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Insulin Spikes

What is insulin?

Insulin is a hormone that is released whenever glucose is detected in your blood stream. It’s released in order to pull this glucose from your blood stream and bring it into cells to use as energy. Whatever isn’t used is stored in the liver, fat (adipose tissues) and muscle in the form of glucagon. Insulin is considered an “anabolic” hormone, meaning that its release leads to a “build up.” (i.e. – anabolic steroids BUILD muscle, get it?) In insulins case, it helps to bring amino acids (protein) to the muscles, and stores excess glucose as glucagon in the systems mentioned above.

Isn’t that bad?

No way! Too much glucose in the blood is actually toxic. There’s also some research that supports the idea that insulin in the brain promotes learning/cognitive function. Insulin is necessary for our survival.

What is an insulin “spike”?

An insulin “spike” is just when there is an increased level of insulin in your blood stream. There is always insulin in your blood (called “basal insulin”), and this level will rise and fall throughout the day. This can be in response to a meal that is filled with glucose, from exercise, etc.

Glycemic Index

We’ve all seen the commercials about the glycemic index. It’s an index that ranks food based on the amount of simple sugars in them. The higher the glycemic index, the more simple sugars in the blood stream, the more insulin, the more amino acids taken up by muscle (also stops the break down of amino acids in muscle), the more energy in each cell. Sounds great, right?

Why is it considered bad, then?

Just look at what insulin does AFTER it gives energy to the cells. Say you eat something high on the glycemic index while sitting on the couch. Insulin takes the simple sugars to your cells, looking to refuel them…but they’ve been refueled. All you’ve done that day is lounge around and watch Netflix. Next stop? Liver. Fat. Insulin converts the glucose to glucagon and stores that away on your waist line, thighs, hips, etc.

So why have an insulin spike?

Some body builders swear by insulin spikes, and given its ability to give energy to muscles that makes sense. If you just finished a 10 mile run but you have to go to work afterwards for 8 hours it makes total sense to eat something with glucose in it to replenish the energy in each cell, right? (See: protein shakes after workouts, running in the morning and lifting at night, etc.) That’s how it’s used. Since it also prevents amino acids from being broken down (read: proteins/muscle breaking down) it’s great for body builders in muscle gains.

So it’s chill to chug a soda before working out?

It’s not that simple. Think of the adages you read on Tumblr, like “Abs are 80% diet, 20% exercise” or “500 calories of chocolate =/= 500 calories of veggies.” Soda, highly processes carbs, etc. have a lot of other nutrients (or lack of nutrients) in them that can interfere with giving you energy. This is why a lot of people trying to lose weight are told to eat whole grains, veggies, lean protein, etc.

The deal with whole grains/whole wheat/etc.

Why stay away from “white” products, and what does it have to do with insulin? Since many whole grains have more fiber in them they slow down the release of glucose into the blood. They’re also generally complex carbohydrates (complex sugars) which means it takes longer to break them down than simple carbohydrates. This is why they keep you fuller longer than simple sugars. And, in the same vein, since the glucose from them enters your bloodstream slower it causes a gradual, level rise in insulin vs. the quick spike simple sugars are said to give.

Like all food and nutrition, insulin “spikes” can be either a great source of energy or a quick way of gaining fat. Eat a diet mostly composed of unprocessed, whole foods that give you energy and make you feel great. The rest will fall into place!

Bored of cardio?

I hate cardio. It’s boring, I drift off, I don’t push myself, I hate it. Rather than throw in the towel, I decided to find ways to make cardio more challenging and, ultimately, more fun.

1) Join a class.

My first spin/cycle class was amazing. I usually hate riding those stupid bikes, where I go for like 10 minutes, get bored and don’t sweat. Hah, not in a spin class! The music combined with the fact that I made myself pick a bike in a center so I couldn’t just trounce off when I got bored or overwhelmed. I worked myself hard. The same goes for other cardio – step, rumba, belly dancing, cardio kick boxing. Find your grove! Experiment! Ask personal trainers at the gym which classes are their favorite! If it’s fun, it’s not a work out.

2) Ditch plodding along.

It’s way easy to get on the elliptical, glue your eyes to the TV and just plod along. There are a lot of ways to mix up a standard cardio work out. For example, I gave my sister the following idea and she now uses it and says it breaks the time up easier.

Elliptical: 4 minute warm up at moderate intensity. 1 minute of resistance at 15. 4 minutes resistance at 5. 1 minute resistance at 16. 4 minutes resistance at 5.

Split this up any way you want. Do 5 minutes and 2 minutes, or 10 minutes and 5 minutes. Heck, beef the resistance up to 55. Segmenting the time like that where you’re counting INTERVALS instead of hours makes time go by faster.

3) In the same thought process, mix it uppp

Changing resistance is one good way, why not change the incline and pace too? On machines that have inclines experiment with those. High incline for 10 minutes, low incline for 10 minutes. Resistance and incline can be changed on the machine, don’t be afraid to experiment.

4) Push the pace when you mix it up

Up your resistance and also try to push the pace. Basically, try to go the same speed at the higher intensity/resistance/incline as you did at the lower one. Think of it as “pushing the pace.”

5) Let your iPod be your god.

Take it off shuffle. I know, it’s hard, but do it. Coordinate your cardio to your iPod. The first song should be your warm up – a 4 or so minute song that is mellow, but will get you in the mood. Follow it by songs according to your plan. Doing intervals that day? Download a playlist that’s like a Power Hour one, where each song is a minute long. Always start to slack off at about 15 minutes in? The song that starts at 15 minutes should be your absolute BOOTY POPPING I AM A BEAST song! Know your work out and coordinate your iPod to it. In the same breath, don’t get stuck on the same play list. Listening to the same songs over and over again sucks. Tumblr search playlists, go on to find new songs, listen to the radio, go on internet forms. Anything, just mix your play list up!

6) Intervals

I pretty much already touched on this, but intervals really help me in my work out funk. Telling myself, “Alright, I’m going to run AS HARD AS I CAN for the length of the track, then walk the corners, THEN RUN AGAIN!” is really motivating to me. I have a set plan, and intervals breaks up the time. Plus, intervals burn more calories and more fat, but that’s a topic for another day. This goes along with breaking up your workout, but this is more tuned to the outside runner than the inside cardio machine junkie (i.e. – me)


This is the most important part. When I feel like quitting, I always give myself a pep talk. “Holy crap, Courtney, you have burned 500 calories according to this machine! Hell, a year ago you would have been sitting on your ass eating 500 calories and watching Friends repeats, but today you’re at the gym. And look at that? Look how badass you look with all that sweat on your face. Like a beast. Like a beast that will run a 5k soon because you’re SOOO cardiovascularly fit!” Or, my personal favorite, “I really love cardio. I have all this time to myself to do things at my own pace. No professors or lectures or studying, this is ME time. And I’m ROCKING it.”

8) Use distractions to your advantage

I know a lot of people frown on watching TV when you work out, because you often plod along. Turn it into a drinking game, but for your cardio. Some examples –

I watched The Princess Diaries on ABC Family. Every time Ana Hathaway and Chris Pine had sexual tension, I put the resistance up to 50 and the incline up to 15 and ran as hard as I could until the scene was over.

When watching anything, I up the intensity/etc. to the highest during the commercials. That leaves the show part – the entertaining part – to be my recovery time.

When watching SVU, I push the pace as hard as I can every time Ice T is on TV.

Get it? Make up your own system, where the TV commercials or certain scenes in movies or, hell, every time Nancy Grace shakes her head condescendingly at a minority into an opportunity to sprint or recovery. Make it YOUR work out, it’ll be fun.

9) Opt for conditioning instead of cardio
Decrease the time between your sets during weight lifting, or opt for lighter weights and higher intensity. You can also do things like jump rope or do burpees between sets while weight lifting to keep your heart rate up!

Protein: Quick and Dirty

As someone who’s been vegan, vegetarian and an omnivore while maintaining a rigorous exercise schedule I’ve become very intimate with the topic of protein. Whenever someone finds out that I don’t usually eat animal products they’re quick to ask me the age old question, “But, like, how do you get your protein?” My favorite question to ask back? “How much protein do you eat in a day?” Most people have no idea, nor do they know how much they should eat. That’s where I come in!

Protein intake depends on your activity level. Obviously body builders need more protein than couch potatoes. Too much protein for your activity level can make you gain weight, and too little protein for your activity level can starve your muscles. Protein is made up of amino acids, essential and non-essential, that help to build strong muscles.

In order to determine your ideal protein intake, first determine your weight in pounds. Got it? Next, multiply it by your activity level.

If you’re a body builder, looking to gain muscle multiply your weight by .6-.9, depending. This is how many grams of protein you need a day.

If you’re a cardio junkie, meaning most of your exercise is cardiovascular,  multiply your weight by .5-.7. If you’re a long distance, multiple times a week runner stick to .7, if you run a few miles a few times a week stick closer to .5.

If you’re an active adult that doesn’t fall into the two above categories, multiple your weight by .4-.6.

If you’re a lazy bum, multiple your weight by .4.

Want an example? I’m a 140 pound female. On days that I lift weights I try to consume about 80 grams of protein (about 140 x .6) and on days that I don’t, I stick to 70 grams of protein a day (about 140 x .5). I give the ranges because it really depends on each person. Some people need the higher protein, some don’t. I suggest start high and decrease as needed, simply so your muscles don’t suffer while you experiment.

There’s also a misconception that animal protein is the only way to get a lot of protein. This isn’t necessarily true, especially when you compare protein per calories.

1 large egg has 6.7g of protein in it and is about 78 calories, or 8.6 g of protein per 100 calories.

1 cup of chicken has 40.6g of protein for 211 calories, or 19.2g of protein per 100 calories.

1 cup of spinach has .9g of protein for 7 calories, or 12.8g of protein per 100 calories.

½ a cup of tofu has 10.3g of protein for 88 calories, or 11.7g of protein per 100 calories.

24oz of almonds have 6g of protein for 163 calories, or 3.16g of protein per 100 calories.

Imagine you only need 70 grams of protein a day. If you have a spinach salad of 3 cups of spinach, some almonds, a bit of tofu and 2 eggs you have 32.7g of protein in one meal! Adding chicken instead of tofu to this salad puts you at 61g of protein in one meal.

Protein is a seriously misunderstood guy. Knowing something as simple as how many grams you need a day and which foods are protein rich could steer you in the right direction for weight loss, a gain in strength, or even more energy during your run.

This post was originally featured on in October of 2011

What is protein?

What is protein?

Protein is a compound made up of chains of amino acids. In all, there are 22 amino acids. For the sake of humans, 8-9 are “essential” amino acids, meaning amino acids we must get from our diets. The rest of “non-essential,” which we create ourselves using our own sources. Protein is essential for building muscles, repairing tissues, red blood cells, and synthesizing hormones. If we have a deficiency in a certain amino acid it could prevent certain hormones from being synthesized. For example, if you have a diet lacking valine you’ll have a negative hydrogen ion balance which can manifest as insomnia and skin hypersensitivity.

Essential amino acids

This is important for the protein argument. I put 8-9 essential amino acids because tyrosine is essential in only some cases and selenocysteine is unclassified. Otherwise, the list of essential amino acids (with their recommended daily mg per kg amount) is as follows…

Isoleucine – 20mg/kg

Leucine – 39 mg/kg

*Lysine – 30 mg/kg

Methionine – 10.4 mg/kg

Cysteine – 4.1 mg/kg

Phenylalanine + Tyrosine = 25 mg/kg

Threonine – 15 mg/kg

*Tryptophan – 4 mg/kg

Valine – 26 mg/kg

NOTE: mg per kg means the amount of milligrams needed per kilogram of body weight. To figure this out, find your weight in kilograms. For every kilogram of body weight you have, you need 26mg of valine. Got it?

Cool. But how much proteins do I need?

This is a tough question. Some people will send asks saying, “I’m a 14 year old girl, how much protein do I need?” You’re asking the wrong question! What you SHOULD be asking is, “I’m a 14 year old girl who lifts heavy weight 3x a week – how much protein do I need?” This is a better question, because protein intake is more dependent on activity level than anything else.

1. Body builders

Multiply your weight by .6-.9 – that’s how many grams of protein you need a day to build muscle.

2. Cardio junkies

Multiply your weight by .5-.7 – really, though, with cardio you should focus on your carbohydrate intake more than protein, but this depends too! If you’re VERY active with cardio stick with the .7, if you’re a casual runner stick with .5.

3. Active adult

You lift occasionally but aren’t looking to build muscle mass, or you’re more interested in maintaining/toning/etc. Multiply your weight by .4-.6

4. Lazy Bum

Don’t exercise? The idea of exercise makes you want to puke? Multiply your weight by .4.

I hate math – give me an example!

I’m a 140 lb 22 year old female. On days that I lift weights I try to consume about 80 grams of protein a day. On days I don’t lift weights, I stick to 70 grams of protein a day.

That’s a ton of protein! Or is it? I’m confused.

A lot of vegetarians complain that people always ask them how they get their protein. However, if you ever return the question: “How much protein do you eat in a day?” 9 times out of 10 they couldn’t tell you. Hell, most people couldn’t tell you what protein is beyond a superficial understanding of the word. Let’s break down some food choices.

1 large egg has 6.7 g of protein in it

1 cup of spinach has .9 g of protein

1 cup of kidney beans has 13 g of protein

1 cup of apples has 0g of protein

So if in one meal you had 2 eggs, a cup of spinach, a cup of kidney beans and a small apple (weird meal, I know, but hang with me!) you’d have consumed 27.3g of protein. Depending on who you are, that can be up to half a days worth of protein. Protein is dependent on the TYPE and AMOUNT of food you eat.Obviously, if you eat steak 3 times a day you’re going to get more protein than if you ate one apple 3 times a day. However, if you ate 5 cups of spinach 3 times a day you may get more protein than someone who had a 3oz portion of steak. You with me?

But what about that amino acid stuff – I see a lot of “protein” but not a lot of “amino acid.” They’re the same…but why are they labeled differently?

This is a HUGE part of the argument between meat eaters and non-meat eaters about protein! And, sad (happy?) for you this requires its own special post – so tune in next time for “Complete vs. Incomplete Sources of Protein.”

Incomplete vs. Complete Proteins and the Daily Diet

So, previously we talked about protein. What it is, what it does, how it’s made up of amino acids. I kind of left you guys hanging on the whole amino acid thing. I pointed out that protein is made up of many different types of amino acids, and that each amino acid has its own daily requirements for intake. This leads me to a qualifying name for protein sources that has generated a lot of debate between meat eaters and non meat eaters.

Complete vs. incomplete protein sources

A complete source of protein has ALL of the 8 essential amino acids. An incomplete source of protein does not have all of the 8 essential amino acids in it. Makes sense, if you’re eating food for protein purposes you’re going to want to eat something that has all the essential amino acids in it, right? The debate comes from the following fact: animal products are the only products with all 8 essential amino acids. Meat eaters use this as proof that you should eat meat, because only animal products (eggs, chicken, milk, etc.) has all 8 essential amino acids in it. Non-meat eaters aren’t helped out by the fact that their major food stuff is labeled as “incomplete.” So let me delve back into some scenarios that will make this little part of the article a little easier to understand for everyone.

Animal product meal day!

So, we said yesterday that protein intake should depend on your activity level. Let’s have a scenario. Let’s say I’m an 130 lb high school girl that lives a sedentary life style. I spend most of my time in class, after class I go home and watch TV, and occasionally my friends and I are semi-active. 130 x .4 = 52. I should have 52 grams of protein a day. So let’s go through my daily food choices, based off what I personally used to eat in high school.

Breakfast: cereal with milk (let’s say it’s cinnamon toast crunch) – 210 calories, 9.6g protein

Lunch: Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets with sauce, a diet coke and a sugar cookie – 383 calories, 28.9 g protein

After school snack: Apple, Uncrustable PB&J – 275 calories, 6g protein

Dinner: Steak with mashed potatoes, a side of green beans and a glass of milk – 562 calories, 36.8 g of protein

Calorie total: 1,430 calories

Protein total: 81.3g protein

So, for 1,430 calories she received about 1.5x her needed protein intake for the day. Protein that isn’t broken down is turned to fats and sugars. Now, in no way am I saying every girl eats like this, they don’t. I totally ate like this in high school. I am using myself as an example, so if you’re going to hate, hate on my unhealthy life style. What if an athlete ate like this? They would be receiving adequate protein for a high activity level, correct? Moral of the story is that this girl received more protein in a day than was required.

A day in the life of a non-meat eater – for this sake, she’s a vegetarian. I’m going to make her diet the same, but replace Girl #1’s meat with vegetarian options.

Breakfast: cereal with milk (let’s say it’s cinnamon toast crunch) – 210 calories, 9.6g protein

Lunch: A large salad with ranch and cheese, a diet coke and a sugar cookie – 371 calories, 7.9g protein

After school snack: Apple, Uncrustable PB&J – 275 calories, 6g protein

Dinner: Tofu with mashed potatoes, a side of green beans and a glass of milk – 226 calories, 24g of protein

Calorie total: 1,082 calories

Protein total: 47.5g protein

See where the argument becomes blurred? There’s the “meat eaters eat too much protein!” clashing with the “vegetarians don’t get enough!” It’s a constant battle. Let me introduce something much, much more important than either of these: using your brain.

What I eat on days that I lift weight.

I am a 140 lb 22 year old female. On days that I lift weights, this is what my meals look like.

Breakfast: Two pieces of toast with almond butter, 2 eggs: 477 calories, 25g of protein

Lunch: Protein smoothie of almond milk, spinach and bananas, a bagel thin with almond butter: 317 calories, 10g of protein

Dinner: Zaxby’s Chicken Fingers: 323 calories, 35g protein

Snacks: Mountain Dew and almonds – 450 calories, 6g protein

Calories: 1,567 calories

Protein: 76g protein

I consider this a “bad food day” because I ate a lot of stuff I probably shouldn’t have. But this is on a day that I lift. On days I don’t lift?

Breakfast: Bagel thin with sugar free jelly and 2 scrambled egg whites: 142 calories, 9g protein

Lunch: Quinoa “surprise” (quinoa, onions, yellow squash, zucchini, lentils) – 163 calories, 10g protein

Dinner: Boneless, skinless chicken breast, Quaker life cinnamon cereal with almond milk – 240 calories, 31g protein

Snacks: Pistachios – 170 calories, 6g protein

Total calories: 715 calories

Protein: 56g protein

This is fairly typical for me on lazy days where I don’t do anything. Replace the chicken with tofu and you have a 100% vegetarian diet that gets adequate protein with less than adequate calories for daily life. I should be eating 1,200 calories a day MINIMUM, but on this day I literally laid in bed all day and watched movies. I required like no energy.

I’m sick of your stupid meal plans. Teach me something!

It’s possible to get adequate protein as a vegan or vegetarian. It’s possible to get too much protein as a vegan or vegetarian. It’s possible to do this as a meat eater too. This is a long winded approach to what I’d like to call my “take home message of complete vs. incomplete nutrition” – Use your fucking brain. That’s all!

That was rude and useless.

I know, but let’s think of other scenarios where this argument is valid.

“I am allergic to honey. How can I get my daily sugar intake?” Eat other foods with sugar.

“I am allergic to dairy, how can I get my calcium?” Eat other foods with calcium, or take supplements.

There’s nothing wrong with taking supplements. It doesn’t invalidate your life style choice, nor your diet choice. I personally hate certain types of food that are high in vitamin C, so I take vitamin C supplements. Does that mean my taste buds are wrong and I should force vitamin C laden food down my throat? No, it means I should make smart choices. I should use my fucking brain.

Applying this logic to vegetarian and vegan diets using the “incomplete protein source” idea.

Here’s a list of some vegetarian foods that are high in protein –

Tempeh – 1 cup has 41g protein

Seitan – 3 ounces has 31g protein

Soybeans – 1 cup has 29g of protein

Lentils – 1 cup has 18g protein

Black beans – 1 cup has 15g protein

Almonds – 1/4c. has 8g protein

Spinach – 1 cup has 5g protein

So, if you’re getting adequate protein numerically, you should just figure out which amino acid is typically lacking in vegetarian diets. Do you know how to find this? Google. Or  you can refer to my previous post and see that I starred two amino acids – Lysine and Tryptophan.

High in Lysine – vegetarian:

-Yogurt (706 mg/ounce)

High in Lysine – vegan:

-Avocado (186 mg/ounce)

-Potato (190mg/ounce)

-Dried peach (150mg/ounce)

-Corn (210mg/ounce)

-Asparagus (190mg/ounce)

While the non-animal products have lower levels of lysine than the animal products do, the non-animal products are lower calorie. This is where the common vegan saying, “It’s hard to be protein deficit without being calorie deficit.” This just means that people who already eat a mostly plant based diet will have to eat…more plants. Add avocados to your smoothies, or eat some more corn.

Foods high in tryptophan:

-Oat bran (285mg/ounce)

-Seaweed (736mg/ounce)

-Spinach (594mg/ounce)

-Mushrooms (415mg/ounce)

I’m sick of making lists. But this is the same as the one before – eat more plants. Now, if you’re a non-meat eater and you hate vegetables, I’d suggest supplements. Otherwise? Eat more plants.

So…use your fucking brain?

Yes! Just because animal protein is a complete source of protein doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY option! In fact, Part 4 will be all about the pros and cons of different types of protein. That is, which proteins give you the most bang for your buck (most protein per calories). I hope that meat eaters have learned that vegans and vegetarians do, indeed, get adequate protein and that it’s possible to get too much protein on a no animal product diet. Likewise, I hope vegans and vegetarians learned some of the limitations their diet imposes on them, so they need to make smart choices to complement that. Just like not active animal product eaters need to make smart choices about their protein intake.