Why could higher glucose levels be especially dangerous to the heart health of diabetics?
One specialty of Priya Raman, Ph.D., associate professor of integrative medical sciences, is atherosclerosis—the blockage of arteries. In her research, funded by the American Heart Association, Dr. Raman specifically seeks to understand why diabetic animals are more prone to these clogs undermining heart health.
An intriguing finding by Dr. Raman is that the body reacts to high levels of carbohydrates, not just in the short term, but in an ongoing way. Routinely consuming too many high-carb foods over time can actually change the way proteins habitually function in the body. The proteins are “turned on,” creating blockages that can be devastating to the functioning of the arteries.
This process happens with both simple carbs (such as candy and sugary drinks) and complex carbs (such as potatoes, which metabolize more slowly). However, says Dr. Raman, the key determinant is the glycemic index of these carbs—which is a better indicator of how rapidly the blood glucose levels will be raised upon consumption of carbs. (For example, potatoes, due to a higher glycemic index than another common carb, kidney beans, would increase blood glucose levels more rapidly than kidney beans.)
Why is a rapid buildup of glucose a problem? Let’s say you are diabetic. When glucose builds up in your body, you are unable to efficiently utilize it for energy production. Instead, the buildup may lead to a couple of adverse events. First, excess glucose can lead to activation of harmful proteins. Second, excess glucose could be converted to fats and lipids—and lipids, in turn, can alter proteins into a harmful state. The takeaway? Increased glucose levels can be a double-edged sword.
THE POWER OF HABITS
Up to a point, says Dr. Raman, the same proteins that are activated to create blockages due to a poor diet can also be turned off if we lower our intake of sugary foods and complex carbs with a high glycemic index.
But here’s the conundrum: There is no way to precisely identify that point of no return. In other words, researchers don’t yet know what levels of carbohydrates the body can handle before the proteins that turn on to create blockage will permanently stay on.
Here’s another catch: the body needs carbohydrates for fuel. And fiber is a carb too, but a good one that helps people feel full when they eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Now that we know more, what can we actually do?
Dr. Raman’s suggestion for a heart-healthy diet is down to earth: Limit our intake of sugar and complex carbs with a high glycemic index—and do it as early as possible.
This article is excerpted from an article published in the Spring 2018 issue of Ignite magazine.