Posts Tagged ‘paradigm shifting’

The Hormone That Cried Wolf

Gary Taubes wrote an interesting article in the New York Times. He outlines the studies indicating that excess sugar consumption  leads to fatty liver, insulin resistance,  obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. He queries his way through the evidence to try to answer the question, “Is sugar toxic?”

First of all, let’s start out with some facts:

1. Taubes establishes that refined sugar (sucrose) is a 50-50 mixture of fructose and glucose. Fructose is what makes sugar sweet, which might partly explain the popularity of high fructose corn syrup, which is 55% fructose and 45% glucose. So  the maligned high fructose corn syrup is only 5% higher in fructose content than regular refined sugar.

2. It’s important to know that the body metabolizes fructose and glucose differently: the liver processes fructose, and every cell in the body processes glucose.  Complex carbs (rice, bread) are broken down into glucose.  The more fructose one consumes, and the smaller amount of time one consumes it in (say if it’s in a drink), then the harder the liver has to work.

3. The pancreas secretes insulin to respond to foods that raise our blood sugar, namely carbohydrates and sugars. The insulin scoops the excess sugar from our bloodstream and stores it in the liver and muscles in the form of glycogen. But if the reserves are full or too much sugar was consumed, the cells begin to ignore insulin.  The exhausted pancreas needs to pump out more insulin to get the same effect, and and the sugar is eventually stored in fat cells.

4. The process described above is called insulin resistance. To restate, this is when the pancreas cannot secrete enough insulin to manage rising blood sugar levels because the cells become resistant to insulin. Consequently,  the excess sugar and insulin remain in the blood stream for longer.  Chronic insulin resistance is also known as metabolic syndrome.

5. More and more evidence is linking sugar consumption with insulin resistance.

6. Insulin resistance and chronically elevated insulin levels are accepted as a significant risk factor (if not a precursor) to diabetes, obesity,  high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol levels (the “good cholesterol”), and high triglycerides.

7. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer studied large populations in 2004. Their findings state one is more likely to get cancer if they are insulin resistant, obese, and/or diabetic. Other researchers are finding this as well.

8. Furthermore, cancer researchers are finding that excess insulin (a symptom of insulin resistance) promotes tumor growth, and the cells of several human cancers need insulin for fuel/blood sugar. Insulin resistance seems to be at the center of several cumulative diseases.

9. Researchers currently studying insulin resistance assert that the accumulation of fat in the liver (fatty liver disease) is the likely cause of insulin resistance. Accumulation of fat  in the liver. According to the second point listed above, the liver processes fructose. So what causes fat to accumulate in the liver? Is it sugar, fructose consumption in particular? Yes, yes it is.

And if one were to look at the facts from a bird’s eye view, this would appear to be the case. For example, in the 1980’s, each American was consuming an average of 75 pounds of sugar per year (according to the USDA). One in seven were obese and 6 million were diabetic. Sugar consumption per person increased to 90 pounds a year in the early 2000’s. By then, one in every three were diabetic, and 14 million were diabetic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimate that 75 million Americans have metabolic syndrome. The information below is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

Unfortunately, while there is plenty of similar “circumstantial evidence” correlating sugar consumption to obesity and diabetes. The National Institutes of Health aren’t funding many viable studies that produce conclusive results. Taubes points out the flaws in several of the studies relating sugar consumption to insulin resistance:

  • There are studies that link consuming beverages sweetened with fructose to insulin resistance; however, refined sugar is half fructose and half glucose.
  •  The dosages used are perhaps too high (8-10 cans of Coke a day).
  • Insulin resistance, heart disease, and diabetes require several months to several years to develop. One meal or a few weeks’ worth of meal studies aren’t enough to establish whether or not  it is a culprit.

One reason why there has been so little attention given to sugar’s effects is because the people asserting that sugar is toxic are also advocating that saturated fat is harmless. In the 1970’s scientist John Yudkin did just this, and his work was not taken seriously because of the increasing prevalence of anti-fat biases. Dr. Atkins faced similar criticisms. Yet the fact remains that,trans fats aside, fat intake does not result in insulin resistance.

America has been quite busy with demonizing fat that it seems to have not noticed the elephant in the room: sugar. Sadly, as a result, we have little conclusive, time-tested evidence to portray sugar accurately to the general public. Thus the cycle continues: people continue to see fat as the bad guy while downing the insulin-producing sugars.

 However, Tabues is not asserting that just because many scientists have failed to exercise objectivity means we should passively wait around for them to do their jobs:

If sugar just makes us fatter, that’s one thing. We start gaining weight, we eat less of it. But we are also talking about things we can’t see–fatty liver, insulin resistance, and all that follows. Officially, I’m not supposed to worry because the evidence isn’t conclusive, but I do.

Keeping sugar intake to a minimum, watching how you feel, and keeping track of your stats (weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, thyroid function) is the most important research you can do.

Furthermore, plain old common sense helps. Insulin is at the center of it all. Sugar and carbohydrate consumption triggers insulin secretion; fat consumption does not. Chronically elevated insulin leads to diabetes, weight gain, high blood pressure, lower HDL cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer. These are facts, and you can act accordingly.


Retroactive Hope

I  have been enjoying the television series Mad Men as of late. My boyfriend and I weren’t really into watching television, but we got hooked and plowed through all four seasons a few months ago. And now I’ve been re-watching it. It is a well-written series with meticulous attention to visual detail. The cast is talented, and the leading actor is painfully handsome. This makes watching the often idiotic characters doing repeatedly idiotic things bearable. 

Furthermore, it is a show about advertising executives at a company (Sterling Cooper) who make large sums of money. Their biggest client is a tobacco company called Lucky Strike. The main characters are rich because they help propagate an addictive, dangerous drug. In spite of all this, it is an engaging, well-made show with solid acting.

The ubiquitous nature of smoking in the show reflects the time the show takes place in: the 1960s. It is both amusing and tragic to see people constantly and compulsively lighting up: while they exercise, when they wake up in the middle of the night, or even while they are pregnant. The acceptability of smoking and drinking while pregnant is frightening.

We now know better and look back on that time as perhaps naive, ignorant, or simply too hooked to be willing to face the facts. But of course, it is easy for me to judge 50 years later.

I wonder how our predecessors will look back on this time in a few generations. What stupidities will they laugh at? What, if anything, will become unacceptable?

I can only hope that sugar is exposed for what it is. It would be great if people would look back and shake their heads in shame at the prevalence of high fructose corn syrup the way we shake our heads in shame at a smoking pregnant woman.

I hope lists like this are taught  in schools along side the dangers of smoking, hard drugs, and drinking. And that cutting dietary sugar becomes part of the standard treatment protocol for treating ADHD, Autism, GI dysfunction, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, hypertension, chronic fatigue, cancer, etc

Sigh, to dream.

The Heart of the Matter (Part III)

The purpose of this post is to explain the process of atherosclerosis formation, or how plaque accumulates and hardens in the arteries resulting in terrible yet preventable things like high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes.

The traditional paradigm states that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol build up in the arteries over time to form arterial plaque. More recent research shows something different: arterial plaque is the result of arterial damage, inflammation, and oxidation.

It is important to know that the conventional view of cholesterol is negligent and oversimplified: they label HDL as the good cholesterol and LDL as the bad cholesterol. But there is more to the story: HDL stands for high density lipoprotein, and LDL stands for low density lipoprotein.  HDL and LDL are the proteins that carry cholesterol throughout the blood. We measure cholesterol by the amounts of these lipoproteins.

The key fact is that the smaller the lipoprotein, the more dangerous they are; smaller lipoproteins are significantly more likely to damage arterial walls than bigger lipoproteins.  More importantly, not all LDL poses a risk: it is the small, dense form of LDL cholesterol  that is most likely to injure the the arteries. An analogy from this post effectively gets the point across:

Think of it this way. Small, dense LDL are like BBs. Large, buoyant LDL are like beach balls. If you throw a beach ball at a window, nothing happens. But if you shoot that window with a BB gun, it breaks.

Knowing this, we can go through the basics of how atherosclerosis forms: 

1. The artery is injured.

2.  White blood cells (also called Leukocytes) rush to the scene and enter the arterial wall.

3.  They consume the offending LDL.

4. Depending on how much there is for the white blood cells to deal with, they become overtaxed with LDL cholesterol and become foam cells.

5. As these foam cells accumulate over time, they form fatty streaks.

6. In attempt to heal, smooth muscle cells cover the plaque resulting in a fibrous cap that is what clogs up the artery.

7. If the inflammation continues, the build-up progresses, and the fibrous caps become increasingly susceptible rupturing which in turn leads to blood clots or heart attacks.

To summarize, atherosclerosis begins when the artery is injured, and if the same factors that caused the initial injury persist, then the resulting, long-term inflammatory response to the injury causes a build-up of arterial plaque. Plaque cannot form unless there is a lesion/damaged spot. The American Heart Association, the government, reputable doctors, and skeptics alike are studying and documenting this.

Then what are these factors that cause the initial arterial injury? And what other factors increase the risk of  a continued inflammatory response?

Oxidation: One way to explain oxidation by starting out with its antithesis: antioxidants. Antioxidants are somewhat of a buzz word; we know they are good for preventing cancer. This is because they inhibit oxidation, a chemical reaction that can produce free radicals. Free radicals damage cells because they are missing electrons and try to take back electrons by attacking cells; antioxidants counteract this process. In short, oxidation causes cellular damage. And when the immune system senses damage, it produces an inflammatory response.

Cholesterol has been labeled as one of the main culprits in causing heart disease; however, cholesterol enables several essential functions that would require an entire other blog post to cover. It is true that there are dangerous forms of cholesterol:  as previously stated, the smaller and more dense the lipoprotein, the more likely it is to hurt the artery. Furthermore, the smaller the LDL, the more likely it is become oxidized. Oxidized LDL poses a significant threat to arterial walls.

So if you have high levels of small, dense, oxidized LDL looking for other cells to bully and steal electrons from, then you are in trouble, because that can cause an arterial injury.

So then what changes will decrease the your levels of small, dense, oxidized LDL?

  • Reduce your polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) intake. Unsaturated fat has a positive connotation in our culture (just like how cholesterol has a negative connotation). However not all unsaturated fats are the same: PUFAS are very prone to oxidation and consequently producing free radicals; monounsaturated fats are more stable. Unfortunately, PUFAs are ubiquitous and misconstrued as “heart healthy.” Avoid consuming processed foods, too many nuts, and soybean, canola, and corn oil.
  • Manage your blood glucose with a low-sugar diet. As I previously explained, high blood glucose levels and growing insulin resistance keep glucose in the bloodstream for longer. This increases the chances of glycation and Advanced Glycation End-products (AGEs): this is when a sugar molecule binds to a protein or fat molecule without an enzyme to digest that sugar. The result is an AGE which wreaks havoc by damaging cells and requiring the immune system to create an inflammatory response (which sounds an awful lot like oxidation and free radicals).
  • Eat healthy fats like butter, olive oil, and coconut oil. Gasp! Did I just say butter? But butter is a saturated fat. Yes, yes it is. And saturated fat rarely oxidizes. Furthermore, compared to grains, healthy fats are a superior source of energy because they do not elevate blood sugar levels or trigger an insulin response thus decreasing the risk of glycation and AGEs.
  • Don’t smoke, be completely sedentary, or eat trans fats and HFCS. These points are obvious and consequently do not merit elaboration.

There is plenty of evidence to support the connection between blood sugar, glycation, oxidation, and developing heart disease:

  • Oxidation and inflammation are observed as key players in arterial plaque accumulation.

In conclusion, heart disease is not as simple as this:

It is more accurately represented by this:

For more information, I recommend the following:

The Heart of the Matter (Part II)

The purpose of this post is to explain in relatively simple terms how excessive carbohydrate consumption increases triglyceride (fat) and blood pressure levels (aka the risk factors for developing heart disease). I will preface this by making clear that this is a complex process that I will not pretend to understand in its entirety; however, there are some basic concepts behind the process of arterial plaque formation that I’m aiming to outline.

For the sake of clarity, I will start off with an obvious but crucial fact: all carbohydrates we consume (e.g. candy, white flour, whole wheat bread, oatmeal, pasta, legumes, high sugar fruits, agave nectar, evaporated cane juice, quinoa, etc)  are broken down into sugar, or glucose.

Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down, so they cause a more gradual (and consequently less damaging) spike in our blood sugar; unfortunately, in the end, they all become blood sugar which triggers the need for insulin, a hormone secreted by the pancreas that manages our blood sugar levels. This leads into a discussion of the variables in developing heart disease: 

1. Insulin Resistance:  When you ingest sugar, blood sugar rises, and the pancreas releases the amount of insulin needed to take the excess glucose and store it in the liver and muscles as glycogen. This is certainly useful for having energy reserves stored for later if need be.

But if your  glycogen reserves are already filled up (depending your activeness and the amount of sugar you ate), then there is no room for that excess glucose in the liver or muscles. This begins the process of insulin resistance: the pancreas needs to pump out more insulin to get the same effect, the excess glucose and insulin remain in the blood stream for longer, and and the sugar is eventually stored in fat cells.

2. Glycation: Glucose should not be present in the bloodstream for longer than necessary; the longer it floats in the bloodstream, the higher the risk of glycation. Glycation occurs when a sugar molecule like glucose or fructose  binds to a protein  or fat molecule without the protective help of an enzyme. Without an enzyme to moderate the reaction that protein or fat molecule gets damaged.

More importantly, this reaction leads to advanced glycated end-products (AGEs). AGEs can degrade any cell in the body, and the accumulation of their destruction signals an inflammatory response.

3.Inflammation: Generally speaking, inflammation is defined as the immune system’s response to damaged cells, foreign invaders, toxins, etc. If you hurt your leg, it might swell and bruise. While it hurts, this is the immune system initiating the healing process. This is an example of a straightforward case of acute inflammation.

Chronic, low-level inflammation, on the other hand, keeps your body in a state of alarm: the immune system is waging a constant battle that is neither significantly traumatic nor ignorable. This battle often requires the expenditure of cytokines and various types of  infection-fighting white blood cells like monocytes and macrophages. The longer the inflammation goes on, the higher the risk of tissue damage.  In short, regular, excessive carb/sugar consumption leads to chronic AGEs which lead to chronic inflammation.

Below is an image of a glucose molecule binding to a protein molecule to produce an AGE that triggers an immune response from a macrophage:

Luckily, there are ways to quantify inflammation and blood glucose levels. Inflammation is often measured via a white blood cell count (WBC) and C-Reactive Protein (CRP) level. A 1-h plasma glucose test measures short-term (one hour to be exact) blood sugar levels, and Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) measures long-term blood glucose levels. Knowing this, let’s tie the evidence together:

  • There is a link between inflammation and insulin resistance: this study establishes a connection between insulin resistance and inflammation, again, in nondiabetic people. Inflammatory markers like CRP and white blood cell counters were associated with insulin resistance, and CRP levels were positively correlated to weight.
  • High blood sugar levels have been studied as a risk factor for heart disease. Another study also finds a connection between HbA1c levels (long-term blood glucose) and heart disease.
  • AGEs are correlated to to inflammation and atherosclerosis in diabetics.
  • Chronic inflammation is also strongly correlated to heart disease. One study observed a higher incidence of aortic inflammation with people who have inflammatory rheumatic disease than those with no inflammatory diseases.

So if atherosclerosis isn’t the mere accumulation of dietary fat and cholesterol, then how does it form?

To be continued….

The Heart of the Matter (Part I)

Learning about my own symptoms, blood test result history, and state of health has helped me to learn about the variables that contribute to being healthy. They aren’t always what they seem to be.

I want to expound on the fact that my triglycerides ( the amount of fat in my blood) have decreased over the past six years in spite of all of the butter, coconut oil, olive oil, and  mac nut oil  I’ve been eating almost daily for about a year now.  Triglycerides are the best predictor of nascent heart disease:  higher triglyceride levels increase chances of that excess fat hardening in and clogging up your arteries.

So I’ve been eating more fat, and less fat is showing up in my blood.  Why would that be? Let’s take some general “before” and “after” pictures of my diet and lifestyle:

  • When I was 21, I ate Larabars, Stonyfield farm yogurt, Natural Ovens bagels, dark chocolate, peanut butter, walnuts,  tofu, fake soy meat,  fruit, wheat pasta, POM juice, broccoli, and carrots. My triglycerides were 65 mg/dL.
  • When I was 25, I started to decrease my sugar intake when I figured out I had Candida. I didn’t give up sugar or grains entirely (I still ate oatmeal, apples, cheerios, dark chocolate, etc) but I definitely started to transition into a low carb and high fat diet. My triglycerides were 54 mg/dL.
  • I am 26, and I eat  3-5 daily servings of vegetables along with 2-4 eggs, nuts, and the fats mentioned above. I will have the occasional starchy acorn squash or sweet potato about twice a month. My triglycerides are 45 mg/dL.
  • It should also be noted that when I was 21 I did more exercise than I do now. (And, to add to the irony further, my current weight is 10 pounds less than my weight then).

So then what’s the difference? I have switched from grain-based carbs to vegetable-based carbs, removed the sugar, and replaced carbs/sugar with fat for my energy source.

My experience is not an isolated incident. There are several other studies manipulating the same variables that yield similar results:

  • In a low carb/high-fat vs. low fat/high carb study, the low carb/high fat group had a significant reduction in triglycerides, blood pressure, and VLDL (the worst of the bad cholesterol) after six months.
  • This study links carbohydrate restriction with reduced body weight, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
  • A meta-study recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition summarized data from 21 cardiovascular disease studies entailing 350,000 people over a span of 14 years and the results are in: saturated fat does not cause heart disease.
  • Given all the mainstream emphasis on low-fat diets, I was surprised to read that even the American Heart Association says that a diet composed of 60% or more of carbohydrates is at a higher risk of developing unhealthy triglyceride levels.

Wow. My understanding of excessive sugar consumption is expanding: it isn’t just about managing a predominately female issue like Candida (although men can are not exempt); it’s about preventing cumulative and fatal illnesses like heart disease.

The key question is why does excessive carbohydrate consumption increase triglyceride and blood pressure levels? And why doesn’t saturated fat consumption increase triglyceride levels?

It certainly makes sense to think that eating foods with saturated fat and cholesterol would contribute to heart disease: the plaque that hardens in the arteries is composed of fat and cholesterol.

However, the development of heart disease is a consequence of interdependent factors: chronically increased insulin levels feed into inflammatory and oxidation responses which create a breeding ground for raised triglycerides, blood pressure, weight, etc.

To be continued…

The Seven Habits of a Highly Ineffective Diet

There is plenty of information criticizing the downfalls of the Standard American Diet (SAD). The following is my assessment of the core principles that fuel the destructiveness of the way we eat. I do not pretend to know it all; however, my opinions are based on years of experimentation with a diverse range of diets.

1. Acquired Tastes: Excessive sweeteners, artificial flavors, high fructose corn syrup, and overly processed foods have a way of stunting the collective palate. Grow up eating this way and vegetables become inedible without a storm of salad dressing while spiked blood sugar levels feel normal. Repeated years of enduring this abuse can lead to diabetes.

2. Second-Hand Nutrition: Cereals, bars, juices, and cookies are being fortified with fiber, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, etc. Supplementation helps, but why not aim to get nutrients from their primary sources (fruits, vegetables, proteins) instead of extracting and manufacturing them in a lab of sorts? Especially when there are unnecessary sugars involved (which is related to the previous habit of acquired tastes).

3. Nutritional Displacement: Saturated fat and cholesterol have been given a bad reputation (while unnecessary/harmful foods are somehow labeled as paramount by our trusty government). Cholesterol has been wrongly linked with heart disease and, within the context of a nutrient-dense diet, consuming saturated fat does not cause obesity and heart disease. There are several counterproductive cons to a low-fat diet. Lastly, our bodies need fat and cholesterol.

4. Externalization: Equating health with appearance, namely thinness, is an unfortunate cultural paradigm. While eating well and exercising often does lead to things like clearer skin and a slimmer figure, it is possible to be what is generally considered to be attractive and to be in a poor state of health. Furthermore, weight loss and muscle building are not the only reasons why people should exercise; exercise improves circulation, immunity, mood, etc. Lastly, one can pursue thinness using unhealthy means (e.g. eating disorders, plastic surgery, excessive exercising).

5. Obliteration: Agents like pesticides, pasteurization, and chlorine are essentially used to kill the germs. Unfortunately, these agents also kill both the good germs, decrease nutritional value, or pose toxic threats to humans.

6. Indigestion: Being in a rush, large portions, improper food combining, downing cold liquids while eating, and emotional overeating are all factors that can impair digestion, cause malabsorption, and weight gain. Not to mention the fact that unstable blood sugar can be quite taxing to one’s system.

7. Cruelty: While there is overwhelming evidence supporting the benefits of eating animals, factory farming is an atrocity, and using hormones and other toxins to increase meat output at a lower cost is detrimental to the consumer. This is unfortunate for both the mistreated animals and for humans, who are supposedly at the top of the food chain. One could easily say that it is downright sad.