Last January, as one does, I pledged to eat better. Not one to phone it in, I adopted a meal plan with almost every vice crossed off the list. I blame Instagram, which was where I first spied the hashtag #Whole30, along with hundreds of iPhone-perfect images of delicious looking food. If I ate nothing but whole, unprocessed foods for 30 days, the Whole30 program promised, I would have less bloating, fewer cravings, better sleep and more energy.
Adhering to Whole30 involved staying away from almost everything I loved. Wine? Forget it. Bread? No way. Even foods I’d assumed were healthful were verboten, including peanuts and chickpeas. (There went my hummus habit.) Other no’s included: no wheat, no dairy, no soy and no sugar. For one whole month I subsisted on air and water (just kidding).
Watching everything I eat is nothing new for me, since I have lived with Type 1 diabetes most of my life and monitor my blood glucose levels dozens of times throughout the day. I can eat sugary foods and other carbohydrates; I just have to give myself insulin to coincide with the elevated glucose running around in my bloodstream, typically about 10 to 30 minutes after each meal. The fewer carbs I eat, the lower my insulin requirements.
While there are no refined sugars in the Whole30 diet, there are plenty of carbs: vegetables, fruit, even nuts have them. For an entire month I happily consumed plants, protein and fat. Breakfast became coconut yogurt layered with blueberries, chia seeds and hemp hearts. Lunch was a mound of kale, carrots, tomatoes and tuna. Dinner featured roasted sweet potato, zucchini “noodles” and salmon. For snacks I ate nuts, unsweetened jerky and green apples, which are generally less sweet than red ones, and less sweet means fewer carbs.
The first few days were rocky — post-lunch cravings for dark chocolate were especially hard. But while I may have been thinking about my next meal, what I wasn’t thinking about was my blood sugar. One might assume I was working overtime to manage my condition because Whole30 was flush with natural carbs. But the truth is my blood sugar was perfect. I still needed insulin, but the amount I took dropped significantly and my continuous glucose monitor displayed the flat blue line of someone without diabetes. Never in my life had I held such a tight control.
My self-experiment provided direct evidence that not all carbs are equal. It also sent me to Dr. David Ludwig, a professor in the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who’s spent his career exploring how and why carbohydrates affect our hormones and body weight and the corresponding risks for chronic diseases like mine. He explained how eating a whole food, such as an apple, has a different impact on blood sugar levels than drinking something like juice.
“Most whole fruits, with the exception of tropical varieties, are slow-digesting because the sugars are sequestered in the cellular structure of the fruit and it takes time to leach out. It’s very different from juice or soda, where sugars slam into your body, overwhelming the liver and raising insulin too much,” he said. Fast-digesting carbs, like potatoes, white bread and other refined carbohydrates, as well as grapes, papaya and mango, he explained, all have a higher impact on blood sugar, but they still do not pack the same punch as soda and juice.
While challenging in some ways, Whole30 made my life easier in others. Trips to the market kept me in the produce aisle, and when cooking at home I mostly reached for perishables. And not only did it balance my blood sugar, but I had fewer cravings, no digestive complaints and improved energy.
Dr. Carrie Diulus, an orthopedic spine surgeon in Akron, Ohio, who learned she had Type 1 diabetes in her 30s, carefully monitors nutrition in her patients before and after surgery. “If you take anyone on a standard American diet and you increase the number of whole foods that they are eating, they are going to do better,” she said. She herself eats a very low-carb, whole foods diet because she doesn’t want to worry when she’s in the operating room. “For me to be a surgeon, I cannot have variation in my blood sugar,” she said.
Another doctor with Type 1 diabetes agreed with my new mind-set. “Not all carbs are created equal,” said Dr. Daniel DeSalvo, an endocrinologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children’s Hospital. In his practice, Dr. DeSalvo refers to the good carbs, those with a lower glycemic index, as “smart carbs.”
“I want to avoid the guilt that can sometimes be associated with living with diabetes,” he said. “I talk about glucose as being data that we learn from, not right or wrong. The goal is to celebrate the in-range numbers and learn from the out-of-range numbers.” It’s a goal that is useful not just for those with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes but for everyone, since fast spikes in blood sugar levels aren’t good for anyone’s health.
When it came time to end Whole30, I was nervous, fearful that after relinquishing the tight checklist of foods I could plunge into a pool of cupcakes and candy bars. I hung onto the rules for 45 days, then announced to friends that my new plan was to follow Whole30 for any meal that I didn’t eat out.
But in a blink it was June and my vow was long broken. I was back to my usual diet that included chickpea puffs, wheat bread and peanut butter cookies. And — no surprise — my blood sugar was no longer a perfect flat line.
I’m a believer, though. It’s the new year and I’m back with the program, showing off my own Instagram photos of vibrant greens and colorful beets and carrots. Looking over my stellar glucose readings once more, I wonder how to make my numbers last beyond 30 days until eating “right” becomes an effortless routine. And then I remember what Dr. Diulus told me: “It’s not one size fits all. It’s about figuring out what works for you.”