Experience Life Magazine

Better Late Than Never

Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl on how early adopters get all the attention — and why it’s never too late to change the way we eat.

JF13_better-late-than-never

I am a late adopter. I didn’t start texting until 2009. In retrospect, I figure I missed a solid five years of standing in grocery store aisles trying to figure out things like what the heck my husband could possibly mean by “loxx2.” (Today, it’s totally clear to me: We need two packages of lox — lox times two.)

I was also a late adopter of Facebook. By the time I got there, all my friends had been on it, abandoned it and rejoined twice. It was the rejoining that convinced me more than their early enthusiasm — if you’ve gone through all that trouble, it really must be useful. Now I sometimes find my workday interrupted by my husband’s elderly relatives in Norway, who like to instant message about the weather. (I actually find this charming; who knew Norway was so very frequently cold and clear?)

Through the years, late adopting has saved me much heartache. I never took up with butt-shaping shoes. There are no ThighMasters in my closet. I never cared about the rise — and thus never suffered through the fall — of Lance Armstrong, James Frey or Milli Vanilli. I never swapped out butter for something made of trans fats that was later revealed to be worse than butter.

Late adopters, or what the late social scientist Everett Rogers called “laggards,” don’t tend to come in for a heap of praise. In fact, Rogers regarded us as people with “no opinion leadership” who have “an aversion to change agents,” the “lowest social status” and “lowest financial fluidity.” Ouch.

But, then again, Rogers, who died in 2004, didn’t grow up in this whip-sawing era of ceaseless innovation, in which the first buyers of any technology, from antidepressants to flat-screen TVs, end up as unwitting subjects of a vast consumer experiment, often paying more and getting inferior versions than if they had held back.

Which is a long way of saying that the first couple of years after I started hearing that sugar and processed carbohydrate flours were the big problems in the American diet, I did nothing. I remained perfectly still and waited for the trend to pass. And while American obesity and type 2 diabetes rates continued to climb, I mainly stayed with the mainstream — avoiding bacon, enjoying the cupcake craze.

A couple of years later, when sugar and flour were tarred and feathered, so to speak, I became more watchful — not like a deer in the headlights exactly, but more like a guard dog who maybe hears something, but maybe doesn’t. The obesity and diabetes rates rose some more. Finally, something in me crystallized.

I picked up two books by science writer Gary Taubes: Good Calories, Bad Calories (Archer, 2008) and Why We Get Fat (Archer, 2011). To me, as a late adopter, the fact that they were still in print and selling well seemed significant. And as someone who had given birth to a couple of babies not too long ago, I was very open to his main argument — that weight gain and weight loss don’t come from calories, but from internal biological signals.

After all, had I not just experienced, in my own body, the amazing physical ballooning that happens within a few days of conception and that has nothing whatsoever to do with calories in and calories out? Do I not watch, every day, with my very own eyes, children who putter along and putter along, eating and not eating the exact same way as they always do and then suddenly grow an inch?

When it comes to adults, Taubes is most interested in an internal biological signal called insulin, which he explains is released when the body believes it is encountering too much sugar. Insulin signals our cells to lock down fat and not use it. In fact, the fat gets so locked down that it’s not even available for the minute-to-minute energy needs of the cell. Meanwhile, the brain, which ordinarily helps suppress appetite when insulin is released, can lose its sensitivity to the hormone and send a message that starvation is close at hand.

With our current sugar-rich diet, Taubes argues, our brains are getting the starvation signal all the time, thus sending a near-constant signal to our bodies to keep on eating.

He also goes on to convincingly argue that a lot of our received dietary wisdom — that a low-fat, high-carb diet will lower cholesterol and prevent heart attacks, for instance — is essentially bunk.

I decided to try avoiding sugar and flour for a few days, and found it was a lot harder than I’d anticipated. Things I had figured were pretty darn healthy, like granola bars and smoothies, turned out to be loaded with sugar. And other things I like very much, like sourdough toast, turn out to be nothing but flour.

But I’ve eaten a lot of flour and sugar in my day, so I decided I could leave them on the shelf for a few days. And I have to say I was shocked at how good I felt. No more after-lunch energy-crash, no more burning need for a nap. No more after-dinner hunting for more dinner. Now I’m wondering if my problem was not avoiding sugar too late, but embracing flour and sugar too early!

I replay it all in my mind. I would have been 7 or 8 months old, sproinging up and down, as children in the 1970s did, in some kind of device made of springs and canvas — probably something brown and gold. My mother would have extended a teething biscuit to me, and instead of pressing my little gums on it, I should have said, “Hey lady. How long have people been eating stuff like this?”

She would have replied, “Not that long, my tot — at least, not in terms of human history. Since about 6000 BC, or so, depending on who you believe.” And also: “Stop being such a weirdo, small sproinging baby. Have a lollipop.”

To which I would have replied: “But how long have people been eating that?” And she’d have said, “Not long at all. Really only since sugar plantations and sugar-refining technology came into the modern era, effectively since the late 18th century.”

At which point I should have sneered and pushed the proffered treats aside. “Well, I’m gonna wait and see. You got something people have been eating longer?” At which point she’d have handed me a roasted rabbit, and I’d have avoided the future heartache of snug pants.

Now, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to go forward with a no-sugar, no-flour life. I am, however, definitely going to tilt my life toward eating only those sugars and flours I really, really want.

If that morning granola bar is just a shabby compromise made in the name of being too busy to make an omelet, why not have a couple of hard-boiled eggs instead? And, really, how many sugars and highly processed carbohydrates am I eating not from joy or intention, but just because they’re around?

What if we all embraced the same spirit behind Meatless Mondays and devoted it to Sugar-Free Wednesdays? Or what if we all spent the first weekend of the month avoiding sugar and processed carbohydrates?

At first, it’s much harder than you’d think (imagine breakfast without a bowl of cereal, a bagel, even a little jam and toast next to your eggs). But when the early adopters have already paved, proved and re-proved the way, I ask you this: Why not move beyond bread and sugar — at least when you want to? After all, that’s the beauty of being a late adopter.

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Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl is a James Beard Award-winning food and wine writer.

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