When I was a child, my mother thought my brother was not going to live because he was so painfully thin. He did not eat much, and she pushed as many calories into him as possible. Gradually, over the years, his weight became acceptable, and by the time he was in his 30s he was pleasantly plump, gradually increasing in weight with each passing year. There is no question that something happens to our metabolism when we become young adults. This alteration, not well understood, I might add, leads to the beginning of weight gain that averages about a pound per year of life until about age 65 and then levels off. Weight gain becomes less common over age 75.
During the past 50 years, something bad has been happening. Weight gain is the norm rather than the exception, and children are becoming ever more obese. We have blamed this changed on keeping a sedentary lifestyle, choosing unhealthy foods, large portion sizes and consuming far too many calories. In the mid- and late-20th century, fat and cholesterol took the blame. A low-fat diet became everyone’s goal. Fat intake was restricted, but starch and sugar were not, and sadly we became even more rotund.
Recently a great deal of evidence is accumulating that refined sugars such as table sugar or sucrose and high fructose corn syrup were a major cause of weight gain. Many decried sugar’s negative effects on health, including an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, weight gain and, of course, dental cavities. Even though this was well-accepted by some, the research evidence left much to be desired and many experts in the field felt that the cause was not how much sugar you consumed but how many calories.
In a new study published in the prestigious British Medical Journal, researchers demonstrated a very significant correlation between increased sugar intake and weight gain. And vice versa, reducing sugar intake lead to weight loss. The link in sugar intake and weight was very strong in adults but less so in children, presumably because their diet is so varied. However, if you only looked at sugary drinks consumed, the more sugar consumed by a child, the fatter they were.
Recent research contends that refined sugar should constitute less than 10 percent of total calories consumed. According to the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, sugar intake in Americans ranges from 16-20 percent of total calories consumed. And when the fat content of the diet is restricted, excess carbohydrate from starches, cookies and other fat-free products are used to assure adequate calorie intake.
Too much sugar and starch in the diet leads to weight gain and the so-called “metabolic syndrome.” In the body, both refined sugars and carbohydrates are converted to glucose. In order to maintain a normal blood sugar, excessive amounts of insulin are released from the pancreas and the glucose is pumped into cells where the excess is converted into a special form of fat called triglycerides, which are then stored in fat cells. As weight is gained, insulin loses its ability to reduce blood sugar to normal. This is referred to as insulin resistance and leads to type II diabetes. These individuals are overweight, have very high triglyceride blood levels, are prone to cholesterol deposit in blood cells and hence heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and kidney disease.
The most remarkable aspect of this “self-made” disease is that it is imminently curable by diet and exercise. Anyone who has developed the metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance and is overweight should see a diabetic educator. Learning the importance of consuming an appropriate diet, as well as exercising frequently, returns the blood sugar to normal, reducing the risk of heart disease and prevents hypertension.
The fact that sugar and, to a lesser extent, too much starch has negative impacts on our weight provides more compelling evidence for a diet that is prudent. Consuming the right amounts of fat, fruits and vegetables, protein and sugar and starch in moderation is the best approach to dieting. Combined with exercise and a healthy outlook on life, serious illness can be prevented.
Dr. David Lipschitz is the director of the Dr. David Health and Wellness Center in Little Rock. To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz, visit www.drdavidhealth.com