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"Melon Belly"

Q: What causes pain/discomfort/sudden fatigue when eating sweet
          fruit like watermelon on an empty stomach?

Don Bennett replies:

This can be caused by a number of factors (and possibly by a combination of some of them; i.e. primary and secondary causes)...

  * the fruit wasn't fully ripe

  * the fruit was too cold (came right out of the refrigerator)

  * you ate too fast (don't eat when rushed)

  * you were upset while eating

  * you were tired and really needed sleep and not food

  * you weren't ready for a meal but ate anyway (before the previous meal had "moved through")

  * you combined other foods that don't go well with the fruit (from a digestive perspective)

  * there's too much fat in your diet (carb processing/utilization can be impaired)

  * if you ate different fruits at the same meal, you ate denser ones before the more watery ones

  * you stuffed yourself with fruit in an effort to get enough calories when you have a
     sluggish digestive system

  * overall poor health that has affected certain organs (like the pancreas which regulates cell
     sugar uptake; eating some leafy greens before and after the sweet fruit can help here)

These are the issues that get the most press. But one factor that is often overlooked is a deficiency of a nutrient(s) that plays a part in the proper digestion and/or assimilation of the fruit, and that's what this article will address.

A possible reason for discomfort, pain, or sudden temporary fatigue after eating a mono-meal of sweet fruit has been shown to be a lack of sufficient chromium and vanadium in the diet (I'll just refer to chromium from this point forward, but both nutrients are key players in proper blood sugar metabolism). Chromium is known to enhance the action of insulin, which is a hormone critical to the metabolism and storage of carbohydrate, fat, and protein in the body.


Some History

Chromium was identified as the active ingredient in the so-called "glucose tolerance factor" in 1959. Chromium also appears to be directly involved in carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism. In the 1960s, chromium was found to correct glucose intolerance and insulin resistance in deficient animals, two indicators that the body is failing to properly control blood-sugar levels and which are precursors of type 2 diabetes.


I have verified this chromium-blood sugar regulation connection a number of ways. I had this problem myself, often referred to as "melon-belly" (but more painful forms could be described as a "fruit attack"). Mine was a relatively mild case. I could not eat a decent sized meal of watermelon without getting some discomfort, but more of a sudden loss of energy where I had to lie down for a few minutes. The symptoms of melon-belly can vary in intensity and are therefore sometimes described as different symptoms, but they can be the same symptom, just different degrees of it. Some general descriptions are: fatigue to varying degrees a little after eating, and a slight pain in the abdominal area or chest area, sometimes intense in severe cases. These subside in anywhere from 15 minutes to hours.

While it's usually associated with high water content sweet fruit, some people get melon-belly even when eating bananas or other sweet fruit.

Experiments on myself and then with those I've counseled over the years, has resulted in the inescapable conclusion that, for melon-belly, lack of sufficient chromium in the diet is a root cause. Because there is no chromium-specific enzyme or other biochemical marker to reliably assess a person's chromium status, currently there is no valid and reliable lab test for chromium, so you can't check to see if you've got enough (just like with many food-provided nutrients). But there is a simple test you can do at home that is diagnostically revealing. More on this in a moment.

Some people say to simply eat more of the foods that are good sources of chromium, but dietary intakes of chromium cannot be reliably determined because the content of chromium in foods is substantially affected by agricultural growing and harvesting practices, and perhaps by contamination with chromium when the foods are analyzed in lab (this can be why an under-sweet melon or mango can cause it because this is a sign that it was early harvested so not enough chromium found its way into the fruit). So the lists of foods that are good sources are actually lists of foods that are supposed to be good sources. But consider that I had been eating plenty of the "best" sources of chromium – lettuce and tomatoes, and still became deficient in chromium. [If the soil that something is grown in is deficient in a particular nutrient, the foods that are grown in that soil will be too. Please see this article and video for an in-depth explanation of why the fruits and green leafies we are buying fall into this category. And for a reason why nutritional intake and adequacy results from Cron-O-Meter and Fitday.com may not be reliable, read this article.]

When I first encountered melon-belly, I had inquired of raw food educators as to its cause, but the general consensus was "we don't know". Since I loved watermelon, and since I should be able to eat it without discomfort, I was determined to discover the cause. If there was one thing I had learned from my health research thus far, it was that the answer is knowable IF you're looking for it from the right perspective.

I will preface this "test" by saying that I do not recommend taking individual nutritional supplements from A to Zinc (with the exception of D and B12). Doing so can get you into a boatload of trouble, and it's not necessary because you can simply take a high quality multi (which, in my considered opinion, is not Theragram, Centrum, One-A-Day et al). If one is deficient in chromium it is a safe bet that they are also deficient to varying degrees in other nutrients as well, which is why I do not recommend taking a chromium supplement long term to ensure adequate chromium levels; an efficacious, high quality multi is recommended.

To help determine if what you are experiencing when you eat a sweet fruit meal is actually melon-belly, get a bottle of chromium picolinate or better yet, a bottle of chromium and vanadium, and take the recommended dose for two weeks (usually 200-300 mcg). Then try eating a meal of sweet fruit (and be at ease when you eat it; if you are worried about a potential reaction, this may interfere with proper digestion because worry is a strong emotion, and strong emotions and digestion cannot take place at the same time, so it is digestion that usually suffers). And while you are replenishing your chromium stores (absorbed chromium is stored in the liver, spleen, soft tissue, and bone) this would not be a good time to test to see if this is working by eating those foods that cause your discomfort. Meaning, try to stay away from those foods that cause your discomfort while you're building up your chromium level, then after two weeks, reintroduce those foods while making sure not to overeat on them of course.

When I did this "study" on myself, I tried eating watermelon on Days 1 through 5 of supplementation, and it took almost five days for there to be zero melon-belly. I can go into the "whys" of this, but that is beyond the scope of this article (but if you think about it, you can probably figure out why for yourself... some of this is not rocket science, it's just common sense, requiring only a rudimentary working knowledge of your blood sugar regulatory system, which any layperson can acquire, assuming they care enough about their health).

After Day 5 I was able to eat all the watermelon I wanted with no adverse reaction. People who have a more severe "case" of melon-belly might need to take the chromium a little longer before it will be effectual (again, you can probably figure out why); up to two weeks may be necessary. I also tried an experiment where I overate on watermelon (overeating is normally not a good thing to do, but I was curious). The only result was a "I ate way too much watermelon" feeling, but no signs of any melon-belly.

I also tried stopping the chromium supplementation to see how long it would take for the melon-belly to return (keep in mind, the supplemental chromium is not "curing" anything, it is merely providing enough for the task at hand). After about three days, the melon-belly started to return, mildly at first, and then after about five days, it was back to its previous level. I started taking the chromium supplement again to verify my previous results, and in about three days no more melon-belly. I now prevent melon-belly just fine by the daily use of this nutritional adjunct to my diet.


"I just want to thank you for saving me from a life without watermelon! I've searched online before, for a reason why I had such horrible stomach pains from watermelon, but found nothing. It was getting to the point where even bananas were giving me a mild stomach ache. I had stopped eating watermelon because the pain was horrible. So, I decided to do a search on stomach pain after fruit (rather than just watermelon) and found your article. I started taking chromium a week ago and I have had huge bowls of watermelon for 2 days in a row, with NO PAIN WHATSOEVER!!! I can eat one of my favorite fruits again! Thank you so much!" – Jodi Harvatin


Here's what's going on

The trace mineral chromium is a key player in blood sugar metabolism. I'm not saying that chromium is the only nutrient needed for this process (vanadium is important too), but it plays a pivotal role, just as iodine is key to proper thyroid function.

If there is not enough chromium in your diet, blood sugar metabolism can be adversely affected. And keep in mind that another reason people complain about melon-belly after switching to a diet high in fruit is that the more simple sugar you intake (like from fruit), the more chromium is required for processing, because of increased chromium excretion in the urine. And when people start adopting a very healthy diet, they often start looking at making improvements in other areas of their lives, and if they start a vigorous exercise program (which is a great idea) this raises their chromium requirement, which may also tip the scales predisposing them to melon-belly. So what I'm saying is: the healthier a life you're living, the more important chromium is to the proper functioning of your body.

I've also seen chromium play an important role with people who I've helped with the resolution of their diabetes. There have been some folks who did all the right things to be able to get rid of their type 2 diabetes (low fat diet, exercise, etc) and could lower their insulin or med requirement, but not eliminate it until they added some supplemental chromium to their diet.


In the 1960's there were hospitalized patients (who were fed glucose intravenously) who showed signs of diabetes (including weight loss, neuropathy, and impaired glucose tolerance) until chromium was added to their feeding solution. The chromium – added at doses of 150 to 250 mcg/day for up to two weeks – corrected their diabetes symptoms. Chromium is now routinely added to intravenous solutions.


So, there is a definite cause-and-effect relationship between chromium levels and blood sugar metabolism. And for some people, when they change to a low fat, high sweet fruit diet (the diet all human beings are designed to eat), if there's insufficient chromium in their diet, they can manifest melon-belly to some degree.

And since candidiasis (an overgrowth of candida) can also be caused by a handicapped blood sugar regulatory system, sufficient chromium (and vanadium) is key to resolving this as well.

If you're wondering why there may be insufficient chromium in your diet, a good article and video is here.

Bottom line...

There is considerable interest in the possibility that supplemental chromium may help to treat impaired glucose tolerance and type 2 diabetes, but the official research to date is inconclusive. No large, randomized, controlled clinical trials testing this hypothesis have been reported in the United States. Nevertheless, this is an active area of research... but if you're going to wait until there have been multiple, peer-reviewed, double-blind, placebo controlled studies of thousands of people for many decades, you'll likely be waiting a very long time, especially when you consider that a simple fix for diabetes could be shown to be a chromium supplement in conjunction with an improved diet which would effectively kill the billion dollar diabetes industry.

If this "test" that I've outlined shows you that it is indeed a lack of sufficient chromium in your diet that is causing your melon-belly, I recommend that you not continue taking the chromium product (it was just to help you "test the theory"), and instead, take a high quality multi. Why not just keep taking the chromium supplement? Think of it this way: If you are low in sufficient chromium, what are the odds that this was the only nutrient that you are low in? My research tells me that it's a pretty safe bet that if you are low in one nutrient, you are also low in others. If you haven't yet watched the above mentioned video and read the above mentioned article, now would be a good time.

And if you suffer from what you think is melon belly, but taking chromium does not help, then you are dealing with something other than melon belly.

And if you're wondering why some fruits cause it more readily than others, there are a few contributing factors: water content of the fruit (affects the speed of sugar uptake into the blood), the fructose:glucose ratio (they are processed differently), and obviously the chromium content of the fruit itself. Combine all these with how much you're eating, how fast you're eating it, and your chromium "status", and it can be less than straightforward to diagnose melon belly.

I've attempted to give you enough information so that you can try and determine, for yourself, if a lack of chromium is a cause of your discomfort when eating a sweet fruit meal. If you don't feel comfortable doing this "test" yourself, I strongly suggest you seek the counsel of someone who understands the above mentioned info. Read my disclaimer to see who I recommend. And remember, discomfort/pain from eating a meal of just fruit can be caused by a number of factors, and possibly by a combination of some of them; i.e. primary and secondary causes. So, insufficient chromium may be one of the contributing factors in your case. My point? Don't assume that your condition is caused by one singular factor. With the exception of being in a nuclear power plant when there is a serious accident, most health conditions are not caused by just one thing.


Q: Some people may be very chromium deficient, so is there benefit to taking 400 mcg of chromium the first few days for people who are really struggling with severe melon belly?

A: The recommended dose is 200 mcg a day; this is a maintenance dose. You'd have to take 3,000 times that amount to cause clastogenicity (chromosome damage). But just because taking 400 mcg a day (therapeutic does) for two weeks is not likely to cause any of the overt symptoms of a chromium overdose – such as bleeding in the digestive tract, liver or kidney damage, and problems thinking or concentrating – this doesn't mean that an amount that is way higher than could be obtained from eating foods rich in chromium won't negatively affect the body somehow. And just so you know, taking six times the recommended dose (1,200 mcg a day) may cause symptoms of a chromium overdose in some people.

So rather than try and rush the normalization of the body's chromium levels by taking a higher than normal dose, I recommend taking the recommended daily dose, not taxing the blood sugar regulatory system by eating no sweet fruit or small amounts of sweet fruit eaten slowly with some greens, and wait two weeks for the body's chromium levels to normalize in a normal way.

But it could be theorized that if symptoms of melon-belly are severe, this could indicate that the person's chromium stores are very low, so that taking 400 mcg for a week or two could be a prudent thing to do, then 200 mcg from that point forward. (Few serious adverse effects have been linked to high intakes of chromium, so the Institute of Medicine has not established a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL) for this mineral.)


Time to read between the lines

From NHI (National Institutes of Health) Office of Dietary Supplements

"Chromium deficiency impairs the body's ability to use glucose to meet its energy needs and raises insulin requirements. It has therefore been suggested that chromium supplements might help to control type 2 diabetes or the glucose and insulin responses in persons at high risk of developing the disease. A review of randomized controlled clinical trials evaluated this hypothesis. This meta-analysis assessed the effects of chromium supplements on three markers of diabetes in the blood: glucose, insulin, and glycated hemoglobin (which provides a measure of long-term glucose levels; also known as hemoglobin A1C). It summarized data from 15 trials on 618 participants, of which 425 were in good health or had impaired glucose tolerance and 193 had type 2 diabetes. Chromium supplementation had no effect on glucose or insulin concentrations in the non-diabetic subjects nor did it reduce these levels in subjects with diabetes, except in one study. However, that study, conducted in China (in which 155 diabetics were given either 200 or 1,000 mcg/day of chromium or a placebo) might simply show the benefits of supplementation in a chromium-deficient population."

Okay, let's keep in mind that the processed foods many people eat are fortified with certain nutrients found to be lacking in the diet... chromium is one of them. So is it possible, when we move away from a diet filled with processed (fortified) foods to a diet of whole, fresh, unprocessed (unfortified) foods that come from an agri-industry food supply system, that we may come up short in certain nutrients? My research shows it's more than possible, it's probable. And thus my recommendation for a high quality multi.


Some other chromium info to consider if diabetic

Chromium supplementation is most important for people with diabetes. Many subjects with type 2 diabetes have faulty chromium metabolism, due to inadequate intake, decreased absorption and increased loss. Current data show a strong correlation between diabetes and low levels of chromium in serum, hair, and toenail tissues. For these reasons, chromium supplementation on the order of 1,000 mcg per day has been recommended to provide significant clinical benefit in diabetes. The dose for non-diabetic individuals is in the range of 200-500 mcg per day. A recent study showed that chromium picolinate does not induce chromosomal damage at doses up to 2,000 mcg per kilogram of body weight (Komorowski et al., 2008), which is close to 50,000 times the dose recommended for diabetes subjects.

No other chromium supplement shows the consistent benefits that chromium picolinate does, especially at higher doses for subjects with diabetes. Considering its compelling safety profile, chromium picolinate is an inexpensive and uniquely efficacious supplement to help control the high cost of diabetes treatment. It makes no sense to experiment with chromium supplements that have limited research when the stakes are so high.


Some info about the different forms of chromium

The two organic forms of chromium – chromium picolinate and chromium polynicotinate (aka "GTF") – are both well absorbed. I prefer chromium picolinate (which is chelated with picolinic acid) over polynicotinate preparations (chelated with niacin). Although chromium polynicotinate is claimed to be well absorbed, I do not recommend it because it can cause flushing, dizziness and hyperpigmentation; these undesirable side effects are caused by the niacin, and if you're taking a supplement that contains niacin already, this is another reason to go with chromium picolinate.

Several studies have shown that chromium picolinate is significantly better absorbed than other chromium forms in animal and human studies (Anderson et al., 2004; DiSilvestro and Dy, 2005). And there is data that suggests that chromium polynicotinate is actually poorly absorbed.

The other forms of chromium – like chromium chloride – should not be considered. They appear in super cheap supplements.


And lastly, be aware of the misinformation

It should be noted that some raw vegan educators, such as Doug Graham, maintain that chromium deficiency isn't a contributing factor to melon belly, yet they also say that we just don't know what does cause it. But both statements are false. The cause is known. I put forth a hypothesis based on what we do know about blood sugar metabolism (since the effect was similar to low blood sugar), the hypothesis was tested using the scientific method, and the hypothesis was proven to be correct in the case of melon-belly not caused by indigestion.

So why do some raw food educators – who are aware of my findings – continue to state that it's not a chromium insufficiency? If they are also an educator who teaches that we can get enough of all the nutrients our bodies require for optimal functioning if we just eat a raw diet of organic fruit and greens, this would explain why they would be against anything that would imply that we would need to take a nutritional supplement. But this lovely notion of "Once you start eating enough fruits and vegetables you don't have to worry about nutrition" (Doug Graham) is simply not true. So some educators can draw erroneous conclusions based on their beliefs and biases, and therefore make recommendations that don't square with reality. Fortunately we are not all like that... there are some outside-the-box health educators who do not allow philosophies or biases to color their judgment when giving thought to various health issues.


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