How Picking Up Sticks Might Curb Diabetes Risk

How Picking Up Sticks Might Curb Diabetes Risk

By Melissa Pandika

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Because no one wants to cut carbs.

By Melissa Pandika

You are what you eat, we’ve all heard a million times. “For a long life and lithe figure, eat lean, leafy foods,” says every annoying Whole Foods shopper you’ve ever met (not to mention many scientists and respected researchers). But a recent study suggests that what you use to eat is just as crucial as what you eat — and may even help chop chronic disease risk. Enter the humble chopstick. 

Scientists at the National University of Singapore and the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre, also in Singapore, compared participants who used spoons, hands and chopsticks. Those who ate a bowl of rice with chopsticks showed a significantly lower glycemic response — meaning that their blood sugar levels rose slower — than those who ate with spoons or hands. Eating with chopsticks also lowered the rice’s glycemic index, a number representing boost in blood sugar levels after eating. Earlier studies have linked a lower glycemic response to reduced risk for Type 2 diabetes and related chronic diseases, like obesity and heart disease.

Christiani Jeyakumar Henry, director of the Clinical Nutrition Research Centre, came up with the idea for the study from observing Singaporeans noshing at food courts in the mall. Singapore consists of three major ethnic groups — those of Chinese descent, who prefer eating with chopsticks, and South Asians and Malays, who use their fingers or occasionally Western utensils. “Could it be the way in which we feed ourselves might have differences physiologically?” he wondered. 

When people take small bites — like they do with chopsticks — they chew less. Those larger food particles take longer to digest. 

Henry and his colleagues recruited 11 participants, making sure they were equally proficient at each eating method. On each of three days, they pricked their fingers to measure their baseline blood glucose levels. They then randomly assigned them to finish a bowl of rice with a different eating method, their cheeks hooked up to electrodes that measured the number of mouthfuls they took, the number of chews per mouthful and the time taken to finish each mouthful. Finally, they took periodic blood samples for the next two hours, measuring the glucose levels in each.

The glycemic response of participants who ate with chopsticks was significantly lower than those who used spoons, according to a study published in the Journal of Physiology & Behavior in December. Using chopsticks also lowered the rice’s glycemic index by roughly 13 percent. But there were no differences in glycemic response or glycemic index between the chopsticks and fingers groups, or between the spoons and fingers groups. Those who ate with chopsticks took nearly half as much rice per mouthful than those who ate with spoons or fingers and 30 percent fewer chews per mouthful. Chopsticks users also took nearly double the amount of time to finish each mouthful.

Henry explained that when people take small bites — like they do with chopsticks — they chew less. Those larger food particles take longer for the enzymes in our saliva to digest, resulting in a milder increase in blood sugar levels. Sudden blood sugar spikes lead to Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. That’s not to say we should stock up on chopsticks just yet. More research is needed to disentangle the effects of culture, says Jennie Brand-Miller, a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Sydney. “Maybe chopsticks and slower eating go hand in hand,” she says. A Westerner might eat as fast with chopsticks as she would with a spoon, for example. She also notes that scientists still don’t know for sure whether glucose response will predict diabetes risk.

Either way, the findings open the door to other strategies for curbing the glycemic response to white rice, especially for people from cultures with a long history of rice consumption. Forget carb-cutting — instead of advising people to reduce their rice intake, food manufacturers could develop products that encourage people to take smaller bites. Think perforations that allow people to break cookies into several bite-size morsels. Something to chew on as you spring into summer shape.