In my inaugural venture with self-experimentation, I (reluctantly) attempted to alter a long-held dietary bad habits.
Did I succeed? Have I relapsed? Was I cranky?
EXPERIMENT: LIMITING SUGAR
I love a good oatmeal raisin cookie. Or cake with lots of icing. Or Lucky Charms. As long as I can remember, I’ve had a sweet tooth. Eggs for breakfast? No thanks, I’ll have a danish. Skipping dessert occurred with the frequency of a solar eclipse.
A more recent bad habit was delaying a sweet treat until after my son was in bed—usually around 8:30 p.m. You know how kids worry their parents are having a party after bedtime? My son would have been devastated to find out that, more often than not, it was true.
About 5 years ago, I gradually eliminated my intake of sugary beverages; now all I drink is water, tea, coffee, and booze. But could I take the next step and eliminate the sweets?
First, let’s explore the reasons why, as Frankenstein’s monster would say…
Sugar, specifically refined sugar, is the new bad boy in the nutrition world. Some parents react to high fructose corn syrup like you are feeding their children a bag o’ glass. I don’t think anyone (apart from an unscrupulous Domino executive) would argue that lots of sugar is good for you, and most recent research suggests it may be very, very bad for you.
Sugar is a nonspecific term encompassing many different substances we eat. Sugar’s most familiar form is “white sugar,” or sucrose, which is a disaccharide (two sugars) composed of one molecule of glucose attached to one molecule of fructose. Glucose and fructose are monosaccharides—the most simple sugar molecules. High fructose corn syrup, i.e. poison goo, contains glucose and fructose in roughly equal measure.
Most recommendations suggest limiting added sugar to 25 grams, or 6 teaspoons, per day (I’ll talk more about “added” sugar in a sec). Why? Diets high in these sugars have been linked to many chronic health conditions, including:
- Heart disease
- Liver disease, particular fatty liver
- Some cancers
- Alzheimer’s dementia
- Premature aging
Consider the death, suffering, and cost of these conditions and their complications. Still want that cookie?
Some make a distinction between “natural” sugar and “added” sugar, with natural sugar contained in fruits and vegetables and added sugar a refined substance later added to foods. This is a bit deceiving. First, all sugar is technically “natural,” but natural doesn’t always mean healthy (um, cyanide is natural). Second, the underlying sugar molecules in natural and added sugars are the same; it’s the mechanism of delivery that is different, and makes the difference.
This mechanism is related to the concept of glycemic index, a measure of how quickly sugars and carbs raise your blood sugar after ingestion. Foods with a high glycemic index—e.g. sodas, juices, and sweets—cause a steep spike in blood sugar followed by a rapid decline, and those with a low glycemic index—e.g. fruits, veggies, beans, and nuts—cause a more gradual, steady rise.
Low glycemic index foods result in a more gradual blood sugar rise by two mechanisms: their sugars are contained within cells, which must first be digested by the body to free the sugar; and they are eaten along with indigestible fiber, which helps you feel fuller and eat more slowly.
Why are spikes in blood sugar (caused by high glycemic index foods) a problem? Rapid fluctuations in blood sugar seem to be an independent risk factor in the development of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
As a secondary effect of cutting out sweet, post-bedtime indulgences, my last bite of food in the evening was around 6:30 p.m., and my first bite in the morning around 7:00 a.m. Without additional effort, I was limiting the daily window in which I ate—known as time-restricted eating.
Evidence for the health benefits of time-restricted eating is weaker than that for sugar restriction. Mouse studies have shown that time-restricted diets—compared to an equivalent-calorie diet in which mice could eat any time of day—result in less obesity, better blood sugar control, and decreased inflammation. Early research in humans suggest similar effects, but large studies have yet to be performed.
Materials and methods
For the past 4 weeks, I have made the following two changes in my diet:
- Significantly limit added sugar.
- Eating “real” rather than processed food was my first-line defense against extra sugar. Fruits, veggies, meat, dairy, or anything else I could find in nature.
- Honey—a staple of my prior breakfasts—is mostly glucose and fructose, so it was out.
- Before eating something (gasp) processed, I scoured the ingredients. I was vaguely aware that many products contain added sugar, but still stunned by its ubiquitousness. Many breads and buns, for example, contain sugar.
- I allowed myself small volumes of ketchup and mustard for dippin’. A man has to live.
- Once per week I was permitted a “cheat dessert,” which I ate soon after dinner.
- Completely restrict all food between dinner and breakfast.
- I drank water and did not eat the toothpaste 🙂
That’s about it. I tried to keep everything else in my life, including my exercise routine, unchanged.
First, a few observations.
- Social pressure to eat dessert can be powerful, especially with homemade strawberry rhubarb pie this time of year.
- My family and friends know I am a sucker for sweets, so I was forced to explain my experiment to avoid confusion and offense. As a result, many people knew I was doing it, which increased the pressure to stick with it. Making my plans public helped me resist a few strong cravings I experienced near the beginning.
- During the first week or so, I had headaches at the base of my skull—especially during vigorous exercise. I’ve never had headaches like this before, and it would be quite a coincidence if they were completely unrelated to my new diet. I’m not sure exactly why they occurred, but they eventually subsided.
- On some evenings I had an extra beer or glass of wine in lieu of dessert. Maybe not the greatest substitute, but it worked.
The spare tire: bane of the aging male. Any ounce of weight I gain accumulates just above the pants line. One short-term goal of this exercise, which I’m happy to say I accomplished, was to let some “air” out of mine.
- 5/9/17: 160.3 lbs
- 6/9/17: 155.7 lbs
- Waist (belt line) and spare tire (belly button level)
- 5/9/17: Waist 34.25″, spare tire 35.0″
- 6/9/17: Waist 33.25″, spare tire 33.5″
I generally suck at noticing how a given pattern of eating or drinking affects my mental state, so I made a special effort to monitor this.
First thing in the morning, I felt sharper and less groggy, even if I had a relatively poor night’s sleep. During week one, a close outside observer (hi sweetie) noted that I was slightly more prone to irritation and annoyance, but I returned to my baseline level for the remainder of the experiment. Regardless, my mood did maintain a more even keel throughout the course of the day, which made logical sense given the (presumed) steadier blood sugar levels.
Could some or all of this have been a placebo effect? Sure, but a placebo effect is still a real effect, so I’ll take it.
In a telling encounter near the end of the experiment, an oncologist colleague brought me cookies for helping him with a few cases. I graciously accepted and placed them on my desk, and noticed that the urge to take a bite was essentially nonexistent. At the end of the day, I took them home for my son, and gave myself an internal high-five.
Do I still like cake?
In an ironic celebration to end the experiment, I ate a huge slice of cake with thick, creamy icing. Apparently some individuals who eliminate sugar find desserts much too sweet, but not me. It was delicious. However, about 15 minutes later I felt mentally fuzzy, akin to the unpleasant buzz of too much caffeine. To me, it was pretty clear I was more sensitized to sugar than I had been a month prior.
Will I go back to my old habits? I highly doubt it. The modest but welcome physical and mental changes I experienced are worth the sacrifice of a cookie here and ice cream there. I plan to stick with my current sugar regimen for the foreseeable future.
What to you think? Have you tried any specific changes to your diet?