Why are high levels of blood glucose bad for you?

There have been some major discoveries which have led to the popularization of Paleo/Primal/Native/Whole 30/Low Carb lifestyles.

Cynthia Kenyon’s important work with C Elegans back in the mid-1990′s, in my mind, is clearly one of the more important ones.  Her studies revealed conclusively that the

minimization of insulin is the single most important factor toward the enhancement of longevity and health.”

Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas in response to sugar in the blood stream.

When we eat a bowl of rice, pasta, cereal or even a whole wheat sandwich we raise our blood sugar.  Depending on portion size, my “bowl” of pasta might be very different than a large man’s bowl of pasta.  I may eat one serving, which is a half measuring cup.  The large man may put 6 or more servings in a single bowl and then have seconds.  Starting with my portion, my blood sugar will rise accordingly, but not too much, perhaps 30-40 mg/dl.  The man’s blood sugar will likely rise significantly higher 80-120 mg/dl.  If the man has a lot of muscle mass and has significantly depleted his glycogen, (the animal storage form of starch) he can quickly lower his blood sugar.  If he is a sedentary man, does not have significant muscle mass, and is overweight, his blood sugar will stay high for a longer period of time and most or all of his pasta will be stored as fat.

In its simplest terms, this complex metabolic process starts with absorption of glucose from the intestinal lumen or gut.  The starch, now broken down into individual glucose units by the digestive process, is transported into the blood stream.  The blood sugar causes a release of insulin from the pancreas.  Insulin’s job is to get the sugar out of the blood stream and into cells.  If there is a need to replenish glycogen in the liver and muscles, then some will be stored in the muscle and liver cells, as glycogen.  If not, then the sugar goes to the liver to be converted into fats called triglycerides and then it goes out to be stored in fat cells.  Perhaps you can begin to see how repeating this over the course of days, weeks, months and years can put a lot of weight on a body.

I ask every patient to tell me about their diet.  I ask what does a typical day look like, beginning with breakfast, and what do you drink and snack on throughout the day.  Invariably a sugary, carbohydrate breakfast is described.  Commonly, people have a bowl of cereal and maybe some juice, sweetened coffee and toast to go with.  Depending on the size of the bowl, the glass, cup, the bread slice, breakfast is usually 50-75 grams of glucose.  This causes a spike in blood sugar and cravings for more sugar throughout the day.  Remember that unless this person is very active or an athlete, this breakfast will be stored as fat.

If I were asking a woman, what a typical day looks like, she often says her day starts with a muffin or coffee-cake-thingy and a large mocha or vanilla (a vanilla latte has a lot of sugar) latte.  The woman is also consuming a great deal of rapidly digested sugar.  After a such a carbohydrate, rich breakfast a mid-morning snack will be needed.  This too, is usually a form of high sugar or carbohydrate, such as a bagel or granola bar, etc. and the cycle continues.

Then lunch comes and something fast and easy, a sandwich or a burger is grabbed.  At least there is some protein and fat in the burger to slow digestion.  A woman trying to eat healthy, may grab a salad and go for a low fat or no fat dressing.  Most, and I can probably say all, dressings from those categories have plenty of sugar in them, usually high fructose corn syrup to replace the flavor missing from fat.  Now the poor lady, trying to do the right thing, has another insulin surge.  If the salad was not homemade, even if it came with some source of protein, chicken, turkey, tuna, beans, there will be a scant portion of protein.  I know this is true because I have tried them all.  Now she is really searching for something to pick her up by mid-afternoon.  A sweetened, caffeinated drink will usually hit the spot, at least for little while.  If she is really trying to be health conscious then she may hit the gym on the way home from work and perform a cardio class.  She can’t burn fat because her sugar and insulin levels are too high.  (Chronic cardio is a subject for another blog.)  By the time she gets home, she is ravenous.  Something fast and easy for the whole family is what’s for dinner.  What’s the first thing that popped into your mind…PIZZA.  She eats two or three slices, as does the rest of the family, along with bread sticks, some sugary drink to go with and possibly ice cream for dessert.  I see this recurring scenario as positive proof that we are heading for a sickness epidemic.  It may sound like hyperbole, but, there is enough proof, in the form of newer discoveries and research, to clearly call this cycle of empty calorie, high carbohydrate eating, exactly what it is, a metabolic disaster.  More on this subject to come in the following days for our 21 Day Challenge.

This scenario describes how insulin resistance happens.  Insulin resistance will be explained in more detail in my next installment for the 21 Day Challenge.