Dr. Lee, the Healthy Professor

October – The Triple Threat Month

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October is the “triple threat” month where responsible eating can be challenged on at least 3 occasions. Many people engage in one or more Octoberfest events, there are Thanksgiving dinners mid-month and the ever-indulgent Halloween at the end of the month. Oh yes, if your birthday is in October and there also happens to be a family wedding, it could prove to be a nutritional and health disaster.

Research shows that more than half of us over-eat during such celebration days and according to Diana Steele, a Registered Dietitian from Halifax, over 25% suffer from heartburn and indigestion on those days.

I was once told that the highest rate of school and work absenteeism occurs in the week following a major celebration or holiday. These are the occasions when we give ourselves permission to over-eat, or eat all the wrong things because “after all, it’s a celebration” and during celebrations we are indestructible – right?

In reality, heartburn is a sign of poor digestion and it can be painful, stressful and among certain high-risk people, dangerous. Severe heartburn and stress can result in elevated blood pressure and heart rates that add to the risks of heart attack. Poor digestion equals poor nutrition. If you don’t digest your food in a complete and timely fashion, you cannot feed your cells. Starving cells die or malfunction and that equals illness (Preventable illness). You also need to realize that more heartburn is caused by sugars and refined carbohydrates and eating spicy foods or peppers causes less. Poor or very slow digestion that is a sign of food staying in one place too long and causing stomach irritation.

Most people realize that coffee, alcohol, excess turkey stuffing, gravy and large servings of starchy vegetables along with sweet deserts and condiments can all trigger heartburn/indigestion and the pain and discomfort that accompany such gastric events. They are also very low in nutritional density. Some call it “empty calories”.

Furthermore, these same food and beverage choices can trigger “reactive hypoglycemia” that in turn alters energy, hunger, and behavior. Hypoglycemia is a condition whereby a rapid rise in blood sugar from those festive foods triggers a sharp rise in blood insulin levels. The high insulin causes a rapid drop in blood sugar (that is the job of insulin). Because the brain receives its energy from sugar only (none from fat), there can be a time of drowsiness (not good when behind the wheel of a car), incoherence, depression, anger and/or lethargy. The more often one digresses from responsible eating; the faster these events seem to occur.

The third difficulty presented to the body during “less than responsible” eating events is the chronic elevation of insulin and the chronic suppression of the fat mobilizing hormone glucagon. Insulin is the “shortage” hormone, responsible for moving glucose (blood sugar) from the blood to the cells. If your muscles and liver are already saturated with glycogen (storage form of glucose) and that is most of the time for the average person who does not have a vigorous exercise program, then the glucose is converted to fat and stored. Not only does insulin encourage conversion of sugar to fat but also it suppresses the release of the other pancreatic hormone, glucagon. Glucagon is responsible for releasing fat from storage and encouraging its metabolism for energy. There is an ongoing balancing act between the two hormones.

Elevated blood insulin also accounts for the hunger triggered about 2 hours after a high starch/sugar meal.

Insulin is the “Good Guy – Bad Guy” hormone. Without insulin you die from the complications of diabetes but you also experience a host of serious health risks when insulin is chronically elevated. Insulin is and can be your friend just as water is your friend unless you find yourself at the bottom of the lake without scuba gear.

So when you realize that conventional celebration eating can be a triple threat to your health – indigestion/heartburn, reactive hypoglycemia, and excessive fat storage—you might want to plan your celebrating more carefully.

Responsible choices need not be depressing, deprivation choices. There are several ways to enjoy your favorite foods without creating disasters.

The first is to survey the choices available and be sure to select larger portions of or more of the protein choices and smaller and fewer of the starchy carbohydrate choices. Colorful vegetables and fruit should also be prime choices. Cheese, turkey, ham, shrimp, crab etc. are great. Be careful with the serving sizes of stuffing, mashed potatoes, carrots, gravy, pasta, breads and alcohol or sweet beverages. Small servings combined with protein choices are still enjoyable.

The second action is to be sure to eat some (several mouthfuls) of the protein choices first. These two acts alone will slow down any rise in blood sugar thus helping to control the insulin response and reduce the effects of the heartburn causing choices. Eating protein first, including before you touch your alcoholic beverage or other holiday beverages, will help to keep you alert, avoid indigestion and control hunger (all good things). You will then feel like dancing rather than sleeping after your celebration meals(s). The experience of most of my clients is one of improved energy, reduced blood sugar levels, improved cholesterol levels, even among diagnosed diabetics, and excellent weight management.