You ever have a food obsession? I do, all the time. It’s like a security blanket, and I will be the first person to admit that it’s a crutch. In college, I ate an obscene number of peanut butter sandwiches – even when I was in a cafeteria with tons of other options – because it was a way to limit options, and control stress. At first it wasn’t a problem. But I flirted with anemia and vitamin D deficiency over those 4 years, and peanut butter is a rich source of neither iron nor cholecalciferol (aka Vitamin D3). There would be times that I wanted to eat something different, but my muscle memory made that sandwich faster than my brain could scope out something equally safe and appealing. How sad. I mean, looking back, it’s not like going to the chicken or hamburger is a huge gastronomical commitment. What can I say, I’m a creature of habit, and I was not always so suave and graceful at this anxiety management as I am today (Ha!).
All sarcasm aside, eating the same thing all the time can be an indicator of underlying psychological distress. If you can’t comfortably shake up a meal now and then, and you’re a high-stress individual, talking to a counselor and/or a nutritionist may be an excellent thing to do. A basic blood-workup as well might be enlightening, regarding deficiencies and such.
Anyway, I’ve broken the PB habit, but that’s not to say there aren’t times that a convenience food takes over my life. Protein bars, for example. They keep you full, rebuild your muscles, and come with a decent vitamin/mineral profile. Aside from being dense, homogenous, processed bricks, what’s not to like? Let me tell you…
Nowadays, a lot of protein bar manufacturers use sugar alcohols so they can advertise as low carb and get their calorie counts at or under 200 kcal per bar. Our bodies are very ineffective at absorbing and extracting energy from sugar alcohols, so they give us all of the taste and none of the weight. Seems good, right? Well, sort of…
Sugar alcohols (also called polyols) aren’t really sugar, or alcohols. Rather, they are carbohydrates whose structure is similar to that of both sugar and alcohol, and as I mentioned, they are not easily digested. Some commonly used sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, and malitol – you’ve probably seen these names before. Because our bodies can’t completely absorb them, they end up hanging out in the gut, getting fermented by resident bacteria. Fermentation produces gas. Gas in your gut is a recipe for flatulence, bloating, and knife-like abdominal cramps. In addition to putting up a fight with your GI flora, the unabsorbed carbohydrate attracts a lot of water to the intestines. In susceptible individuals, the water is incompletely reabsorbed by the large intestine, with laxative effects. That’s why your protein bars may come with a warning label.
It’s important to note that not everyone experiences the same degree of discomfort with polyol consumption. For one thing, the more you eat, the more prolific the bacteria capable of digesting them will become. Nonetheless, I think it wise to evaluate the role processed and packaged food to plays in our lives. Of course, we all lapse at times.
Today, for example, I did a track workout at 6:30 a.m. before heading to a 9-hour yoga-teacher training. I confess I was less than invested in eating breakfast and packing my lunch/snacks for the day, and more interested in just enjoying the scant Saturday-morning time I had to myself.
So when the midmorning hunger hit, I dug in my bag for a protein bar. I mean, they’re basically adult candy bars, guilt level zero, and minimal effort required. But one didn’t seem like quite enough…
Lo, déjà vu at lunchtime, when my salad and apple suddenly seemed inadequate post intensive yoga-learning. I also grabbed a strong cup of coffee to boost my flagging energy levels, and by mid-afternoon I definitely wasn’t feeling so hot. Protein bars don’t usually irritate me, but I also don’t usually eat 4 in a day. In addition, the caffeine probably wreaked havoc in an already hostile environment. Le sigh.
As per usual when something in life takes a wonky personal and unflattering turn, I thought, “whelp, guess I should share this on the World Wide Web.”
Learn from me. Eat real food.