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It seems as though almost everyone is struggling to lose weight. In fact, two of every three American adults are now overweight, with half of overweight folks actually being obese—more than 30 pounds over their ideal weight.
Losing weight is not just a matter of willpower and depriving yourself of foods. More often than not, overeating is a sign of glucose-tolerance problems—prediabetes. To get your weight under control, you have to get the level of glucose in your blood, or “blood sugar,” under control. Unless you do, your best intentions will be repeatedly sabotaged by food cravings and hunger jags.
Many people are surprised to learn that prediabetes (also known as impaired fasting glucose, impaired glucose tolerance, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, or syndrome X) is a common underpinning of weight problems. Here’s why.
When we eat “fast” carbohydrates (i.e., refined sugars, flour products such as breads, bagels, muffins, pastas, etc.), they are rapidly digested and quickly spike blood-sugar levels. In response, the body releases a surge of insulin, a hormone that lowers blood sugar levels. In the early stages of prediabetes, this excess insulin often brings blood sugar levels down to below where they originally were. Low blood sugar in turn makes people hungry, so they reach for another quick fix—usually some sort of sugary food. This raises blood sugar, causing another surge of insulin, and so the blood sugar and insulin rollercoaster continues. After years of eating fast carbs, the body starts to become “insulin resistant”: cells lose their ability to respond to insulin and thus manage blood sugar. As a result, blood-sugar levels start to climb—a clear sign of prediabetes.
For many people this process begins with those first 10 extra pounds, according to a recent study. German researchers found that with such a modest gain in weight, insulin levels remained elevated, a sign of insulin resistance and prediabetes. Because insulin also regulates fat storage, particularly around the belly, high levels of the hormone further increase fat accumulation, creating a vicious cycle. Dietitians often try to scare people with prediabetes or diabetes into action with warnings of such complications as amputation, eye disease, and kidney failure. But the health threats posed by overweight and prediabetes are actually far greater. These conditions are “ground zero” in an expanding shock wave of chronic health problems. They increase the risk of coronary heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, and they promote inflammation, an underpinning of every disease process.
Overweight, prediabetes, and type-2 diabetes are nutritional diseases, and they are best treated nutritionally. They are caused by what I call the “too many, too much syndrome,” in which people consume excessive amounts of calories, sugary foods, sugar-like processed carbohydrates (usually grain flours), trans fats, and junk oils (such as soybean oil).
The average American now consumes 3,900 calories daily—two times what the average sedentary man and almost three times what the average woman requires. In addition, trans fats increase insulin resistance as well as the accumulation of belly fat. It’s not just a matter of calories and carbohydrates either. These unhealthy foods also turn on genes involved in inflammation and other health problems.
To reverse both prediabetes and weight problems, it helps to emphasize two food groups: high-fiber vegetables and quality protein. High-fiber veggies (salads and steamed vegetables) provide “slow” carbs, which gently raise blood sugar levels and help keep them stable, thus avoiding insulin surges. Similarly, quality protein (such as fish and chicken) stabilizes and gently lowers blood sugar. Together, protein and veggies avoid the extreme blood sugar peaks and valleys caused by fast carbs, and in the process they also dampen hunger and food cravings.
Nutrients form the building blocks of our biochemistry, and many have specific beneficial roles in regulating insulin function and blood sugar levels. These supplements can enhance the benefits of better eating habits. As insulin and blood sugar levels improve, appetite and hunger will decrease—leading to the consumption of fewer calories and low-quality carbohydrates, which will then be followed by weight loss. While many supplements claim to prevent or reverse blood-sugar problems, few are supported by studies on humans (rather than mice or cells). Some of the nutrients proven to aid blood-sugar control in humans are discussed below. These nutrients can be found combined in well-formulated products or individually as single-ingredient products. Note: The dosages listed below are for taking the supplements individually. When combining nutrients, dosages can usually be reduced because of synergistic effects.
People who are overweight or have diabetes are especially susceptible to vitamin D deficiency. In a large study, almost two of every three people with diabetes were deficient in vitamin D. Anastassios G. Pittas, MD, of the Tufts-New England Medical Center, has pointed out that vitamin D is sequestered in fat cells, away from other tissues that need it.
A three-year study by Pittas found that people taking 700 IU of vitamin D and 500 mg of calcium had negligible increases in blood sugar, while those taking placebos had substantial increases in blood sugar over the three years. Another study found that women who took supplements containing 800 IU of vitamin D and 1,200 mg of calcium daily had a 33 percent lower risk of developing diabetes over 20 years. Try 1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D plus 500 mg of calcium citrate.
People who are overweight or who have prediabetes or diabetes are likely to experience multiple nutrient deficiencies because of a history of poor eating habits or the sequestering of fat-soluble vitamins in fat cells. Such individuals might want to consider taking a high-potency multivitamin supplement in conjunction with higher levels of other nutrients.
A multivitamin complements good eating habits and provides a sound foundation for other supplements. For example, vitamins B1, B2, and B3 are involved in the metabolism of carbohydrates. Vitamin B1 levels are particularly sensitive to carbohydrate intake, and large amounts of carbs reduce B1 levels. In addition, people with diabetes are commonly deficient in vitamin B1. In 2006, researchers reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine that people taking high doses of metformin, or taking the drug for more than a couple of years were more than twice as likely to suffer from vitamin B12 deficiency.
When I coach people on eating habits and supplements, I consistently find that hunger and overeating are intertwined with blood-sugar issues such as prediabetes. When the blood sugar problems are addressed, hunger decreases and people start to lose weight. The benefits increase when people combine supplements with better food choices, moderate physical activity, and management of stress.