection to get a big response. On the other hand, if the person you’re dating is resistant to your affection, then it takes a lot to get them going. Therefore, they’re a good model for insulin resistance. It takes a lot of affection to get even the smallest response.

RW – Does insulin sensitivity vary or change?

JB – Insulin sensitivity is unique to each individual but the cool thing is that it can be manipulated by exercise, diet, and supplementation. And that’s what I do with my clients to dramatically change their body composition.

Both aerobic and resistance training greatly increase insulin sensitivity through some different and some similar mechanisms. In addition, supplements like omega 3 fatty acids, fish oils, alpha-lipoic acid, and chromium can increase insulin sensitivity. Finally, moderate carbohydrate diets that are rich in fiber can increase insulin sensitivity.

On the flip side, the low-carb, high-fat diets that have become popular can decrease insulin sensitivity. That’s why none of my trainees go on no-carb diets, unless they’re dieting down for a show and then they’ll do occasional no carb diets every few months for a maximum of 3 weeks at a time.

RW – So what are some practical ways to manipulate insulin sensitivity?

JB – Well, typically I’ve seen tremendous increases in insulin sensitivity with 3-4 intense weight training sessions per week, lasting 1 hour per session. These sessions should be coupled with at least 3-4 aerobic sessions lasting 30 minutes per week. To really target insulin sensitivity, you would perform these sessions separately.

After exercise, the next step would be to supplement with 600 mg of alpha-lipoic acid and concentrated fish oils containing a total of 6-10 grams of DHA and EPA, which are the most active omega 3 fats in fish oils.

Finally, your diet can make a big difference. I recommend moderate quantities – 40-50% of the diet – of fibrous carbohydrates like oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. I also recommend eating moderate quantities (30-40% of the diet) of high-quality proteins like casein, whey, chicken, beef, fish, dairy and eggs. And finally, I recommend eating low quantities (20% of the diet) of fats from olive oil, flax oil, fish oil, and nut oils.

All of these strategies can be combined to make the muscles more responsive to insulin while simultaneously decreasing the fat’s responsiveness to insulin. This means more muscle mass with less fat gain? the eternal quest of the bodybuilder!

RW – How important is the insulin sensitivity to my progress as a “natural” bodybuilder?

JB – I think that insulin sensitivity dictates your muscle-to-fat ratio, especially when trying to gain or lose weight. If you’re more insulin sensitive during a weight-gain program, you’ll gain more muscle relative to the fat that you gain. For example, with normal insulin sensitivity, you might gain 1 lb of muscle for every 2 lbs of fat for a 1:2 ratio. With increased insulin sensitivity, you might gain 1 lb of muscle for every 1lb of fat or even better, 2 lbs of muscle for every 1 lb of fat.

And if you’re dieting, you will lose more fat relative to your muscle loss if your insulin sensitivity is high.

Are these things important to bodybuilders? You bet they are! And especially to natural ones. Drug-assisted bodybuilders have super insulin sensitivity. In addition, the drugs enhance their muscle-to-fat-gain ratios. If you’re clean, you need to use every natural means at your disposal to alter these ratios as well.

RW – So what about the other step in balancing insulin? Controlling insulin release during specific times during the day, right?

JB – That’s right. Remember, insulin is anabolic so we want bursts of it every day without chronic elevation. An effective way to do this would be to plan insulin bursts after training. In addition, I recommend jacking up insulin at least twice per day, but no more than 3 times. So planning at least 2 high-insulin meals per day is the way to grow and stay lean.

To do this we need to first pay attention to something called theinsulin index of foods. If you think I’ve made a mistake and that what I really mean is the glycemic index, you’re wrong. I mean the insulin index. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. Although insulin indices are not new, they’ve been ignored in health and fitness for far too long.

RW – What’s the difference between the well known glycemic index (GI) and this insulin index (II) you’re referring to?

JB – The popular glycemic index is a measure of the speed at which carbohydrates enter the blood after a meal. A high-glycemic index means that blood sugar rises rapidly in response to a meal while a low-glycemic index means that blood sugar rises very slowly. Traditionally, nutritionists thought that the faster the carbs got into the blood, the bigger the insulin response. So in an attempt to manage insulin, they recommended always eating low-glycemic foods.

However, several studies since have shown that some low glycemic index foods have huge insulin responses! So the correlation between glycemic index and insulin response breaks down with some foods. For example, milk products have a very low glycemic index. But they promote insulin responses parallel to the highest glycemic foods. What’s the deal? Well, it appears that there are several other factors that determine insulin release besides carb content and the rate of carb absorption.

This is why the insulin index was generated. This index actually measures insulin response to a food. So rather than assuming insulin response is correlated with carb absorption, these researchers decided to go ahead and measure it. And their results were eye opening!

RW – If a natural bodybuilder is planning their nutrient intake around the insulin index, what foods would they eat and what foods would they avoid?

JB – One thing to keep in mind is that there is no such thing as a bad food. Well, almost no such thing. I don’t think anyone can make a case for powdered, cream-filled doughnuts, besides the fact that they taste damn good! But I hope you see my point. Since I said earlier that sometimes you want an insulin surge – especially after workouts – and sometimes you don’t – especially at night before bedtime – we have to realize that we use the insulin index not to condemn foods but to decide when to eat them.

The point I want to stress is that the insulin index helps us add information to the glycemic index to make better food choices. So using both indices is the way to go. Since milk products have a low GI but a high II, these foods aren’t optimal when you want to keep insulin low. Other example foods or meal combinations for this situation are baked beans in sauce, meals with refined sugars and fats, and meals that are protein and carbohydrate rich. Each of these foods/combos have low GI scores but high II scores, none of which are optimal for low insulin times. But remember, some times you want high insulin so don’t relegate these foods/combos to a dark corner of your nutritional closet.

Conversely, unprocessed fibrous grains and cereals as well as fruits and veggies are great on both scales. In addition, most low-fat protein sources are also great on both scales.

RW – So what times of the day should you increase insulin levels and what times should you concentrate on decreasing them?

JB – Again, I like to spike insulin 2-3 times per day. Remember, though, that my clients are super insulin sensitive due to the training, diet, and supplementation programs I have them following. So they can handle the insulin surges and can actually grow and get lean at the same time. With this said, natural insulin sensitivity declines at night time so perhaps at night, low insulin choices are best. After training however, the goal should be to send insulin through the roof. A sensible plan is to eat 3 high-insulin meals as your first 3 of the day, and 3 low insulin meals to finish the day. This can be accomplished as follows:

1st 3 meals:

Protein plus carbs with no fat

2nd 3 meals:

Protein plus fat with no carbs

[Editor’s note: for more information on John Berardi’s eating recommendations, check out “Massive Eating, Part 1“, and “Massive Eating, Part 2“.]

Post-workout meals:

Hydrolyzed protein, simple carbs, BCAA, free form amino acids

RW – Are there any supplements that affect the release of insulin and if so, how are they beneficial?

JB – There certainly are! In fact I’m currently designing a post-workout formula with this goal (as well as a few others) in mind. You see, as I said earlier, I’m sort of a “recovery specialist.” I’m hired to consult with many athletes from serious endurance marathoners and triathletes to strength and power athletes like bodybuilders and sprinters. Although I design training and nutritional programs for them, one of my special strengths of focus is how to help those who are “midgets of recovery” (the athletes who are especially prone to over training).

One of the main factors in recovery from training is to increase glycogen in the muscle, increase protein synthesis, and decrease protein breakdown. And the way to do this is to get insulin high right after training. I recently did a series on this in Testosterone.

The current recovery drink I’m working on is a special blend of glucose and glucose polymers, whey protein hydrolysates, BCAA, glutamine, and some other free form amino acids. This combo of ingredients (in specific ratios) is highly insulin releasing as well as very specific to the recovery of glycogen balance and protein balance.

The best thing about this formula is that every person who works out, no matter the sport, can use it. It has only nutritive ingredients and no mysterious herbs or other compound. And it and targets physiological processes common to all activities.

[Editor’s note: Biotest is now accepting pre-order’s for John’s post-workout recovery formula, Biotest Surge]

RW – Thanks so much for this informative interview John. Is there anything you would like to leave the readers with?

JB – Remember, insulin sensitivity is a huge factor in maximizing recovery and making dramatic changes in body composition. Use the insulin index, glycemic index, and smart nutritional advice to take your physique and training to a higher level.

In the end, however, although we really focused in on the insulin index and insulin sensitivity with this interview, I want readers to understand that in athletics and training, there are so many other factors that contribute to gains in performance on improved body comp. As my colleague Tom Incledon says, “The cells of the body are like a space ship being bombarded by meteors (hormones and nutrients).”

The point is that no hormone or cellular system is independent. When we try to focus on any one thing, it’s easy to lose sight of other important factors. So remember, after defining your goals, you need to come up with a plan of attack based only on your personal path. Don’t follow someone else’s plan to the letter or a generic plan that you read in a magazine. Individualize!

RW – Thanks for your time, John.