Diet and body composition: 11 key take home points

The International Society of Sports Nutrition just released a position stand that reviewed the literature available regarding diet and body composition. You can read it here.  For those who want it broken down into more simple terms, I’ve distilled it somewhat into 11 key take home points. While much of this draws on literature from strength and power athletes, it is definitely applicable to the general audience too, given that resistance-based training is one of the best things you can do to support your health and body composition goals.

  1. There is a vast multitude of diets and within these, several subtypes of diet. Low fat, low carb, higher protein, Mediterranean, low calorie… and these will all work work to reduce body fat given the right conditions. As a practitioner, we need to be familiar of the evidence supporting each diet type to make informed recommendations to the people we interact with, both at an individual and population level. As someone who is interested in losing body fat, know that no ONE diet is going to suit everyone, and if you’re trying to follow something because your mate is too, but you’re not seeing the results, then potentially it’s not the right plan for you. Seems simple when I write it down – but I think important to remind you.
  2. All body composition assessment methods have strengths and limitations. It’s good to bear in mind the limitations of using just scales as the only indicator, as this doesn’t account for fat mass loss. I’ve had numerous clients basically freak out that they have gained a kilogram overnight because they’ve eaten something high in carbs (causing your body to hold water) or they have done a hard training session (inflamed tissue). It is impossible to gain kilo of fat over a week, let alone a night, but the obsession with scales can make even the most rational person a little … less rational. Thus, if you use the scales, then think about how this makes you feel. And do it at the same time each week, on waking, after you go to the bathroom – etc. IE try to make it consistent. Ditto re: skinfolds – choose a practitioner who is skilled and stick to the same person so any errors are at least consistent errors.
  3. While it’s not about ‘calories in, calories out’, as that is far too simplistic, we do need to create a deficit in calories to drop body fat. Don’t freak out by the next bit of (evidence-backed, science-informed) information: The more fat you’ve got stored, the quicker you can lose this body fat without losing too much muscle mass by creating a large calorie deficit. The leaner an individual is, it is better if the caloric deficit isn’t as dramatic, to help preserve muscle mass. We can use calorie cycling to do this (ie higher calories for some days, lower for others across the course of 7-14 days, such as the 5:2 approach), or a consistently lower calorie approach, whatever fits in with the individual and their adherence. This study found that working on a weekly reduction of 0.7% of body weight better than 1.4% for preservation of lean muscle tissue.
  4. A wide range of dietary approaches (low-fat to low-carbohydrate/ketogenic, and all points between) can be similarly effective for improving body composition, and this allows flexibility with programme design, which is great – again, there is no one right approach for everyone. AND there is no one approach that will suit the same individual all the time – context, physical activity, stress, budget etc will all affect the suitability of an eating style that will improve body composition. This in part could explain why Weight Watchers, which helped you drop weight in the past, is not working now – regardless of how many points you are under at the end of the day/week. Being flexible rather than dogmatic will go a long way to finding a plan that suits you. I will also add, however, that something based on minimally processed food contains more nutrients – this will nourish your body and provide nutrients to ensure metabolism, brain and gut health are optimised while shifting excess body fat.
  5. When protein amounts are matched in the diet, there doesn’t appear to be an approach that reports a meaningful reduction of fat when we look at different macronutrient composition. All are as effective as each other – it’s sustainability which is the factor to consider. If an individual is insulin sensitive, research shows they are going to be able to lose weight on a moderate carbohydrate diet and potentially perform better on that than a lower carbohydrate diet. The reverse is also true. In addition, when adding resistance training to the mix, in some instances insulin sensitivity is improved. Therefore, knowing your metabolic health markers initially can help you determine what dietary approach might work for you.
  6. However, a ketogenic diet has been shown to have appetite-suppressing potential in part due to its effects on our appetite hormones (as explained in this review), resulting in a spontaneous caloric restriction. That said, for some this may only happen initially and clinically I have seen that this affect appears to wear off. (Note, this is my clinical observation).
  7. Increasing dietary protein to levels significantly beyond current recommendations for athletic populations (up to 2g/kg body weight) may improve body composition as in line with the ISSN’s position stand. It is also much more satiating for those of us who aren’t athletes, particularly in a restricted calorie state (as I’ve discussed here). There is also evidence that increasing protein in the diet beyond 3g/kg body weight and creating a calorie surplus can increase muscle mass and decrease fat mass simultaneously- I know! It’s like magic! Except very difficult to eat that much protein for a lot of people.
  8. Time-restricted feeding (which I’ve written about here) combined with resistance training is an emerging area of research that has thus far shown mixed results with respect to body composition (ie see here and here, however eating within that restricted window does allow for improvements in metabolic health. Much like cycling calories, the window of time that people choose to eat should be based on individual preference in a way that is easy to be sustained in everyday life. There is more to gain from having a good resistance-based training programme and adequate protein (in the context of an awesome diet) than worrying if your eating window is 8 hours a day or 9 hours a day.
  9. Do we starve our metabolism, thus slow it down and lead to fat gain if we restrict calories too much? Only in the context of a restrictive caloric diet and in the absence of resistance training where muscle mass has reduced, and energy expenditure has reduced. This can be mitigated when these are accounted for (see here and here).
  10. In addition to this, clinically what seems to work well is having a metabolic reset meal, where more fat/carb calories are consumed (which some might call a ‘treat’ or ‘cheat’ meal, particularly in the fitness industry) – this might be 1-2 meals every 7-14 days depending on the individual and their goals.
  11. There needs to be more research on women, older adults
  12. There needs to be more research on meal frequency and timing combined with different caloric loads, and with different training regimes.

Despite all of the above, a member of my online nutrition coaching system shared with me her experience with improving overall health (and metabolic markers – prior to embarking on her regime her HbA1c was in ‘pre-diabetic’ range). She found focusing on a higher fat approach, coupled with water fasting helps her control her insulin resistance and overall health much more than focusing on protein intake. While a few years ago this would have set alarm bells ringing in my head, the longer I’m in the game the more I understand that it is so individual as to how someone will respond to a dietary approach. Being willing to experiment with different protocols will help you figure out what works best for you regardless of the research papers.

 

Fuelling the fat-adapted athlete

On August 1st I’m releasing my athlete-specific meal plan, which is a long time coming given that I consult with many endurance athletes! It’s hard to be specific with a general plan, clearly, particularly when it comes to training nutrition, so when you sign up I encourage you to contact me to see if we need to tweak the elements of this plan to suit your training.

The goal of an athlete training plan is to provide fuel where required, be strategic about the type of fuel and when to have it. I want to help make you a more efficient athlete – so your training and recovery is optimised to enable you to get out there day in, day out in the best possible shape. This will allow you to show up to the start line (or game day) in the best position to do your best. Like recovery, nutrition is vital to enhancing fitness gains from your session – eating the wrong types of food increases oxidative stress and dampens down your immune system, leaving you susceptible to inflammation, illness and injury. If you don’t recover effectively from the previous training session, your ability to get out the next time and hit certain paces/power is compromised – therefore overall fitness gains aren’t realised and you may not reach your potential awesomeness. I’ve written about this previously in more detail here.

To be metabolically efficient, we want to be strategic about when and how we have our carbohydrate, how much we have and the quality of the carbohydrate source. That is why in the plans I focus on adding fruit, kumara or potato after training if the training requires additional carbohydrate to support recovery. By removing carbohydrate from the pre-training meal/snack, we don’t have an insulin response that will drive circulating glucose (what carbohydrate is broken into) in to your muscle cells, shutting down lipolysis (fat burning). The body will be forced to use alternative fuel sources such as fat which, as an endurance athlete, we should be primed to do. The reality is, though, the modern diet that a typical athlete follows has made sugar burning the default training state, even at low intensities. Even the leanest marathon runner has enough fat calories on board to go out and run back to back races – accessing this though is the problem! Fat as a fuel source creates a lot less oxidative damage and reactive oxidative species, thereby the inflammation you experience post-training is reduced, recovery is enhanced, and you’ll be able to hit the next session fighting fit. We need to adapt from a carb burner to a fat burner for you to go out and train and not risk bonking or running out of fuel. The switch over doesn’t happen overnight, and if you’re new to this approach then training can feel pretty sluggish to begin with – but hang in there as it does get easier!

There are different approaches to fuelling depending on your goal:

Pre-training

If body composition improvement is your goal, it is best to do fasted training sessions or use coffee/caffeine as an ergogenic aid and fuel afterwards. This doesn’t mean that you’ll lose MORE body fat than if you were just to reduce calories, but it will force your body to tap into its own reserves, which (when combined with this dietary approach) I’ve clinically seen helps accelerate fat loss in the context of this eating style. For extended, longer duration >3h+ then having some fuel (as suggested in plan) can be a good idea, or starting fasted and taking on board fuel after 45-90 minutes depending on session is optimal.

If you are happy with your body composition or do not want to drop any body fat, then you can choose to take on board some fat before training – such as cream in coffee, MCT oil powder in coffee, or ketones. By fueling before training, you will shut down your own fat oxidation, but be upregulating pathways for fat oxidation, however it will be burning the fat that you consumed. This option is also good for people who have higher cortisol levels – training in the absence of any fuel can further exacerbate the ‘stress’ response from your hypothalamus (brain). Taking on board some calories sends signals to your brain that there is no need to stress. Taking the ketone supplement has been found (compared to fasting) to upregulate fat oxidation at lower given intensities; once the intensity rises to a high intensity, the opposite may be true (potentially due to the ketones being used to spare glycogen at the higher intensities).

If you struggle to maintain your weight and need to work at keeping calories high, then adding in some additional protein alongside could also be a good option – this could be a couple of hardboiled eggs, some scrambled eggs, additional fat-based calories or a smoothie based on nuts, avocado, some protein powder, coconut milk, greens, with no fruit). Again, this will provide a minimal insulin response, meaning your body will be burning the fuel you provide it (fat calories) and therefore working towards improving metabolic efficiency.

In all instances above, 10g of branched chain amino acid powder can help fuel a longer session – just mix in water beforehand.

In a perfect world, the best type of training to do if you are new to this is low intensity training; this is because your body needs to relearn how to burn fat as its primary fuel source. The ultimate goal down the line is to become metabolically flexible (ie easily shift between both sugar burning and fat burning) – and that will happen! That means the natural switch over to burning sugar that occurs when training at higher intensities will not impact on your fat-burning capabilities at the lower intensities. Right now, though, if it’s all new to you, your default is to burn glucose at that high intensity. Any shift back into glucose burning at this stage will impact on your ability to burn fat and can leave you in no-mans land when it comes to training. What I mean is, you are following a lower carbohydrate approach to diet, so there is no glucose on board as a ready source of fuel, yet you are too high intensity for your body to use fat as a primary fuel source (at this stage). No mans land.

However, it rarely happens that an athlete is always training low intensity, even in their off season. Therefore supplementing with an exogenous ketone supplement (such as Pruvit) provides your body with fuel the way a carbohydrate gel provides glucose. Ketones are the byproduct of fat metabolism, and when you burn fat as a fuel source, your body generates these to support metabolism. At a high intensity if you’re new to this, taking exogenous ketones provide you the fuel to enhance fat oxidation before your body has the machinery in place to do it for you. Otherwise the intensity will force your body to switch back to glucose burning. Remember, in the initial phases of your fat-fuelled approach, your body has to upregulate the machinery required for fat adaptation – it isn’t the default fuelling response. Any opportunity to switch back to burning sugar, it will take it.

Taking the ketones (along with MCT oil powder) will provide the fuel you need for the training without the need to use glucose, and is recommended in this instance. Further, ketones aid in recovery from longer sessions, and most athletes I work with who use them experience reduced inflammation, less excessive hunger, and can go for longer at a higher given intensity without an increase in their heart rate or perceived effort. Most have also experienced improved body composition due to these reasons. My recommendation is to have ½ sachet of the ketones and you can include 10g of MCT oil powder with it prior to your session.

During training:

 Shorter training up to 2h, low-mod intensity

Nothing – perhaps water, or an electrolyte fluid (no carbohydrates required*)

 Medium length from 2-3h low-mod intensity

Evaluate how you feel, take some MCT mix (see below), Superstarch (30g/hour in 750 ml bottle), ketones as below (sachet in 750ml bottle, 1/3 bottle hour), otherwise just electrolyte fluid.

Longer training: over 3h

36g MCT oil powder + 20g BCAA + ¼ tsp salt in 750 ml bottle OR sachet ketones, 18g MCT oil powder + 20g BCAA in 750ml bottle – ¼ bottle per hour AND every 45 minutes have something small, solid, food based: ¼ – ½ Cliff bar, 30g cheese, hardboiled egg, small handful cashews, ½ UCAN superstarch bar, homemade bar (such as apple pie blondie).

If including high intensity intervals

Try carb rinsing: 5-10 minutes before starting effort, have a glucose tablet, thereby trickling in carbohydrate – this method tells your brain you’ve had carbohydrate onboard without taking anything on. OR have sachet ketones in drink bottle as above.

*may need something if getting into it for first time, and suggestion is the ketone supplement here to help aid the fat oxidation pathways.

 Post-training

If body composition improvements are a goal, train around your meals so you don’t need to eat in addition to them, also can create a ‘train low’ environment by withholding food for around 45-75 minutes to further enhance fat oxidation. If higher intensity effort, include 10g BCAA powder in water post-training to preserve muscle mass.

If happy with body composition, then you can do as above or add in a protein shake with around 25g protein, use unsweetened almond milk to help provide calories and preserve muscle mass. Having the other ½ of your ketone sachet here can enhance recovery. Include 10g BCAA in water post-training to preserve muscle mass.

If you struggle to maintain your weight (or you are training hard again in next 8 hour period), then adding in the protein shake as above, plus serve of good quality carbohydrate such as kumara, potato, a piece of fruit can provide calories plus easily digested fuel to support recovery. Including the other half of your ketone sachet here can enhance recovery and include 10g BCAA in water post-training to preserve muscle mass.

In all instances, if the training is long, then I think the benefits of post-workout fuel outweigh ‘train low’, especially if you have a heavy or longer session the next day as a lot of ultra runners or triathletes do.

This isn’t definitive, and someone else will have a different approach, however these are generally the guidelines I have used that work with clients and that may work with you.

Remember, though, the best way to get fat-adapted is to adopt a daily diet that supports fat metabolism – click here to sign up to my plans and use the above guidelines to support your training.

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The fuel I used pre-half marathon at the beginning of my marathon training program: 1/2 ketone sachet, MCT oil powder, coffee and PB.

Starving? Read this and you won’t be.

One of the biggest downfalls I see with diet is the lack of protein across the course of the day. A typical pattern I see when I talk to people about their food intake and their appetite is:

“I’m ‘good’ all day, but can’t control myself come 5pm”

OR

“I’m fine all day, but after dinner regardless of how full I feel, I’m not ‘satisfied’ ”

OR

“I’m ‘good’ till Wednesday then it’s all downhill from there”

Any of this ring true? The reason I bring this up is that many people report being absolutely starving, constantly thinking about their next meal and (more often than not) their frustration with being unable to lose body fat as they view their diet as being pretty good. When we delve further, I see quite clearly that when people are “good” it generally means they are undereating during the day, and this leads to almost a binge-like pattern later in the evening, or just an inability to stop snacking. A typical pattern might be:

  • Breakfast: cereal + fruit + trim milk (cos, you know, fat is bad)
  • MT piece of fruit/trim latte OR nothing
  • Lunch: chicken salad perhaps 50g chicken, no-fat dressing, no carbs (hey, we got rid of them back in the 90s!)
  • AT: nothing, or a carrot or similar
  • 5pm: a small handful of nuts, then a slightly larger one.
  • 13pm: a carrot. And hummus
  • 21pm: a few spoons of PB,
  • 47pm: cheese while making dinner
  • 10pm: leftovers off the kids plate,
  • 32pm: dinner (full!)
  • 20pm: piece dark chocolate
  • 35pm: bite of icecream *well I’ve blown it now*
  • 40pm: bowl of icecream *I’ll be better tomorrow*
  • 10pm: 3 rows of chocolate…..

Does this look familiar? While they may be low calorie/fat/carb during the day, people with this dietary pattern will generally consume more calories than they realise in that pre-post dinner window. This isn’t just about calories and fat loss though. Many people also suffer from anxiety around their food intake, gut or digestive issues from consuming more food than what is comfortable, sleep issues due to an excess of food close to bedtime, and unhelpful self-talk related to their perceived lack of control. This last point can be particularly damaging to long term success, as for some this can perpetuate feelings of failure and subsequent behaviours which make it difficult to change in the long term. Other long term consequences of a low protein and low dietary energy early in the day include reduced muscle mass, reduced metabolic rate, low mood and a greater propensity for fat gain in the long run.

How to prevent this?

Eat more protein at the start of the day – it is more satisfying and is digested a LOT slower than other nutrients, and will prevent overeating later in the day. What you eat at the start of the day really impacts how you feel and what you eat at the end of the day. Many experts in the field of protein research view 0.8-0.9g protein per kilogram of bodyweight, based on nitrogen balance studies, are likely underestimating overall protein requirements. This is especially true for those in the older age bracket and for people wanting to drop body fat where studies such as this have found that 2.4g protein per kg bodyweight can help maintain metabolic rate and protect muscle mass. Clinically (which, to my mind, is as important as what the literature says), very few of my clients thrive on a lower protein diet. Athletes (FYI) are recommended around 1.7-2.2g per kg bodyweight and in general a higher protein intake will benefit mood, sleep, blood sugar and appetite.

So what does 2.4g per kilogram look like for the myriad of people out there wanting to drop body fat? IE if you weigh 75kg, your protein intake should be around 180g. If we consider the standard protein sources available, then it might look a little like this (amount of protein in brackets):

  • Breakfast: 4 eggs (29.2g) – with vegetables, scrambled, cooked in butter, coconut oil or olive oil
  • Lunch: Medium chicken thigh 146g (34g), sliced up into salad with olive oil dressing and lemon
  • AT: ½ cup of cottage cheese (18g) with pesto mixed through
  • Dinner: Medium steak (186g) with roast vegetables 57.3g

Well, that is 139.4g of protein per day, around 1.86g per kilogram body weight, leaving an additional 40g of protein being derived from plant sources. You can see that you have to eat a lot of food to get your protein in – which is completely different from the ‘being good’ scenario above.

While the run down of foods to eat above may freak you out if you’re used to a cereal and salad diet – don’t be scared. If your dietary pattern looks much as I described above, allowing more protein earlier in the day will have a huge influence on your overall intake – the pattern of grazing late afternoon into the evening will change. I promise. I’ve written about the protein leverage theory before when discussing the National Heart Foundation’s food guidance system (click here for that post) – that the body has an innate requirement for protein and will drive appetite until this is requirement is met. If you eat a lower protein diet, research suggests you may eat more overall calories (and calories from refined carbohydrate) compared to people consuming a moderate protein diet. I know many people don’t like eating more food earlier as they don’t believe they have the willpower to stop. I recently wrote about the main physiological driver of ‘lack of willpower’, and eating more protein will kill this response pretty quick. You just have to try it. When combined with fibre, a bit of fat and carbohydrate that takes longer to digest, protein is (to my mind) the nutrient to focus on for controlling appetite, hunger levels and helping maintain an optimal body composition.

Protein quality definitely counts here too. This measure has been revised recently to reflect updated knowledge regarding the digestibility of protein, however regardless of technique used to establish bioavailability of protein source, animal protein consistently scores higher than plant protein in terms of protein quality (with 0.75 as a cut-off for good digestibility – see here for some food-based tables). This will have implications for their effect on appetite (i.e. ability to keep you satisfied). In part this is due to the presence of anti-nutritive factors in plant based proteins (such as lecthins, tannins, phytates etc) that prevent our absorption of them (see here for a comprehensive report on the digestibility of protein). This is not to say that plant protein doesn’t count. I have many clients who are vegetarian and, for them we ensure a good intake of eggs, cheese and protein powder (whey, pea or egg white protein powder for a good variety). People following a vegan diet are a little more challenged. While they will get protein from legumes, nuts, edamame beans, tempeh and seeds, I recommend (again) protein powders, and incorporating a variety of these (such as pea, hemp and sacha incha) in their daily diet. These are lower in overall protein compared to, say, whey (sacha incha has around 12g per 20g serve (60% protein), compared to whey protein (17-18g, or 85-90%). But if we are looking to increase protein across the course of the day, these will certainly be useful.

So…what about you?

If you’re a numbers person, think about your goals (weight loss, muscle maintenance etc) and shoot for the grams per protein I’ve mentioned above. Use Easy Diet Diary, My Net Diary, Fat Secret or Cronometer to find out how much protein is in the foods that you’re eating, and what the distribution of it is across the course of the day. Then use the information provided to plan for a higher protein intake and a more even distribution. At the very least, aim for around 25-30g of protein in your meals. If you’re not a numbers person, then use tables like these to give you an indication of where protein is in food. Aiming for:

  • 3-4 eggs at breakfast, or 120g protein-based food or 1-2 fist-sized worth; and
  • at least 120-150g of protein-based food at lunch (or 1-2 fist-sized); and closer to
  • 160-200g protein-based food at dinner (or 1-2 fist-sized); and

shooting for the higher numbers the more active or the bigger you are and THEN base the remainder of your macronutrient intake (carbohydrate and fat) around this – and don’t forget the abundance of non-starchy vegetables. If you want some help with this, get into contact with me or sign up for my online nutrition coaching – this is pretty much how I build my meals. While initially you may feel hungry, this will likely be habit rather than actual hunger (or a hormonal response, as your body’s appetite hormones work on a circadian rhythm and ghrelin may well be released as your body is used to eating at that time. Brushing your teeth is one of the best things to do to cut that hunger. If you wait it out, it will eventually pass and you’ll easily eradicate the feeling of hunger, the grazing later in the day and regain the feeling of control around your food (rather than letting the food control you).

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Thankfully, it hasn’t come to this. There is an easier way to control your appetite… (PC healthycompare.com/diet-pills)

No willpower when it comes to food? Read this.

‘ The chocolate bar calls my name. No, really – I can’t NOT eat it if it’s in the house.’

Many people I talk to lament that they can’t control themselves when it comes to sugar or junk food – that they don’t have the willpower to say ‘no’ despite their best efforts. This implies that they have all the control. Now I’m not saying there isn’t an element of discipline that may initially be required when changing the way you eat, especially for people who have lost touch with their appetite and satiety signals which can happen when the food eaten drives unfavourable hormone responses in the body; a phenomenon which is common in the current food environment. However, there are other more powerful forces at play here. Your No physiology has far more say in your food decisions than you think, and I’m going to cover one of the main ones I see (and one of the easiest ones to correct) that will help people control their food intake, rather than let their food control them: the blood sugar rollercoaster

This is one of the biggest drivers of cravings in my experience. The type of diet that many people follow is either carbohydrate heavy or devoid of protein and fat. Both situations are going to set your blood sugar up for rise and fall of (what can be) epic proportions. When carbohydrate is broken down into the bloodstream into glucose, this takes our blood glucose level out of homeostasis (normal). One thing our body likes is homeostasis – a blood sugar level too high or too low will send signals to the brain that this needs to be corrected. The greater the fluctuation, the louder this signal is. Insulin is the hormone responsible for removing glucose from the bloodstream to be used immediately for energy or to store it for later use (in our muscles and liver) and return the blood glucose level to homeostasis (normal). However, a meal that has a large amount of carbohydrate (a high carbohydrate load) will accelerate this process, as will a meal that has minimal protein or fat (even with a lower carbohydrate load, as the proportion of carbohydrate will still be greater). This is because insulin responds first and foremost to carbohydrate, with a minimal response to protein containing foods, and (for most people) a negligible response to foods predominantly containing fat. When this process is accelerated, insulin moves too much glucose into cells and our blood glucose level rapidly drops to below normal (an over-correction). The signal to our brain therefore becomes a panic signal: blood sugar has dipped below normal and needs to be rapidly restored – enter sweet food cravings as our brain recognises these foods are going to return our blood glucose levels back to within that normal range much quicker than, say, a salad. Along with the cravings, we may experience ravenous hunger (where 15 minutes earlier you felt fine), irritability (‘hangry’) and (in particularly bad cases) dizziness, light-headedness, sweating and vision loss.

The quicker the carbohydrates are digested (especially in the absence of fat and /or protein), the higher the rise and fall in blood sugar, and the greater the effects on energy and subsequent cravings for food (and ‘lack of willpower’). You may be fine for the morning and rapidly cave in post 3pm. Or it might be that Monday and Tuesday you are sweet, but by Wednesday you are raiding the kids ‘treat’ box in the pantry.

This isn’t just an issue with regards to blood sugar management and fat loss goals, but more importantly it can make you feel pretty rubbish. So many people start a tirade of negative talk that they weren’t able to say ‘no’ to a paleo muffin or chocolate biscuit, that they have ‘failed again’ and they ‘may as well finish the entire packet as it’s the last time they’ll eat X food again.’ Or their inability to resist a sweet treat clearly indicates they aren’t worthy of whatever health goal or life goal they’ve set themselves, and will eat junk food as a form of punishment (or undereat to try to get it under control), and so starts the rollercoaster ride of the blood sugar crash.

While I’d like to say it’s really easy to figure out which foods are most likely to cause this process, recent research tells us that there is wide individual variation. You are your own best investigator when trying to figure this out. It is useful, of course, to know where carbohydrate comes form in the diet and starting to explore how these foods affect you specifically. You can use an app like Easy Diet Diary, My Net Diary, Fat Secret to help you determine where the carbohydrate is in your usual diet if all of this is new to you. That said, an energy dense, carbohydrate source is more likely to trigger a blood sugar response. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Dates
  • Other dried fruit
  • Honey
  • Rice malt syrup
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Cereal (including Nutrigrain, Cheerios, most cereals with a Health Star Rating)
  • Honey
  • Coconut sugar
  • Kumara
  • Potato
  • Grapes
  • Fruit juice
  • Vegetable juice with a fruit juice base
  • Vegetable juice with beetroot/carrot base

This doesn’t mean that all of the above choices are bad! At all, however, in the wrong amounts, and when eaten in isolation of other food choices, these are more likely to spike your insulin levels than other foods. Artificial sweeteners do not get a free pass either, unfortunately, with some showing the same physiological effects as sweet foods, eliciting a glucose/insulin response.

So… it’s not willpower, people – it’s physiology.

The easiest and *best* way that helps mitigate this is NOT a supplement. While these can be useful in certain situations or medical conditions, for most people it comes down to food timing and balancing. Protein and fat don’t have the same insulin effect, so they are not going to cause the same blood glucose rollercoaster that carbohydrate does. Incorporating these as the majority of your energy source is going to slow down the digestion of the carbohydrate you eat and the subsequent rise in blood glucose. Without reaching the same ‘highs’, your blood glucose doesn’t have the same drops – and cravings, hunger and crashing energy levels are FAR less likely. Fibre from non-starchy vegetables are another way to have this effect and help maintain a homeostatic state.

Despite what I say, what other experts tell you or what the literature or dietary guidelines tell us, you are your own best investigator when it comes to figuring out what works for you. One of the easiest ways to measure how food affects your blood sugar control is to assess the qualitative signs after eating: do you feel like falling asleep after a carb-based meal? Do you get moody, irritable, ‘hangry’ a couple of hours after eating? Are you fine, fine, fine, STARVING a few hours after eating? These are all good indicators that your blood sugar is in control of your actions (rather than you). From a quantitative perspective, getting a glucometer (finger-prick blood glucose reader) from the pharmacy and testing your blood sugar two hours after eating a particular food or meal is another good way to see how this affects your blood sugar levels. If it lurks above the 7 mmol/L mark at this point, then potentially the carbohdyrate type (or the context with which you ate it) isn’t ideal for you. Remember, this isn’t just about the food you’re eating at that time, it has implications for your food decisions later in the day. This is potentially more important if you find you have ‘no willpower.’ If you need help figuring out what to do from here, contact me for a consultation, we can sort it out.

Finally, pro-tip: when eating a meal, eat the protein and vegetables before tucking into the carbohydrate component. This will lower the post-prandial glucose response and the overall effect on your energy levels, levelling them out as opposed to leading to a crash.