Diet and Diabetes

Most people know that excessive carbohydrates (sugars, starches) are bad for us. They promote weight gain and unhealthy hormonal changes in our bodies. But fewer people understand what carbs are and how our bodies react to them.

Carbohydrates are molecules made up of chains of carbon with hydrogen atoms attached at the edges. Our bodies use carbs by breaking the links between the carbon atoms to release energy that we can then use in our cells. Sugars are the simplest form of carbs, while starches (found in pasta, rice and potatoes for example) are simply longer chains that our bodies rapidly break down into shorter sugars so we can use them for energy. Over-supply of carbs reverses this process, so our livers take the excess sugar molecules and chain them together to create fat which we can then store around our bodies, most notably around the hips and buttocks.

But the story is much worse than this: more than one third of American children born today are predicted to develop Type II diabetes within their lifetimes. This is due to the over-consumption of carbohydrates that result in high blood sugar levels which in turn cause the death of insulin-producing eyelet cells in the pancreas. We are born with a fixed number of these eyelet cells and as they die we become increasingly liable to develop diabetes. Both high glucose (sugar) in the blood and the consequent high demand for insulin contribute to the damage and death of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, leading ultimately to diabetes.

When a person is getting too many carbs, there are no “good” carbs. The sugars in organic orange juice are just as damaging as the high fructose corn syrup in a can of soda. Whole wheat pasta breaks down into simple sugars just as easily as the white flour used to make a donut. Brown rice may have more fiber and vitamins than white rice but from a carbs perspective the two are identical: both easy sources of starch that quickly break down into sugar.

There’s an easy way for a person to know if they are getting too many carbs in their diet: ask a physician for a hemoglobin A1c blood test. This reveals what percentage of the body’s red blood cells have been damaged by sugars attaching themselves to the outside of the cells. A healthy A1c percentage is under 5% and anything over 7% means an individual is at significant risk of developing Type II diabetes. The important thing about the A1c test is that there is no sensitivity about when the test is taken, nor about what is eaten before it. This is because the red blood cells live for about 90 days and so they provide a kind of “living history” of what carbs the individual consumed over this period of time. So the A1c test is much more accurate then the old-fashioned tests that just looked for sugars in the blood, because the results of the old tests were highly dependent on what was eaten in the hour or two before the test. If an A1c test shows a person is near or above the 7% level then it’s definitely time for a significant dietary change before it’s too late. Once a person develops Type II diabetes, they can never undo the damage and live a normal life again.

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