Life has never been this good. We have life enhancing technologies that could never have been imagined a century ago. Work-life balance means we get more family and leisure time, and there’s far more entertainment. Despite all this, humans are experiencing unprecedented rates of physical and mental illness.
In the last century, rates of Diabetes, cancer, heart disease and mental illness have more than quadrupled. Depression now affects 264 million people world wide. Approximately one in three adults suffer some form of chronic disease. A century ago, these conditions were seen to be a problem of age. Although these conditions existed a century ago, they were relatively rare. The worrying thing now, is people are starting to get them younger and younger, and despite advances in medical science, they are still on the rise.
Chronic disease now accounts for 70% of deaths globally, meaning the vast majority of people live out their days suffering. In fact, on average, the last 12 years of life for most people is accompanied by some form of chronic disease. This is a trend that has practically flipped in the last 100 years. Back then, mortality rates from communicable diseases, such as Measles, Polio, Typhoid were much higher, but medical science has come such as long way in preventing these, it seems non-sensical that one health crisis has been replaced by another.
So what have we done over the last century to make this happen? It’s not about living longer. Diabetes, on average, starts in the mid-forties; nearly 50% of cancers start before the age of 60, and 10% of heart attacks occur in the early 40s.
The answer is, we’ve changed the way we eat in response to the idea that saturated fat consumption caused heart disease. This was known as the diet-heart hypothesis and was first proposed in the 1950s by Ancel keys. Trials conducted between 1968 and 1975 showed that the replacement of saturated fat with linoleic acid effectively lowered serum cholesterol. They did not, however, support the hypothesis that this translates to a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease. Despite the inconclusive results, the findings led to a dietary revolution. Saturated fat was out and vegetable oils were in. Dietary fat recommendations were reduced in favour of grains. Bacon and eggs were replaced with breakfast cereals and refined grain based products, loaded with refined sugar were given the green light.
It’s no coincidence that the incidence of chronic disease has increased since these dietary recommendations were introduced. A significant body of evidence is now emerging that sugar is the real culprit behind the rise in chronic disease, yet still we see packaged cereal boxes displaying endorsements from the heart foundation.
Take Type II Diabetes which is caused by insulin resistance in response to the failure of the incretin response. When we ingest food, incretins are released from the small intestine and stimulate the release of insulin to promote glucose uptake. Impairment of this effect is believed to cause insulin resistance. This can be caused by regular consumption of extrinsic sugars, sucrose, glucose and fructose, which are added to food. Extrinsic sugars are absorbed directly into the bloodstream, so they do not stimulate the incretin response and therefore inhibit insulin regulation of blood sugar.
Over time, insulin resistance increases and eventually beta cells stop producing insulin in the pancreas altogether, which prevents the body regulating blood glucose. This causes hyperglycemia, which can lead to kidney failure and blindness if not kept under control.
Over time, high blood glucose levels can damage blood vessels and nerves that regulate the heart, causing cardiovascular disease. According to the American Heart Association, 68% of people with diabetes will die of heart disease; 15% will die of stroke. Consequently, life expectancy for people with Type II diabetes is reduced on average by ten years.
Damaged blood vessels and nerves is not the only way sugar affects your heart. Believe it or not, sugar turns to fat in your body and excess consumption can increase triglycerides which are deposited in your arteries and organs. This restricts blood supply to the heart which ultimately causes damage to valves which stops it working properly. Ultimately, this can lead to heart attack, or cardiac arrest.
Failure of the incretin response is implicated in both diabetes and heart disease. The same pathology can also cause cancer.
Cancer depends on glucose for energy to stimulate growth, so if the body cannot produce incretin to regulate sugar, this will make glucose more available to cancer cells for growth.
According to the National Research Council Committee on diet, refined, processed carbohydrates are known to be cancer causing because of the way they interact with the body. Further research by Zitvogel (2015) showed this is due to interference with the gut biome, dysregulation of leptin, ghrelin and adiponectin, and the inflammatory response, caused by intake of refined processed carbohydrate, are linked to cancer.
Further research is needed to fully understand the link between refined carbohydrate consumption and cancer, however, it is clear, eliminating dietary intake reduces the risk of cancer, if not put certain types of cancer into remission.
Evidence suggests chronic diseases have a common pathology which is linked to sugar consumption. The solution is simple, however, in a modern pathological food environment, changing the way we eat will present its challenges to humanity.
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