For many of us, too much sugar is a bad thing, and ditto for processed carbs, like bread, pasta, and rice, which are similar to sugar in terms of how quickly they digest and how much glucose they dump into the bloodstream, with unhealthy consequences.
So the question is, if sugar and processed carbs aren’t healthful, why would you ever eat them?
Well, it’s easy to rationalize. We crave variety in our diet. Rather than taking an extremist stand, we should”seek moderation in all things.” And, of course, sugar and carbs taste great.
But here’s the real answer: in addition to being cheap and ubiquitous, there are reasons to suspect that sugar and processed carbs are addictive.
That’s why the modern food industrial complex stuffs its products with sugar and carbs. So does your favorite neighborhood restaurant. Family and friends delight in serving you the unhealthy substances that they themselves may be addicted to. In the battle to eat healthfully, we’re on our own.
Over the years, I’ve cut back significantly on the sugar and processed carbs in my diet. It’s been a long journey and a bit of a battle. But “significantly” isn’t the same as “totally,” and so I’m faced with my own question: why would I eat any of this stuff?
One day a few weeks ago, feeling in the mood to pick a fight, I decided to embark on an experiment. The goal would be to cut out fully 100% of the processed carbs from my diet for a period of one week. It would be interesting to see how hard this would be.
But first some background. There are many ways in which food is processed, and there’s nothing wrong with this, except to the extent that processing makes it easier to digest large quantities of carbohydrates quickly. The problem is, these carbohydrates show up as a spike in blood glucose, to which the body responds by secreting insulin, which clears the glucose from the blood and stores it as fat, but at the same time suspends the body’s ability to burn fat as a source of energy, leaving one soon hungry again, and perpetuating a cycle of constant eating. Over time, this cycle may contribute to insulin resistance, obesity, diabetes, fatty liver disease, heart disease, and possibly cancer and dementia.
Small particles of food are easier to digest than large chunks, which is why foods made from flour (ground up grains) tend to have high glycemic loads (the measure of how much glucose shows up in the bloodstream over a period of time). Processing can also increase the glycemic load when it destroys fiber or extracts water, which is why eating jelly and jam will spike your blood glucose levels much faster and farther than raw fruit. And not to mention, many processed foods contain added sugar.
That’s the scientific theory, but speaking just for myself, I have another reason for avoiding sugar and processed carbs. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found my body can’t tolerate the stuff. Starting about ten years ago, I began to notice:
- At dinner, the spaghetti was so good, I couldn’t help but have seconds and thirds, and thirty minutes later, I’d be asleep on the couch. Pancakes for breakfast would also knock me out.
- Most days at work, my productivity would slump by mid-afternoon; to keep going, I’d snack on a bag of Skittles or sometimes two.
- School functions in the early evening were an ordeal: arriving without dinner, I’d be hungry to the point of rage.
- For a two-hour drive I’d need a bag of candy and a Coke, just to keep alert. Indeed, staying awake while driving was always a problem.
- I’d panic at the thought of getting on a long airplane flight without the chance to buy food; how was I supposed to survive three hours on a bag of peanuts?
- The wake-up call came around age 40, when I could no longer eat the cupcakes passed out at office birthday parties, without immediately feeling ill from the rush of sugar.
It was too bad about those cupcakes, because I have a huge sweet tooth. When I see studies on the addictive qualities of sugar and carbs, I can relate. I’ve experienced how a chocolate croissant can lurk in your thoughts for days. How a bowl of M&Ms in the office pantry can seemingly exert a gravitational pull. How addiction mobilizes the brain’s ability to rationalize bad decisions with all those arguments for “moderation” and “variety.”
Over the last few years, I’ve come a long ways in terms of avoiding highly glycemic foodstuffs. But, if I had stabbed the sugar dragon in the torso, now it was time to twist the blade.
The experiment required keeping a diary of food and drink for seven days. Here’s what I ate:
- Most days, breakfast consisted of a bag of mixed nuts (almonds and cashews), in some cases with a piece of fruit (apple, banana, or clementine).
- Most lunches consisted of salad from a local deli where you choose the ingredients. I picked lots of vegetables, included high fat items (hard-boiled egg, bacon, olive oil), avoided sugary salad dressing (unfortunately this includes balsamic vinegar, which is made from grape juice), and declined the bread and cup of lemonade that comes free with the salad.
- On Friday, I met a friend for lunch at a Japanese restaurant. To avoid rice, I ordered sashimi instead of sushi, and told them not to bring the bowl of rice that would otherwise accompany the meal (it’s hard not to eat it when it’s sitting there).
- Dinners at home consisted of meat and vegetables. My wife is an excellent cook and takes the family’s nourishment very seriously.
- During the week, I ate a couple of hamburgers, ordering them without the bun (a hamburger bun has a glycemic load as high as a bowl of Raisin Bran or a Snickers bar).
Unfortunately, a small quantity of processed carbs did sneak into my diet, in the form of french fries that accompanied the burgers. Previously I had looked at these as vegetables, since they are presumably made from real potatoes. But after the burger meals, I felt a little sleepy. Upon doing some research, I discovered that potatoes have very high glycemic loads, whether fried, baked, or mashed (about the same as the hamburger bun). Lesson learned: next time, I’ll look for something else on the menu.
(Of note, the week-long experiment also included a 24-hour fast between Friday and Saturday dinner, and this despite a heavy load of training that included a 13-mile trail run Saturday morning. I periodically undertake fasts in order to develop my body’s ability to burn fat, not only for general health, but also for long-distance racing. I think this helps: a few weeks later, I ran a 50-mile race without consuming any calories until mile 36.)
The experiment over, I was happy with the results. If it wasn’t 100%, I figure I cut out 99% of the processed carbs from my diet during this seven-day period.
I felt like I’d finally killed the monster.
The only problem is, the sugar dragon never really dies for good. Just like in a horror movie, an eyelid slowly opens and then the beast is back alive — and probably just when you’ve let down your guard. If that happens, the fight will go on, and the seven-day experiment will be a great weapon with which to rejoin the fray.