Metabolism and Muscle with Dr. Ben Bikman

Today I’m talking to Dr. Ben Bikman, PhD, a professor, researcher, entrepreneur, and author in bioenergetics. (He’s also the founder of HLTH Code, a leading meal replacement supplement.) In his own words, Ben’s research drives at exploring the “contrasting roles of insulin and ketones as key drivers of metabolic function.” Ben is also passionate about fitness, and he’s become a go-to resource and expert for many athletes and institutions hoping to better understand how what we eat drives our body’s responses and adaptations to training. In our conversation, we dive into Ben’s research, along with what data suggests regarding some key functions of these hormones for our bodies as far as hypertrophy, muscle retention, and more.

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend, including the BarBend Podcast, is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site and podcast are not intended for the diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. If you feel like you’re suffering from an injury or illness, please seek out a medical professional.

Dr. Ben Bikman BarBend Podcast

On this episode of The BarBend Podcast, host David Thomas Tao talks to Dr. Ben Bikman about:

  • Dr. Bikman’s research and education background; “you don’t just wake up with a PhD” (01:52)
  • “Stumbling across” research regarding insulin resistance and bioenergetics (05:00)
  • Ben’s personal interest in fitness and how it mixes with his life’s work and goals (09:22)
  • Why Ben feels he has a responsibility to “highlight errors in the consensus” (13:27)
  • Key roles insulin plays in the body (19:30)
  • The role of insulin in protein when it comes to muscle protein synthesis and the defense of muscle protein (insulin isn’t an anabolic hormone at the muscle, but it does defend muscle protein) (20:50)

Relevant links and further reading:


Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

 I was struck by how ridiculous this field is in biomedical science where we are doing so much to get a paper published, a peer-reviewed scientific manuscript and is published in a scientific journal. I thought, “How silly.”

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao. This podcast is presented by


Today I’m talking to Dr. Ben Bikman, PhD, a professor, researcher, entrepreneur and author in bioenergetics. In his own words, Ben’s research drives at exploring the contrasting roles of insulin and ketones as key drivers of metabolic function.


Ben is also passionate about fitness. He’s become a go-to resource and expert for many athletes and institutions hoping to better understand how what we eat drives our body’s responses and adaptations to training.


In our conversation, we dive into Ben’s research, along with what data suggests regarding some key functions of these hormones for our bodies as far as hypertrophy, muscle retention, and more. It’s a great exploration regarding fitness, nutrition, and performance.


Also, I want to take a second to say, we’re incredibly thankful that you listen to this podcast. If you haven’t already, be sure to leave a rating and review of the “BarBend Podcast,” in your app of choice. Now, let’s get to it.


Ben, thanks so much for joining me today. I think something that is important to focus on at the beginning, is your research and education background. You don’t wake up with a PhD and all these research credentials. I know it was very impactful in talking to you before, in getting you to where you are today and the things you’re very passionate about today.


If you don’t mind, share a little bit with us about how you got into this element of research, metabolism and biological sciences.

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

I certainly always been interested in the body. My dad, who largely raised me and my siblings alone. He was always very deliberate, very clear in his desire to make sure we ate real food and that we always took our vitamins. He would literally put our vitamins out on the table every morning as he would make the table and make breakfast for us.


He would put the vitamins in our spoon, almost like something from a movie. We knew we would take our vitamins every morning. I’ve always been interested in the body, involved in sports to the degree that I could in a very small farm town in rural Alberta.


Then, when I got to college, it was a bit of a process like it is with most students to find something they care about, and has the potential to provide for a family someday. That was very important to me. One of the worst pieces of advice we can give young people these days is to do something you love. That’s what you do for a hobby.


What you need to do something you can do well, and that will pay you. I became more and more interested in becoming a professor because of the balance that I saw my professors have. I’d already started coming to the study of the body to physiology, as a major.


Then seeing my professors and then seeing that one of my professors was also an active scientist, that was such a revelation to me. I didn’t know there were still people doing science with regards to the body. It’s shameful to say, I thought we knew everything there was to know. I’m so glad I was wrong.


It was so interesting to see what he did and how cool it was and the balance, as I said that he had between work and family. Then I got a master’s degree in exercise physiology, which is what my undergraduate had been, which is a placeholder.


In the sciences, if you’re getting a master’s degree — and this might apply to other fields as well — I don’t think it’s a shame to admit this or shameful to admit this, but it is a placeholder. It is a degree for people who don’t quite know what they want to do. Some may be offended at that. I think they’re wrong. That’s almost always the case. It certainly was for me.


It was during my master’s degree that I discovered this area of research with regards to inflammation-induced insulin resistance. This was looked at the time as fundamental because it was connecting obesity to type 2 diabetes. This was the birth of this area and at the time it was late ’90s when this work was happening. I stumbled across it in the early 2000s.


That became the trajectory for the rest of my career to this day, during my PhD in bioenergetics, which was a more explicit study of energy use, the way the mitochondria worked, but always with this theme of inflammation and insulin resistance in my postdoctoral work with Duke University was similar.


Then, when I started my own lab as a professor in science 10 years ago, almost to the date, the theme has persistently been mitochondrial function and the way hormones and nutrients play into this overall metabolic regulation.


David TaoDavid Tao

I should say congratulations on the 10-year anniversary. I don’t know if we got it to the date, but that’s always a great milestone.

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

One month ago it was 10 years.

David TaoDavid Tao

We had our BarBend fifth anniversary recently, and I completely missed it. I woke up a week later and I was like, “Wait a minute, we missed it though.” Only half way to the decade mark.


I got to ask. Bioenergetics, it’s a real term and it might be something that a lot of listeners could be hearing for the first time. It literally sounds like something out of a movie. Some alien invasion, and they bring in the bioenergetics expert to figure something out. Do you ever get people who say, “That’s not a real thing.”?

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

More often what happens is people can’t say it. The fact that you can get through that string of syllables flawlessly is impressive.


Unfortunately, bioenergetics as a scientific term really pertaining to biochemistry, has been misapplied or hijacked by pseudoscience, where you have people who will say, “I am a bioenergeticist and I study the chakra, energy pathways in the human, and their correlation to ley lines on the planet.” It’s silly.


It’s these ideas that there’s this vague mysterious energy that moves through this vague mysterious pathway in the body. They will invoke the term bioenergetics to refer to that. Strictly speaking, a bioenergeticist is a scientist who is focused on energy use in a cell. Even that sounds more complicated than it is.


It’s essentially the catabolism of nutrients, so the breaking down of glucose, fats, ketones, lactates, etc. amd the anabolism of other nutrients that that catabolism allows you to do. It’s a process of understanding metabolism, which is the sum of its two parts — the anabolic and catabolic reactions.


That’s all biochemistry. If someone studies bioenergetics, essentially they study nutrient metabolism with a heavy reliance on the mitochondria.

David TaoDavid Tao

I can imagine that it does get a little infuriating if people appropriate this term. This is something that you are literally a doctor of, you’ve done how many…I don’t even want to ask exactly how many years of education of lab experience because it’s so many. Then to see it appropriated by whoever wants to label themselves as that.


You’re a patient person to keep that fury in a little bit. I should ask too because one thing I’ve…We’ve chatted before and we’ve chatted about a number of topics. You’re from Alberta, that’s where my grandmother is from a rural town in Alberta. We go way back in that conversation. I have to ask because I think it is relevant to your interest in physiology, physical activity.


You run in circles with a lot of athletes, a lot of people who are working toward optimizing performance, not just in a day-to-day but in the athletic sphere. You mentioned that your career is what you do for money. What you’re passionate about is what you do as a hobby, and I know that it intersects with the fitness space for you.


Talk a little bit about your passion maybe outside of the day job for fitness, physical activity and how that might fold in to what you do as a bioenergeticist. I think I got that right.

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

You nailed it. You’re a linguist, David, attaboy. My personal interests — that’s a big question — certainly focus on fitness. That does have a personal application. I want to be a very healthy grandpa. That’s my MO. Everything I’m doing right now it is with that end in my mind.


I want to be a healthy grandpa because to me family is everything. I want to keep that really long-term goal in mind, that what am I doing now that might compromise my ability to be healthy involved capable grandpa. My personal interests also involve the dissemination of what I’m learning as a scientist.


This really reached ahead, it was probably five years ago or so, where I was able to step back. That was my halfway point till this point as an independent scientist and professor.


I was struck by how ridiculous this field is in biomedical science, where we are doing so much to get a paper published, a peer-reviewed scientific manuscript published in a scientific journal. I thought, “How silly?” Because only a handful of people will ever read that manuscript.


Even a fraction of those people will cite my work as they do their work. It’ll be an inspiration almost to a small degree for someone else to do something. That’s wonderful, that’s commendable.


At the end of it all, I thought, “This is crazy!” Because I’m in a field of scientists that are studying some of the most vexing problems on the world today. obesity and diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, infertility.


We are the guys that learn and are studying, and finding answers to how metabolic health is impacting these clinical outcomes.


Back to my point, that was when I decided I was going to get involved in social media. It’s going to be completely about sharing scientific insight. There’ll be nothing…no talking about politics. When you are a conservative in academia, you don’t want to talk about politics [laughs] lest you bring down the powers of all your faculty on you.


It wouldn’t be about my family. It wouldn’t be about what I have on my plate at any given moment. It would only be science, scientific insight.


Maybe to wrap this up at the risk of going too long, that’s where it starts to really come back together, where my personal interests are aligning with my professional interests, which is how can my professional pursuit turn into something that has some kind of value to an individual.


One, it could be through me sharing social media content, which I do very liberally and very gladly. Then it also has now started to take the form of how can I translate scientific answers into real-world solutions.


That’s where I’ve really enjoyed venturing into the entrepreneurial realm, sullying myself, as other academics might say, by being involved in the business world or the industry, as we might call it in academia. I defend that completely.


When you think you know something important, I think it’s only logical to want to turn that into something real and practical beyond just a manuscript that’s been published.

David TaoDavid Tao

Do you think you have a responsibility as a practicing and independent scientist to address misinformation, or disinformation, on the platforms where you’re also putting out information about your own research and findings?

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

Yes. That is a complicated thing these days, where many people are applying those terms to things perhaps sometimes inappropriately and sometimes very appropriately. Just strictly speaking, within the realm of nutrition and disease, yeah, I do take it as part of my mission to highlight the errors in the consensus.

David TaoDavid Tao

When you say, “The errors in the…,” when you refer to the consensus, how do you determine what that is? In any industry. I know this is a tough question. I know this is not a binary, this is exactly how you do it, yes or no.


In any industry, it could be health sciences. In strength sports. it could be for weightlifting technique. Sometime the zeitgeist can get caught up in it itself.


 …kind of self-perpetuating. You could call it opinion that becomes perceived as truth. How do you even define what that is in relation to your particular areas of expertise?

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

What a great question. Maybe the most accurate way is to say that the governing entities that are making claims about nutrition, what is the data that they base those claims on? What might be their vested interest in making those claims?


This can range from the government like the Department of Agriculture, for example, or dietary councils within the government that are making the food recommendations for Americans. They’ve gotten it horribly wrong and have since the inception of that governing body telling Americans to avoid fat, and to most especially avoid saturated fat.


That they must be seeking a caloric deficit to maintain good health or caloric balance. I think that is an idea that can never practically be reached. It can never practically be quantified. You simply cannot quantify the actual caloric load you’re going to get into your body. You cannot accurately quantify what the calories are going to do in your body, and how you’re expending them.


You have to account for the energy you’re expending through daily living, through movement, and living, and energy you’re expending through your breath in the form of ketones, or your brown adipose where you’ve higher uncoupling of your mitochondria.


These are all higher-level ideas I’m putting out there just to add some color to what I’m saying. It goes beyond the government, where you have American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society. What they all have in common is this fear of calorie, this fear of saturated fat, and I totally disagree with that.


I’m not saying calories don’t matter. I’m just saying the insistent pursuit of caloric balance is often doomed to fail because the average individual cannot hope to perfectly account for calories in or calories out.


Not that calories don’t have value when it comes to health, but that when people try to doggedly apply that concept of calories in, calories out, they’re almost certainly doomed to fail. I totally disagree with the fear of saturated fat. I think that has only ever been based on deeply problematic evidence, and that there is significant evidence to suggest we’ve got it. That’s completely wrong.


That is something I very much make a deliberate effort to professionally address. I consider that misinformation. I do think it behooves those of us who are capable of reading and interpreting the data and have access to it to share that, that dissenting voice.


It’s almost like we’re trying to, with our shrill voice because we’re one of so few, we need to say, “Yeah, these people might be wrong, and here is why we think that.” I hope that I’m able to do that diplomatically, because if I have to use a shrill voice to offset a thousand other voices, it doesn’t mean I can’t be polite in doing it.

David TaoDavid Tao

[laughs] One thing I know about you is that even when you are dismissing evidence that you find just incorrect or based upon falsehoods, you’re still very polite in the way you do it. I hate to use this analogy, especially given the topic of conversation, but I guess catch more flies with honey than vinegar, although we can get into that sugar content question in a second.


I will say…and we can see each other while we’re recording this, folks are just listening on Fans of the BarBend Podcast. I’m glad you bring up the Department of Agriculture.


I’m glad you bring up some of these governmental frameworks, because one thing I don’t see behind you is the giant food pyramid that you’re constantly referencing.


I think that is a very potent example these days where for years we were hearing a lot of people in the wellness space say, “Hey, maybe this is just not a reasonable basis for anyone’s diet, given the imbalance and the overwhelming insistence on grains and cereals in large serving portions.


These days you criticize a food pyramid, a lot of people, even in mainstream society, will say, “OK. We understand that there seems to have been a movement away from that.”


What are some other common misconceptions? In your opinion, as a researcher, and I will say this, this is just one person’s opinion. You are not speaking for an agency or a larger body here. What are some other, call them mainstream misconceptions, regarding nutrition, energy, expenditure and usage by the body that a lot of us have today in society?

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

That’s great. So, off the top of my head, one I would focus on is our underappreciation of the relevance of the hormone insulin. Earlier we were talking about this caloric paradigm of health and obesity and metabolic-related diseases, which a lot of diseases fall into, including the ones we spoke about minutes ago or at least mentioned.


Insulin tells the body what to do with energy. That’s its theme. There are several ways that insulin has been underappreciated, if not overtly ignored. One of them is the role of insulin in telling the body to store energy, where it is absolutely impossible for the human body to store or gain fat unless the hormone insulin is elevated.


It cannot happen. I know that’s a bold thing I’m saying, but I’m saying it. You cannot make human fat tissue, or any animal actually, expand unless insulin is elevated, full stop. It is absolutely impossible.


Now again, I’m not saying energy load or calorie number doesn’t matter. It is. You have to have energy there, but unless the insulin is up to tell the body to store that energy, it can’t. It just can’t happen.


That’s one thing that I know is very debated, so I’m trying to be very deliberate and cautious in exactly what I’m saying. You can’t make the human body store energy unless insulin is up.


On the lighter side of this — very much of interest I would imagine to the BarBend end audience — would be the role of insulin in protein anabolism in the muscle. That is also very much misunderstood. Insulin does not promote muscle protein synthesis in the muscle. That is not true, but insulin does defend muscle protein. That’s an important distinction.


Rather than considering insulin as an anabolic hormone at the muscle — which it isn’t — it’s more accurate to consider insulin as an anti-catabolic signal at the muscle. It will defend muscle protein.


This has been very well-documented in in vivo studies of living, breathing humans, where they’re spiking up the insulin and detecting that it is in no way promoting an enhanced muscle protein synthesis. It’s been done at the very granular level of individual muscle cells.


When you are incubating muscle cells with the best amino acids, and that’s — at a narrower level we’d say branched-chain amino acids, at an even narrower level we’d say leucine — that is going to promote muscle protein synthesis, just the presence of those amino acids. Insulin does not accelerate that process, but it defends the process.


That’s so important because as people are progressing towards insulin resistance, and the majority of adults in the United States and many many other countries are. In fact, they’re well past that point, the average adult. The muscle is one of the primary tissues that becomes insulin-resistant. That could be why in type 2 diabetes, we noticed this elevation in amino acids in the blood, because it’s coming from the muscle.


Because the muscles become insulin-resistant, insulin can’t defend the muscle protein. Now, the muscle is just experiencing a higher degree of protein catabolism. It’s leaking out its amino acids into the bloodstream, so you’ll have higher levels of amino acids in the blood because insulin…The muscles become insulin-resistant and now we’ve lost the anti-catabolic effect of insulin.


Another kind of bit of a myth or misinformation. One last thing I’ll say, David, to shift the topic, and I won’t go very far with it, is the misunderstanding of the nutrient lactate. People will say lactic acid, which doesn’t exist in mammals. It’s not this protonated form. It’s lactate. It’s in no way contributing to acidemia or acidosis, or the burning of the muscle when it’s intensely working.


It’s lactate. Lactate is a totally unappreciated fuel. The brain will use lactate as a fuel. The other cells with mitochondria, which is virtually every cell in the body, except red blood cells can pull in lactate and burn it in the mitochondria like it would ketones for fuel. Again, the brain uses lactate very well.


The liver takes up most of the lactate to turn it back into glucose through this wonderful biochemical process that’s called the Cori cycle, C-O-R-I. Lactate is a very misunderstood nutrient. It’s maligned, but not fairly.

David TaoDavid Tao

One thing that is very consistent about, and I like how you’re very deliberate in what you say in regard to, and we can talk about you have a book that focuses heavily on the various roles insulin plays in the body.


It can be easy to get caught up in this information, rabbit hole, if you will. I don’t say that in a negative way, I think rabbit hole, it’s like going into a dark corner of the Internet where there are a lot of lies. I mean that in a way of educating oneself, I should clarify.


It’s a little easy to get — at least for me — to get a little fatalistic with this to say, “I’ve eaten this over the course of my lifetime.” Or, to use a very bad analogy, “I had that cookie,” or “This thing like this,” or, “My diet strayed.”


Insulin resistance is something that is variable. It’s something that I know in the content you produce, you are working to educate people on how they can maybe make lifestyle or diet changes that reduce insulin or potentially even reverse some of the insulin resistance they may have undergone.


What are some of those things, and look, everyone is individual. This podcast is not medical advice. I should give that disclaimer. Everyone knows I love disclaimers. Let’s talk about insulin resistance. Is this something that can be improved or addressed over the course of an adult lifespan through dietary and lifestyle changes?

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

100 percent, yes. Insulin resistance, some of your listeners, they might not be overly familiar with it. It is the single most common health disorder in the world, which is why I wrote a book on it, “Why We Get Sick,” anyone can go look it up and get it.


It’s the most common problem. It’s linked to virtually every chronic disease. It matters. It is a combination of two problems that you’ll always get together. One, which is insulin isn’t working as well as some cells of the body. Two, blood insulin levels are higher than they used to. Those together are what we call insulin resistance.


It is entirely a problem, virtually of diet. The food we eat is the culprit or the cure. There are other inputs that come into this other noxious stimuli. They matter, but not as much as diet. They also can’t be manipulated as rapidly and have the stronger impact as dietary changes.


You’d mentioned some of the low-hanging fruit. That is basically the consumption of refined starches and refined oils together, those two together, which is the bulk of all foods people eat because most of the food we eat is coming from bags and boxes with barcodes. That is a wonderful combination to make the body as insulin resistant as possible.


It is incredibly reversible. In fact, I’ll cite myself here. We published a paper about two years ago, maybe three years ago, where we took 11 women — this was in conjunction with a local clinic — 11 women who had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance that’s gone far.


I say type 2 diabetes, what I’m saying is really bad insulin resistance. At the time of their diagnosis, which is when this case study began, the clinical visit was, you can leave the office with a prescription for medications, or you can leave with a prescription to change your diet and adopt a low carbohydrate, high fat, high protein diet.


That was the simplest advice, no calorie counting, no fasting, no starvation. It was low-carb, high fat, high protein.


In 90 days, David, these women in 90 days when they reported back, every single one of them had a complete reversal in every clinical symptom of type 2 diabetes. Essentially in 90 days, they did not have type 2 diabetes anymore by any clinical definition, not a single pill popped, not a single drug injected, it was just diet.


Someone listening to this, if they are little overweight, they have high blood pressure, or they have infertility, erectile dysfunction in a guy or polycystic ovary syndrome in a woman, all of these are classic and strong evidence of insulin resistance, you have every reason to be hopeful.


Literally within weeks, you can undo years of insulin resistance by changing your diet. Now easier said than done because when it comes to diet, we’re talking about habits and in some instances, I may even say addictions, with food and habits with regards to foods. It’s an easy idea. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to implement.


Controlling the carbs to focus on fruits and vegetables and cutting out the refined grains and other starches and sugars and then being very liberal with proteins and fats, especially from animal sources and then from fruit sources when it comes with the fats, which is avocados, olives and coconuts.

David TaoDavid Tao

Excellent. I feel we’re only hitting the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the research you’ve done, the content you put out, and we are. You put out an immense amount of content. Your book is one I would recommend a lot of people look into. We’ll have information about how to find that in the podcast description and on the accompanying article.


Just so folks also know if they’re listening in, and they’re not going to that podcast page, so they can’t miss it, where are the best places for people to follow along with your research, the content you’re putting out and also, at the end of that, restate the title of your book, so it’s burned in people’s memory? [laughs]

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

Thanks again, David. You guys, I am so impressed with the content you guys are putting out. I’m delighted to participate. People can connect with me and see what I’m doing on social media is one way. That’s mostly through Instagram, nowadays. I used to be more involved in Twitter and find Twitter to be an increasingly uncomfortable place.

David TaoDavid Tao

You’re not the first guest to say that, so definitely yeah.

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

It’s disappointing though. It’s such a shame that trend is happening. Instagram, people can find me there @BenBikmanPhD. Bikman is B-I-K-M-A-N and no C, B-I-K-M-A-N. Then, I mentioned the book we both did, “Why We Get Sick.” That’s for sale anywhere books are sold, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, anywhere and in some certain even retailers, actual stores will carry it as well.

David TaoDavid Tao

Wait, those still exist, bookstores?

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

Yeah, I know. Not many but there’s some of them carry it as well, Why We Get Sick. It’s basically a primer on insulin resistance, what it is, why it matters, where it comes from and what to do about it. Then, I mentioned my entrepreneurial efforts, and so pardon the plug there.


One of them is an online coaching platform. That’s Insulin IQ. Then the other, which is the one I’m more intimately involved with is HLTH Code. People can go to that website at gethlth and health is spelled, H-L-T-H. We cut the vowels out to make it a little more brief, H-L-T-H,


People can learn more about a low-carb meal replacement shake that I designed and I’m working in this business with a couple of my older brothers. It’s a small little family business. Regularly, I’m contributing blog content to that as well that people can read about.


One recent one was proteins and different quality of proteins, animal versus plant proteins, and where people tend to get that wrong. That’s it, the Instagram, my book, and then those two are my entrepreneurial pursuits.

David TaoDavid Tao

I’m glad you’re plugged because the worst thing we can have the podcast guest who doesn’t want to plug at the end.


That’s the whole point of the end of these episodes, so folks can learn more and follow along. They might have liked what you said, and they’re like, “I want to dive in.” I do appreciate that. There’s absolutely no shame in doing that. That’s the point.


Ben, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s always a pleasure. I do appreciate you taking the time.


I know you’re busy on the entrepreneurial side, on the research side, and also you’re an active professor, that takes some time as well. I do appreciate it.

Dr. Ben BikmanDr. Ben Bikman

My pleasure, David. This was a great time well spent. Thank you.