The secret to losing weight and preventing serious illness is achieving balanced insulin levels, claims author Dr Mark Hyman. He talks about the lifestyle and nutrition changes needed to achieve this, in his new book The Blood Sugar Solution.
By Lisa Salmon.
We all know that keeping our weight under control can help avoid serious health consequences such as type 2 diabetes, and the recommended route is normally a simple combination of diet and exercise.
But to really tackle the problem on a long-term basis involves much more than that, according to Dr Mark Hyman, a US authority on functional medicine, who says reducing blood sugar is the key.
He advocates changing both diet and lifestyle to achieve this goal - and consequently reduce the risk of a multitude of health problems.
Dr Hyman's approach to medicine is to try to address the underlying causes of disease. He claims that the quarter of the British adult population classed as obese - rising to a massive 50% in Wales - probably have what he calls 'diabesity', which begins with elevated blood sugar and mild insulin resistance.
Insulin helps the body use or store glucose from food, and while people with type 2 diabetes still make insulin (unlike those with the rarer type 1 disease, which tends to begin in childhood and young adulthood and is not caused by being overweight), their bodies don't respond well to it. This is called insulin resistance, which can lead to high blood-sugar, and possibly eventual organ damage.
Dr Hyman stresses that if 'diabesity' isn't tackled, it can lead to a host of complications including full-blown diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even cancer.
"There are plenty of weight-loss strategies out there, but they're not all healthy and people will usually put all the weight back on," he says. "They need to tackle the root cause, and achieve better health as well."
The best way to tackle it, he claims, is through a personalised approach which assesses the underlying cause of each individual's 'diabesity', and allows them to take specific steps to combat it - some of which are outlined here.
Weird bugs "If you're overweight or have type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, it's just a symptom and there may be many different causes," explains Dr Hyman.
"It could be that you have weird bugs in your gut, it could be that you're poisoned with mercury or petrochemicals, it could be that you're eating gluten and it's driving inflammation, or it could just be that your diet's poor, you're malnourished, you're under stress or your cells are not working right metabolically.
"In any one person it can be figured out, and fixed."
In his new book The Blood Sugar Solution, Dr Hyman suggests that anyone who struggles with type 2 diabetes, high blood sugar, weight problems, fatigue, depression, or any chronic illness at all, should consider following the steps in his six-week action plan, which simply aims to create all-round good health.
The steps include good nutrition, taking dietary supplements, relaxing, taking gentle exercise, and avoiding toxins and allergens.
Dr Hyman explains that 'diabesity' is a continuum of health problems ranging from mild insulin resistance and being overweight to obesity and diabetes, and is "the single largest global health epidemic of our time".
He says: "It's one of the leading causes of heart disease, dementia, cancer and premature death in the world, and is almost entirely caused by environmental and lifestyle factors. This means that it is almost 100% preventable and curable."
Rather than a catch-all diet and exercise programme, Dr Hyman suggests that people assess the root cause of their health and weight problems - his book contains a series of quizzes to do just that - and then tackle the specific cause.
Eat your medicine The first step in The Blood Sugar Solution is good nutrition, and balancing blood-sugar levels. To stabilise blood-sugar, Dr Hyman recommends avoiding all sugars, flour, processed food, gluten and dairy, and simply eating high quality foods. Nutritional supplements are also "essential", he says.
"It's embarrassingly simple. We should eat real, unprocessed food, we shouldn't be eating sugar but should be eating fruits and vegetables, lean animal protein, omega 3 fats, nuts and seeds and beans and some wholegrains. It's common sense."
Regulate your hormones As well as stabilising levels of the hormone insulin, it's also important to identify and treat thyroid imbalances that control metabolism, and overactive stress hormones that worsen insulin resistance and blood sugar. Diet, exercise and nutritional supplements can all help, says Dr Hyman.
Reduce inflammation Inflammation causes insulin resistance and vice-versa, says Dr Hyman, who points out that the inflammation that causes obesity is hidden and doesn't hurt - it's created by the immune system as it fights off bad food. As well as poor foods, he warns that toxins, food allergies, stress and a sedentary lifestyle can all promote inflammation.
Improve digestion A toxic digestive system caused by poor diet, certain drugs and stress can cause metabolic problems, says Dr Hyman, but eating good foods can introduce good bacteria into the gut.
Detox Studies show that environmental toxins interfere with blood sugar and cholesterol metabolism, and cause insulin resistance. Dr Hyman suggests that people who've struggled with weight loss despite trying to diet and exercise may find that environmental toxins are the problem.
He says eating organic food and drinking plenty of water can help, as well as being aware of environmental toxins, such as those in household products and trying to reduce them where possible.
"I like people to do a detox - we've been addicted to compounds that are driving illness for most of our lives. I call it the white menace - white sugar, white flour, white fat, and also caffeine and alcohol.
"People need to see what happens to their energy and weight, to how they feel and their brain function when they get off these addictive substances."
Skinny but obese inside Dr Hyman points out that recent studies show increasing numbers of teenagers have either type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, and more than a third of skinny teenagers have signs of metabolic syndrome, with high blood sugar, blood pressure or cholesterol.
"People might think they're getting away with eating junk because they're not gaining weight, but they're not, because it changes their biology and drives huge amounts of dysfunction which can create disease, regardless of weight.
"Food is a driver of disease whether you're thin or fat, and we have to look at eating real food as the solution."
Smouldering fire Dr Hyman warns that people may not have obvious health problems, but their systems may be unbalanced, leading to future disease.
"It might just be a smouldering fire," he says. "But in the future there could be big trouble.
"This is about the fundamental networks in your body that all have to be working together to keep healthy - inflammation, digestive function, energy metabolism, hormones, detoxification - and when they're out of balance, you get sick.
"You can reset your system and deal with the root cause of all illness. It's the science of creating health, as opposed to treating disease."
:: The Blood Sugar Solution is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99. Available now