The Eight Demons of Eating Fast Food: Number 1 is Glycation

June 20, 2021

The Eight Metabolic Problems of Processed Foods: #1 Glycation

Robert Lustig's new book, Metabolical, is a tour de force. Read it, if you can take the time. Re-read some of its chapters. He clarifies the core metabolic problems that are literally killing us sooner than we should, all because of food being too processed. Here is the first item on his list of the "Eight Metabolic Processes" made worse by modern food.

1. Glycation. That is the glucose molecule sticking to stuff. If it sticks to a protein, it is called the Maillard reaction and is the fundamental driving engine of wrinkles, cataracts, and aging in general. This is sort of like basting your arteries with sweet barbeque sauce. Your arteries get stiffer, your joints weaken, you get old. Your immune system thinks you have an invader and goes nuts. Glycation is what makes diabetes kill you sooner. If the glucose happens to stick to a protein, it's called the Maillard reaction. It's basically metabolic rusting out.

The higher your blood glucose, the more glycation happens. High glucose is a problem but fructose drives the Maillard reaction 7 times faster than glucose. And fructose generates 100 times more free oxygen radicals. Now, a specific breakdown product of fructose called methylglyoxal drives the Maillard reaction 250 times faster than glucose. Where do we get extra glucose/fructose from? A little here and a little there, but 80% of American foods have extra sugar added to them. Modern food has a lot extra sugar added to it because you eat more when you taste real sugar. Table sugar is half glucose and half fructose. Sugared sodas have an even high proportion of fructose (typically 55% fructose) in the form of high fructose corn syrup.


Can you measure the Maillard reaction? Not really easily. You can measure the amount of glucose in your blood, averaged over the last 100 days. That is the Hemoglobin A1c. That number reflects the percentage of hemoglobin molecules with a glucose stuck on them. The definition of diabetes is now an A1c of 6.4 and above. A better definition of optimal health by the Institute of Medicine calls for an A1c below 5.7. Bredesen, our hero for cognitive decline prevention, advocates for 5.5 and below.

If the natural cleaning up processes of your body aren't working effectively, your tagged proteins with fructose or glucose on them start to accumulate and we called the Advanced Glycation End Products or AGEs. The more AGEs you have, the higher the rate of vascular disease and death.

How do you slow glycation down? Easy-peasy. It all relates to the amount of time your body is exposed to higher levels of glucose. (and or fructose). And that is fundamentally related not just to sugars but "processing in general. Let's give one simple example: oats. Completely unprocessed, whole oat grains are coated with an impervious fiber coating that your digestive enzymes can't penetrate. It takes an hour to cook and then some chewing before you swallow because of their natural fiber which keeping your digestive enzymes away from the carbohydrate inside. That slows digestion down, making the glycemic index around 19, meaning a whole grain oat cereal will raise your blood glucose at only 19% of the rate of pure glucose. You can't even find "whole grain" oats unless you go to the feed store. Now, if you crack that whole grain in half and expose an open face of stored carbohydrate to be available to digestive enzymes, the glycemic index becomes 53. It cooks faster too. 

What happens if you roll it and smash it out? That's more "processing". You expose more surface area for digestion. Glycemic index 59. It's rising with more processing. What happens if you smash it to smithereens under high-pressure steel rollers?  Put it in a small aluminum envelope with 4 fake blueberries.  Your glycemic index hits 83.  Almost as good as pure sugar. What we are doing by processing is making the food called oats easier to cook, easier to prepare, easier to eat and...and...and subsequently bad for you. Your blood glucose rises faster. You glycate more.  To add insult to injury, you then advertise that oats are good for you as part of a whole diet.  Nonsense.  Utter, nonsense.  

The devil is in the details. You want WHOLE oats meaning you have to see the grain in its full form. Not "make FROM oats" but "made OF" whole oats. Every food processor wants to trick you into thinking you are getting all the goodness of the whole grain by getting all the ingredients with the fiber and germ all ground up for you. And there is some teeny benefit to getting those vitamins and fiber. But that benefit turns out to be vastly overpowered and negated by the increased glycemic index. (We can go down the rabbit whole of same issue with glycemic load. It's the same argument.)

Now, the final insult is that your digestive system and enzymes and hormones were designed for whole grains. Your blood sugar is meant to rise slowly for a long time to match the length of time insulin lasts. Insulin lasts some 6-8 hours. What happens if you eat refined, powered grains in the form of white bread or bagels? Yup. Your insulin shoots up to respond to the rapid rise in blood sugar you get because white bread is so easily digested. And then what happens? Insulin lasts 8 hours but your glucose gets cleared out in 4. You crash with hypoglycemia and get starving hungry. Hypoglycemia is the net effect of the insulin/refined grains mismatch. You get on that treadmill and you can't get off.

Glycation is wicked. It's enemy number one on Lustig's list. More to follow.

www.What will Work for me. The answer is very simple. Eating for your health comes down to avoiding any grain that has been ground into talcum powder before being baked, cooked, fried, boiled. Our bodies were designed to eat whole foods, chewed slowly, minimally cooked. In that context, your blood glucose rises very slowly and your A1c stays low. You don't glycate. My a1c hovers around 5.7-8 all the time unless I'm very disciplined. I'm a borderline diabetic with awful genes. I'm trying not to eat any bread or flour product at all. If I'm in a place where that is awkward, I find Trader Joe's has wonderful Norwegian "Crispbreads" using no wheat with lots of flax seeds, sunflower seeds and oat flakes and big chunks of a few other seeds.

References: Metabolical by Lustig, Aging Clin Exp Res, Harvard Health, Medical News Today, JCEM

Pop Quiz

1. What is glycation? Answer:                                     Glucose sticking to substances all over your body.

2. More glycation happens under what circumstances?                                   Answer: High blood glucose resulting from the rapid digestion of grains turned into flour as fine as talcum powder that is too easily digested. (Or too much glucose or fructose from sugared drinks....or ice cream...or cookies.....)

3. What is the Maillard reaction?                                      Answer: That glucose or fructose sticking to a protein molecule. Your immune system gets nuts over that.

4. How long does the rise of glucose from eating white bread last compared to insulin?                Answer: Eating a slice of white bread will raise your glucose for 2-3 hours. Insulin, once stimulated lasts for 6-8 hours. Bad mismatch.

5. So what happens 4 hours after a meal to someone who has just eaten a lot of white bread?             Answer: They become hypoglycemic and get low blood sugar. Yikes!