Monday, August 15, 2011

Book review: Sugar Nation

Jeff O’Connell is the Editor-in-Chief for, a former executive writer for Men’s Health, and former Editor-in-Chief of Muscle & Fitness. He is also the author of a few bestselling books on fitness.


It is obvious that Jeff is someone who can write, and this comes across very clearly in his new book, Sugar Nation.

Now, with a title like this, Sugar Nation, I was expecting a book discussing trends of sugar consumption in the USA, and the related trends in various degenerative diseases. So when I started reading the book I was slightly put off by what seemed to be a book about a very personal journey, written in the first person by the author.

Yet, after reading it for a while I was hooked, and literally could not put the book down. Jeff has managed to write something of a page-turner, combining a harrowing personal account with carefully researched scientific information, about a relatively rare form of type 2 diabetes.

Jeff has a genetic propensity to insulin resistance, just like his father did. What makes Jeff’s case a little unusual is that Jeff is thin, and apparently has difficulty gaining weight. The most common type of diabetes is type 2, and most of those who develop type 2 diabetes do so via the metabolic syndrome. Typically this involves becoming obese or overweight before getting diagnosed as a diabetic.

In fact, in a thin person who is insulin resistant it seems that body fat cells become resistant to the normal actions of insulin much sooner than in the obese. This essentially means that they start rejecting fat. This is a problem, because fat should either be stored in fat cells (adipocytes) or used for energy; as opposed to being deposited in other tissues or remaining in circulation. Apparently this makes it even more difficult for them to control glucose levels once insulin resistance sets in; there is no “cushion”, so to speak.

Still, Jeff appears to believe that his case was that of a skinny-fat person, where body fat percentage is a lot higher than expected based on a low body mass index, and where excess visceral fat is a main culprit. In fact, Jeff seems to think that most cases of thin folks who developed type 2 diabetes are like this, as they follow the metabolic syndrome progression pattern. Fasting triglycerides go up and HDL cholesterol goes down, among other things, but in a skinny-fat body.

Somewhat predictably, what Jeff found out is that, in his case, adopting a low carbohydrate diet made an enormous difference. In fact, it made the difference between having a fairly normal life versus constantly suffering through hypoglycemic episodes. And, at the stage in which Jeff caught the problem, he did not have to avoid all natural carbohydrate-rich foods, not even things like apples. (He had to control portions though.) It is the refined carbohydrate-rich foods that were the problem for him.

I must say that I disagree with a few of the statements in the book. For example, the author seems to believe that excess saturated fat and salt may be quite unhealthy. I think that foods rich in refined carbohydrates and sugars are much more of a problem; cut them out and often excess saturated fat and salt either cease to be a problem, or become healthy. Jeff doesn’t seem to think that excess omega-6 fats can also cause diabetes; I believe the opposite to be true, via a pro-inflammatory path.

Still, this is a great book on so many levels. Jeff meticulously records his experience dealing with doctors, most of whom seem to be clueless as to what to do to prevent the damage that is caused by abnormally high glucose levels. This happens even though diabetes is those doctors’ main area of expertise. He talks about himself with complete abandon, and manages to mix that up with quite a lot of relevant research on diabetes. He gives us an insider’s view of the professional bodybuilding culture, including its use of insulin injections. His description of the Amish is very interesting and somewhat surprising.

For these reasons and a few others, I think this is a great book, and highly recommend it!