My Experiments with Sugar
I am a serial quitter. Let me explain.
When it comes to the matter of health, I have serviced my OCD to quit one bad habit after another. For instance, I quit drinking 15 years back, and then smoking. I replaced the high of smoking with caffeine kick. And then, on a cold December morning three years back, I abandoned coffee also. This January, I quit black tea and all energy drinks. Now I survive my mornings on tepid peppermint infusion, or if I am unusually groggy, with a spoon of unprocessed cocoa in hot water. Over the years, I have also quit cakes, which I loved, most processed foods such as pizza and pasta, cola, and most fried stuff.
The quitting streak stems from the day when I decided to lose weight. I was obese and needed to do something to get back in shape. The only physical activity I could pick up was running, for it was solitary and I didn't get bored in my own company running kilometres after kilometres. Popular behavioural theories explain that one positive change usually lead to another, and then to another. That's why a journey towards becoming a healthier self is usually recommended through baby steps, for instance, starting by cooking at home, or going for long walks.
I have been on this journey for the last 15 years, and it still is very much on. My elementary education on nutrition comes from talking to nutritionists, like-minded fitness enthusiasts, and by reading published studies. Now, I imagined food science to be relatively stable, perhaps not as anchored as Newtonian physics has been for real life applications, but still well-built enough to rely on for setting dietary rules.
I soon discovered how misplaced my assumption was. Food science is a dynamic research field, so ever-evolving that it has almost become unreliable. Consider this: there is a villain in every nutrition study. And worse still, it keeps changing. For instance, fats, especially saturated fats, were once regarded as the chief offender for everything ranging from heart diseases to obesity. I quit eating ghee and butter when I heard that, and also nuts, which I relished. Later studies suggested that fats may not cause heart disease or ironically, may even be good for the heart. I picked up nuts again, and thank God for that! Then the focus shifted to carbohydrates. They cause obesity, we were told. Gradually, I cut down rice and switched from processed to whole flour, good old atta.
Now the most recent research claims that we got it all wrong previously, it’s the sugar that’s to blame for all our ills. Our bodies are not made to handle sugar, for as far as food goes, they are a recent innovation. We get addicted to sugary stuff, and the chemicals that release in our brains in response are similar to how the ones released on taking cocaine. Importantly though is the fact that sustained level of high blood sugars can cause organ damage, and may lead to strokes and heart attacks in long term. This sounded scary.
Now, I am not an expert in food science. I am a normal human being, trying to get healthy and remain so. So when I see these studies coming from well-recognised university labs, I tend to take them seriously. I took it to heart that I needed to cut down my sugar intake. Fine enough, so no sugar in tea. I cultivated a taste for bitterness. Let’s cut down ice-cream also (I can never eliminate it completely, not till the time there’s summer!). Juice packs were returned unopened.
The more I read about sugar, more surprises kept popping up. There is a high likelihood that any packaged food off the supermarket shelf — biscuits, chips, yoghurt — have some added sugar. Even the breakfast cereals are sugar delivery vehicles.
On learning this, I did what I am really good at. I quit buying crackers and chips, and eating cereals in breakfast. I replaced cereals with oats, a supposedly healthier choice. Then I came across another story on how even oats have added sugar. That news broke me. Now imagine yourself in my position for a moment. I am a vegetarian living in Sweden where vegetarian options are anyway limited. Over that, I prefer eating a heavy breakfast that can carry me for most of the day. Now I cannot have bread or cereals or oats for breakfast for they are sugar loaded. Without coffee, my breakfast was anyway miserable. Now with all these additional restrictions, the only option seemed like quitting breakfast all together. For once, I felt I was better illiterate on this nutrition stuff.
But I wasn't willing to give in yet. I decided to measure how food really impacts me personally. While there are general theories and studies on food and their glycaemic indices (a figure representing the relative ability of a carbohydrate food to increase the level of glucose in the blood), it’s also a known fact that everyone does not react to the same food items in the same manner. Also, the body’s ability to process sugar, via releasing insulin, changes with age. Given all these unknowns, I simply needed to know how my body responds to sugar before mindlessly deciding to remove one item after another from my diet.
So I designed a DIY experiment. I bought a continuous blood glucose sensor and stuck it up on my arm for two weeks. My wife thought this time I had gone a step too far, but knowing my uncontrollable obsessiveness to experiment, she just rolled her eyes. For two weeks, I measured every food I ate, the resulting glucose in my body, and how long the glucose took to return to normal level after eating. On the way, I isolated each food item (for instance, a banana, or spoonful of plain rice) and measured its impact independently. Here is what I found out.
(I reiterate that I am not a medical doctor, and I am simply curious about this stuff. So please do not take inspirations from my findings to change your food habits.)
Invariably, I start my day with a glass of lukewarm water with lemon and a teaspoon of honey. At first, I was surprised that the blood glucose level shot up immediately[i]. But I shouldn’t have been. Honey is pure sugar, and the peak was expected. The peak subsided within 45 minutes, the time I take to shower and meditate in the morning. Interestingly though, this peak was the highest that I would witness throughout the day, on most days. Essentially, I was starting my day on a sugar rush. But then, honey also has fantastic anti-inflammation properties so I decided to keep it in the diet.
Now I wanted to test the impact of cereals against oats for breakfast. Breakfast did cause my blood glucose to rise up and fall in a short time, whereas oats led to a more stunted peak that tapered on gradually for next few hours. Now I was cooking natural oats, and not buying pre-packed oatmeal that tend to have added sugar. I decided to continue with oats, for it kept my energy sustained for a longer duration. In general, I noticed that fruits (banana and apple, sometimes pear) did not lead to a noticeable high; protein shake did not either (I drink a low sugar version, but not all protein shakes are low in sugar), whole milk or lactose free milk didn’t show any difference, and cottage cheese, my favourite snack, did not even cause a blip on the blood glucose trend line. So far so good!
Then I began to study the impact of lunch and dinner. I usually eat Indian food, mostly dal and vegetables with rice. With this food, the peaks were more noticeable, and expectedly so, for these meals tend to be carbohydrate rich and are processed into sugar during digestion. I was surprised though how soon after the meal the glucose in the body increases, an indicant that the body is a really fast in processing food. But the glucose level returned to normal within two hours, if not earlier. In one experiment, I added ghee to the rice (white rice has high glycaemic index), and discovered that the glucose peak truncated considerably. What was happening here was that fat (ghee) added to food – rice, roti, dosa, idly, paratha – lowers the glycaemic index of these carbohydrate dense foods. After noticing this, I began to add ghee to my diet.
Yet another interesting thing I noticed was my body’s reaction to food on days when I rested well, against more stressful days. Amazingly, on days when I had not slept much and was rushing from one meeting to another, my glucose levels looked like a mix of irregularly shaped mountains and valleys. While on the days when I slept well and took it easy, like on weekends, my glucose profile followed more or less a steady course. Can stress cause glucose levels to fluctuate that much, I wondered. May be we need a study to explore a possible correlation.
Exercise mostly caused the glucose to plummet to more natural levels. Whether I lifted weights or ran, the glucose level tended to come down in both cases.
After my two weeks of experimentation, I took off the sensor. In these two weeks, I learnt that while it is okay to be aware of what foods spike blood glucose, the body also has inherent mechanism to normalise the glucose through insulin. I don’t have to avoid all sugar (for instance, honey), but yes it makes sense to not overdo processed and sugary foods. I could feel the impact of glucose spikes and crashes on my body. With consistent glucose level, I was more energetic, and felt less hungry in between meals. I also realise that certain Indian foods habits have good sense behind them. For example, the practice of adding ghee to carbohydrate rich food is a good proposition.
On the whole, the body hack gave me a good sense into how my body operates; what should I eat more and what should I avoid. Finally, I had managed to put my OCD to some good use.
[i] For a normal person, a blood glucose reading between 4.0 to 6.0 mmol/L (72 to 108 mg/dL) when fasting, and up to 7.8 mmol/L (140 mg/dL) two hours after eating, is considered okay.