Book Review: Sugar Nation

12 Sep

I just finished the scariest book I’ve read in a long time – and my husband writes horror, so that’s saying a lot. But this isn’t a ghost story or a psychological thriller. It’s a cautionary tale about a killer hiding among us; One so devious that he can slip in unnoticed, hiding in shadows while directing his cronies to kill on his behalf. Spoiler alert: The butler didn’t do it, it was diabetes. The book is Sugar Nation by Jeff O’Connell; Part memoir, part nutrition guide, and an entirely sobering wake up call.

Sweet n' scary.

If you’ve read The Primal Blueprint you’ll be treading over some familiar territory here – insulin sensitivity and resistance, eliminating sugar and grains, increasing protein and healthy fats, upping exercise.  But where The Primal Blueprint focuses on all of the many benefits of a Primal lifestyle and leaves you thinking “Hey, this sounds like a great plan to follow,” Sugar Nation specifically zeroes in on the exploding type 2 diabetes epidemic and leaves you thinking “I’d be slowly killing myself by not following this plan.”  In short, these two books should be parked side by side on your shelf.

You might be wondering what would be the point of reading a book that basically covers a bunch of stuff you already know.  Here’s the thing, I love it any time I see Primal or Paleo ideals being promoted in the mainstream.  As much as we love this lifestyle and know that it simply works, a lot of people don’t take it seriously.  They see the cute caveman references and the surface similarities to Atkins or South Beach and dismiss it as just another fad diet.  Here O’Connell simply puts forth a way of healthy eating and living that should make sense to anyone.  So the next time whoever you’re talking to rolls their eyes and says “Oh, that caveman diet?” recommend Sugar Nation to them.  I don’t care what people want to call it, as long as they give up the junk.

“Diabetes has snuck up on America because insulin resistance, its root cause, sneaks up on Americans.  It’s the invisible cause of an invisible disease.  By the time someone learns they’re prediabetic, insulin resistance is already in charge, and probably has been for many years.”

In 2006 Jeff O’Connell (now Editor-in-Chief of learned that his estranged father had been suffering from type 2 diabetes run amok, and that he lost one of his legs to the disease.  Right on the heels of this news, O’Connell found out that he himself – a health journalist with the impressive credits of Muscle & Fitness and Men’s Health on his resume – was prediabetic.  What follows is a winding journey through the misinformation, contradictions, and inconsistencies of modern diabetes care – most of it courtesy of good ol’ Conventional Wisdom.  From the absurdity of an American Diabetes Association reception serving pasta and tiramisu for lunch, to the starch and carb-loaded meal plans recommended on the ADA’s own website (I actually went to the site to check, and yup, they’re there) you’ll find something to make your jaw drop with each turn of the page.

“The ADA and many doctors pay only lip service to lifestyle change, so people forgo an ounce of prevention in favor of pound after pound of cure.  Sure, patients are handed a pamphlet with their prescriptions telling them that diet and exercise would, in fact, help.  But the unspoken assumption is that the patient will never stick with the lifestyle program.”

Some medications are unfortunately necessary, but it makes no sense to jump straight to the prescription pad without first giving diet and lifestyle changes a fighting chance.  I have a friend who went against his doctor’s wishes and ditched the cholesterol-lowering drug that he was actually having an allergic reaction to.  The doctor’s bright idea?  Take a Benedryl with the medication – and, presumably, just hope your throat doesn’t swell shut one night while you’re sleeping.  My friend’s solution?  Drop the unnecessary meds, and add healthy Omega 3’s into his diet.  Oh, did I mention that his cholesterol level was normal to begin with?  (I’m not even gonna go into the problems with the cholesterol/heart disease connection)  No, his doctor just wanted him to take it as a “precautionary measure.”  In fact, Dr. Pill-Popper told him that he believes the drugs provide so many benefits (like…liver disease?!) that everyone will be taking them as a precaution in a matter of years.  That drug company must be givin’ him one hell of a kickback.

I know that our healthcare providers really do have our best interests in mind when they recommend eating blood-sugar and insulin spiking bread and grains, avoiding perfectly healthy fats, and doing long stretches of chronic cardio instead of things like HIIT – and then prescribing pill after pill to counteract the lifestyle choices we’ve been told are “healthy” for nearly 40 years.  But it’s obvious that something needs an overhaul here.

More and more research is pointing toward the benefits of a grain-free, or at least low carbohydrate, diet.  One chapter of Sugar Nation is dedicated to Canadian and Australian aboriginals and Native Americans who’ve had an explosion of type 2 diabetes cases over the past half century – because their diets have shifted from their native hunter/gatherer lifestyle to the high-carb, high-sugar, grain-based diet that so many of us enjoy.  But as soon as their protein and veggie filled ancestral diets are restored, the cases of metabolic syndrome simply fade away.  If that isn’t enough to convince you, I really don’t know what is.

The fact is there’s a war being waged between diabetes and the American public, and more and more people are losing the battle every day because we don’t choose prevention over cure.  I think the best way to be able to defend yourself is to be informed.  Read books like Sugar Nation, The Primal Blueprint, The Paleo Solution, and watch the documentary Fathead.  Arm yourself.  Because this diabetes guy is one sneaky son of a bitch – and if you don’t keep your eyes open, he can grab you before you know it.

10 Responses to “Book Review: Sugar Nation”

  1. Shirley @ gfe September 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm #

    Absolutely outstanding review and hard-hitting post, Shannon! I’m just finishing up this book and will be doing a review, too. But truly, I’m in awe of your writing in sharing the powerful message in this book. I’ll definitely link to your review when I get mine done. Admittedly, there wasn’t much in this book that was news to me, but it will be to many and it sends a powerful message to me (knowing is not always doing) and others. I did have a few concerns with this book; e.g., an implied approval of artificial sweeteners and the info on adding in more exercise to be able to eat more carbs, but overall it is excellent and should be an eye opener to many. Thanks so much for this one! Off to share on Facebook and Twitter …


    • Shannon September 12, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

      Thanks so much, Shirley! I’m looking forward to reading your review too. :) And I agree…I don’t use artificial sweeteners myself either. But if it persuades someone who drinks regular Coke to switch to Diet, at least that’s a baby step in the right direction! There’s also the chart about what to eat (fat and/or protein) to “soften the blow” of eating certain carbs. I think it’s good to know those tricks in a situation where you have to “cheat”, but sometimes people use things like that a little too often!

      • Shirley @ gfe September 17, 2011 at 9:41 am #

        Just following up … I actually don’t think that switching to diet sodas is moving in the right direction at all. I think drinking one sugary (or HFCS soda–UGH) would be better than a diet soda. Artificial sweeteners are truly horrid IMHO. And I think that if one has to do all that figuring (i.e., the chart) to eat this or that, then something is very wrong. But the good in this book far outweighs the bad, and your review will be very helpful to many!


      • Shannon September 17, 2011 at 9:55 am #

        I completely agree – I meant that the chart is another thing in the book that I’m not crazy about because it could be abused. I think its purpose is to help you out if you’re in a situation where eating carbs can’t be avoided (dinner party, craft services table on set, etc.) – i.e., if you eat this protein or fat with the carb source, it won’t hurt quite as much. And my fear is that people might use it as a way to “calculate” cheats into their everyday diet!

  2. davidisfat September 12, 2011 at 9:17 pm #

    Super information; I hadn’t heard of this book, but I went primal and kicked my diabetes medications…albeit a lifetime too late. Thanks for posting this.

    Kindest regards,

    • Shannon September 12, 2011 at 10:54 pm #

      There’s a lot of good info that I didn’t even touch on here, so I definitely recommend picking it up! That’s fantastic that you’ve ditched the medications! It’s amazing what lifestyle can do, isn’t it? Thanks David! :)

  3. chuckcotton September 13, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    I’m not familiar with the book but will have to check it out – cheers

    • Shannon September 17, 2011 at 9:36 am #

      You should! So much useful information. My friends are lining up to borrow my copy. :)


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