If you avoid sugar, will you avoid diabetes?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

May 2006

"If you keep eating so much sugar you'll get diabetes." I doubt that my mother was the only one to serve up that warning to her kids. Her intentions were good but her biology wasn't. Sugar diabetes, a term that still lingers in the minds of many, is characterized by an excess of glucose, or blood sugar. Type 1 diabetes tends to be familial and is largely unavoidable for those with the wrong genes. Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease and is almost 100 percent avoidable even in those with a family history of it.

Eating sugary foods does contribute to diabetes but it's only one part of a larger picture. Refined flour, which has replaced whole grains in the diet of most persons in developed countries, is at least as important. The starch in white flour, white rice and potatoes breaks down quickly into glucose during digestion. Occasional small servings are no problem but Americans eat these foods every day and in large amounts. Repeated high levels of blood glucose eventually lead to diabetes.

Another reason for the skyrocketing increase in type 2 diabetes is high-fructose corn syrup, but for a different reason. Fructose is fruit sugar but it's almost impossible to get too much of it just from eating fruit. It's the major sweetener in soft drinks and you'll find it in almost all processed foods as well.

Fructose causes fat formation more easily than other carbohydrates do. Also, drinks that are sweetened with fructose don't satisfy our appetite the way solid foods do so it's easy to pile on a couple of hundred extra calories a day. It's no wonder that the rise in obesity in the United States parallels the rise in fructose consumption.

There is an undeniable link between being overweight and the risk of type 2 diabetes and it's not just a coincidence. Fat cells produce chemicals that accelerate the development of diabetes. The more fat, the greater the risk.

Some experts refer to type 2 diabetes as an exercise-deficiency disease. That explains why it is virtually absent among modern hunter-gatherers. A lifetime of day-long physical activity isn't exactly the American dream but it virtually guarantees a lean body, normal blood sugar and no type 2 diabetes.

The guidelines for avoiding type 2 diabetes are simple and straightforward. First, increase physical activity to at least 30 minutes a day, preferably 60. It doesn't have to be organized or to be done all at once. Just 3 or 4 days a week of such exercise will lower your risk of diabetes by nearly 60 percent. Second, replace refined baked goods with whole grain products that are high in fiber and low in sugar and fat. That breaks the vicious cycle of ups and downs of blood sugar. Third, limit intake of soft drinks. Think of all the money you'll save! Fourth, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables; their value for good health is enormous and cannot be exaggerated. There's more to optimum health, of course, but these will give you a great start.

Avoid sugar? Great idea. Not enough.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.