Blood, Biome and Sugar Update
The last seven months of my DNA diet plan have been a very interesting experience, with some major changes going on in terms of my lifestyle, diet, and fitness. Overall, I’m feeling more energized, sleeping better and my skin looks clearer.
To learn more about this experiment, check out my earlier entries. For month one click here, for month three click here, for month five click here, and for month six click here.
But I’m aware how subjective all of these statements are. What I really care about is the data and that’s why I’m happy I got to see an update on how all these changes have been physically affecting me. At around the halfway mark on the Arivale plan, they send people in for another round of blood tests. I think that’s a really helpful way to measure progress overall.
Here are some of the major changes. The full blood report is more comprehensive, but I’m sharing the stats that I feel are most relevant. Also, y’know, privacy.
I’m particularly pleased about the changes in my LDL particle numbers, as is my coach. “You had some excellent downward shifts in your LDL cholesterol (the unhealthy cholesterol) numbers, and your HDL (the healthy cholesterol) increased as did the HDL particle number,” my Arivale nutritionist Erica said. “Your insulin and hemoglobin A1c decreased as well.” That means blood sugar levels for the nonscientists. With diabetes a concern in my family, that’s good to know.
Another big shift has been in my Omega-3 numbers, which have risen. The improvement is a good start, but my numbers still aren’t ideal, so she suggested increasing the amount of the fish oil supplements I’ve been taking. Interesting note: all supplements are considered equal. I’ve been using ones from Nordic Naturals and Carlson, both rated highly on Labdoor — many vitamin supplements don’t contain the amount stated on the bottle or can get destroyed by gastric acids before doing their job.
As a vegetarian, it’s pretty normal I’m lacking in this regard— Omega-3’s are normally ingested through fatty fish. But I don’t want to be in deficit, as they play a large role in brain function and inflammation. Bear in mind that recent studies have compared fish oil with snake oil, saying many of its purported heart health benefits are untrue.
At the halfway point in this program, Arivale issues a microbiome kit for users to take. The process is about as much fun as you would expect — I think the best description I’ve read of it is in Richard Sprague’s piece, “So Should I Eat Apples, or Not?”
“It’s a little gross if you’re not used to it, and this may be the biggest reason people avoid doing the test. Nothing I can do to help you past this step: you’ll just have to do it.”
The microbiome is the hottest word in health right now, with like a zillion companies offering to check your gut health. Quick primer: Our bodies are filled with microbes, which do all sorts of things, from changing how we react to drugs to our metabolism, and now we have the tech available to find out exactly what microbes we have lurking inside us, and ideally get a sense of what bacteria we need more of. There’s no real consensus on what a healthy microbiome looks like — unhealthy, sure, but all the variables in between are a bit murkier. But understanding what’s in your gut is the first step to better gut health. Or at least, an attempt of it.
Arivale, to my great disappointment, didn’t really tell me a huge lot about my gut. They measured it, gave me some feedback and then.. That was kind of it. No action plan, no crazy discovery, just sensible smart advice of healthy things to be aware of. Kudos to them; just because I’d have liked some sweeping statements like ‘maple syrup will kill you’ and ‘apple cider will give you superhuman strength’ doesn’t mean they should cater to that. “It’s a hot area of research but the science side is not ready for clinical use yet,” said Dr. Jennifer Lovejoy, Arivale’s Chief Translational Science Officer. Instead, Arivale focuses on something called a diversity score and TMAO index.
The Microbiome TMAO Index is the number of bacterial groups (out of 19) associated with elevated TMAO, and elevated levels of this are associated with atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. On my TMAO index, I had four red sections (bad) and the rest were green. “No one will get down to zero, so four is already doing the right thing,” Lovejoy said. Here is where being a vegetarian is a bonus. “Being a vegetarian is supportive of this,” said Coach Erica. “Avoiding red meat (which contains the nutrients that the microbiome turns into TMA and then the liver turns into TMAO) is supportive of reducing the potential level of TMAO in the body.”
On the diversity side, my score was in the 20th percentile, which is ‘supportive of gut/digestive health.’ Overall, good news, but not really actionable. Which makes it good science, but not a super exciting update.
My Two Week No Sugar Diet: The Lowdown
With six months left to go in my DNA-aided lifestyle refresh, I think it’s about time to turn up the effort a couple of dials. One thing I’ve always struggled with is sugar — that darn sweet tooth— and so I’ve decided to try cutting it out for two weeks. That’s all refined/added/extra sugar, even the sugar that you add to tear — everything apart from sugar that occurs naturally in fruit/veggies. No added sugar, basically.
My nutritionist thinks this could be a good idea, but warns me it will be hard. She sent me a list of all the different ways sugar is described in food; it’s lurking hidden so many ways. On reading the packaging label, I could have guessed things like cane sugar and treacle, but dextrose? Fructose? Fruit juice concentrate? Ugh.
I stocked up on some literature to educate me. Google brought up an astounding list of results, some with enticing titles like ‘I Quit Sugar’ by Sarah Wilson and ‘The Case Against Sugar’ by Gary Taubes. Oh, and of course the naysayers ‘why a no sugar diet won’t make you healthier.”
I read the books and some related articles and here are some of their most useful points.
“Sugar can act like poison in high doses—and the amount in our diets has gone beyond toxic,” wrote Robert Lustig, M.D., a neuroendocrinologist at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine. – Women’s Health
- Barbecue sauce: 3.75 teaspoons (15 grams) in 2 tablespoons
- Ketchup: 2.25 teaspoons (9 grams) in 2 tablespoons
- Fruit-flavored yogurt: 7.75 teaspoons (31 grams) in 6 ounces
- Pasta sauce: 3 teaspoons (12 grams) in 1/2 cup
- Breakfast bar: 6.25 teaspoons (25 grams) in 1 bar
Ketchup??? Ketchup?? C’mon.
Then more of the no-go list:
- Forbidden foods: You’ll have to give up white potatoes, white rice, white bread, white flour, corn, beets, soda, candy, baked goods, and refined sugar.
- Oh my, there is sugar in Quorn (my soy protein substitute?” Unreal. Here it’s described as ‘Natural Caramelised Sugar.’
I also checked out my friend Alex’s blog – she quit sugar in 2015, and I remember mocking her then. Now I’m looking for advice, oh how the tables have turned. I set some basic rules, which included not eating out for two weeks (just can’t deal with that), buying Stevia (less blood sugar spikes than Sweet ‘n Low) and buying a lot of cheese.
Not so fast.
My first week was a washout as I found that I had not prepared enough. Everything has sugar in when you look close; crackers, sauces, snacks. It became impossible to find anything to eat that didn’t involve a lot of cooking and prep work. Week two and I started again, this time with a better idea of the process. I stocked up at Trader Joe’s and filled my fridge with cheese, nuts, vegetarian meat and water crackers. Two or three days in I was starting to crack, my head pounded and I felt dizzy and weak. And I was eating so much cheese. It was ridiculous. I can’t swap one bad habit for another, even for this short a time.
“You chose an ambitious challenge, especially for someone who told me on our first call that you prefer anything a 10-year old would prefer,” Erica said. “ We’ve talked about how the brain is hard-wired for our current habits, like eating and craving sugar.”
I thought I was prepared.. I was wrong.
Erica suggested I try the ‘4 D’s’ when experiencing cravings; deep breaths, drinking water, distracting and delaying. This made sense.. but I failed. I failed so hard. And when I failed, I went the other way, overdoing it on sweet things for no real reason. After ten days of this misery, I stopped. But while I never completed the challenge or beat the addiction, I do have a much better sense of where sugar lurks in everyday food items and have noticed I’m making better choices and paying more attention to the sugar content of products I buy.
“It’s a good step,” Eric said, explaining that I shouldn’t think of it as a ‘failure’ but as a way of reframing how I think and use sugar in my diet. Thanks Coach! Weirdly, it made me feel a little better that the I Quit Sugar blog was closed on May 31, 2018. Not that it means that empire is not a success story. But good to know other people find this hard as well.
Next month: Supercharging the workouts and dealing with setbacks.