Try The Low-Sugar Challenge

The Low-Sugar Challenge: One of the take-home “personal experiments” I offer to my high school students is to stop eating refined sugars for a week (assuming there are no health conditions that suggest it would be hazardous to a particular student). Perhaps many of you are far beyond this, but over many years of teaching science, I noticed most students found it a new idea. I tell them that my first experience in doing so was to give up sugar for Lent, and after those 40 days the thought of sweets was obnoxious! Those who tried the week all said they learned a tremendous amount about how much sugar they were eating and what foods had very little. Almost all found their cravings for sweets declined even after a few days and their appreciation for fresh fruits and vegetables increased. Their success depended greatly on what sorts of foods were available at home.

Are you the sort of person who has to taper off slowly, or do you go cold turkey? I will confess I love carbohydrates and have worked on my intake of them for many years. You should not expect to ditch all sweets overnight. Or you may have grown up without eating very many; the cuisines of countries like Japan and Spain still consider their less-sweet desserts to be preferable to American ones. The most important thing is to make a plan and then keep track of how you feel.

The sugars to look for on food labels include: glucose, fructose, dextrose, sucrose, maltodextrin, corn syrup, cane juice. The presence of the name of the label it means the sweetener was added, rather than naturally-occurring. A chart of the glycemic index of various foods might be fascinating and helpful to you. Fruit is preferable to fruit juice, since fruit still has the fiber and pulp that make it a whole food. At first you will miss and crave the refined sugars but you will experience this less and less as time goes on. Eventually you will find you are eating few foods with sugars listed on the labels, and if you really make progress, you will be eating very few foods that have labels at all.

What should I eat? There are several sources of meal plans and shopping lists, of which I list only two. My current favorite is online, called The Comprehensive Elimination Diet. I discovered it in a search last year when I was struggling to recover from stuffed-up ears following bronchitis. I stayed on it for about six weeks and lost several pounds without really planning to, in addition to clearing my ears. I liked that! There is quite a bit of meat in the plan, so if you are vegetarian or vegan, only about half of the recipes will work for you. Also fermented foods are not included, so be sure to consider how you will obtain probiotics.  This link contains the rationale for an elimination diet, a shopping list, a seven-day meal plan and recipes, and is published by the Institute for Functional Medicine.

The Fat Flush Plan has two weeks of meals for each of three levels, and detailed, thoughtful and thought-provoking explanations for each item in them. There are vegetarian as well as meat-based recipes. Some of the recipes at Level 1, the most strict, were not flavorful enough to make we want to make them again, but I appreciated the creativity and emphasis on fresh vegetables.

Why reduce sugars in the diet: When we eat, our food is digested and depending on the type of food, blood sugar enters our bloodstream from the intestines. As it reaches a certain level in the blood, insulin is released into the bloodstream to reduce the blood sugar. According to Potatoes Not Prozac, alcohol and white sugars and starches raise blood glucose the most. The more sugars we eat, the higher the blood sugar rises and the more insulin is needed to bring it back to a healthy level. The higher the blood sugar rises, the more likely we are to experience a crash (low blood sugar) with resulting cravings and irritability. According to The Fat Flush Plan, the extra sugars are first stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen (a substance similar to starch), and then as fat. There are concerns that the abundance of sugars available to us in our diets may be causing insulin resistance, a situation in which the blood sugar is no longer be managed at a healthy level. People who are not genetically disposed to diabetes may begin to develop it over time.

Too hard-core? Think about a craving: Chocolate? Sodas? Four sugars in your coffee? What if you start there? Choose one to give up for a week. Maybe you’ll get inspired and give up another. Think small steps on the way to a large one. Focus on what you CAN eat. Apply what you would have spent on the chocolate or soda to your favorite fruit.

Tip: to make drinking plain or filtered water more interesting, add a squeeze of lemon to each glass.

Energy Bars Recipe. These are filling, since they contain healthy oils and fiber from nuts and coconut. They can be made more or less sweet depending on your progress. They get their sweetness from the pineapple, which of course contains naturally-occurring sugars. You may be able to enjoy these without the honey, or include it if you substitute less-sweet dried fruit like apricots or cherries. Enjoy! Adapted from “Nutri-Ola” in The Comprehensive Elimination Diet.

In food processor, grind (if not already ground):

  • 1 c raw cashews
  • 1 c macadamia nuts
  • 1  c dried unsweetened pineapple
  • 1/4 c goji berries (these work best if soaked in a small amount of filtered water for a few minutes)

Process in:

  • 3/4 c coconut flour
  • 1/4  c sesame seeds
  • 2 tbs flax seeds, ground


  • 1/3 c sesame, sunflower or coconut oil
  • 1/8 c honey (optional, to taste – try leaving it out)
  • ¼ tsp Himalayan, Real or other pink sea salt

Process until all is mixed and begins to form a ball

Spread in 7″ x 11″ glass baking pan. Bake at 325 degrees F for about 10 minutes to set. Cool, then cut into bars. Makes about 12 bars, 2 ½ x 2 ½ inches in size. When cool, refrigerate. Keeps for about a week.­ Grain-free, gluten-free, egg-free. 




Probiotic Fun: Simple Sauerkraut

Making Your Own Fermented Foods: It’s like Gardening

According to Dr. Weston Price in his book Nutrition and Physical Degradation, our health is enhanced when we include fermented foods in our diet. He states that all healthy traditional cultures ate foods such as poi, yogurt, sauerkraut and tsukemono, kim chee, kefir, kombucha, salsas, chutneys, natto, miso and fermented fish. The bacteria and yeasts in these foods helped maintain a healthy immune system and kept disease-causing bacteria and other organisms from overgrowing the digestive system then, and are needed by us today. Fermented foods are eaten raw, which meant the enzymes in those foods are not denatured as they would be by cooking.

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut are slightly sour, or can be eaten more or less sour, like poi. A number of my students said that eating sour foods helped them with craving sweets, and I’ve found that to be true also. This sauerkraut is tasty in salads and by itself. I have tried fermenting cabbage in my high school chemistry classes without whey to focus on the effects of the salt alone. In this case you need to add more salt than this recipe contains. The fermentation with the whey results on a more predictable product. It’s fun to watch the bubbles appear and the color changes, and to anticipate eating the experiment. If you are not sure what naturally-fermented sauerkraut should taste like, or don’t have the time or facilities to try making your own, Bubbies makes a wonderful one.

This recipe is adapted from similar ones in Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon.

Pink Sauerkraut

This sauerkraut is pink because it is made with some purple cabbage, which shares its color with the whole batch. In Step 1, whey is obtained from unsweetened yogurt. You may have seen the whey accumulating in a container of yogurt that has been open for a day or two. Now you know something great to do with it! In Step 2, the whey is used as a starter culture of lactic acid bacteria in transforming the cabbage into sauerkraut.

Step 1: Set a clean piece of unbleached muslin into a colander that can drain into a clean bowl; this is at room temperature.  Pour about 1 cupful of plain, whole milk fresh organic yogurt (Straus and Brown Cow work well) into the muslin.

  • Allow the liquid whey to drain into the lower bowl.
  • This will take about 2-3 hours depending on the temperature of the room.
  • Yield: about 1/4 cup whey.
  • The more solidified yogurt that stays in the muslin liner is now similar in texture to Greek yogurt, and can be used like cream cheese or sour cream, as on beet soup (see photo at bottom).
  • Step 2: Combine in a clean, 1-quart glass canning jar:
    • 3 1/2 cups shredded green cabbage, preferably organically grown
    • 1/2 cup shredded purple cabbage, preferably organically grown
    • 1/4 to 1/2 cup shredded carrots, preferably organically grown
    • 2 tsp Real Salt or Himalayan salt
    • 1/4 cup fresh whey
    • Filtered water

    Using a wooden pounder or the thick end of a wooden spoon (some of the bamboo spoons on the market today have handles that are about an inch wide, as in the photo), push the vegetables firmly down into the jar. Dissolve the salt in about 1 cup of the water and pour over the shredded vegetables. Pour the whey in. Add more water until the liquid is 1 inch below the top of the jar. Cover the vegetables with a section of cabbage leaf to protect them from the air. Cover with the lid, leaving it slightly loose. Set the jar on a surface that will not be damaged if some liquid escapes.

    Allow to ferment at room temperature, ideally between 70-75 degrees F**, until bubbles are appearing in the jar, the color of the green cabbage changes to off-white or pale green, and the purple color turns pink* and dissolves throughout the jar. The sauerkraut takes 2-3 days to ferment and should taste slightly sour* but still retain some crunch. Once fermentation is complete, refrigerate at 38 degrees F.

    *Chemistry notes:

    Color changes: The color of the purple cabbage comes from the pigment anthocyanin. The pigment is purple in the fresh cabbage, and becomes more pink as the lactic acid bacteria in the whey convert the sugars from the cabbage to lactic acid and CO2. The longer they continue their fermentation process, the more the pH drops. The lactic acid is what gives organisms like “Lactobacillus” their name and lacto-fermented foods their sour taste. The increasing acidity prevents other microorganisms from growing in, and contaminating, your sauerkraut.

    Why salt? The salt in the solution does two things: it causes some water to be drawn out of the cabbage cells by osmosis, resulting in the crisp texture; and prevents salt-intolerant bacteria and other organisms other than the lactic acid bacteria from being able to grow. The result: a tasty, crunchy condiment full of healthy probiotics.

    ** Temperature note for fermenting in the tropics: In Honolulu my kitchen air temperature routinely measures about 85 F in the afternoon, but I have found that as long as I keep checking the flavor and color of the fermented food, I don’t need to create a cooler place for it. Expect to shorten the fermenting time by anywhere from 12-24 hours.

    Borscht with “Yogurt Cheese”


Basic Food Chemistry

Nutrition Chemistry in (VERY) Brief: Have you ever heard this line in a sci-fi film: We are carbon-based life forms! The human body requires six types of nutrients. The term “organic” means that a substance contains the element carbon in a certain relationship to hydrogen (methane, the simplest organic compound, though not edible, is shown above).  This is a different meaning from “organically grown” which means that the farmer is paying careful attention to avoiding synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, among other criteria. Three of the six nutrients are organic substances we need for calories: carbohydrate, protein and fats.

Carbohydrates are organic substances with the elements carbon, hydrogen and oxygen in the ratio 1:2:1. For example, the important sugar in our blood, glucose, is written C6H12O6. We metabolize the glucose and transform it to energy, CO2 and H2O in a process called cellular respiration. We are always breathing out the CO2 and water produced. The amount that a substance will affect the blood sugar is called the glycemic index, and it is compared to the effect of eating glucose. The more refined and sugar-like a substance is, the greater the effect on the blood sugar, which is why fructose and sucrose have large effects, and proteins and fats have small ones.

File:Amylose 3Dprojection.corrected.png

You can raise your blood sugar almost as quickly with refined starches that are the bulk of white wheat flour, white rice and other grains. These starches are polymers (chains) of glucose molecules, and are converted to blood glucose with just one or a few enzymes. The diagram above shows four glucose molecules (roughly hexagonal) bonded together. The brackets around one of them indicate that this pattern repeats a certain number of times, usually more than a thousand.

A number of diets such as the pH Miracle and Elimination Diets suggest not eating refined starches because they are converted to glucose so quickly. Others, like the Paleo Diet, suggest not eating any grains. Whole foods like vegetables and fruits contain carbohydrate, but the sugars will be present with some fiber and some protein, not to mention vitamins and antioxidants. Grains and legumes, most of which need to be cooked, will be starchier, which is partly why they are more filling. They can be excellent sources of protein, fiber and some fats.

Fats are slowly metabolized to sugars, requiring many enzymes, which is why you rarely hear anyone suggest eating them for quick energy. They are essential for their role in hormones, cell walls and antioxidant production, which is why a fat-free eating plan is dangerous for any length of time. Most people have heard the words “essential fatty acids” and know they are important, but will sometimes be buying fat-free products at the same time. I believe it’s worth spending a little more money to use the healthiest fats available, focusing on whole sources of omega-3 fatty acids such as flax seed, walnuts, wild salmon, grass-fed dairy, and eggs from pastured or flax-fed chickens.

Proteins can be converted to sugars but usually are not; this requires many enzymes and thus a lot of energy. Your proteins are converted to blood sugars in the case of very low-carbohydrate diets; this process carries the risks of ketosis and gout, which is why Dr. Robert Atkins advised people to stay on his strict diet for a relatively short period of time. The GAPS introduction diet also needs to be carefully planned to avoid ketosis by including enough vegetables to balance the high protein content.

Vitamins are important organic substances, but provide no calories. Vitamins are needed for cells to convert the other organic substances to energy, often being substances that allow your digestive enzymes to function. This is why you should never consume vitamins without food. The last two nutrients are minerals and water. Minerals provide electrolytes and the materials for bones among other essential roles. Water not only helps carry nutrients around the body but is also taken up and given off in metabolism.

Our Personal Eating Research Project

The Main Idea:  During the seventeen years I taught high school chemistry, I often joked that I could have taught a lot of it in a kitchen. Well, everything except the explosions. My students, though, were fascinated (at least they said they were!) to learn what was behind food labels and connect the chemistry with their health. Thanks to the students at the Honolulu Waldorf School for their wonderful questions over all those years.

The Body as a Research Project.

Every day we conduct biochemical research on our own bodies. Most of the time, though, we don’t collect data. Rather, we eat and run and hope it’s healthy, struggle to decide about low-fat or low-carb, or eat what’s handy. In our earliest years we trust others to do the shopping, cooking and feeding. Our organs and enzymes faithfully process what we eat and provide us with the energy and nutrients in the food, and will do so until they get worn out with age or illness. But we can always work to become more conscious of how we are feeling after we eat certain foods, to learn about why this is so, and to choose to change or not.

Why the name un-chemical? Often people will tell me they don’t eat any chemicals, but this is actually impossible. Food is a set of chemicals – which is why the field of “food chemistry” exists, and covers everything from basic carbohydrate, protein and fats to vitamins, probiotics and pros and cons of GMO technology. If we take time to understand the chemistry we can gain some control over it and avoid the refined and toxic chemicals that may be part of the food available to us.

Some food metabolism is well understood, but how to apply it is under great debate. Witness the number of nutrition blogs, weight loss websites and diets! There are passionate advocates of vegetarianism, raw foods, paleo diets, pH diets and everything in between. If you are here, maybe you wonder if they have anything in common, or how to start simply in changing how you eat. Each issue of this blog will contain one or two diet resources, the chemistry behind an issue, a recipe that puts it into practice, and some reading to pursue.