There are plenty of reading materials out there about how the Glycemic Index of the food we eat affects our metabolism, so I won’t bore you with a lot of detail. I took most of my info from the work of Michel Montignac. I still occasionally check GI numbers on his foundation’s website.
Montignac’s books delve into explanations for whole chapters; I’m just going to oversimplify it in the interest of time. Insulin is the substance that enables your body to make use of carbohydrates – the pancreas releases it when you eat carbs. Essentially, the Glycemic Index measures the body’s insulin reaction to food. The higher the GI, the sharper (higher and faster) the release of insulin into your blood stream after eating the food in question. The Glycemic Load (the actual amount of carbs taken in) also needs to be taken into account. Obviously, 5mg of a 100GI food still causes a lesser insulin reaction than 100g of a 75GI food. I’ll refer you back to Montignac’s work for the exact proportions for each food. To continue oversimplifying, the more insulin your body releases, the more energy it will extract from a given meal.
I decided to look into Montignac’s work again when I was concerned that food had taken over my life. And I’m not even joking here; I noticed that I had this overwhelming need to eat. I might have had a reasonable meal less than an hour before, my stomach might still be full, but I just needed to go scouting for biscuits, or something else appropriately calorie-heavy. Often, my stomach would be full to the point of being physically uncomfortable, and I’d still be dunking biscuits in tea every few minutes.
Still oversimplifying, Montignac theorised that a pancreas that has consistently been exposed to high GI food for a significant amount of time can become oversensitive, releasing disproportionate amounts of insuline, and also giving disproportionate hunger signals. It works essentially like an addiction. The Montignac diet aims to retrain the body to return to a healthier response to food, which was just what I needed at the time.
To do it properly, you’d need to do some serious reading about this diet, but I’ll give you a very brief summary of the key changes to reduce the GI of your diet:
- No refined sugars – remove it from everything you eat. Bear in mind that the food industry hides sugar in places you would never dream of expecting, so you will not eat things like supermarket bought sauces, pizza bases, dips, deli meats, any foods labelled as “healthy”, “low-fat”, “light”, etc. just to name a few of the ones I found most surprising.
- No refined flours – the natural fibre in cereal grains helps keep their GI within reasonable limits. Each cereal has their GI/GL numbers and is differently affected by the refining process, but a good rule of thumb to follow is the more refined, the less you can call it food. So from here on it’s wholemeal pasta, wholegrain rice (not a cereal, but you get the drift, right?), wholemeal bread, and so on.
- No processed foods – for many different reasons explained in detail in the literature, the more processed a food is, the less nutritional value it will have, and the more it will contribute to keep you hooked to the high GI loop. Processing involves refining flours, adding chemicals (like bleaching flours or adding chemical preservatives), separating natural foods and reconstituting them (think powder milk, white flour with added fibre, skimmed milk with added fat…). A rule of thumb I like to use is if I turn a package round and the list of ingredients is relatively long or has ingredients with chemical or obscure names, I just put it down.
Now, this diet only works if you give it an honest chance. For the first part of the process, the detox part, you can’t “be on the Montignac diet” for weekdays, then eat your usual rubbish at weekends, or similar half-hearted nonsense. Just don’t bother, if that’s what you’re going to do. The first thing I needed to get through that sugar-addled brain of mine was that this was it – these changes are for good. This was without a shadow of a doubt the biggest lifestyle change I made in many years; it was hard work, with many relapses, but utterly and completely worth every single strand of wholegrain spaghetti and every grain of brown rice.
What you can do, though, is break down the changes into manageable stages. There’s a lot of learning to be done, so you could start by applying just one of the three bullet points above, give yourself a month or however long you need to get comfortable with those changes, then move onto the next bullet point. You’ll be a lot more likely to succeed by taking it one step at a time.
The most important thing to remember going into this project is not to view this as a diet. I was learning to eat healthily. I wasn’t going to be on a diet for the rest of my life, as that would have been a very negative view; I was going eat consciously, that’s all. Eating habits are very much in the mind, so to change deeply ingrained perceptions and habits, you need to manipulate how you view food and your relationship to it, which is very conscious, constant work. And you’ll have to be ruthless in sticking to your path.
One thing that works for me is to value food according to the good it does to my whole body, not just my taste buds. For example, cake is not food, especially industrially made cake. Just looking at the ingredients list and the nutritional values, you can see the ridiculously unbalanced macronutrients, and the nearly non existent micronutrients. To a sedentary adult, there’s no value whatsoever in eating cake, other than its emotional, social etc. value as part of a celebration. Once you’ve convinced yourself of this, it’s easy to avoid a second serving and then chuck the leftovers in the bin after the celebration is over. In fact, if you love someone enough to celebrate with them, why would you give them a gift that will contribute to making them unwell? Just think about it.