What I’ve Learned By Tracking Every Bite For The Past 30 Days
As part of a thorough battery of health tests last month, I got the extremely unwelcome news that my blood sugar was too high. Specifically, my A1c level, a measure of average blood glucose levels over the past 3 months, was at 5.9. Some nutritionists consider 5.9 the very top range of normal, while most classify any value between 5.7 and 6.4 as “prediabetic.” Ouch.
This wasn’t just crappy health news, it was a huge blow to my carefully cultivated self-image as a healthy person. To be honest, it had me in tears.
That’s because in a world of endless scrutiny, unrealistic beauty and body standards for women I have struggled for years to embrace myself and be proud of my physicality.
Here are some other statistics about me, for context: I’m 5 feet 9 and a half inches tall and my body mass index is 24, at the high end of normal. My waist/hip ratio is 0.70. I’ve never been skinny or petite, but I’ve also never been officially overweight.
I exercise 5 or 6 days a week. I’ve practiced yoga for 22 years. My resting pulse rate tends to be around 40. My blood pressure and cholesterol are low. I can do 50 real pushups without stopping. Last May I ran a half marathon at a pace just over 9 minutes without much training — just a small increase for a few weeks over my normal weekly mileage.
I also really, really love to eat. For the most part I eat pretty healthy. For the past eight years I’ve been a pescetarian; before that I was a vegetarian since childhood. In New York City, the Seamless capital of the world, I cook healthy dinners for my family several times a week. I don’t eat fast food.
But: I have always loved sweets, especially chocolate and baked goods. I rarely go an evening without at least a few pieces of dark chocolate. And I have had, throughout the years, little concept of portion control.
I should have seen this coming. When I was trying to get pregnant with my daughter back in 2011, I was diagnosed with PCOS, a very common hormonal disorder. That was a blow of course. And it often co-occurs with insulin resistance and blood sugar problems. But at the time — age 31 — my blood sugar looked fine.
After undergoing successful fertility treatments, I had a super-healthy pregnancy. I didn’t develop gestational diabetes. I exercised every day, ate anything I wanted, gained 25 pounds and lost it all within a couple of weeks despite an emergency C-section.
Once I’d had the baby, doctors didn’t have much more to tell me about PCOS or what to do about it.
Because I’m a feminist I don’t think dieting is cool. Because I love to cook and eat with people I think dieting is boring. Yet I’ve always thought I would be a little happier if I weighed a little less. (Sound familiar?) And I’ve struggled for years to improve my eating habits.
I consulted a pricey holistic nutrition counselor. I tried the Master Cleanse (lasted 2 days), a juice cleanse (5 days) and the Whole30 (lasted just 15 days, and cheated several times). For the 2 weeks before my wedding I subsisted mainly on iced coffee and protein bars. That wasn’t pretty.
For the past several months before this test, in an attempt to control weight, I was practicing a half-assed form of intermittent fasting, basically by skipping breakfast and working out on an empty stomach in the morning. This practice in itself may have messed up my blood sugar.
Getting this diagnosis really galvanized me, though. Finally I have a goal to beat that isn’t arbitrary or entirely self-imposed: A1c, 5.7 or lower.
And, I’m going to need to do it primarily through diet because I frankly don’t have enough time to exercise more than I already do.
Exactly how to do this is a mystery to me. But I picked a couple numbers: 2000 calories a day and 150 grams of carbohydrates of all types.
Various calorie calculators online estimate my daily caloric needs between 2600-2200 a day. Given the very human tendency to fudge, both on food quantities and exercise, 10 percent under that low end sounded like a good, but still sustainable, goal.
150 grams of carbs a day — a moderately low-carb diet — would then represent 600 calories, or 30% of calories from carbs .
Having set those goals, I started entering every single bite I eat, or drink I consume, into an app on my phone.
I’ve done this every single day without fail for 38 days straight. That in itself is a victory. I’ve never been able to stick to any kind of eating intervention for this long.
Here are my stats after 38 days (which included 2 weeks of vacation and lots of eating out): Averaged 1946 calories and 170 grams of carbs per day. That’s great on calories. It’s 35 percent of my calories from carbs; similar to the Zone or Mediterranean diet, but quite a bit north of my goal.
Here’s a few things I’ve learned:
- The best eating plan for me is no eating plan. I can eat anything I want if I fit it into the day’s budget. This is a major secret of success, as anyone who does IFFYM can tell you.
- 9 times out of 10, regular bread and pasta is not worth it. But 1 day out of 30, Pies ‘n’ Thighs biscuits are.
- Shirataki noodles are actually good. They are not just for weirdos.
- Writing down what you eat keeps you honest. It also makes it inconvenient to nosh and nibble, because it’s super annoying to estimate the calories in “half a pretzel.”
- Cutting calories is much easier for me than cutting carbs without making major lifestyle changes.
- Protein and green vegetables will save you. I started keeping celery in the fridge. Hard-boiled eggs are the Platonic food.
- On 7 out of 38 days I went more than 10 percent over my calorie goal. My “cheat days” weren’t planned. They tended to coincide with parties that had buffets or eating out two meals in a day. And — clearly — they balanced out in the long run.
- It’s not as hard to limit portions as I thought. 22 almonds actually is a filling amount of almonds. A baking-measure cup of soup is a wholly satisfying amount of soup. And six sauteed scallops over kale and white beans, a frisee salad, a small piece of cornbread and a glass of whiskey is an exceptionally delicious dinner.
- Except for cheese. A single ounce of cheese is a pretty sad amount of cheese. I’d rather have a tablespoon of butter or sour cream.
- After 20 years of thinking this was bullshit, I’ve finally tuned into how various foods make me feel. After chowing down at a pizza place in New Haven one day I instantly felt incredibly bloated and tired. I may have to apologize to the anti-gluten people.
- When I crave sweets late at night it’s actually because I’m tired. I need to go to bed.
Of course, I have another 2 months to go before I take another glucose test and see how I’m really doing. It doesn’t feel like I’ve lost any weight, but it’s hard to tell. I’m seriously considering getting a glucose monitor so I can do a better job figuring out what works.
There are other factors that may be able to work in my favor. One is that I’m chronically anemic, which can push up the values on this A1c test. So I’m taking iron. I’ve also been put on thyroid supplementation for an underactive thyroid, which may be able to help me lose a little weight. Dropping a few pounds — at least 5 percent of body weight — is supposed to help reverse pre-diabetes.
I’ve also started eating meat as a way to be more satisfied with fewer carbs, and to raise iron levels. That’s a big change, and I’m not entirely happy with it for environmental and animal-welfare reasons, but we’ll see how it goes.