Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

Fast Food DangersUnless you are Rip Van Winkle and have been asleep for the past 20 years you probably know that the highly processed foods in the typical American diet are bad for your health. But perhaps you didn’t realize just how bad they were.

But first, let’s start with a bit of perspective. Scientists like to be precise. Even healthy foods go through some processing.

  • The oatmeal you ate this morning was either steel-cut or ground. That is processing.
  • The almond butter you put on your whole grain toast this morning was made by roasting and grinding. That is processing.

So, scientists have developed the term “ultra-processed food” to describe the worst of the worse. In short, ultra-processed foods:

  • Usually go through several physical and chemical processes, such as extruding, molding, prefrying, and hydrogenation that can lead to the formation of toxic contaminants. One example you may have heard about recently would be acrylamide in French fries.
  • Typically contain ingredients of no or little nutritive value, such as refined sugar, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, thickening agents, and artificial colors. Some of these ingredients have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and premature death.
  • Have long shelf-lives because of added preservatives. This allows migration of chemicals such as bisphenol A from the packaging materials into the food.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Sodas
  • Chips
  • Candy and packages of cookies or crackers
  • Most breakfast cereals
  • Boxed cake, cookie, and pancake mix
  • Chicken nuggets and fish sticks
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs and other processed meats
  • Infant formula
  • Instant noodles
  • Most store-bought ice cream
  • Flavored yogurt

In short, ultra-processed foods include sodas and the junk and convenience foods Americans hold so dear. Even things like infant formula and flavored yogurt make the list.

Evidence of the ill effects of ultra-processed foods on our health is becoming overwhelming. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have shared recent studies that have shown that heavy consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to increased risk of obesity and cancer. Other studies have linked ultra-processed food consumption with increased risk of depression, heart disease, and premature death.

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I:

  • Ask the important question, “If we know these foods are so bad for us, why do we still keep eating them?”

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data from this study were taken from an ongoing study in France (the NutriNet-Sante study) looking at associations between nutrition and health. This study began enrolling French adults 18 and older in 2009.

This is a web-based study. Participants are prompted to go to a dedicated website and fill out questionnaires related to things like sex, age, height, weight, smoking status, physical activity, health status, and diet.

With respect to diet, participants filled out a series of 3 nonconsecutive 24-hour dietary records at the time of enrollment and every 6 months. This is a particularly strong feature of this study. Many studies of this type only analyze participant’s diets at the beginning of the study. Those studies have no way of knowing how the participant’s diets may have changed during the study.

Diagnosis of type 2 diabetes for study participants was obtained from the French centralized health records.

The study enrolled 104,708 participants, 20% men and 80% women, and followed them for an average of 6 years. The average age of the participants was 43 years.

Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

High Blood SugarIn this study the range of ultra-processed foods in the French diet ranged from 7% to 27% (average = 17%). High intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with:

  • Younger participants. Simply put, young people were more likely to drink sodas and eat junk food than older adults.
  • Increased caloric intake. Ultra-processed foods have a higher caloric density than whole, unprocessed foods.
  • No surprise here. Previous studies have shown that ultra-processed food consumption increases the risk of obesity.
  • Poorer diet quality. Again, no surprise. Junk foods tend to crowd healthier foods out of the dirt. Specifically, ultra-processed food consumption was associated with:
    • Higher intake of sugar and salt.
    • Lower intake of fiber.
    • Higher intake of sugary drinks, red and processed meats.
    • Lower intake of whole grains, yogurt, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

However, even after statistically correcting for all these factors, there was a significant association between ultra-processed food consumption and the onset of type 2 diabetes in the 6-year follow-up period.

  • There was a linear relation between ultra-processed food consumption and the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, the more ultra-processed food the participants consumed the more likely they were to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • There was a 15% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption.

The authors concluded:

“In this large observational prospective study, a higher proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Even though these results need to be confirmed in other populations and settings, they provide evidence to support efforts by public health authorities to recommend limiting ultra-processed food consumption.”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanYou might be tempted to say that a 15% increase in the risk of developing diabetes is a small price to pay for continuing to eat the foods you enjoy. However, you should be alarmed by this study. Here is why.

The French diet is much healthier than the American. Remember that ultra-processed foods only comprised 17% of the French Diet. In contrast, a recent survey found that:

  • Ultra-processed foods make up 58% of the average American’s diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar in our diet.

It is no wonder that obesity and diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions in our country.

You might also be tempted to think that you can just take some medications and live with type 2 diabetes. However, you should think of type 2 diabetes as a gateway disease. It increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney damage, and neuropathy, just to name a few. These are diseases that make your life miserable and ultimately kill you.

More importantly, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if you catch it early enough. Just lose some weight, exercise more, give up the ultra-processed foods, and eat a healthy diet. I recommend a whole food, primarily plant-based diet.

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

Fast FoodsWe all know that ultra-processed foods are bad for us. Study after study show that they make us sick. They kill us prematurely. And, unlike most topics in the field of nutrition, this is not controversial.

For example, there have been lots of bizarre diets that have come and gone over the years. There have been books written on “The Steak Lover’s Diet” and “The Drinking Man’s Diet”. But nobody has written a book on “The Junk Food Lover’s Diet”. It simply would not be believable.

So why do we Americans keep eating such unhealthy foods. Part of the answer is physiological. A preference for sweet, salty, and fatty foods is hardwired into our brain. That’s because they had great survival value in prehistoric times.

If we think back to the time when we were hunters and gatherers:

  • Fruits are healthy foods. They are a great source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber, but there were no orchards or grocery stores back then. We had to search for fruits in the wild. Our desire for sweet tasting foods provided the motivation to seek them out.
  • Game was seasonal and sometimes scarce. We had to be prepared to go for days or weeks without eating except for the leaves and roots we could gather. Our bodies are designed to store fat as the primary energy source to get us through the lean times. Our preference for fatty foods encouraged us to store as much fat as possible in times of plenty so we would be prepared for times of scarcity.
  • If we fast forward to our early recorded history, salt was scarce. It was worth its weight in gold. Yet some salt is essential for life. Our preference for salty foods encouraged us to search out supplies of salt.

Unfortunately, the food industry has weaponized these food preferences to create the ultra-processed foods we know today. Their ads entice us by associating these foods with youth and good times. And ultra-processed foods have become ubiquitous. There are fast food restaurants on almost every street corner and shopping mall in the country.

Fortunately, we do not have to let the food industry destroy our health. We can retrain our taste buds to appreciate the sweetness of fresh fruits and vegetables. We can substitute healthy fats for the kinds of fat found in most ultra-processed foods. We can also retrain our taste buds to appreciate herbs and spices with just a pinch of salt.

The Bottom Line

Ultra-processed foods, such as sodas, junk foods, and convenience foods have become the biggest food group in the American diet. A recent study found:

  • Ultra-processed foods make up 58% of the average American’s diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar in our diet.

That is scary because ultra-processed foods are deadly. Previous studies have shown that consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study discussed this week looked at the association between ultra-processed food consumption and type 2 diabetes. It showed:

  • There was a linear relation between ultra-processed food consumption and the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, the more ultra-processed food the participants consumed the more likely they were to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • There was a 15% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption.

You might be tempted to think that you can just take some medications and live with type 2 diabetes. However, you should think of type 2 diabetes as a gateway disease. It increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney damage, and neuropathy, just to name a few. This are diseases that make your life miserable and ultimately kill you.

More importantly, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if you catch it early enough. Just lose some weight, exercise more, give up the ultra-processed foods, and eat a healthy diet. I recommend a whole food, primarily plant-based diet.

For more details and a discussion of why Americans continue to eat ultra-processed food even though we know it is bad for us, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Can You Improve Your Healthspan?

Can You Live Healthier, Longer?

Ever since Ponce de Leon led an expedition to the Florida coast in 1513, we have been searching for the mythical “Fountain Of Youth”. What does that myth mean?

Supposedly, just by immersing yourself in that fountain you would be made younger. You would experience all the exuberance and health you enjoyed when you were young. There have been many snake oil remedies over the years that have promised that. They were all frauds.

But what if you had it in your power to live longer and to retain your youthful health for most of those extra years. The ability to live healthier longer is something that scientists call “healthspan”. But you can think of it as your personal “Fountain Of Youth”.

Where are we as a nation? Americans ranked 53rd in the world for life expectancy. We have the life expectancy of a third-world country. We are in sore need of a “Fountain Of Youth”.

That is why I decided to share two recent studies from the prestigious Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with you today.

How Were The Studies Done?

Clinical StudyThese studies started by combining the data from two major clinical trials:

  • The Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1980 to 2014.
  • The Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study, which ran from 1986-2014.

These two clinical trials enrolled 78,865 women and 42,354 men and followed them for an average of 34 years. During this time there were 42,167 deaths. All the participants were free of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer at the time they were enrolled. Furthermore, the design of these clinical trials was extraordinary.

  • A detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered every 2-4 years. This allowed the investigators to calculate cumulative averages of all dietary variables.
  • Participants also filled out questionnaires that captured information on disease diagnosis every 2 years with follow-up rates >90%. This allowed the investigators to measure the onset of disease for each participant during the study. More importantly, 34 years is long enough to measure the onset of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – diseases that require decades to develop.
  • The questionnaires also captured information on medicines taken and lifestyle characteristics such as body weight, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.
  • For analysis of diet quality, the investigators use something called the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index”. [The original Healthy Eating Index was developed about 10 years ago based on the 2010 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. Those guidelines have since been updated, and the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index” is based on the updated guidelines.] You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index below, so you can see what is involved.
  • Finally, the investigators included five lifestyle-related factors – diet, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and BMI (a measure of obesity) – in their estimation of a healthy lifestyle. Based on the best available evidence, they defined “low-risk” in each of these categories. Study participants were assigned 1 point for each low-risk category they achieved. Simply put, if they were low risk in all 5 categories, they received a score of 5. If they were low risk in none of the categories, they received a score of 0.
  • Low risk for each of these categories was defined as follows:
    • Low risk for a healthy diet was defined as those who scored in the top 40% in the Alternative Healthy Eating Index.
    • Low risk for smoking was defined as never smoking.
    • Low risk for physical activity was defined as 30 minutes/day of moderate or vigorous activities.
    • Low risk for alcohol was defined as 0.5-1 drinks/day for women and 0.5-2 drinks/day for men.
    • Low risk for weight was defined as a BMI in the healthy range (18.5-24.9 kg/m2).

Can You Live Healthier Longer?

Older Couple Running Along BeachThe investigators compared participants who scored as low risk in all 5 categories with participants who scored as low risk in 0 categories (which would be typical for many Americans). For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to people who scored as low risk in 5 categories as having a “healthy lifestyle” and those who scored as low risk in 0 categories as having an “unhealthy lifestyle”.

The results of the first study were:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy of 93 versus 79).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy was 87 versus 75).
  • It was not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors of the study concluded: “Adopting a healthy lifestyle could substantially reduce premature mortality and prolong life expectancy in US adults. Our findings suggest that the gap in life expectancy between the US and other developed countries could be narrowed by improving lifestyle factors.”

The results of the second study were:

  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 85 years versus 74 years).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 81 years versus 73 years).
  • Again, disease-free life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors concluded: “Adherence to a healthy lifestyle at mid-life [They started their analysis at age 50] is associated with a longer life expectancy free of major chronic diseases. Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

Can You Improve Your Healthspan?

Questioning ManI posed the question at the beginning of this article, “Can you improve your healthspan?” These two studies showed that you can improve both your life expectancy and your disease-free life expectancy. So, the answer to the original question appears to be, “Yes, you can improve your healthspan. You can create your personal “Fountain of Youth.”

However, as a nation we appear to be moving in the wrong direction. The percentage of US adults adhering to a healthy lifestyle has decreased from 15% in 1988-1992 to 8% in 2001-2006.

The clinical trials that these studies drew their data from were very well designed, so these are strong studies. However, like all scientific studies, they have some weaknesses, namely:

  • They looked at the association of a healthy lifestyle with life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy. Like all association studies, they cannot prove cause and effect.
  • The clinical trials they drew their data with included mostly Caucasian health professionals. The results may differ with different ethnic groups.
  • These studies did not look at the effect of a healthy lifestyle on the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. However, other studies have shown that people who were low risk for each of the 5 lifestyle factors (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) individually have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s and/or dementia.

Finally, I know you have some questions, and I have answers.

Question: What about supplementation? Will it also improve my healthspan?

Answer: When the investigators analyzed the data, they found that those with the healthiest lifestyles were also more likely to be taking a multivitamin. So, they attempted to statistically eliminate any effect of supplement use on the outcomes. That means these studies cannot answer that question.

However, if you calculate your Alternate Healthy Eating Index below, you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

Question: I cannot imagine myself reaching perfection in all 5 lifestyle categories? Should I even try to achieve low risk in one or two categories?

Answer: The good news is that there was a linear increase in both life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy as people went from low-risk in one category to low-risk in all 5 categories. I would encourage you to try and achieve low risk status in as many categories as possible, but very few of us, including me, achieve perfection in all 5 categories.

Question: I am past 50 already. Is it too late for me to improve my healthspan?

Answer: Diet and some of the other lifestyle behaviors were remarkably constant over 34 years in both the Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study. That means that the lifespan and healthspan benefits reported in these studies probably resulted from adhering to a healthy lifestyle for most of their adult years.

However, it is never too late to start improving your lifestyle. You may not achieve the full benefits described in these studies, but you still can add years and disease-free years to your life.

How To Calculate Your Alternative Healthy Eating Index

You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index score by simply adding up the points you score for each food category below.

Vegetables

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = 1 cup green leafy vegetables or ½ cup for all other vegetables.

Do not count white potatoes or processed vegetables like French fries or kale chips.

Fruits

Count 2½ points for each serving you eat per day (up to 4 servings).

One serving = 1 piece of fruit or ½ cup of berries.

          (do not count fruit juice or fruit incorporated into desserts or pastries). 

Whole Grains

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = ½ cup whole-grain rice, bulgur and other whole grains, cereal, and pasta or 1 slice of bread.

(For processed foods like pasta and bread, the label must say 100% whole grain).

Sugary Drinks and Fruit Juice

Count 10 points if you drink 0 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

One serving = 8 oz. fruit juice, sugary soda, sweetened tea, coffee drink, energy drink, or sports drink.

Nuts, Seeds and Beans

Count 10 points if you eat 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

One serving = 1 oz. nuts or seeds, 1 Tbs. peanut butter, ½ cup beans, 3½ oz. tofu.

Red and Processed Meat

Count 10 points if you eat 0 servings per week.

Count 7 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 3 points for 3 servings per week (1 serving per day).

Count 0 points for ≥1½ servings per day.

One serving = 1½ oz. processed meats (bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat)

          Or 4 oz. red meat (steak, hamburger, pork chops, lamb chops, etc.)

Seafood

Count 10 points if you eat 2 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 1 serving per week.

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

1 serving = 4 oz.

Now that you have your total, the scoring system is:

  • 41 or higher is excellent
  • 37-40 is good
  • 33-36 is average (remember that it is average to be sick in this country)
  • 28-32 is below average
  • Below 28 is poor

Finally, for the purposes of these two studies, a score of 37 or higher was considered low risk.

The Bottom Line

Two recent studies have developed a healthy lifestyle score based on diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use. When they compared the effect of lifestyle on both lifespan (life expectancy) and healthspan (disease-free life expectancy), they reported:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • It is not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Lifespan and healthspan increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) achieved.
  • These studies did not evaluate whether supplement use also affects healthspan.
    • However, if you calculate your diet with the Alternate Healthy Eating Index they use (see above), you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

For more details, including how to calculate whether you are low risk in each of the 5 lifestyle categories, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Why Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat?

Is Mixing Diet Sodas With Carbs Bad For You?

Why Do Sodas Cause Obesity?Many people, and many doctors, believe that diet sodas and artificially sweetened foods are a healthy choice. After all:

  • Cutting calories by drinking diet sodas and eating artificially sweetened foods should help you lose weight.
  • If sugar is the problem for diabetics, diet sodas and artificially sweetened foods should be a healthier choice.

On the surface, these ideas appear to be self-evident. They seem to be “no-brainers”. The truth, however, is more complicated.

When studies are tightly controlled by dietitians so that the people consuming diet sodas don’t add any extra calories to their diet, the results are exactly as expected. People consuming diet sodas lose weight compared to people drinking regular sodas.

However, as I have described in an earlier issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, the results are different in the real world where you don’t have a dietitian looking over your shoulder. In those studies, diet sodas are just as likely to cause weight gain as regular sodas.

As Barry Popkin, a colleague at the University of North Carolina, put it” “The problem is that we [Americans] are using diet sodas to wash down our Big Macs and fries.” In short, people drinking diet sodas tend to increase their caloric intake by adding other foods to their diet. Even worse, the added foods aren’t usually fruits and vegetables. They are highly processed junk foods.

Why is that? The short answer is that nobody knows (more about that later). However, a recent study (JR Dalenberg et al, Cell Metabolism, 31: 493-502, 2020) suggests an unexpected mechanism for the weight gain associated with diet soda consumption. Let’s look at that study.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe study recruited 45 healthy young adults (ages 20-45) who habitually consumed less than 3 diet sodas a month. They were randomly assigned to three groups. The participants in each group came into the testing facility seven times over a span of 2 weeks. Each time they were given 12 ounces of one of three equally sweet tasting beverages in a randomized, double-blind fashion.

  • Group 1 received a sucralose-sweetened drink contained 0.06 grams of sucralose (equivalent to two packets of Splenda).
  • Group 2 received a sugar-sweetened drink contained 7 teaspoons of sucrose (table sugar).
  • Group 3 received a combo drink contained 0.06 grams of sucralose plus 7 teaspoons of maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a water-soluble carbohydrate that does not have a sweet taste.

o   Maltodextrin was used because Splenda and most other commercial sucralose products contain it along with sucralose. You need something to fill up those little sucralose-containing packets.

o   This drink was included as a control. The expectation was that it would give the same results as the sucralose-sweetened drink.

Three measurements were performed prior to and following the 2-week testing period:

  • An oral glucose tolerance test in which participants drink a beverage containing a fixed amount of glucose. Then their blood sugar and blood insulin levels are measured over the next two hours.

o   This is a measure of how well they were able to control their blood sugar levels.

  • A test in which they were given samples that had either a sweet, sour, salty, or savory taste. Then:

o   They were asked to identify each taste and report how strong the taste was.

o   MRI scans of their brains were performed to determine how strongly their brains responded to each of the tastes.

Is Mixing Diet Soda With Carbs Bad For You?

The results were surprising. The first surprise came when the investigators unblinded the results of the oral glucose tolerance test:

  • Blood sugar and blood insulin responses were unaffected by the 2-week exposure to sugar-sweetened drinks.

o   This was expected.

  • Blood sugar and blood insulin were relatively unaffected by the 2-week exposure to sucralose-sweetened drinks. If anything, the control of blood sugar levels was slightly improved at the end of two weeks.

o   This was a disappointment for the investigators. One of the prevailing theories is that artificially sweetened beverages alter the blood sugar response. The investigators found no evidence for that idea.

  • Following the 2-week exposure to the combo drinks (sucralose plus maltodextrin), blood sugar levels were unaffected, but blood insulin levels were increased. This implies that more insulin was required to control blood sugar levels. In other words, these participants had developed insulin resistance.

o   This result was unexpected. Remember the investigators had included this drink as a control.

o   The investigators pointed out that the insulin resistance associated with the sucralose-maltodextrin combo could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

  • Because of this unexpected result, the investigators did a follow-up study in which participants were given a maltodextrin-only drink using the same study protocol. The oral glucose tolerance test was unchanged by the 2-week exposure to maltodextrin-only drinks.

When the investigators conducted taste tests, the ability of participants to taste all four flavors was unchanged by a 2-week exposure to any of the drinks.

However, when the investigators did MRI scans to measure the brain’s response to these flavors:

  • A two-week exposure to the sucralose plus maltodextrin drinks reduced the brain’s response to sweet but not to any of the other flavors.

o   In other words, the subjects could still taste sweet flavors, but their brains were not responding to the sweet taste. Since sweetness activates pleasure centers in the brain this could lead to an increased appetite for sweet-tasting foods.

o   This might explain the weight gain that has been observed in many previous studies of diet sodas.

  • Two-week exposures to the other drinks had no effect on the brain’s response to any of the flavors. Once again, this effect was only seen in the sucralose-maltodextrin combination.

The investigators concluded:

  • “Consumption of sucralose combined with carbohydrates impairs insulin sensitivity…and…neural responses to sugar.
  • Insulin sensitivity is not altered by sucralose or carbohydrate consumption alone.
  • The results suggest that consumption of sucralose in the presence of a carbohydrate dysregulates gut-brain regulation of glucose metabolism.”

The investigators pointed out that this could have several adverse consequences. Again, in the words of the authors:

“Similar exposure combinations (artificial sweeteners plus carbohydrates) almost certainly occur in free-living humans, especially if one considers the consumption of a diet drink along with a meal. This raises the possibility that the combination effect may be a major contributor to the rise in incidence of type 2 diabetes and obesity. If so, addition of artificial sweeteners to increase the sweetness of carbohydrate-containing food and beverages should be discouraged and consumption of diet drinks with meals should be counseled against.”

Why Do Diet Sodas Make You Fat?

As I mentioned at the start of this article, there are a lot of hypotheses as to why diet sodas make us fat. These hypotheses break down into two classifications: psychological and physiological.

The psychological hypothesis is easiest to explain. Essentially, it goes like this: We feel virtuous for choosing a zero-calorie sweetener, so we allow ourselves to eat more of our favorite foods. It is unlikely that this hypothesis holds for all diet soda drinkers. However, it is also hard to exclude it as at least part of the explanation for the food overconsumption associated with diet soda use.

There are multiple physiological hypotheses. Most of them are complicated, but here are simplified explanations of the three most popular hypotheses:

  • The sweet taste of artificial sweeteners tricks the brain into triggering insulin release by the pancreas. This causes blood sugar levels to plummet, which increases appetite.
  • The sweet taste of artificial sweeteners is not appropriately recognized by the brain. This diminishes release of hormones that suppress appetite.
  • Artificial sweeteners interfere with insulin signaling pathways, which leads to insulin resistance.

There is some evidence for and against each of these hypotheses.

However, this study introduces a new physiological hypothesis – namely that it is the combination of artificial sweeteners and carbohydrates that results in a dysregulation of the normal mechanisms controlling appetite and blood sugar.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Diet Soda DangersLet’s start with the obvious. This is just a hypothesis.

  • This was a very small study. Until it is confirmed by other, larger studies, we don’t know whether it is true.
  • This study only tested sucralose. We don’t know whether this applies to other artificial sweeteners.
  • The study only tested maltodextrin in combination with sucralose. We don’t know whether it applies to other carbohydrates.

Therefore, in discussing how this study applies to you, let’s consider two possibilities – if it is true, and if it is false.

If this hypothesis is true, it is concerning because:

  • We often consume diet sodas with meals. If, for example, we take the earlier example of a diet soda with a Big Mac and fries, both the hamburger bun and the fries are high carbohydrate foods.

 

  • Sucralose and other artificial sweeteners are used in low calorie versions of many carbohydrate rich processed foods.

If this hypothesis is false, it does not change the underlying association of diet soda consumption with weight gain and type 2 diabetes. It is merely an attempt to explain that association. We should still try to eliminate diet sodas and reduce our consumption of artificially sweetened, low calorie foods.

My recommendation is to substitute water and other unsweetened beverages for the diet drinks or sugar sweetened beverages you are currently consuming. If you crave the fizz of sodas, drink carbonated water. If you need more taste, try herbal teas or infuse water with slices of lemon, lime, or your favorite fruit. If you buy commercial brands of flavored water, check the labels carefully. They may contain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Those you want to avoid.

The Bottom Line

Many studies have called into question the assumption that diet sodas and diet foods help us lose weight. In fact, most of these studies show that diet soda consumption is associated with weight gain rather than weight loss.

There are many hypotheses to explain this association, but none of them have been proven at present.

This study introduces a new hypothesis – namely that the combination of artificial sweeteners and carbohydrates results in a dysregulation of the normal mechanisms controlling appetite and blood sugar. In particular, this study suggested that combining sucralose with carbohydrates caused insulin resistance and reduce the ability of the brain to respond appropriately to sweet tastes.

The authors concluded: “Similar exposure combinations (artificial sweeteners plus carbohydrates) almost certainly occur in free-living humans, especially if one considers the consumption of a diet drink along with a meal. This raises the possibility that the combination effect may be a major contributor to the rise in incidence of type 2 diabetes and obesity. If so, addition of artificial sweeteners to increase the sweetness of carbohydrate-containing food and beverages should be discouraged and consumption of diet drinks with meals should be counseled against.”

If this hypothesis is true, it is concerning because:

  • We often consume diet sodas with meals. If, for example, we take the example of a diet soda with a Big Mac and fries, both the hamburger bun and the fries are high carbohydrate foods.
  • Artificial sweeteners are used in low calorie versions of many carbohydrate rich processed foods.

If this hypothesis is false, it does not change the underlying association of diet soda consumption with weight gain and type 2 diabetes. It is merely an attempt to explain that association. We should still try to eliminate diet sodas and reduce our consumption of artificially sweetened, low calorie foods.

My recommendation is to substitute water and other unsweetened beverages for the diet drinks or sugar sweetened beverages you are currently consuming. If you crave the fizz of sodas, drink carbonated water. If you need more taste, try herbal teas or infuse water with slices of lemon, lime, or your favorite fruit. If you buy commercial brands of flavored water, check the labels carefully. They may contain sugars or artificial sweeteners. Those you want to avoid.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Could A Probiotic Supplement Make You Healthier?

What Is The Truth About Our Microbiome?

Myth BusterOur gut bacteria, often referred to as our microbiome, are a “hot” topic in today’s world. They have been in the news a lot in recent years. If you believe the headlines, the right gut bacteria can make you smarter, healthier, and cure what ails you. They appear to have almost mystical powers. Could a probiotic supplement make you healthier?

How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? It’s hard to say. Our microbiome is incredibly complex. To make matters more confusing, the terminology used to classify our gut bacteria into groups is not consistent. It varies from study to study.

Perhaps it is time to take an unbiased look at the data and separate fact from speculation.

Could A Probiotic Supplement Make You Healthier?

Probiotic SupplementTo answer the question of whether a probiotic supplement could make you healthier, we need to differentiate between what we know is true and what we think might be true. Let’s start with what we know for certain:

  • Our gut bacteria are affected by diet. People consuming a primarily plant-based diet have different populations of gut bacteria than people consuming a primarily meat-based diet.
    • The populations of gut bacteria found in people consuming a plant-based diet are associated with better health outcomes, but associations have their limitations as discussed below.
  • Our gut bacteria are affected by exercise.
    • It’s not clear whether it is the exercise or the fitness (increased muscle mass, decreased fat mass, improved metabolism) associated with exercise that is responsible for this effect.

Most of the other claims for the effects of gut bacteria on our health are based on associations. However, associations do not prove cause and effect. For example:

  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with obesity.
    • Do our gut bacteria make us obese, or does obesity affect our gut bacteria? There is evidence to support both viewpoints.
  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with better mental health.
    • Do gut bacteria influence mental health, or does the stress associated with poor mental health influence our gut bacteria? Again, there is evidence to support both viewpoints.
  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with better health outcomes (reduction in diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure).
    • Here the question is a little different. In general, the populations of gut bacteria associated with disease reduction are produced by a healthy diet, exercise, and weight control. In this case, the question becomes: Is it the gut bacteria that caused disease reduction, or is it diet, exercise, and weight control that caused disease reduction?

To better understand these points, let’s look at four recently published studies. After reviewing those studies, I will come back to the question of whether a probiotic supplement might decrease our disease risk.

Is Our Microbiome Better Than Our Genes For Predicting Disease?

Predict DiseaseThis study (T. Tierney et al, bioRxiv, 2020) reviewed 47 studies that analyzed people’s microbiome (their gut bacteria) and their genes and asked which was better at predicting their risk of various diseases. The study focused on 13 diseases that are considered “complex” because they are caused by both genetic and environmental factors such as diet and exercise. Examples include diabetes, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia.

The study found that our microbiome was a better predictor of these diseases than our genes. This finding is not surprising. Our microbiome is heavily influenced by diet and other environmental factors. Our DNA sequence is not.

This study supports previous studies in suggesting that our microbiome is a better predictor of most diseases than our DNA sequence. The exception would be diseases that are clearly caused by gene mutations, such as sickle cell disease.

Does this mean our microbiome is directly influencing these diseases, or is it merely serving as a marker for diet and other environmental factors that are influencing these diseases? Nobody knows.

Does The Mediterranean Diet Support Gut Bacteria Linked To Healthy Aging?

Mediterranean dietThis study ( TS Ghosh et al, Gut, 17 February 2020) divided people aged 65-79 into two groups. One group consumed a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and fish and low in red meat and saturated fat. The other group consumed a typical western diet. After a year on the diets the gut bacteria in the microbiomes of the two groups was analyzed.

The study found that the group consuming the Mediterranean diet had an increase in gut bacteria associated with healthy aging, reduced inflammation, and reduced frailty.

The title of the paper describing this study was “Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people, reducing frailty and improving health status”. But is that true?

There is already good evidence that the Mediterranean diet improves health status. Is it the gut bacteria supported by the Mediterranean diet that were responsible for healthy aging, or were other aspects of the Mediterranean diet responsible for healthy aging? Nobody knows.

Are Low Fat Diets Healthy Because Of Their Effect On Our Microbiome?

Heart Healthy DietThis study (Y Wang et al, Gut Microbes, 21 January 2020) put participants on a low fat diet (20% fat and 66% carbohydrates), a moderate fat diet (30% fat and 56% carbohydrate) or a high fat diet (40% fat, 46% carbohydrates). To assure the accuracy of the diets, participants were provided with all foods and beverages they consumed. After 6 months on the three diets, the gut bacteria of each group were analyzed.

Note: Because all food and beverages were provided, none of the diets included sodas, added sugar, refined flour, saturated fats, or highly processed food. In short, the diets were very different than the typical low fat or low carb diets consumed by the average American.

This study found that participants consuming the high fat, low carb diet had gut bacteria associated with increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. In contrast, the low fat, high carbohydrate diet group had gut bacteria associated with decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

To understand this study, you need to reevaluate what you may have learned from Dr. Strangelove’s health blog. It is true that low fat diets in which fat has been replaced with sugar, refined flour, and highly processed low-fat foods are unhealthy. But that’s not what happened in this study.

Remember that all the food and drink the participants consumed was selected by dietitians.

When you replace the fat with whole foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, as was done in this study, you end up with a very healthy diet.

The authors talked about the importance of the “diet-gut axis” for reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, is it the gut bacteria that influenced the risk of heart disease and diabetes, or is it the diets themselves that influenced disease risk? Nobody knows.

Can Gut Bacteria Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

MicrobiomeThis study (Y Heianza et al, Journal of The American College Of Cardiology, 75: 763-772, 2019) focused on the interactions between diet, gut bacteria, and a metabolite called TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide).

Here is what we know for certain:

  • L-carnitine (found in high levels in red meat) can be converted to TMA (trimethylamine) by gut bacteria and then to TMAO in the liver.
  • The gut bacteria of meat eaters are very efficient at converting L-carnitine to TMA. Thus, meat eaters tend to have high levels of TMAO in their blood.
  • The gut bacteria of vegans and vegetarians are very inefficient at converting L-carnitine to TMA. Thus, people consuming a primarily plant-based diet tend to have low TMAO levels in their blood.

Here is what we are uncertain about:

  • High TMAO levels are associated with increased heart disease risk. However, there is no direct evidence that TMAO causes heart disease.

What made this study unique is that it measured TMAO levels in the study participants at their entrance into the study and again 10 years later. The study found:

  • Participants with the greatest increase in TMAO levels over the 10 years had a 67% increased risk of heart disease compared to participants whose TMAO levels remained constant.
  • Participants consuming a healthy, primarily plant-based diet had little or no increase in TMAO levels over 10 years. It was the participants consuming an unhealthy diet who had significant increases in their TMAO levels.

This study strengthens the association between TMAO levels and heart disease risk. Because gut bacteria are required to produce TMAO, it also strengthens the association between gut bacteria and heart disease risk. However, is it the high TMAO levels that increased heart disease risk or is it the unhealthy diet that increased heart disease risk? Nobody knows.

What Is The Truth About Our Microbiome?

MicrobiomeBy now you have probably noticed a common theme that runs through all four studies. This is also true of most published studies on our microbiome.

  • We have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets lead to improved long-term health outcomes.
  • We also have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets influence the populations of gut bacteria found in our microbiome.
  • We know the populations of gut bacteria supported by primarily plant-based diets are associated with improved health outcomes.
  • We don’t really know whether it is the gut bacteria or the diets that are responsible for the improved health outcomes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a microbiome skeptic. I think we have enough evidence to say that our gut bacteria are likely to have an important effect on our health. However, to claim that gut bacteria play a primary role in influencing our health would be pure speculation at this point.

A Cautionary Tale

HDL CHolesterolWhy do I make this point? It’s because I suspect that some in the supplement industry will be tempted to make probiotic supplements and claim they contain bacteria “known” to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. You wouldn’t need to change your diet. All you would need to do to improve your health would be to take their probiotic supplement.

Lest you be taken in by such future claims, let me share a cautionary tale.

High HDL cholesterol levels are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Exercise and weight loss increase HDL levels. However, those require work. They aren’t easy. So, pharmaceutical companies were constantly looking for ways to raise HDL levels without the hard work.

A few years ago, a pharmaceutical company discovered a drug that increased HDL levels. They thought they had discovered a wonder drug that would bring in billions of dollars. People wouldn’t need to exercise. They wouldn’t need to lose weight. All they would need to do would be to take their drug. HDL levels would go up and heart disease risk would go down.

However, when they tested their drug in a major clinical trial, it didn’t move the needle. HDL levels went up, but heart disease risk stayed the same. It turns out it was the exercise and weight loss that decreased heart disease risk, not the increase in HDL levels.

My message is simple. Even if our gut bacteria are found to play a major role in mediating the effect of diet on health outcomes, don’t assume we can take a probiotic and forget about the role of diet and exercise. Good health starts with a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

The Bottom Line

Our gut bacteria, often referred to as our microbiome, are “hot”. If you believe the headlines, the right gut bacteria can make you smarter, healthier, and cure what ails you. How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? In this article I reviewed four recent studies on diet, gut bacteria, and health outcomes. I took an unbiased look at the data and separated fact from speculation.

There was a common theme that ran through all four studies. This is also true of most published studies on our microbiome.

  • We have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets lead to improved long-term health outcomes.
  • We also have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets influence the populations of bacteria found in our gut, also known as our microbiome.
  • We know the populations of gut bacteria supported by primarily plant-based diets are associated with improved health outcomes.
  • We don’t really know whether it is the gut bacteria or the diets that are responsible for the improved health outcomes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a microbiome skeptic. I think we have enough evidence to say that our gut bacteria are likely to have an important effect on our health. However, to claim that gut bacteria play a primary role in influencing our health would be pure speculation at this point.

Why do I make this point? It’s because I suspect that some in the supplement industry will be tempted to make probiotic supplements and claim they contain bacteria “known” to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. You wouldn’t need to change your diet. All you would need to do to improve your health would be to take their probiotic supplement.

My message is simple. Even if our gut bacteria are found to play a major role in mediating the effect of diet on our health outcomes, don’t assume we can take a probiotic and forget about the role of diet and exercise. Good health starts with a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

For more details, read the article above. You may be particularly interested in the cautionary tale I shared about HDL and heart disease risk.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease

Diet and Chronic Disease: Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease

Can You Cut Your Risk Of Heart Disease And Diabetes In Half?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

diet and chronic disease heart attackIt is no secret that heart disease and diabetes are among the top two causes of death in this country. They are killers. Even worse, they can affect your quality of life for years before they kill you. Finally, they are bankrupting our health care system. Anything we can do to reduce the toll of these diseases would be of great benefit.

Is there a connection between diet and chronic disease, specifically type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease?

That is why recent headlines suggesting that deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes could be cut almost in half simply by changing our diet caught my attention. Of course, those headlines came as no surprise. It almost seems like the American diet is designed to make us fat and unhealthy. It seems designed to make us die prematurely from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

 

How Was The Study Done?

diet and chronic disease heart diseaseThis was a major study (R. Micha et al, JAMA, 317: 912-924, 2017 ). They started by using something called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). NHANES is a major survey conducted approximately every 10 years by the US government to collect data on demographics, disease, and diet from a cross section of the US population. They used this database to determine how frequently Americans consumed various heart-healthy and heart-unhealthy foods. They collected data from two surveys conducted in 1999-2002 and 2009-2012 to determine how consumption of those foods had changed over that 10-year period.

  • The heart-healthy foods they included in their study were fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds, whole grains, and seafood omega-3s (long chain omega-3s).
  • The heart-unhealthy foods they included in their study were red meats, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sodium.

They then did a meta-analysis of high quality clinical studies measuring the effects of those foods on deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. They combined the data from all these studies to calculate the deaths due to all three causes combined, something they called deaths due to cardiometabolic disease.

Diet and Chronic Disease, Preventing Type 2 Diabetes and Heart Disease

diet and chronic disease lifestyleWhen the investigators combined all the data, they estimated that changing one’s diet from heart-unhealthy foods to heart-healthy foods would reduce cardiometabolic deaths (deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes) by 45.4%. That is an almost 50% reduction just by eating a healthier diet.

  • This probably underestimates the benefit of eating a healthier diet because they did not include the effects of reducing saturated fats, sweets, and refined carbohydrates on cardiometabolic deaths.
  • The reduction in cardiometabolic deaths was consistent across all demographic groups. It ranged from 40% to 60% when they considered gender, age, or ethnicity.
  • The 45.4% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths represents a holistic change to a healthier diet. When you consider the individual components of the standard American diet:
  • Decreasing sodium intake gives a 9.5% reduction in deaths.
  • Increasing intake of nuts and seeds gives an 8.5% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Decreasing intake of processed meats gives an 8.2% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Increasing intake of vegetables gives a 7.6% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Increasing intake of fruits gives a 7.5% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Decreasing intake of sugar-sweetened beverages gives a 7.4% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Increasing intake of whole grains gives a 5.9% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
  • Decreasing red meat consumption gives a 4.2% decease in diabetes deaths. They did not include the effect of red meat consumption on heart disease or stroke deaths in their calculation.

diet and chronic disease heartHolistic changes are best: It would be easy to look at each of those individual changes and conclude that the change is so small that it isn’t worth the effort. That would be totally missing the point. These data clearly show a relationship between diet and chronic disease:

  • A holistic change in diet that includes all these individual changes can make a huge difference in your risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, or diabetes.
  • Even if you are not prepared to make this many changes at once, each individual change gets you one step closer to a longer, healthier life. In fact, if you make just one or two of these changes you have reduced your risk of dying more than if you were taking a statin drug – and with no side effects.

The good news is that Americans have made some positive changes in their diet between the first and second NHANES survey, and, as a result, cardiometabolic deaths declined by 26.5%. The biggest contributors to this improvement were:

  • Increased polyunsaturated fat consumption (-20.8%).
  • Increased nut and seed consumption (-18%).
  • Decreased sugar sweetened beverage consumption (-14.5%).
  • This was partially offset by increased processed meat consumption (+14.4%)

The authors concluded: “Dietary factors were estimated to be associated with a substantial proportion of deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These results should help identify priorities, guide public health planning, and inform strategies to alter dietary habits and improve health.”  Below is a summary of the relationship between diet and chronic disease (specifically type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease).

 

The Bottom Line

It almost seems like the American diet is designed to make us fat and unhealthy. It seems designed to make us die prematurely from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. A recent study looked at the effect of a healthier diet on what they called cardiometabolic deaths (deaths due to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes). They concluded:

  • changing one’s diet from heart-unhealthy foods to heart-healthy foods would reduce cardiometabolic deaths by 45.4%. That is an almost 50% reduction just by eating a healthier diet.
  • This probably underestimates the benefit of eating a healthier diet because they did not include the effects of reducing saturated fats, sugary foods, and refined carbohydrates on cardiometabolic deaths.
  • The reduction in cardiometabolic deaths was consistent across all demographic groups. It ranged from 40% to 60% when they considered gender, age, or ethnicity.
  • The 45.4% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths represents a holistic change to a healthier diet. When you consider the individual components of the standard American diet:
    • Decreasing sodium intake gives a 9.5% reduction in deaths.
    • Increasing intake of nuts and seeds gives an 8.5% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Decreasing intake of processed meats gives an 8.2% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Increasing intake of vegetables gives a 7.6% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Increasing intake of fruits gives a 7.5% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Decreasing intake of sugar-sweetened beverages gives a 7.4% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Increasing intake of whole grains gives a 5.9% reduction in cardiometabolic deaths.
    • Decreasing red meat consumption gives a 4.2% reduction in diabetes deaths. They did not include the effect of red meat consumption on heart disease or stroke deaths in their calculation.

It would be easy to look at each of those individual changes and conclude that the change is so small that it isn’t worth the effort. That would be totally missing the point. These data clearly show:

  • A holistic change in diet that includes all these individual changes can make a huge difference in your risk of dying from heart disease, stroke, or diabetes.
  • Even if you are not prepared to make this many changes at once, each individual change gets you one step closer to a longer, healthier life. In fact, if you make just one or two of these changes you have reduced your risk of dying more than if you were taking a statin drug – and with no side effects.

The authors concluded: “Dietary factors were estimated to be associated with a substantial proportion of deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. These results should help identify priorities, guide public health planning, and inform strategies to alter dietary habits and improve health.”

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Gestational Diabetes Causes: High Folate Levels?

What Should You Look For In A Prenatal Supplement?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

gestational diabetes causesAccording to the CDC, almost 10% of the women in this country will develop diabetes during pregnancy, something referred to as gestational diabetes. After delivery, their blood sugar levels will usually return to normal.

However, gestational diabetes is not a benign condition. It increases your risk of serious complications during both pregnancy and delivery. It also increases the risk that your baby will suffer complications during birth, and it increases their risk of developing obesity and diabetes later in life.

Obesity and a family history of diabetes both increase the likelihood that you will develop gestational diabetes during pregnancy. Beyond that, what could be gestational diabetes causes are not well known.

There have been numerous suggestions in the literature that high folate levels may increase your risk of gestational diabetes. If that is true, it is concerning.  After all you are being told you should probably be taking a folic acid supplement before and during pregnancy to prevent birth defects. Could the very supplement you are taking to prevent birth defects be harming both you and your unborn child?

Before you throw out your folic acid supplements, I should hasten to add that the science is not definitive. Some studies have reported an association between high folate levels and gestational diabetes. Other studies have seen no association. It has been very confusing. No one has been able to figure out why the study results have been so inconsistent.

In this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor,” I share a study that may clear up the confusion.

How Was The Study Done?

pregnancy diabetesThis study (Lai et al, Clinical Nutrition, doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2017.03.22 ) was part of a larger study,  “Growing Up in Singapore Towards Healthy Outcomes” (GUSTO). The larger study was designed to assess multiple factors related to the health of pregnant mothers and their offspring. This particular study was designed to assess whether there was an association between high blood folate levels and gestational diabetes in Asian women.

The investigators recruited 923 women of Chinese, Malay, and Indian descent when they were less than 14 weeks pregnant. The women returned to the clinic at 26-28 weeks of pregnancy. Fasting blood samples were obtained for analysis of plasma folate, B12, and B6 levels. Gestational diabetes was diagnosed during the same clinic visit based on a fasting blood glucose level followed by a second blood glucose test 2 hours after ingestion of 75 grams of glucose. The women also completed a diet recall during this office visit.

 

Do High Folate Levels Cause Gestational Diabetes?

 

When the data were analyzed:

  • A high blood level of folate was associated with a 30% increase in gestational diabetes.
  • A high blood level of B12 was associated with a 20% decrease in gestational diabetes.
  • A high blood level of B6 showed no association with gestational diabetes.

vitamin b12When the investigators looked at the association between folate status and gestational diabetes in each of the ethnic groups individually, they discovered that the association between high blood folate levels and gestational diabetes occurred almost entirely in the Indian women.

This offered an important clue. A high proportion of the Indian women were following a vegetarian diet, which could predispose to B12 deficiency. When the investigators looked at both folate and B12 status, they found:

  • A high blood level of folate combined with B12 insufficiency was associated with a 97% increase in gestational diabetes.
  • A blood level of folate in women with normal B12 status showed no association with gestational diabetes.

What Does This Study Tell Us?

This is a single study, and it is based on associations which do not prove cause & effect. Additional studies are clearly needed to prove this hypothesis. However, if these data are confirmed, this study has several interesting ramifications.

#1: It offers a possible explanation for the inconsistencies of previous studies looking at the associations of high folate status with gestational diabetes. Most previous studies simply measured folate status without looking at B12 levels. This study suggests it is important to assess both folate and B12 status. Elevated blood folate levels may only predispose to gestational diabetes in populations that are also B12 deficient.

#2: This study suggests a previously unknown interaction between folate and B12. This is not simply a case of high folate levels masking the symptoms of B12 deficiency. The prevalence of gestational diabetes was much greater when blood folate levels were elevated than it was with B12 deficiency alone. In other words, folate made the symptoms worse. The authors offered a potential mechanism for this interaction, but it was speculative. In short, we simply do not understand the mechanism of this interaction at present.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

folic acid pregnancyIf this study is confirmed, it has several important implications for any woman who is pregnant or is considering becoming pregnant.

#1: Methyl folate offers no advantage over folic acid: These data are based on blood folate levels, not on folic acid intake. Methyl folate and folic acid are equally likely to increase blood folate levels.

#2: B12 supplementation is important if you are vegetarian or are restricting meat intake: This is just a reminder of what you have probably heard before. There are many potential causes of B12 deficiency. However, in the younger age range, vegetarianism is the most common cause of B12 deficiency.

#3: A holistic approach to supplementation is better than taking individual vitamins. In this case, it is clearly preferable to take a supplement containing both folic acid and B12 than one just containing folic acid or methyl folate. That is an important message. You are constantly being reminded that optimal folate status is important for a healthy pregnancy. It is easy to find supplements containing just folic acid or methyl folate. Avoid those supplements! Look for ones that contain both folic acid and B12 (preferably with B6 and the other B vitamins as well). The same holds true for prenatal supplements. Make sure they contain all the B vitamins in balance, not just folic acid.

So, could high folate levels be one of the gestational diabetes causes?  We simply don’t know yet.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • Recent headlines have suggested that high blood folate status is associated with an increased risk of developing gestational diabetes during pregnancy. This raises the question as to whether the supplementation you have been told was essential to prevent birth defects could also put you at risk for another health problem.
  • The study actually showed that high blood folate status only increases the risk of gestational diabetes in women who are also B12 deficient.
  • If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, this study has several important implications for you.
    • Methyl folate offers no advantage over folic acid. These data are based on blood folate levels, not on folic acid intake. Methyl folate and folic acid are equally likely to increase blood folate levels.
    • B12 supplementation is important if you are vegetarian or are restricting meat intake. This is just a reminder of what you have probably heard before.
    • A holistic approach to supplementation is better than taking individual vitamins. In this case, it is clearly preferable to take a supplement containing both folic acid and B12 than one just containing folic acid or methyl folate. That is an important message. You are constantly being reminded that optimal folate status is important for a healthy pregnancy. It is easy to find supplements containing just folic acid or methyl folate. Avoid those supplements! Look for ones that contain both folic acid and B12 (preferably with B6 and the other B vitamins as well). The same holds true for prenatal supplements. Make sure they contain all the B vitamins in balance, not just folic acid.
  • For details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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