Thoughts on the National Geographic’s August 2013 Cover Story

I had intended to write a different post today but as I stood in line at the grocery store this morning this month’s issue of National Geographic caught my eye because the cover photo seemed a little out of the norm for them and after reading the article I changed my mind on what I wanted to post.

National Geographic- August 2013

The article intrigued me because I wanted to find out what angle the writer would take with their story, “Sugar: Why We Can’t Resist It”. The author, Rich Cohen, used a lot of concrete data to support his story, a real-life spin by talking about and to a student from Clarksdale, Mississippi, as well as school personnel, and kept my attention completely until he began to use prehistoric apes to illustrate what he was trying to explain about fructose. Overall, his article is well-written and constructed. He faces head on the links of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes with excess sugar consumption, plus details the history of the sugar industry and how it came to be. Fascinating stuff, really.

Mingled throughout the article are charts and pictures with more information about the various forms sugar can come in and how it can be snuck into the human diet.

Cohen does a superb job of explaining how the human body processes sugar through his source in Aurora, Colorado, nephrologist Richard Johnson. In particular, Johnson’s explanation of how glucose and fructose (the two halves of sucrose or table sugar) are processed is telling. Cohen states,

Johnson explained to me that although glucose is metabolized by cells all through your body, fructose is processed primarily in the liver. If you eat too much in quickly digested forms like soft drinks and candy, your liver breaks down the fructose and produces fats called triglycerides.

Some of these fats stay in the liver, which over long exposure can turn fatty and dysfunctional. But a lot of the triglycerides are pushed out into the blood too. Over time, blood pressure goes up, and tissues become progressively more resistant to insulin. The pancreas responds by pouring out more insulin, trying to keep things in check. Eventually a condition known as metabolic syndrome kicks in, characterized by obesity, especially around the waist; high blood pressure; and other metabolic changes that, if not checked, can lead to type 2 diabetes, with a heightened danger of heart attack thrown in for good measure (96).

In summation, too much fructose and not enough physical activity to burn off the excess calories lead to a fatty liver, high blood pressure, and a fast track toward having metabolic syndrome develop and later Type 2 Diabetes. Cohen goes on to state, “As much as a third of the American adult population could meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome set by the National Institutes of Health” which he unfortunately does not go on to detail (96). But after googling the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I found the info I sought. There are five conditions which the NIH uses to describe Metabolic Syndrome and they are as follows:

    • A large waistline. This also is called abdominal obesity or “having an apple shape.” Excess fat in the stomach area is a greater risk factor for heart disease than excess fat in other parts of the body, such as on the hips.

    • A high triglyceride level (or you’re on medicine to treat high triglycerides). Triglycerides are a type of fat found in the blood.

    • A low HDL cholesterol level (or you’re on medicine to treat low HDL cholesterol). HDL sometimes is called “good” cholesterol. This is because it helps remove cholesterol from your arteries. A low HDL cholesterol level raises your risk for heart disease.

    • High blood pressure (or you’re on medicine to treat high blood pressure). Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries as your heart pumps blood. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage your heart and lead to plaque buildup.

    • High fasting blood sugar (or you’re on medicine to treat high blood sugar). Mildly high blood sugar may be an early sign of diabetes. (online)

Also, “You must have at least three metabolic risk factors to be diagnosed with metabolic syndrome” (Web). According to the site, metabolic syndrome is on the rise because obesity is also on the rise and a lifestyle change is the best way to prevent or delay the onset of this syndrome and its subsequent after effects of diabetes and possible heart attack.

Current estimates show the average American consumes 22.7 teaspoons (tsp) of sugar per day! To give you an idea of equivalents the charts and diagrams on pages 84 & 85 says, “22.7 tsp equal the natural sugar contained in each of the following: 7 red apples ~ 454 eggs ~ 1,135 cups of rice ~ 27 ears of corn”. Could you imagine eating that much of any of those food items in a single day?! And yet many of us drink that in a day! Wowza!

In terms of your liver, High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is more taxing because it is 55% Fructose and 45% Glucose. So try to cut out as much excess fructose out of your diet as you possibly can because that will help your body to balance out a little better. Granted some of the cheapest foods (the ones we often reach for) contain the most HFCS and other forms of fructose, so that means spending a little more to have higher quality foods. But if you switch to more whole foods and less processed foods, then you may not even notice too much of a difference to your pocket-book. I know people say produce and other whole foods are more expensive and that’s why they buy more of the processed stuff, but if you buy your produce while it’s in season and store it yourself (whether through canning or freezing) then it’s actually pretty inexpensive.

Okay, I know this ones a little shorter than normal, but that’s all I’ve got for now as I’m under a time crunch today. Best wishes to your health and wellness! Have a fantastic week! See you in another week or two as time allows. 😀

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