"Sugar may cause as many deaths as cigarette smoking, perhaps even more… but no one is sounding the alarm." – Dr. Scott Olson, ND, author of Sugarettes: Sugar Addiction and Your Health*
According to the American Dietetic Association and the American Diabetes Association and even the World Health Organization, there is supposedly no relationship between sugar consumption and diabetes. These medical associations, backed by scientific research, claim that sugar, when consumed as part of a complete diet, does not contribute to diabetes.
But, before you start feeling content about the sugar in your diet, let’s look a little closer at exactly what they are saying, because they may be making a mistake that can cost you and your health very dearly.
These medical associations all make roughly the same claim, and it can be summed up by something like this statement:
There is no direct evidence that sugar is related to diabetes in any way. And there are also many foods in our diet that act very similar to sugar: Sugar is not unique in the way it raises our blood sugar.
I would have to agree with much of this statement: There is not much direct evidence that sugar causes diabetes, and many foods do act like sugar in the body. But I disagree that this means that these foods are safe and there is no connection to diabetes.
Gathering the evidence to link sugar and diabetes may be very difficult, but let’s look at both of their arguments and see if you come to the same conclusion they did.
Diabetes and the Sugar Connection
First, we need to look at how many people have diabetes and how it has changed over time.
When you look at a chart showing how many people have diabetes, you notice something remarkable. In the early 1900’s, less than 1 percent of the population had diabetes, and now it is estimated that one third of us will have diabetes some time in our lifetimes. Think about that: One-third of people reading this article will eventually have diabetes. That is a lot of people!
What you will also notice is that during that same time (from 1900 to today) we went from eating only about 1 pound of sugar a year to now consuming one-fourth to one-half a pound of sugar every day.
Now, put these two facts together. We see a large rise in the proportion of people who have diabetes at the same time we see a large rise of sugar consumption. If this huge rise in sugar consumption is not responsible for the equally high rise in diabetes, what is?
Some scientists are beginning to ask that very question – and scientific studies are beginning to link the possibility of insulin insensitivity (a pre-diabetic state) with the consumption of sugars.(1, 2) The connection between insulin insensitivity and sugar is especially true of the sugar we now see everywhere: high fructose corn syrup.(1) While these studies are not enough to convince the medical community, it is a beginning, and more studies should be done.
But we should also look at the health associations’ second point, that many foods we eat act identical to sugar; because this is what really makes it difficult to blame sugar consumption for the increase in diabetes.
Let’s take a closer look.
Lessons from the Glycemic Index
Years ago, people used to simply assume that different foods affected our blood sugar differently. People thought that eating something like brown rice would not raise our blood sugar as much as eating white rice. This, it turned out, was true, but the difference between brown and white rice was not as much as you would think.
A brilliant scientist eventually decided to test brown rice, white rice, and a whole number of other foods to see how they affect blood sugar. The results of these studies are something called the glycemic index.
Here is how it works: Scientists measure a volunteer’s blood sugar. They then feed the volunteer a food and later check to see how much the subject’s blood sugar changed. From these studies, the researchers have developed a chart of foods (the glycemic index) that sorts foods into high, medium, and low glycemic foods depending on how they affect our blood sugar.
What we have discovered through glycemic index testing is astounding.
The first thing researchers found is that, yes, white rice will increase your blood sugar more than brown rice, but actually there is not that much difference between the two.
The second thing they discovered is that many foods we eat will raise our blood sugar as much as, or more than, eating straight white sugar. For instance, white bread, rice cakes, and other starchy foods will raise our blood sugar more than eating straight table sugar.
The glycemic index – while helpful in decisions on what people put in their mouths (especially for people with diabetes) – has created a bigger problem.
The problem is that the scientists who make decisions about what we should be eating had two choices when they discovered that foods in our diet act exactly like sugar. They could either decide:
• That many foods act identical to sugar, so we should avoid both of them,
• Or that many foods act identical to sugar, so it doesn’t matter if we eat sugar.
Let’s look at what they decided:
Sugar-containing foods can be substituted for other carbohydrate or, if added, adequately covered with insulin or another glucose-lowering medication…Substantial evidence demonstrates that dietary sugar does not increase glycemia (high blood sugar) more than isocaloric amounts of starch [amounts with similar caloric values]. Sugar alcohols and nonnutritive sweeteners are safe when consumed within the daily intake levels established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).(1)
This quote from the American Diabetes Association clearly shows they made the second choice: Since many foods act exactly like sugar, it is okay, they say, to keep these foods in your diet. While suggesting that it is okay to eat sugar and foods that act in your body like sugar is probably the wrong choice when we are talking about your health, this kind of thinking creates even more problems for anyone trying to discover if sugar causes diabetes.
If scientists decide to create a study to see if sugar causes diabetes, they also have to look at the foods that act like sugar in our bodies.
As of yet no one is performing such a study, because they make the wrong assumption: that both sugars and foods that act like sugars are normal foods for humans. They are not.
Uncovering the Truth
Uncovering the truth about the connection between sugar and diabetes can be difficult, but we can turn to people who don’t eat any sugar or foods that act like sugar for some help.
While extremely rare, there are still cultures where people are living a hunter-gathering existence and avoid most grains and sugars. When we look at their health, we find that diabetes is extremely rare. These people are not sending their blood sugar skyrocketing every time they sit down to a meal, and the result is that diabetes is not a disease they have to deal with.
So how will we ever know if sugar and foods that act like sugar cause diabetes? Perhaps there will never be enough scientific research, but don’t let this stop you in making healthy choices for yourself.
There is ample evidence – from the dramatic change in the amount of sugar and sugar food we are eating, to the comparison of hunter-gathering diseases with ours, to the growing number of scientific studies showing that sugars create insulin insensitivity.
The best thing you could do is to choose a diet where grains and sugars are used minimally – if at all.
You will be greatly reducing the chances that you will have metabolic syndrome or diabetes, and thereby bypass much of the pain that people with diabetes have to suffer through.
1. Bray GA, Nielsen SJ, Popkin BM: “Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, April 2004;79(4):537-43.
2. Stanhope KL, Havel PJ: “Fructose consumption: potential mechanisms for its effects to increase visceral adiposity and induce dyslipidemia and insulin resistance." Current Opinion in Lipidology,” Feb 2008;19(1):16-24.
* Scott Olson, ND, is a naturopathic doctor specializing in nutrition. Dr. Olson's new book – Sugarettes: Sugar Addiction and Your Health – is now available on Amazon.com. To read more of his articles about sugar’s association with illness – as well as the intriguing first chapter of Sugarettes, visit his website (http://olsonnd.com)
Note: This information has not been evaluated by the FDA. It is generic and is not meant to prevent, diagnose, treat or cure any illness, condition, or disease. It is very important that you make no change in your healthcare plan or health support regimen without researching and discussing it in collaboration with your professional healthcare team.