Make a fuel of yourself

by Gautam Raja

Last time I wrote about “vintage sodas” and how I’d barely drunk any soft drinks in the last five years, a conscious break. I’d realised my consumption of carbonated drinks was simply a habit I’d carried over from childhood. It was reinforced during my college days of eating at cheap restaurants where we could trust the fresh-cooked food, but it was pretty likely that the water would kill us. And since it was before the ready availability of bottled water, we got into the habit of drinking a cola or two with a restaurant meal.

One day, as I was getting back to exercise, I decided to drop the drinks. They were empty calories for me, not just nutritionally (as they are for everyone) but also, if I was totally honest with myself, in enjoyment. The first two sips were good, after that it was a bit of “I’ve started this so now I must finish it”.

Now, perhaps two or three times a year, I’ll have a cola and at this frequency it tastes like a magical draught, at least for the first few sips. But the moments I really give thanks for this drink are the couple of times that I have, in endurance exercise terms, “hit the wall” while cycling. When exercise goes past an hour or so, food intake, both before and during the ride becomes important. When you run low on glycogen reserves, all the energy seems to drain from the legs and there’s nothing to do but shift to a low gear and limp homeward.

While it takes a long time to recover after hitting the wall, a quick infusion of sugar can help, and here cola drinks come highly recommended by a lot of riders. I have to respect the energy contained in sugar when I see how quickly one these drinks perks me up and fuels me for the last 10 or 15km home. Drinking a soft drink when sitting on a sofa is almost scary now, when I know how much raw energy is going into my body. It’s not going to be burned, so there’s nothing for my body to do but create a little insulin flood, mop it all up and put it carefully away.

These experiences change your relationship with food. In this context, I’m often reminded of two motorcycles I used to own. One was an old Czech bike of ancient vintage, but available new in India up to 1996. I would sometimes notice that my front tyre was visibly low on air, and feel guilty that I couldn’t feel a change of something like 10psi. A few years later I rode a modern, highly engineered sportsbike and realised I could feel a change of even 1psi in the front tyre. It wasn’t that I had got more sensitive, but that less play in the system meant my connection with my front tyre was more solid and more crucial. In the same way, as exercise removes the play in one’s body, the connection to food gets more solid and more crucial, and eaters start to feel more results—both good and bad—of their eating choices.

And so, exercise is really no different from tinkering with science experiments in the garage, just that the garage is your own body. We all love to poke at systems and see how they react. Rather than getting finicky and pointed, I think it’s possible to gain much balance. After all, look at how we know now those sugary carbonated villains of the nutrition world can be good medicine in the right situation.

First published in Gulf News, August 9, 2011