April 6, 2012

Is Your “Healthy” Diet Silently Causing Pre-Diabetes?


Did you know at least one-third of Americans are at imminent risk of becoming diabetic?

Relephant: 12 Tips to Becoming A Weekday Vegetarian.

If you experience food cravings, mood swings, anxiety and depression, irritability and/or fatigue, you might unknowingly be at risk. The scary truth is, even a “healthy” diet can put you in the danger zone.
You may have heard that diabetes is climbing at an alarming rate. But staying out of the diabetic range is not enough—high blood sugar, even within the so-called “normal range,” has been shown to increase the risk of dying of a heart attack or stroke by 40%, as well as chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, kidney disease, and neuropathy (2).

In this first installment of our series on pre-diabetes, join me as I delve into why and how this silent killer develops, and why most people that already have it, don’t know it. Most importantly, I will offer the real-life strategies that have helped stave off and even reverse pre-diabetes for my patients.

In coming weeks, look for articles about pre-diabetes home screening, so-called “natural” sweeteners, dark chocolate, and more.

Blood Sugar 101

It’s important to understand why and how blood sugar rises, and how common, even “healthy” diets, can prompt the progression of pre-diabetes:

As sugars—even “natural sugars”—and simple carbohydrates are digested, they force the pancreas to produce excess insulin, which is needed to escort the sugars out of the bloodstream and into the cells.

Over time, when the insulin levels are driven up again and again several times a day, the pancreas becomes worn out and the cells can become resistant to taking in any more sugar.

Excess sugar in the blood, unable to be absorbed by the cells, keeps the blood sugar unnaturally high. It lingers there until the insulin stores it as fat, often (but not always) causing abdominal fat, obesity, and high cholesterol.

Excess blood sugar also attaches to proteins that may damage or thicken the arterial wall, directly increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease (2), clots, inflammation, cancer, heart attack and stroke, and more (4).

Most People Who Have Pre-Diabetes Don’t Know It

Here are some staggering statistics: while one third of the American population currently qualifies as Pre-Diabetic, an incredible 90% of them do not know it (9).

Moreover, many of them maintain what would commonly be considered a “healthy” diet.

So how can a condition with such potentially far-reaching complications go unnoticed? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that Pre-Diabetes can cause symptoms in almost every system in the body.

Here are just some of the health risks associated with pre-diabetes (7):

Premenstrual Syndrome
Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome
Increased Blood Coagulation
High Level of Stress Hormones
Accelerated Aging
Sleep Apnea
Heart Disease
Early Puberty
Need for Stimulants
Sleep Disorders
Poor Circulation
Mood Swings
Erectile Dysfunction
Low Vitamin Levels
Enlarged Male Breasts
Mental Fuzziness
Stiff Blood Vessels
Alzheimer’s Disease
High Cholesterol
Male Pattern Baldness
Food Cravings
High Triglycerides

Sugar Has Been Around for Ages—Why is It Posing a Threat Now?

Natural foods like energy bars, chai tea lattes, most yogurt, natural chips, whole wheat breads, dried fruits and even fresh squeezed fruit juices all deliver a blood sugar surge that may contribute to pre-diabetes.

There is more than one reason for the epidemic climb in blood sugar, and of course, simply eating more of the sweet stuff is a big part of the equation. But the fact is that we don’t always know what we are eating, and that is largely due to the rise in popularity of processed and refined foods.

While many of us equate the idea of “processed foods” with a certain kind of poor quality “junk food,” many of the items at the health food store are far from the natural state of the ingredients they were made from.

Jack Lalaine told me once a long time ago, “I never eat anything that has a wrapper.” Prophetic advice from a nutrition icon. Just think, foods with wrappers are generally processed and then wrapped to help preserve them.

The human body wasn’t designed to ingest refined and processed foods. The more refined and processed the food, the quicker it will enter the bloodstream.

Natural Sweeteners—Are They Really “Natural?”

So-called “natural” sweeteners, like molasses, pure maple syrup, agave, date and beet sugars are all concentrates from the whole plant, and as such do not exist in nature. It is hard to refute the logic that if we were meant to eat refined carbs and concentrated sugars, they would exist in nature in that form.

Honey and stevia might be the only sweeteners that naturally occur in nature. I am a bee-keeper and love my bees, but I have to wonder if honey is actually meant for humans. With about 10 to 20 thousand stingers protecting each hive, it makes you wonder if nature intended for us to have any!

Moreover, the bees gather the nectar from thousands of flowers to manufacture the honey, so it really is a processed concentrate. I do think that raw honey has value for humans as a medicine and in extreme moderation as a sweet, but never for cooking or baking according to Ayurveda, or as the “healthy sweetener” it is touted as today. (Look for an upcoming newsletter in this series, in which I will discuss the properties of all “natural sweeteners” at length.)

These sweeteners, along with  simple carbs like packaged pastas, white rice, corn, potatoes, most breads, refined grains and most cereals, quicly break down into sugar and enter the bloodstream  too fast for the body to safely handle them.

Gulping the Sweet Stuff Down

One of the most common and efficient ways to deliver a massive sugar surge to the body is to drink a sweet beverage. Many folks try “healthier” beverages which often just package sugar with a healthy-looking label and marketing. Let’s look at exactly how much of the sweet stuff is packed into the drinks that “keep us going.”

•    Simply drinking a 12 ounce Coke is the same as swollowing 10 tsps of table sugar (39g of sugar) (1). Imagine asking your 8 year old to sit at the table and swollow 10 tsps of sugar. If a child has a coke and a package of licorice (57g of sugar) at the movies, that’s pushing 100g of sugar in one sitting with no activity to help the body process it. Licorice is actually one of the better candies – one box of Dots alone delivers 111g of sugar!

•    One can of Hansen’s Cherry Vanilla Crème Natural Soda contains 43 grams of sugar!

•    A bottle of Vitamin Water – considered a healthy beverage – has 27g of sugar – it’s a jolt to anyone’s brain chemistry and blood sugar.

•    8 ounces of Tazo iced tea contains 19g of sugar – but who drinks just 8 ounces?

•    The 24 oz Starbucks Venti  Iced Green Tea has 51 g of sugar – that’s more like it!

•    8 ounces of orange juice: out of 27 grams of carbohydrate, 24 of them are sugar. It’s almost all SUGAR!

•    8 ounces of lemonade:  out of 30 grams of carbs, 28 of them are sugar. We knew that lemonade wasn’t about the lemons!

•    100% Pomegranate (8oz):  36 grams of carbs, 31 grams of sugar.  Surprising, right? It’s still a ton of sugar.

Note: When you squeeze the juice out of a fruit, the fiber that slows down the absorption of the sugar is removed, and what you are left with is a juice of mostly sugar.

More Hidden Sugars

Soda pop, ice cream and candy are obvious sugar injections, but how many little injections of sugar are we getting all day? Chips, even the natural ones, break down extremely quickly into carbs. Cultures that ate a lot of potatoes were typically northern and always ate a big piece of meat with the potatoes to balance the blood sugar surge. Americans have chips with soda—really!

Remember, simple carbohydrates in bread and other refined grains turn into sugars and behave the same way in the bloodstream.


•    One Slice of organic whole wheat bread has 28 grams of carbs, 3 grams of sugar, with a glycemic index of 73. That’s more than table sugar, which has a glycemic index of 59.

•    One slice of sprouted grain and seed bread (requires refrigeration) has 14grams of carbs, 0 grams of sugar, and a glycemic index of 37. With no major blood sugar impact, this is definitely the preferable choice!


•    Organic wild berry low fat yogurt smoothie (6oz) has 23 grams of carbs, 23 grams of sugar.

•    Ben and Jerry’s Peach Cobbler ice cream (1/2 pint) has 28 grams of carbs,  26 grams of sugar.

Take a Fresh Look at Your Favorite Healthy Snack

Check out the label on your favorite nutrition bar and you will find it loaded with sugars. Just because they are dates sugars, molasses, honey, dried mangoes, raisins or fruit concentrates doesn’t mean they are healthy. They are still an overwhelming blast to the pancreas and blood sugar.

Take a bag of dried mango—a good example because it has a medium amount of sugar compared to most fruits. Many of my patients used to go through one of these bags in a day, or even one sitting:

•    100 grams of a ripe mango has 13.7 grams of sugar. 100 grams of the dried mango fruit—the same amount of mango—has 76 grams of sugar.

Note: Drying fruits concentrates their sugar content, dramatically altering their behavior in the body. The body was not meant to thrive on concentrates!

Please start looking at the labels of the health foods you buy. Read how many grams of sugar and total carbs are in each product.  You might be surprised!

Warning: Check the serving size!

Often the serving size is very small, much smaller than the amount in the container you are purchasing. Because of this, the nutritional facts can be misleading. A bottle of juice, for example, often amounts to 16 ounces, but the serving size is eight ounces. The amount of sugar in the whole bottle in this case is really double the number on the label.

The Real Natural Sugars

In nature, the carbohydrates we were meant to ingest and thrive on are vegetables—lots of vegetables.

The sugars in veggies are protected by the vegetable fiber and are delivered into the bloodstream in a slow and steady fashion. If we compare ourselves to the gorilla, the animal who has the most similar digestive system to humans, we will notice that they eat half their body weight in veggies per day. They do eat small amounts of meat—and the grains they get are raw, with all of the plant fiber intact.

I don’t think we always have to eat like gorillas, but I believe the amount of veggies they eat per day puts us to shame. To protect yourself from pre-diabetes and the many risks associated with it, you simply cannot eat enough veggies. That doesn’t mean that real whole grains or some meats are bad—it is balance that the body likes.

Your Diet Is Your Best Defense

The best strategy to avoid and, in many cases, reverse Pre-Diabetes is with a diet free of simple and refined sugars. Try to avoid all sugars, sweeteners and the high-sugar-content mentioned in this article.

If you are going to eat shorter chain—or higher glycemic index—foods such as corn, white rice, wheat or potatoes – try to have them in the natural state rather than a refined version like corn or potato chips, or non-sprouted breads. Also eat these carbs with a protein source so they are not just un-opposed sugars entering your bloodstream.

Try to make three meals a day count. Make them balanced with a starch, like a whole grain, lots of green veggies, and a protein source such as fish, eggs, tempeh, nuts, seeds or meats. It is all about whole unprocessed foods and making each meal balanced, three times a day.

Stay tuned: In my next newsletter in part two on Pre-diabetes I will discuss the importance of testing for Pre-Diabetes and a Self Home Pre-Diabetes Screening that every American should have.

1,2,3,4,5,6.Challem, Berkson, Smith. Syndrome X. Wiley Press.2000.
7,8,10  Challem. Stop Pre-Diabetes Now. Wiley. 2007
9. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2011/p0126_diabetes.html. Accessed November 3, 2011.

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Editor: Kate Bartolotta.

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