Ben Bikman remembers when the light went on.
He was pursuing a doctorate at East Carolina University in nutrient biochemistry. His research included the study of two groups of rodents that were being fed the exact same amount of calories. But only one of the groups was given artificially increased levels of insulin, the hormone that controls glucose, or blood sugar.
When they weighed the rodents at the conclusion of the study, both groups weighed the same. But those injected with insulin had much more body fat and less lean mass.
In dietary vernacular, they were obese.
Did that make sense? “Not if you adhered to the pure laws of thermodynamics that say obesity is clearly a matter of caloric excess,” says Bikman, “If that’s true, then what happened should be impossible.”
But it did happen, and “I couldn’t unsee it,” says Bikman. “I knew at that moment that what I thought I’d known — that obesity and the metabolic problems that follow it are purely the consequence of a caloric imbalance — was inaccurate.
His view on obesity became “while calorie numbers matter, hormones matter more.”
Bikman’s path was set. A three-year fellowship in Asia at the Duke National University of Singapore only reconfirmed his findings: the key to containing obesity, and thus the myriad diseases it causes — including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, migraine headaches, erectile dysfunction, Alzheimer’s and more — is insulin.
Or more precisely: insulin resistance. When the food we take into our bodies overworks the hormone to the point it can’t effectively do its job, that’s when the trouble starts.
And what’s the best way to control insulin resistance?
The answer is not with drugs and doctor visits, says Bikman, but by staying away from foods that make insulin work overtime. Chiefly that means carbohydrates — all the chips, pastries, bread, pasta and other starches that make up such a big part of a 21st century diet.
The list of “bad carbs” is long — it includes “basically anything that comes in a package with a bar code” — but avoid those foods and your body’s insulin factory will feel like it’s on vacation in Aruba.
On the plus side, you are free to eat all the protein and fat you want.
That’s the gospel Bikman has been teaching at BYU since joining the faculty there in 2011.
If you call it a crusade, he won’t mind, because that’s what he calls it.
“It became a crusade when I became a professor and realized my primary assignment is to teach students studying to be medical practitioners — nurses and physicians. I realized I have an opportunity to help them learn how insulin resistance works and its relevance in chronic disease. Rather than just prescribing hypertension medication (when they’re practicing), I hope they’ll remember my class and say, ‘Hey, let’s improve your insulin resistance.’”
Beyond that, he wants the world to know.
Painfully aware that much of his published scholarly research would be read only by other scholars, in 2016 he dipped his toe into social media by doing a few YouTube videos and appearing on podcasts.
He had no idea the tsunami he was about to launch.
It turned out that in a world where Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, et al., are the leading causes of misery and death, there were plenty who wanted to hear what he had to say. In the past six years his videos have received millions of views, leading to invitations to speak about insulin resistance literally around the world.
One of those invitations came right here at home when BYU in 2018 asked Bikman to address the entire student body in its weekly forum. His speech, “The Plagues of Prosperity,” has since become a long-running hit on YouTube.
In that speech, Bikman pokes fun, and a finger, at the Latter-day Saint culture he is immersed in. Noting that studies show the Latter-day Saint community is the most obese and most diabetic of any religious group in the state, he said the following:
“How often do we gather surrounding a table filled with ice cream and brownies and offer a prayer in gratitude, including a supplication that the food bless us with health and strength? While I believe Heavenly Father has a sense of humor, this may be pushing it too far.”
Is he seeing progress? For one thing, he’s stopped answering his office phone because so many people who’ve seen his speeches, heard his podcasts, read his book (“Why We Get Sick”), or gone to his website and tried his meal-replacement shakes (HLTH Code, gethlth.com) call to tell him how much it’s helped.
For another, after years of resisting acknowledging the efficacy of low-carb diets, the American Diabetes Association officially stated in 2020 that a low-carb diet can reduce glucose levels in a diabetic.
And then there’s the study he and colleagues recently completed in association with a health clinic in Utah Valley. The study involved 11 middle-age women who had just been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
The women were given a choice: One, leave the office with a prescription for diabetes drugs that in reality they would take in ever-increasing doses the rest of their lives. Or two, go on a strict low-carb, high-protein and fat diet.
All 11 chose option two. Within 90 days “their average glucose level had gone from the diabetic range to normal. Not only had they reversed diabetes but they had significant weight loss and improvement in blood pressure.
“The food we eat is either the culprit or the cure,” says BYU’s resident guru of insulin resistance, “it’s either making us sick or it’s making us better.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly identified Ben Bikman’s book as “How We Get Sick.” The correct title is “Why We Get Sick.” Also, a photo caption misidentified Bikman as an assistant professor. He is an associate professor.