New diabetes risk factor–and it’s not your weight

We always hear that if you’re overweight, you run a greater risk for developing Type II diabetes as an adult. Experts also say that carrying excess weight is the main cause of adult-onset diabetes.

But is this true?

A new study questions this conventional wisdom. According to new research, there’s another, stronger risk factor for developing Type II diabetes. In fact, this risk factor may account for one-third of all cases of Type II diabetes in the U.S. And for about one-quarter of new cases around the world.

Of course, I’m talking about sugar intake.

And a group of U.S. researchers now believes that sugar intake–and not being overweight–is the main culprit behind the rise of Type II diabetes.

True, higher sugar consumption and excess weight often go hand-in-hand. But these findings indicate that eating sugar is worse than being overweight when it comes to diabetes. In addition, obesity doesn’t always lead to diabetes.

This study specifically focused on the link between sweetened sodas and Type II diabetes. It found that soda drinkers are more likely to become diabetics. In fact, they are more than 10 times more likely!

Dr. Robert Lustig of the University of California, San Francisco led the study. According to Dr. Lustig, “This is the same level of proof that was available to us when we implicated cigarettes as the cause of lung cancer back in the 1960s.”

This cross-national statistical study shows that in countries where sugar consumption went up, so did diabetes rates. And in those countries where the availability of sugar went down, so did diabetes rates.

These kinds of cross-national comparisons can reveal important trends. But we should always follow them up with more specific case-control and cohort studies. Only then can we begin to form a basis for health recommendations and medical practice.

But truly, we don’t need to be told by “experts” that excess sugar is not good for our health. Our mothers and grandmothers told us this when we were kids.

The National Academy of Sciences and the National Cancer Institute first looked at diet, nutrition, and cancer in the early 1980s. These organizations told us that excess weight leads to higher mortality. They also implicated excess calories, fats, and even proteins with an increased risk of cancer. And we all pretty much accepted this as scientific fact. But as I pointed out in a recent Daily Dispatch, it’s far from true. In fact, being slightly overweight actually increases longevity. Although, eating too much in childhood does appear to have long-lasting effects on your health.

And, back then, sugar was not even on the radar screen. But it should have been.

When it comes to putting on weight, sugar carries about four calories per gram. Fat is more than double that, at nine calories per gram. If excess sugar is worse than being overweight when it comes to developing diabetes, we can assume that sugar does something else to the body besides just adding extra weight.  And to be sure, sugar has a number of metabolic effects.

Until the 1980s, food manufacturers used sucrose, also known as cane sugar, in their products. Big food and beverage companies now mainly use “high-fructose corn syrup” as a sweetener.

Why the switch?

Perhaps, originally, companies wanted to disguise the sugar in its products. Certainly, it is also less expensive to produce.

But it also may be more deadly.

We know that Type II diabetes is more common in countries where people drink beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Could it be that high-fructose corn syrup is even worse than sucrose, which is at least present in small amounts in nature?

Chemists tell us that sucrose, fructose, and the glucose in our bodies all consist of the same molecules. But it appears the body sees them differently.

Here’s one consistent truth I’ve found that you can rely on, even when statistical studies prove puzzling. If a food is found in nature–and it’s recognized as a food by human cultures over long periods–it is likely to be healthy.

The body does not recognize synthetic ingredients, processed foods, or artificially grown produce and livestock. Therefore, the body cannot use them in the same ways as natural foods and ingredients.

Fats and sugars are relatively rare in nature. But human taste buds and olfactory senses respond strongly to them, because we require some essential fatty acids and natural fruit sugars for survival.

But today we are drowning in a sea of artificial fats and sugars. Indeed, artificial foods cater to the human tastes for fats and sugars. And it appears to be killing us.

Natural sweeteners, such as agave nectar and honey, are still as calorie-dense as sugar. But they can be safe for diabetics, in moderation.

If you don’t want to use sugar and are justifiably worried about the safety of artificial sweeteners, there are ways to get by without them:

  1. Skip all sodas in favor of flavored seltzer water.
  2. Use naturally sweet substitutes, such as blueberries, instead of brown sugar on your morning oatmeal.
  3. Read the nutrition facts and ingredient labels on foods.
  4. Avoid products with sugar substitutes.
  5. Familiarize yourself with all of the natural sweetener options. Consider lo han and stevia. And choose the one that best suits your taste and lifestyle.


1. PLoS ONE 8(2): e57873. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057873