The Strong Linkage of Weight Gain, Diabetes and Cancer
Weight gain has long been a recognized risk factor for diabetes, and recently, weight gain and diabetes combined have been associated with an increased risk for several cancers. In fact, a 10-year lag between someone having elevated blood sugar in the diabetic range and the incidence of cancer is widely noted among medical scientists. This is based on the understanding that cancer in an adult is often the result of several years of exposure to risk factors that cause an accumulation of gene mutations.
Proof of this is coming in. In the Feb 2018 issue of the renowned medical journal, The Lancet, a comprehensive review of the prevalence of these conditions between 2002 and 2012 revealed that 5.6% of all incident cancers (792,600 new cases) in 2012 were attributable to the combined effects of diabetes and excess weight gain. The study looked at 12 types of cancer by age and sex in 175 countries.
Both diabetes and weight gain appear to be risk factors for many cancers — colorectal, pancreatic, liver, gallbladder, breast, and endometrial cancer, with twice the number of women affected compared to men. Low-income and middle-income countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa had the largest proportion of cancer cases. The researchers fear a continued increase of cancer, given the continued rise in diabetes and obesity during the past three decades in these regions.
Diabetes and excessive weight gain are also leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the world. In 2016, 38.5% of adult men and 39.2% of adult women were considered overweight, globally. Meanwhile, over the past forty years, diabetes has increased in most countries, with an average prevalence in 2014 of 9% of all men and 7.9% of all women.
So what could explain these linkages? One common explanation of the mechanism that connects diabetes and cancer is that increased blood sugar and blood insulin levels in the body are involved. For instance, people with an elevated insulin level are at increased risk of breast and colorectal cancer, regardless of their degree of weight gain.
However, at this time, the exact molecular mechanisms regarding the linkage of diabetes, weight gain and cancer is not known, despite decades of research. The inability of participants in an organized weight loss program to maintain reduced body weight for the long-term, and the inability of medications to reverse diabetes in patients are testaments to this gap in our knowledge
In my view, it is time for entirely new thinking to understand what could be behind the linkage between weight gain, diabetes, and cancer. Let me explain what I see as clear mechanisms at the cellular level.
Grains, weight gain, and diabetes
If we look at the cause of weight gain, it seems simple enough — it is the obvious result of storing energy (from food) that we consume beyond what we can immediately use. What has not been recognized as clear though is that in the countries mentioned above, the most common carrier of food energy are grains and grain-flour products. Thanks to the Green Revolution, countries like Mexico, India, Philippines, Malawi and Brazil have had substantial increases in agricultural output. The world production of grains has increased from 0.8 billion metric tons in 1961 to 2.8 billion metric tons in 2014, while the global population increased from less than 3 billion to about 7 billion. Grain and grain flour products have become the staple food that ordinary people can afford to control hunger.
Grain and grain flour products yield glucose in the intestine upon digestion. After absorption, the resulting elevation of blood sugar triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas. After helping cells absorb needed glucose, insulin instructs the liver to convert any excess glucose into fat for storage in fat cells. The result is weight gain.
Meanwhile, when fat cells become full, fatty acids that have been made from excess glucose circulate in the blood because they can’t be stored as fat. At some point, the bloodstream becomes so full of fatty acids that muscle cells begin burning them instead of glucose, revealing their capability of using either glucose or fatty acid to produce energy, similar to a hybrid engine. In other words, instead of the usual burning of fatty acids in between meals when the blood glucose levels have fallen, they do it on a regular basis. This switch to burning fatty acids leaves glucose in the blood and is the cause of diabetes, not insulin resistance.
Grains, in my view, are thus the link that explains weight gain and the development of high blood sugar and diabetes. But are grains also involved in cancer? I suggest that the answer is yes.
Grains and cancer
We know that cancer results from gene mutations that can be caused by many factors. For example, smoking and viral infections can promote gene mutations and the formation of cancer cells in the body. Mutations can happen due to exposure to radiation or toxic chemicals. Cancer cells could also appear in the body from inherited gene mutations and spontaneous mutations that occur during ordinary cell division. In other words, the appearance of a cancer cell, even a small group of cells that can be called a solitary cancer, is not an uncommon incident in the body. The presence of natural killer cells, as part of the immune system, which destroy cancer cells confirms the readiness of the body to deal with this situation.
A solitary cancer seldom causes death. It is when cancer colonizes itself and spreads to multiple parts of the body (called metastasis) that results in the death of an individual. What happens is that so many cancer sites rob the body of nutrients needed for the survival of its organs. The body’s vital functions slowly cease and life ends.
Let me clarify the link between glucose and cancer in this way. When you have high blood sugar coursing through the body, it is like manna from heaven for cancer cells. They thrive on glucose, and your immune system cannot keep up with destroying the cancer cells as they multiply rapidly, fed by volumes of glucose.
What you can do
I suggest there are two strategies to reduce your own risks of weight gain, diabetes and for surviving cancer if you have been diagnosed with a tumor.
1. How you eat: The body uses over one hundred different nutrients acquired through the act of eating. So how you choose the right foods containing what you need? Nature has actually created a simple sensory-based mechanism to help you — your taste and smell receptors. These guide you to select foods containing the nutrients your body needs. When you start a meal in response to hunger, your brain rewards you by creating a sensation of enjoyment which diminishes as you eat. When you no longer enjoy chewing the food, provided the concentration of nutrients is not more than that found in nature, it is a signal that your body is satisfied. If you stop eating at this time, this will prevent you from overeating. I call this “nourishment through enjoyment,” and I have provided extensive details about this form of “mindful eating” in my book Eat Chew Live.
2. The foods you eat: Of all the nutrients the body needs for optimal function, most can be manufactured internally. However, some, called essential nutrients, have to be taken in from the environment, from the foods you eat. Interestingly, no carbohydrate is an essential nutrient for human beings. In other words, grains are not necessary to the human diet. Therefore, your body will not be deprived of any needed nutrient if you begin avoiding grains and grain-flour products during meals. For the sake of convenience, you may still consume up to 3 to 4 tablespoons full of grain products for breakfast or as part of a snack or dessert, provided you are not a diabetic or have cancer. I also recommend using natural sugar if a sweetener is called for in the food preparation. Avoid no-calorie sweeteners, even if you are a diabetic. The fact is, the biggest contributor to elevated blood sugar after a modern meal is grain products, not natural sugar such as from fruit.
Remember: It is far healthier to eat what you want based on your intuition when you depend on hunger to start your meal. Do everything you can to eat less grain, more fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood if desired. Anyone can significantly reverse the trends of diabetes and survive cancer if you eliminate grains as much as possible from your diet.
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