How can I eat food that is healthy and filling but still function?
March 16, 2012 2:30 PM   Subscribe

I have recently become appalled at just how carb-heavy my diet is. But without them, I crash. "What should I be eating instead?" and other glycemic questions follow.

My usual daily diet consists of the following (and just fyi, I'm living on a somewhat low budget with rudimentary cooking skills, which is why this list is so limited, although I am trying to learn how to cook):

Breakfast-peanut butter on whole-grain toast, sometimes with a banana or an apple
Lunch--whole wheat pasta with canned spaghetti sauce
Dinner-some meat dish with sides of rice and a vegetable--sometimes home-cooked, occasionally from the Chinese restaurant where I work

My main problem with the way I eat is my body's tendency to freak out if I don't consume the above. For example, for breakfast I once ate a fruit salad consisting of two small apples and a banana, and I felt shaky afterward, even though I felt relatively full. The shaky feeling did eventually go away--which I have noticed in other instances where I eat but don't feel satisfied immediately afterwards--but it's frustrating for me to have to wait a few hours to feel normal.

I figure this is a blood sugar issue, and hence a too-many-carbs issue. I thought about doing the Atkins diet, but I'm weary of consuming so much fat. But conversely, I've tried healthy snacking--raw carrots, celery, etc--and veggies and fruits just don't satisfy me like something fatty does.

The other diet improvements I've tried to make have not been very successful: yesterday, I ate cooked cabbage with spaghetti sauce instead of spaghetti (I now realize that cabbage is mostly water, so I was setting myself up for failure here). I was still hungry afterwards until I had a cookie and some Guinness bread at a party later. This satisfied-yet-probably-didn't-eat-enough state set the stage for this morning: my sister recommended that I buy steel-cut oats because it is filling but won't spike your blood sugar, so I had that for breakfast; and indeed it didn't spike my blood sugar--but it didn't completely get rid of the shaky hungry feeling I had after I, um, emptied my bowels. So I'm wondering if it's a bad idea in general for me to consume low-GI foods? Is my need for filling but less healthy foods something that I can change through gradual dietary improvements, or is my body chemistry naturally like this, and I just have to deal with it? And finally, what cheap/easy-to-make dishes or foods can I eat to change my reliance on carbs or at least use as healthy carb complements so that my diet isn't so carby?
posted by dean_deen to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe a smaller serving of pasta and more protein at lunch?

The carbs make you feel full, but the protein is what keeps you from crashing later.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 2:35 PM on March 16, 2012

I find that if I eat small meals more frequently through the day I can avoid having blood sugar freak-outs. So rather than, say, three 800-calorie meals, I have six 400-calorie meals. More meals = fewer blood sugar peaks and valleys.
posted by lekvar at 2:39 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't try to cut out the carbs completely from every meal. Rather than an entire serving of pasta, just have half a serving of pasta in addition to extra meat/veggies. Get an extra side of vegetable rather than rice with dinner.

If you do feel really shaky and hungry during the day, snack non-processed carby grain things like fresh fruits, vegetables, and/or lean cuts of deli meat.

This really isn't something you can change overnight. I took me 2 weeks to get used to a rather strict paleo diet last year (allowing myself dairy was the exception I made to the rule). Those 2 weeks of adjustment were absolute crap. I didn't have any energy to do anything, felt really lethargic, but once I got used to it, the world was fine again. If I could do it again, I would've started more gradually rather than not eating anything with grain in it cold turkey.

Narrative Priorities is correct in that the protein will help you with the full feeling longer than carbs will.
posted by astapasta24 at 2:40 PM on March 16, 2012

I'm not a nutritionist nor doctor, but based off my experience and self-taught knowledge:

Seems like you need a lot more protein in your diet, particularly in mornings. Oatmeal and eggs are great cheap, healthy alternatives. Also, are you eating often enough? If I eat nothing but oatmeal until lunch, I get insanely hungry. It helps to have high protein snacks in between (low sugar power bars, cottage cheese, and a Whey shake).

Lentils are great too, can be cheap, filling and delicious.

Also from my experience, it took time for my body to adjust to lower GI diet. But, protein helps, I figured that I was eating about 50-60 grams of protein a day. I upped this to 90-120 a day and it made a huge difference in my energy level, satiety, and focus.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 2:41 PM on March 16, 2012

Assuming you've seen a doctor and had your blood sugar tested (which should be the first thing you do if you haven't, since feeling shaky due to blood sugar is not something you want to mess around with, and could be a sign of something serious), part of this may just be normal. When you are used to eating something (especially the stuff your body craves, like sugar and fat), when you stop eating it, your body tries to convince you otherwise. Usually, if you can push past this feeling for a while, you then get used to whatever it is you are currently doing, and those cravings will pass.

If you are looking for a lower carb diet, South Beach doesn't rely on fats in the way that Atkins does, and is a fairly healthy way to eat. It focuses on healthy carbs through fruits and vegetables)

When I was trying to lose weight and eat healthy, I failed time and time again. The only thing that worked for me was to take a week and do a juice fast (I drank nothing but fresh vegetable and fruit juice), which was rough, but it allowed me to push through those food withdrawals without any chance of slipping, and once that week was over, I found that I didn't need to eat a lot of crap to feel satisfied. Fast forward to several months later, and I've lost close to 20 pounds, and can feel satisfied after eating a salad, or drinking a glass of vegetable juice for breakfast.
posted by markblasco at 2:45 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's not normal to crash from not eating carbs. Your description of crashing after oatmeal might actually be indicative of an insulin disorder that should be looked at.

Cabbage and spaghetti sauce doesn't have any protein in it, unless there was meat in the sauce. (Also, spaghetti sauce is made of fruit, which is sugar.) That's why you weren't satisfied. You may want to use a tracker like fitday or sparkpeople (there's a metafilter group on sparkpeople) so you can start making sure you're eating actual protein.

But, really, bloodwork should be a high priority.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:48 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The answer is protein. More protein.

For example, for breakfast I once ate a fruit salad consisting of two small apples and a banana, and I felt shaky afterward, even though I felt relatively full. The shaky feeling did eventually go away--which I have noticed in other instances where I eat but don't feel satisfied immediately afterwards--but it's frustrating for me to have to wait a few hours to feel normal.

This is full of carbs and sugar, with no protein whatsoever.

Apple = 77 calories, 20.6g carbs, 15.5g sugar, 0.5g protein
Banana = 105 calories, 27g carbs, 14.4g sugar, 1.6g protein (smallish banana)

So your 'fruit salad' was 259 calories, 68.2g carbs, 30g sugar, barely 2g protein.

Two scrambled eggs = 143 calories, 0.8g carbs, 12.6g protein.

The shakiness was SUGAR and CARBS.

The other diet improvements I've tried to make have not been very successful: yesterday, I ate cooked cabbage with spaghetti sauce instead of spaghetti (I now realize that cabbage is mostly water, so I was setting myself up for failure here)
This still has close to zero protein.

I suggest you buy a few cookbooks. Start with Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. It's more like an assembly line than cooking, with simple steps.
posted by barnone at 2:48 PM on March 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

I stopped the hideous post-carb crash and starving-two-hours-before-lunch when I stopped having peanut butter on toast for breakfast.

Now I have two scrambled eggs with cheese, and a dollop of cottage cheese on top.

Lunch is usually some large salad thing, with some protein in (tuna, grilled chicken). Dinner is similar, sometimes with carbier things like roasted sweet potatoes.
posted by rtha at 2:55 PM on March 16, 2012

Yes, more protein. Eggs are great for breakfast, almonds are a great snack, beans/fish/meat along with some vegetables for lunch/dinner. I also rely more on dairy (cheese, yogurt) than I should but it's so tasty! Also, quinoa is great if you really like carbs but want something with better protein.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 2:55 PM on March 16, 2012

Protein is good but so is fat. I struggled with the same issue my whole life until I went LCHF (low carb, high fat) and I just feel amazing and have lost 45 pounds.

If you do some reading you may find that the whole idea that fat is bad for you was a horrible mistake. Stop ignoring what your body has been telling you!
posted by callmejay at 2:56 PM on March 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yep, you must increase protein and decrease sugars. Peanut butter, cheese/yogurt, tuna, eggs, nuts, avocados, beans, lentils, and quinoa are all affordable additions to your diet.
posted by scody at 2:57 PM on March 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

You really need protein, protein, protein, and some fat.

Carbs are not the devil. Fat is not the devil. A lean chicken breast with tons of fresh veggies and half a cup of whole wheat pasta is going to make you feel so much better in the long run than cabbage with jarred sauce. Cut down on the carbs a bit, but increase your protein and start eating some good fats, and see how you feel.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 3:01 PM on March 16, 2012

In answer to the last part of your question, yes, it may be possible to train yourself not to eat carbs. But carbs are important. As Margaret Cho said once, they are the thing that allows you to make serotonin, and hence, want to live.

Anyhow, for cutting back, the steel cut oats are a good idea. My boyfriend has had a lot of luck making a similar transition. He makes a lot of home made bread, which is fun, and pretty easy for a beginner cook.

Gluten-free bread, and quinoa bread (there are tons of recipes for this online) have worked well for me in eliminating the still-hungry feeling. So has adding raisins, walnuts, and sometimes a boiled egg.

In Denmark, where they never seem to get these blood sugar issues, and nobody ever seems overweight, a breakfast I have seen a lot of people eat is yogurt with musli.

For lunch, a combination of pea or bean soup and salad can be genuinely filling. (There are carbs in the peas as well as the beans, however).

Yams are another kind of carb- they have gluten in them, but also lots of vitamins. They are easy to cook in the microwave!

For dinner, cabbage with spaghetti sauce has too few calories to be really filling. If you want that flavor, stuffed cabbage (with rice) has the same tomato sauce taste. It might well be something that can be cooked with whole grain rice.
posted by kettleoffish at 3:24 PM on March 16, 2012

I'm thinking.... poached eggs on seedy bread for brekkie.... whatever for lunch and then a super protein dinner..... salmon and mostly veggies, or chicken and mostly veggies... go with this and you might be good to go...
posted by misspony at 3:29 PM on March 16, 2012

You definitely need more protein. I've found that eggs are the only thing that will keep me from getting hungry an hour after breakfast. I'm hungry after oatmeal or anything else.

If I eat a sugary breakfast I usually feel awful for awhile after.

For lunch I like to make big salads with lots of different veggies, some kind of nuts or seeds, and usually feta cheese. You could also do hard-boiled eggs for protein. I also sometimes put in orzo pasta...the possibilities are endless...I also make my own salad dressing/vinaigrette (with whatever sounds good - often lemon juice/olive oil and maybe some herbs) and then it never gets boring. I used to hate the idea of a salad but when I make them more chunky and less leafy they are one of my favorite meals.

Lentils are another good can switch up spices/veggies and make a lot of different dishes.

For snacks I love roasted chick peas. Take a can of chick peas, toss with some oil, salt/pepper and whatever other seasonings you want. Roast at 400, shake the pan every 20 minutes or so and you've got a nice crunchy snack that is full of protein and fiber.

Sardines or tuna is also good. I eat a lot of sardines now because they don't have the mercury problems of tuna. I make them pretty much the same way I make tuna salad(except I don't add mayo to sardines)

I didn't exactly train myself not to eat carbs, but I eat *better* carbs, along with more protein and fat, and I feel much better. Lately instead of regular bread I've been eating Wasa crispbread. I like the 'hearty' kind. I usually put sardines/tuna on them or hard boiled eggs.
posted by fromageball at 3:34 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I came in here to say what's already been said:

Protein, protein, protein.

I had a "I must lose weight" epiphany a few years ago where I decided I needed to cut way back on calories. I promptly cut way back on protein and fat - and I felt just the way you describe: shaky.

So instead, I focused on INCREASING two things: protein and greens. (I just figure leafy greens are super healthy so I should get a lot of them.)

For me, this has worked really well: I haven't cut carbs out by any means, but I'm a geeky number-happy calorie counter, and I'm aware that carbs - like fat - add up pretty quickly, so with both carbs and fat, I just keep things to sensible amounts. This has a lot to do with portion control, too. I used to think: "Hey, whole wheat pasta's healthy. I'll just have a nice big bowl of pasta!" I had no idea that a serving size is 2 ounces - which is NOT a lot of pasta. When I eat proper servings of carbs, they aren't a problem for me.

Your mileage, may, of course, vary.

As others have pointed out, your go-to meals are really light on protein, so I would suggest concentrating on that. For every meal, get yourself some good protein. Eggs are great for breakfast; for variety, a bean-and-cheese breakfast burrito or something with a lot of Greek yogurt might be good.

For lunch and dinner, again, start by making sure you've got some good protein. The suggestions above are great - lean chicken, tuna, lentils. Add a bunch of green veggies and an actual serving size of starch (a single slice of bread, 2 ounces of pasta, a regular-size potato). See how that makes you feel.

Finally, if you really want to know what's going on with your blood sugar, you can buy a glucose meter and some test strips for well under $100. (A lot of drugstores offer a starter kit that includes the meter, calibrating solution, and some strips.) I've seen a number of folks online start testing their blood sugar for their own edification. It might be interesting to take a really experimental approach: for a couple of weeks, write down what you eat for every meal. An hour after you eat, write down what you feel, and then measure your glucose levels. You could get some great insights into what works well for you.
posted by kristi at 3:36 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

By the way, if you live on your own and find that cooking just one well-balanced serving at a time is part of the challenge, here's a good selection of single-serving lunches and dinners that might be useful.
posted by scody at 3:45 PM on March 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry to look a little stupid, but that looks like a sensible balanced diet to me. Why the perceived need to cut carbs? It certainly doesn't sound like too much food, and I'd say that a serving of meat, and a serving of peanut butter every day, together with the protein in wheat and rice sounds like about enough protein for a person, and if all the wheat and rice is whole grain, it sounds pretty good.

I suspect that cutting down on carbs just means that you're not getting enough calories in, period. And a bit more variety in the protein you're getting may be worth it. But I really can't see the need to change from the food you list in the question. It's similar to a 1950s British diet, when obesity and type 2 diabetes were extremely rare.
posted by ambrosen at 4:11 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

For example, for breakfast I once ate a fruit salad consisting of two small apples and a banana, and I felt shaky afterward, even though I felt relatively full

In addition to being pretty carby, this just isn't all that calorie-dense. Part of the problem may just be that you ate too little.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:25 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

That fruit breakfast was tiny and all sugar (with some fiber). I have the same problem and have to be particularly careful with my breakfasts - it's almost better for me to not eat any breakfast than to eat a sugary breakfast like the one you described. I have discovered an awesome breakfast that works really well for me: a single serving container of plain 2% Greek yogurt with raspberries, a tiny bit of lower-sugar jam, and a high fiber, low-sugar cereal like Kashi Go Lean. It's very filling and gets a lot of the stuff you need into it. And it's very simple. To feel your best, try to work fat, whole grains/fiber and protein into every meal. It's not always going to be possible, but you'll definitely feel best when you can.
posted by imalaowai at 4:50 PM on March 16, 2012

I am not a nutritionist (IANAN?), but I agree with other posters that you need to eat more, and eat more protein. It's good that you've identified that you're not satisfied after eating meals and that this is a problem. It took me a long time to come to that seemingly obvious conclusion. For example, your breakfast of just fruit has very few calories and no protein. Your lunch could be relatively caloric depending on how much you eat, but it's not very nutrient rich. Your body is freaking out because you're not getting enough out of the food that you eat.

If you're on a limited budget and not much of a cook, rice and beans are a complete protein. Not very low-carb, but not empty calories, either. I'm not sure from your question why you feel the need to cut carbs, but if you're eating a lot of satisfying, nutrient-rich carbohydrates, I think you should be fine. But again, I am not a diet expert, and everyone is different. Corn and beans is also another good way to get a complete protein.

I am also a big fan of hard boiled eggs. If you don't feel bad about throwing out food, I would eat two but only eat one yolk for breakfast or a substantial snack. For example, you could supplement your protein-less lunch with a hard boiled egg or two. You could do the same with poached chicken breasts, but eggs are cheaper and much easier to prepare.

Do you eat organic/unsweetened peanut butter? Eating peanut butter with less sugar is a good way to cut down on unnecessary carbohydrates while still getting in a source of good fats and protein. It's not that much more expensive than "regular" peanut butter.

In sum: Eat food with more nutritional value. Cooked cabbage with tomato sauce is not a meal, but cooked cabbage over a little brown rice and beans with tomato sauce sounds like a pretty satisfying meal to me.

Good luck! It's hard to figure out how to eat well, especially if you can't spend much on groceries.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 5:48 PM on March 16, 2012

I've already commented once, but I'm dismayed at all the focus on protein and whole grains, when I have been convinced that fat should make up the bulk (65%) of your calories. (Protein should be 30%, carbs 5%, mostly from non-starchy veggies.)

Please at least read LCHF for beginners.

I used to have the same exact symptoms as you. Now I don't (except rarely if I haven't eaten anything in 5-6 hours.)
posted by callmejay at 6:42 PM on March 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding callmejay, fat is fine food and once you get used to it you'll be far more satiated than with so much carbs. I'd suggest a ratio more like 20-25% protein, 10-25% carbs, and 50-65% fat based on personal experience and research, though.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 11:42 PM on March 16, 2012

As Margaret Cho said once, they are the thing that allows you to make serotonin, and hence, want to live.

Something is missing there. Serotonin comes from tryptophan, which comes from protein. (Over-simplified). Carbs may stimulate the release of serotonin, but that's also part of what causes the crash- they make your brain squirt out more serotonin, hence the comfort food label, but when that's over you are left with less serotonin and a sugar crash. My completely amateur research indicates that feeling good (or awful) depends not just on the level of serotonin, but on the rate of change. SSRIs dampen that rate of change by trying to keep the levels in the brain high. But there is also another anti-depressant (not available in the US) that is actually a selective serotonin reuptake enhancer. It purportedly works by dampening the ups, which eliminates the downs.
posted by gjc at 4:53 AM on March 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I thought about doing the Atkins diet, but I'm weary of consuming so much fat. But conversely, I've tried healthy snacking--raw carrots, celery, etc--and veggies and fruits just don't satisfy me like something fatty does.

Read his book before you eliminate the diet from consideration. It's a good book, and the "Atkins = fat" meme is more mythical than anything. (Mostly from the news programs delighting in showing fat guys eating nothing but racks of lamb and bacon) It has been a while since I read the book, but if memory serves, he is mostly agnostic on fat. IE, follow his restrictions and ignore fat. If you start losing weight, great. And then if you don't lose weight, you cut some fat out.

The whole diet can be simplified down to this: carbs whack out your blood sugar, making you even hungrier and less satisfied, and protein and fat will make you feel much more satisfied and coincidentally you end up eating far fewer calories.

The diet has multiple steps, and it ends up with you eating what amounts to a completely normal, somewhat paleo, diet, where you maintain the weight loss that the earlier steps helped with. Breakfast might be eggs and ham, plus 8 oz of OJ and half an apple. Dinner would be a chicken breast with a big salad and a couple ounces of rice. We need carbohydrate foods for some vitamins and minerals, but the vast majority of the carbs we eat are meaningless crap that do nothing but fatten us up.

(Think of pizza, and try to imagine eating a plate full of melted cheese and pepperoni or sausage, with all the grease pooling in the plate. Seems a little disgusting and dense, and probably hard to even finish eating. But somehow, if you put that on a slab of bread, it turns delicious and you want more. The bread soaks up the grease and reduces its ability to make us feel full.)

(Also, corn is not a vegetable. It's a grain, and it's what they use to fatten up cows. That fact helped me understand a LOT about diet.)

(if you do decide to go with an Atkins type of diet, stick with "real" foods and shy away from things like low-carb cookies and low-carb ice cream. They aren't as low-carb as they purport to be.)
posted by gjc at 5:18 AM on March 17, 2012

Oatmeal and eggs for breakfast are great, and cinnamon and fruit of all sorts make the oatmeal taste good. After several months on a lower carb diet. I have lost over 20lbs and am much less hungry than when I was eating lots of carbs, also my blood sugar which was high has returned to normal on my last blood test. More protein, stuff you like, whatever that is, and less carbs, not none. You should be feeling much better soon if you stick with it.
posted by mermayd at 5:41 AM on March 17, 2012

Dont change your diet just because the news states its unhealthy. Are You healthy? Do you look good in your clothes?

As somebody whose allergic to things like annatto extract and has no thyroid if you are healthy and your body likes your current food intake dont change it because the world says you should.

I see nothing wrong with what you eat.

I bet you can just walk 15 min a day instead of changing your diet and be even healthier then changing your food intake .

PS this is based on what you posted you eat.
posted by majortom1981 at 11:00 AM on March 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Chiming in to say that your "low carb" substitutions were, in fact, not low carb. I am on a ketogenic diet and do not eat oats, oatmeal, a lot of fruit, much pasta sauce, or even tons of vegetables because these all contain more carbohydrates than fats or proteins. You are looking for meat, cheese, eggs, maybe some nuts. For example, a can of tuna with mayo on celery sticks would be a pretty easy low carb meal. Or cheesy scrambled eggs.
posted by Acer_saccharum at 12:50 PM on March 17, 2012

My desire to eat fewer carbs basically stemmed from my frustration at what happens to me when I eat something besides carbs, but I now know that I should change my eating habits through addition, rather than subtraction. I am at a healthy weight; I just wanted to stop relying on carbohydrates so much (although losing a few pounds would be fun too). Thanks everybody for your input--more protein it is!
posted by dean_deen at 7:39 AM on March 18, 2012

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