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Dr. Zorba Paster: In the middle of a diabetes epidemic

December 15, 2018
David Stluka Portrait of Dr. Zorba Paster on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 in Oregon, Wis. (Photo by David Stluka)

Ever worry about getting diabetes? A lot of Americans do — for good reason. We’re in a diabetes epidemic. Now, class, put on your thinking caps because I’m going to give you a question. It’s multiple choice, so don’t sweat it.

In the 1950s, diabetes was much less common. How many fold, or times, has diabetes gone up since then? Is it .5 fold, 1 fold, 15 fold or 25 fold? Close your eyes and guess.

The answer is an astounding 25 fold. There is 25 times as much diabetes per capita today as when Eisenhower was president. And now, get this, the number is still going up.

We know some of the risk factors, and we all know them well: obesity, sedentary lifestyle, refined food, etc. We really don’t know all of them.

But let’s delve into one of these risk factors that keeps appearing on the scene — sugary drinks. The statistics show two out of three kids and half of all adults drink one of them every day.

For years we have lumped all sweetened things together. Stop the sweets, lower the risk. But recent research shows all calories may not be the same and sugary drinks may be far worse than the rest.

When I was a kid, I would occasionally have a Coke. It was an 8-ouncer, not the 64-ounce Big Gulp so popular today. That mammoth drink packs 64 teaspoons of high fructose corn syrup, which at 15 calories a teaspoon means 1,000 calories.

Researchers based at Canada’s University of St. Michael’s College, part of the University of Toronto, analyzed the results of 155 studies that assessed the effect of different food sources of fructose sugars on blood glucose levels. The study included people with and without diabetes.

When you consume sugar, your body calls on the pancreas to spit out insulin to take that sugar out of the blood stream and into the cells. The bigger the wallop of sugar, the more insulin the body needs to produce to handle it. The researchers found that sugary drinks needed a giant surge of insulin. Over time, this seems to lead to what I would call pancreatic fatigue or burnout.

Modest amounts of naturally containing fructose drinks, such as orange juice, did not have the same bad effect that artificially flavored drinks did. In fact, these more moderate drinks actually seemed to improve blood sugar control. It may seem counterintuitive, but a piece of fruit, which naturally contains fructose, might make your pancreas better.

Fructose naturally occurs in a range of foods, including whole fruits and vegetables, natural fruit juices and honey. But we Americans add it to everything. We never used to do that, but now we do. We have habituated our taste buds to want to make everything sweet.

I was in Nepal and Tibet for a month. It was off the grid, eating beans and rice — just what you could imagine. When I came back to Madison, I wanted a big, juicy bar burger. When I bit into it, I tasted the grease and the high salt content, and sugar. When I asked the bar guy what was in the “secret sauce,” he told me it contained, among other things, yep, sugar. So, guys, we have adjusted our taste buds to like sugar even when we have our beef.

My spin: It’s clear that drinks sweetened with high fructose corn syrup should be cut out. But if you think other sugars are safer, think again. I doubt it. Stay well.

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