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Mediterranean Diet & Sugar

posted Feb 28, 2013, 9:49 AM by Susan Bernhardt   [ updated Feb 28, 2013, 10:23 AM ]
This week’s health news includes two diet-related studies, both of which are receiving wide recognition for being well done. One study concluded that following a Mediterranean diet can decrease heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart disease by 30% in high-risk people. The Mediterranean diet followers didn’t lose weight, but they had better outcomes than the control group. The control group was told to follow a low-fat diet but had trouble complying and so in reality was closer to a typical modern diet.

The other study found that sugar – independent of obesity and other foods – causes type 2 diabetes. Many countries have rising diabetes rates without a corresponding increase in obesity. The study determined that the availability of sugar is correlated with diabetes independent of obesity, overweight, and total calorie consumption. An increase of 150 kcal per day in sugar (about a can of soda) was associated with a 1.1% increase in diabetes, after controlling for other food types, obesity, overweight, and total calories. The implication: the problem is not just that eating sugar involves extra calories and thus weight gain; the sugar itself is causing harm. The study supports what its lead author has been saying for some time (e.g., – sugar is toxic.

There’s an important common thread here: the Mediterranean diet is very low in sugar. The study subjects were instructed to eliminate or limit carbonated and sugared beverages, pastries, commercial bakery products (such as cakes, donuts, or cookies), commercial desserts (puddings, custard), and out-of-home pre-cooked cakes and sweets. In other words, they were told not to have sugar. The Mediterranean diet study does not support taking one aspect of the diet in isolation, but it nonetheless is interesting to consider the results in light of the sugar study. As the sugar study notes, most of the increase in diabetes 2 is believed to be linked to metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of metabolic changes including insulin resistance, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. The sugar study shows that decreasing sugar intake decreases the risk of diabetes 2. If sugar causes diabetes 2, and diabetes 2 is related to metabolic syndrome which involves risk factors for stroke and heart disease like high cholesterol and hypertension, then the elimination of sugar in the Mediterranean diet may be significant to the positive health outcomes regarding stroke and heart attacks.

One message to take away from all of this: avoid foods with processed sugar. Forget the idea that foods with sugar just involve a few extra "empty" calories and that as long as you don't have too many calories you're okay. "Empty" implies neutral. The evidence is that processed sugar is not neutral. It's negative. It leads to diabetes 2. It is associated with heart disease. Whether or not weight is an issue for you, a healthy diet means limiting or eliminating processed sugar.