No one knows the exact reason people with mental health issues are more likely than people without mental illness to become insulin-resistant or diabetic, but they are. Regardless of whether mental illness is present, these insulin-related disorders cause premature aging; damage to the brain, nervous system, heart and blood vessels; shorter lives, and a decreased quality of life. They are conditions that affect not only persons with mental illness, but are rapidly ranking among the most common health problems throughout the United States.
Sadly, we Americans eat diets far higher in carbohydrates than what is healthy for us. The US Department of Agriculture encourages us to eat 6-11 servings of grains each day. The American Heart Association reports the average American adult eats or drinks 22 teaspoons (close to 400 Calories) of added sugar per day, while the American teenager averages 34 teaspoons of added sugars per day. Add to these starchy vegetables such as French fried potatoes, with fruit juices and sodas, and our average carbohydrate intake hovers at or above 55-60% of daily calories.
So, you may ask, what is the problem? Isn’t a high carbohydrate, low fat diet heart-healthy? The answer is, no.
You see, while our diets have changed, our bodies have not changed from the time we were hunters and gatherers. Back then, humans ate plant foods in season, animals, insects, fish and precious little sugar. High levels of free sugar in the blood stream is toxic. What little sugar humans ate was readily managed by a small amount of insulin, produced by tiny cells in the pancreas on an “as needed” basis. Sugar is hot fuel for the body, and toxic when left in the blood stream. Insulin is made available for emergencies, to quickly clear sugar from the blood before any mischief occurs. The hunter-gatherer’s diet was in balance with his body, and relatively little insulin was required to sustain a healthy bloodstream.
Beginning about 10,000 years ago, agriculture emerged. The strategy of raising grains and rearing cattle for milk and meat allowed humans to become civilized, settling in one place for centuries, a feat impossible when man was forced to follow animals for food. But with dependence on agriculture came side effects, starting with dental decay from the increase in fermentable carbohydrates (sugars and starches, e.g). Whereas tooth decay in healthy hunter-gatherer societies was rare, in agricultural societies it was quite common. In fact, scientists who study ancient human remains look for tooth decay as a sign they come from agricultural groups.
Highly processed carbohydrate foods made their debut in recent centuries, and became more widely available with each passing decade. So denatured are these foods that they bear only a faint resemblance to the plants they came from, and they are rich in sugars. Most people do not realize that even unsweetened processed foods are rich in sugars. When grains are refined (powdered to flour and processed), they become quick digesting carbohydrates. Foods from refined grains can digest so quickly they start to turn to sugar in your mouth before they reach your stomach. Products we don’t think of as sweet, like pasta, saltine crackers and unsweetened cornflakes, turn to sugar so fast your body behaves as if you’ve eaten pure sugar. Another agricultural product, milk, is a source of sugar as well. Whole milk products contain fat, which slows the entrance of sugar into your bloodstream. But when fats are removed, sugar from milk enters the bloodstream more rapidly. You may think eating unsweetened cornflakes with skim milk is a healthy choice, but your body reacts as if you’ve just eaten a decadent dessert!
In addition to being the sugar mop-up crew, insulin is a storage hormone. When confronted with large quantities of sugar, a sugar “emergency,” the body burns as much as it can as fuel. Left over sugar is managed by insulin, which quickly sweeps it from the blood stream. Insulin first fills the small sugar storage spaces provided by muscles and the liver, but these organs can take up relatively little sugar. The largest sugar storage compartment in the human body is fat. Once the smaller sugar compartments are full, insulin next assists with storing the remaining sugar in the form of fat. For most Americans this is a daily occurrence that happens without their awareness.
Early in our lives insulin handles such sugar emergencies with ease. However, over the years, our bodies become less able to manage sugar floods. Cells in the body become deaf to insulin. Organs that used to allow insulin and its sugar cargo inside for storage no longer recognize insulin as well as they used to. They resist insulin, locking insulin and sugar out. When the liver resists insulin as well, sugar cannot enter to be turned into fat for storage. Locked out with nowhere to go, insulin and sugar stay in the bloodstream longer than they should. The condition where too much insulin and sugar linger in the bloodstream is called “insulin resistance.” Left unchecked, this progresses to Metabolic Syndrome (“pre-diabetes”), and may progress to Type II Diabetes later on. These conditions threaten the heart, brain and overall health. New research suggests this process contributes to dementia (Alzheimer’s) as well.
What can be done? If you are ill, be sure to consult your physician for dietary guidance. If you are a healthy adult and want to prevent insulin resistance and enhance your quality of life, a helpful first step and one that’s easy to remember is to rid yourself of “white” foods. White foods are processed and refined foods that include ingredients usually considered white in color, like flour, rice, pasta, bread (even whole wheat bread), crackers, cereal and simple sugars like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup (in sweetened sodas, agave 'nectar', e.g.). Natural, unprocessed white foods like onions, radishes and turnips do not fall into the same category as these starchy, processed foods. If you must have bread, look for sourdough or sprouted grain breads, and eat even these breads sparingly. Milk should be full fat (whole), and preferably cultured (yoghurt, kefir, cheese, etc.) to reduce the amount of milk sugars available. Fruit juices should be avoided, in favor of eating whole fruit. Potatoes and other starchy root vegetables like carrots should be eaten in moderation. For those desiring a more advanced approach, I recommend Laura Dolson’s Low Carbohydrate Food Pyramid. You can find a link to her site under Nutrition Links to the right of this column. Small changes to your diet, consistently applied, become habits for a lifetime of good health. Treat your hunter-gatherer body to the food it needs. Curb your refined carbohydrates to keep your natural insulin requirements low. Eat more like your ancient ancestors did and you can expect to increase your vitality and quality of life.