In and of itself, glucose (sugar) is not a bad thing. In fact, it is necessary for providing energy to cells. But when we disrupt our body's natural balance—by eating too many carbs and too little fiber—blood sugar levels can fall or rise too quickly and lead to serious conditions including Syndrome X, insulin resistance, and hyperglycemia, or diabetes.
Hyperglycemia is the overproduction of insulin by the pancreas in response to a rapid rise in blood glucose levels. Insulin regulates carbohydrate metabolism by controlling blood sugar levels. Stress and poor eating habits can create an insulin imbalance. During a meal, the insulin level is a determining factor in signaling the brain that your body is full. But low insulin levels will elevate glucose and cause you to eat more, and consequently gain weight. It becomes a vicious cycle, because overweight people burn sugar less efficiently than people who maintain a healthy weight.
Insulin is needed to convert sugar, starches, and other food into energy, and is responsible for getting blood sugar into the cells. Insulin receptors on the surface of cells act like doors that open and close, regulating the inflow of blood sugar. Unfortunately, after one has consumed a high-carbohydrate diet for years, these insulin receptors, which have been besieged by insulin, begin to collapse and shut down. Consequently, with fewer doors open, the body needs to produce even more insulin to push the glucose into the cells. More insulin causes even more doors to close and as this cycle continues, a condition called Insulin Resistance sets in.
Insulin resistance can go undetected for up to 40 years, or until serious complications begin to surface. As the need for insulin rises, the pancreas gradually loses its ability to produce enough insulin to push the blood sugar into the cells, and an extreme case of insulin resistance develops type 2 diabetes. People with type 1 diabetes usually need insulin delivered by a pump or injection. On the other hand, type 2 diabetes can be controlled by exercise, whole foods, low carb diet, and nutritional supplements. Type 1 diabetes usually strikes children and young adults—which is why it's usually called juvenile diabetes—although onset can occur at any age. It accounts for 5% to 10% of all diagnosed cases of diabetes, and the risk factors include autoimmune, genetic, and environmental causes.
The new epidemic
An estimated 18 million Americans have diabetes, but 5.2 million are unaware they have the disease. Add to that another 20.1 million Americans who have a pre-diabetic condition that involves higher than normal glucose levels, but not high enough for a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.1 How did we end up with what medical professionals are calling a full-blown epidemic?
Type 2 diabetes
It's no secret that Americans—the wealthiest people on earth—eat a "poor" diet laden with over-processed foods that are high in carbs and saturated fats. Although diabetes and other serious blood sugar conditions can be genetic, they often develop as a result of poor diet and lack of exercise. It's no wonder, then, that type 2 diabetes is becoming more prevalent in children and adolescents,1 and now accounts for 90 to 95% of all diagnosed cases of diabetes in the U.S.1 The disease is becoming so rampant, in fact, experts expect the incidence of type 2 diabetes to double during this decade.
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American Diabetes Association, http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-statistics/national-diabetes-fact-sheet.jsp (29 July 2004)
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American Diabetes Association, Inc. "Physical Activity/Exercise and Diabetes Mellitus." Diabetes Care, 2003, vol. 26, no. 3