(NaturalNews) The biggest epidemic in America hasn't come from birds, Asia, or germs. It's caused by the food you put in your mouth, and it has already affected some 70 to 100 million American adults. Doctors refer to the condition as metabolic syndrome, Syndrome X, or insulin-resistance syndrome - or, increasingly, prediabetes. If you have it and don't do anything about it, you'll be on the fast track to full-blown diabetes and a constellation of other health problems.
"You can diagnose the telltale sign - a pot belly - all by yourself, standing in front of a mirror," says Fred Pescatore, M.D., a nutritionally oriented physician in New York City. "The bigger your belly, the worse off you probably are."
In addition to abdominal obesity, the other key signs of prediabetes are high blood pressure, high levels of triglyceride (a type of blood fat), low levels of the "good" high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and high levels of either blood sugar or insulin. High insulin levels point to insulin resistance, a characteristic of glucose intolerance, which hamstrings the body's ability to properly use the hormone to burn sugars and carbohydrates.
Consider the case of Richard, a high-powered East Coast business executive. In December 2005, he was 50 pounds overweight, his blood pressure was inching up, and his blood fats were skyrocketing. Richard (whose name we've changed) turned to Pescatore, who coached him on better eating habits and recommended several nutritional supplements. Six months later, Richard had lost 40 pounds, and his blood fats and blood pressure were normal.
"Most of the signs and symptoms of metabolic syndrome will correct themselves just with changes in the diet," says Pescatore.
He ought to know. Pescatore was a chubby Italian kid before he realized how contemporary American eating habits pack on the pounds and sabotage people's health.
"Metabolic syndrome results from eating too many sugars and simple carbohydrates, including fruit juice and soft drinks," he says. "Look at the typical fast-food meal, with simple carbs in the bun, unhealthy fats in the fries, and sugars in the soft drinks. It all boils down to unnutrition."
What exactly happens? Sugary foods and refined carbohydrates - think candy bars, desserts, bread, pizza, pasta, and soft drinks — are rapidly broken down by the body, leading to a surge in blood sugar levels, followed by a rush of insulin. Insulin helps cells burn blood sugar for energy. But after years of dealing with high insulin levels, the body becomes resistant to it. That's when both blood sugar and insulin levels stay elevated, leading to a diagnosis of diabetes.
But eating too many sugars and refined carbs also does a number on the liver, which regulates blood sugar in tandem with the pancreas (which makes insulin). "The liver itself can become insulin resistant," says Frank Shallenberger, M.D. "At this point, the liver becomes fatty, liver function decreases, and it has trouble regulating blood sugar levels."
Shallenberger, who practices alternative and integrative medicine in Carson City, Nevada, criticizes the American Diabetes Association's dietary recommendations for including far too many carbohydrates. "We actually do better using healthy fats instead of carbs for energy."
You can reverse your risk of prediabetes by focusing on your eating habits, supplements, and physical activity.
Loren Cordain, Ph.D., an expert on Paleolithic diets, believes that prediabetes results from a collision between ancient genes and modern refined foods. "The average American eats around 150 pounds of refined sugars and 400 pounds of refined carbohydrates each year," he says. "These foods did not exist during most of our time on Earth. Our genes don't know how to deal with them.
Cordain recommends adopting a modern version of the ancient Paleolithic diet, with an emphasis on fresh broiled fish, baked chicken, and such high-fiber vegetables as salads, broccoli, and cauliflower. Small amounts of olive oil and complex carbs, such as yams, are okay.
"Protein stabilizes blood sugar levels, and so do high-fiber veggies," says Cordain. "Vegetarians can be in a bind, because they tend to eat too many carb-rich grains, and legumes are fairly high in carbs."
Liberally using vinegar, such as in homemade balsamic vinegar and olive oil salad dressings, lowers blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as curb appetite, says Carol Johnston, Ph.D., a professor and researcher at Arizona State University, near Phoenix. Cinnamon, which is easy to sprinkle on non-starchy fruit, such as raspberries and blueberries, can also lower blood sugar levels, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture study.
Several supplements help improve insulin sensitivity (the opposite of insulin resistance), enabling the body to use less insulin to efficiently control blood sugar levels. You probably won't need to take more than two or three of these supplements.
* Alpha-lipoic acid. German doctors have used this antioxidant for decades to treat diabetic nerve disease and improve insulin function. It might also help reduce appetite. Take 300-600 mg daily.
* R-alpha-lipoic acid and biotin. The "R" isomer of alpha-lipoic acid appears to be the most active form of the antioxidant. Combined with the B-vitamin biotin, it may be especially beneficial. As an alternative to regular alpha-lipoic acid, take 100-200 mg of R-alpha lipoic acid and 750-1,500 mg of biotin before meals.
* Chromium. This essential mineral helps insulin control blood sugar levels, and studies have found that it can significantly improve glucose tolerance. It is especially helpful when glucose intolerance is associated with overeating and depression. Take 400-1,000 mcg of chromium picolinate daily.
* Silymarin. An antioxidant extract from the herb milk thistle, silymarin can improve liver function along with blood sugar, insulin levels, and other signs of diabetes. Take 200-600 mg daily.
* Magnesium. High intake of magnesium may improve glucose tolerance and diabetes. Take 300-400 mg of magnesium citrate daily.
* Vitamin D. Vitamin D supplements may reduce the long-term risk of diabetes. Take 800 IU of vitamin D, plus 1,200 mg of calcium daily.
Prediabetes and related blood-sugar disorders often sap people of their energy levels, a consequence of high or erratic blood sugar levels. But physical activity can generate more energy.
"Exercise reverses insulin resistance, even when it doesn't lead to weight loss," says Scott Isaacs, M.D., of the Intelligent Health Center, Atlanta. "It builds muscle, lowers triglyceride levels, and boosts HDL levels."
"Think in terms of physical activity, not exercise," adds Isaacs. "You don't have to run a marathon. I encourage out-of-shape patients to start with a five-minute daily walk, increasing it each week by one minute. I want them to eventually walk 45 minutes a day, five or six days a week."
Copyright 2008 Jack Challem
About the author
Jack Challem, The Nutrition Reporter (tm), is a personal nutrition coach and one of America's most trusted nutrition and health writers. Based in Tucson, Arizona, he is the bestselling author of more than 20 books, including Stop Prediabetes Now, The Food-Mood Solution, Feed Your Genes Right, and The Inflammation Syndrome. Jack is a columnist for Alternative & Complementary Therapies and his scientific articles have also appeared in Free Radical Biology & Medicine, Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine, Medical Hypotheses, and other journals. Free, downloadable excerpts from his books, and sample issues of his print newsletters are available at http://www.nutritionreporter.com.