Experiments in Eating

 Posted by on 27 September 2008 at 3:44 am  Health
Sep 272008

As I mentioned in my post explaining my new diet, my exclusion of grains, sugars, and modern vegetable oils from my diet over the past few months means that I feel consistently good. I rarely feel sluggish, tired, or slow — as I used to do routinely. As a result, when I do feel that way, I notice. And, being the curious kind of person I am, I try to figure out the cause, so that I can avoid making that same mistake in the future. I just don’t enjoy food hangovers.

My goal for this post is to outline my process for identifying foods I should avoid, based on their deleterious effects on me. I’m going to discuss three cases: (1) flour and sugar, (2) oatmeal, and (3) Chipolte. With regard to the particulars, your mileage may vary. While I do think that certain kinds of foods are generally healthy while others are not, individuals differ in their response to foods. Even for one individual, the response to a given food may vary based on other factors in the diet.

Case #1:

Quite soon after my change in diet — back in mid-July — I was able to connect my consumption of large amounts of carbohydrates from sugar and flour to feeling sluggish, even a full day later. Here’s what I reported to Liriodendron of Spark A Synapse at the time:

For quite some time, I’ve been trying to figure out why I often feel sluggish while exercising. The feeling isn’t the same as the light-headed sensation of low blood sugar. (Plus, it often happens even if I’ve eaten a good snack just before exercising.) Instead, the problem is just an inability to really push myself in a workout: I can go at a certain slow pace, but no faster. I can even go at that slow pace for quite some time, but I’m definitely not enjoying myself.

The problem was that I just couldn’t correlate this feeling with anything about my diet or sleep or whatnot. In fact, I couldn’t tell whether I’d be sluggish or not before I started exercising. It would just sometimes happen and sometimes not, seemingly at random — often as much as two to four times per week. It was very frustrating!

Today, it happened again. I was doing 11 minute miles on the rower instead of 9 minute miles. However, this time was remarkable — only because it hasn’t really happened in weeks, during which I’ve been restricting my bad carbs [i.e. eating no sugars and grains]. In particular, it hasn’t happened at all this past week, when I’ve been on a no-bad-carb-whatsoever diet. However, last night at the SuperFROG meeting, I ate some [tortilla] chips, plus two brownies, ice cream, and two madelines over the course of the evening. [Oh, and a margarita.] Yikes! It was a serious bad-carb-fest for me. And today — this evening, in fact — I was sluggish in exercising.

So I suspect that too many bad carbs are the cause of my sluggishness in exercise, but that the effect is often somewhat delayed. That’s why it was hard for me to see any pattern. Perhaps what matters most is what I ate yesterday rather than what I’ve eaten today.

Obviously, I’m going to have to test out this theory a bit more, but I do think that I’m on to something. If so, it’s the most substantial measurable effect that I’ve seen in myself from eliminating bad carbs — but it’s a huge deal for me.

Since then, I’ve further confirmed those initial findings: eating foods with flour and sugar makes me sluggish, often hours and hours later. I’m more sensitive to that sluggish feeling now: I can feel it set in within a few hours of eating, apart from any exercise. However, I suspect that it might peak 12-14 hours after eating the offending food.

Notably, the kind of “bad-carb-fest” in which I indulged that evening in July used to be a regular part of my diet. In fact, I though I’d been pretty restrained in my eating that evening, by my ordinary standards. Normally, I would have done much worse. In the months since then, I’ve eating a few desserts — and by a few, I mean about three. But I’ve never done anything remotely like that “bad-carb-fest.” As a result, I’ve not rowed any more of those awful 11 minute miles either.

Case #2:

For the past few Saturdays, Paul and I enjoyed a breakfast consisting of a bowl of overnight-soaked oatmeal cooked in milk, plus a good helping of delicious nitrate-free bacon. However, I realized that I was feeling sluggish on the weekends as a result — on the day of eating that oatmeal and on Sunday too. So last weekend, I skipped the oatmeal. And wow, I felt fabulous the whole weekend, just like I do throughout the week. I was able to be much more productive as a result. I expect to do the same this weekend — and thereafter.

The lesson is simple: while I could surely tolerate a wee bit of oatmeal, a full serving is just too much for me.

Case #3:

Just this Monday, Paul and I went to Chipotle for dinner. I felt particularly good that day: I’d eaten only lightly, and I had tons of energy. At Chipolte, I got a skinless burrito with double pork, black beans, tomato salsa, corn salsa, cheese, and guacamole. I only ate half of it, along with a large glass of my own raw milk. That’s a dinner I can handle — or so I thought.

In fact, I felt like absolute crap very shortly after eating it — and for hours thereafter. I felt stuffed — in a really unpleasant, bloated kind of way — all evening. (My stomach wasn’t upset, however.) The next morning, I still felt awful. I didn’t want to eat, so I fasted. Around 2 pm, I finally felt normal again, so I ate — and I felt fine.

So what in that meal made me feel that way? Initially, I wondered whether I’d just eaten too much. That’s unlikely, as I can chow down tons of good-quality food like steak and veggies. I’ll just feel full thereafter, not icky. So I decided to test the meal again by eating half of my remaining Chipotle (i.e. 1/4 of the total) and a small glass of milk. Once again, I felt awful for some hours, although not nearly as bad as before.

So then I wondered about the composition of the food. The milk couldn’t be the problem, as I drink that all the time. I’ve been known to have a strange reactions to preservatives, but Chipotle uses fresh, high-quality ingredients prepared in-house, so I probably don’t have too much to worry about on that score. However, according to this handy nutritional calculator, my burrito did have more carbohydrates than I expected:

  • 920 calories
  • 43 g fat
  • 36 g effective carbohydrates
  • 75 g protein

The corn salsa accounted for 19 g of effective carbohydrates. However, I don’t think that was the problem either. Carbohydrates make me sluggish, not bloated and icky. Plus, I have eaten a fair amount of corn this summer, with nothing like those effects. However, I don’t eat beans ordinarily, so that might be an issue. Yet the amount of beans in the whole burrito was pretty negligible.

The problem — I suspect — was the vast quantity of salt in the meal. In part thanks to a question from Daniel, I did notice that my burrito tasted very salty. And based on the nutritional calculator, my whole burrito had 3148 g of sodium. Since a teaspoon of salt is 2300 mg, that means just over 1 1/3 teaspoons of salt in the whole burrito. That’s a shocking amount. I do use salt at home, but because I’m preparing my own foods, all the salt in my foods is salt that I add. Personally, I like my red meats a bit salty. I brine chicken and pork in salt water before cooking but I rinse them thoroughly and I don’t add any additional salt thereafter. And I don’t like much salt on my veggies. However, the critical point is that I would never add anything remotely resembling 1 1/3 teaspoons of salt to a meal. Even a 1/4 teaspoon in a meal would be quite a bit for me, but in eating just half of that burrito, I ate 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt.

Plus, from what I understand, salt intake does cause the body to retain water. That could explain why I felt nasty, bloated, ans sluggish. So salt is a plausible hypothesis in this case.

But, one might ask, why haven’t I noticed this effect before? I can think of two reasons. First, before my change in diet, I might have been acclimated to more salt in my diet, as apparently 77% of an average person’s salt intake comes from processed and prepared foods. In other words, perhaps I’m more sensitive to lots of salt now. Second, given that I routinely felt cruddy in various ways before my change in diet, I simply might not have noticed anything particularly distinctive after eating a high-salt meal like Chipotle’s.

I could test this salt hypothesis by drinking 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt in water with a meal that I know to be otherwise fine for me. However, I’m not eager to do that, given how awful I felt after eating that half of a naked burrito. So instead, I might just watch my salt intake — and notice whether I feel fine or icky after eating more than my usual amount of salt.

Of course, my response to salt — if that is indeed the problem — may be somewhat unique to me. Others may be able to eat my diet, then eat a meal at Chipotle without any problem whatsoever. As I said at the outset, your mileage may vary.

Also, I should mention that — contrary to the proclamations of so many experts — salt does not seem to be any great danger to health in ordinary people. Dr. Michael Eades has a good post on a recent study showing that consuming less salt (i.e. under 2300 mg per day) was correlated with higher mortality from all causes, including heart disease. It begins:

Another what bites the dust? Another one of the shibboleths of “healthy living” that the nutritional establishment has been pounding us over our heads with for decades: the idea that salt is bad for us.

Now, in the wake of the three Woman’s Health Initiative studies showing that fat doesn’t seem to cause heart disease nor cancers or the breast or colon, comes a study from the venerable NHANES II data showing that not only does salt intake (or to be more precise, sodium intake) not cause premature death from heart disease it actually seems to protect against it. And consuming more sodium appears to protect against premature deaths from not just heart disease but from all other causes as well. It’s been a bad couple of weeks for the holier-than-thou crowd.

In particular, the study found:

The researchers set the breakpoint of their data analysis at the 2300 mg of sodium recommended in the nutritional guidelines. After analyzing the nutritional and mortality data on this basis it turned out that those subjects who consumed less than 2300 mg of sodium per day had a 1.37 times increased risk (95% CI 1.03-1.81, P=.033) of dying from heart disease and a 1.28 times increased risk (95% CI 1.1-1.5, P=.003) of dying from all causes as compared to those who consumed more than 2300 mg of sodium per day.

If you’d like to know more, read the whole thing, including the links. Notably, the study was not a randomized, controlled trial, so it shows only correlation not causation.

Before closing out this post, I’d like to make a few general comments:

  • Often, we must train ourselves to be observant of our own internal bodily states. If you’re not eating well, you’ve probably trained yourself to ignore how your body feels. It might require some effort to notice.

  • To determine what particular foods agree with you or not, you have to get yourself to where you’re feeling damn good 95% of the time. Only then will the episodes of yuck become clear and distinct to you. To get to that point, I recommend eating a high-fat, high-protein diet of whole, real foods, without any grains, sugars, and modern vegetable oils. (Of course, ignore that if you have some medical condition.) If that diet doesn’t work for you after a few weeks of really eating it, then try something different.
  • Don’t assume that the last thing you are was the cause of your present ills. As I discovered with flour and sugar, the effects can be surprisingly long-lasting.
  • Be willing to use yourself as a guinea pig. If a food seems to cause problems for you, try it again in various ways. Attempt to pinpoint the “active ingredient” causing you ill. Then you can just avoid that one thing, rather than needlessly depriving yourself of other foods.
  • Read Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories to learn the outlines of a well-grounded and integrated science of nutrition to which you can integrate your own personal experience.
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