Mendosa Interview with Mr. Steward

Interview with H. Leighton Steward

This interview with H. Leighton Steward, the lead author of Sugar Busters!, was conducted by telephone on May 20, 1998, with Rick Mendosa, a freelance writer specializing in diabetes who was writing an article about Sugar Busters! for Diabetes Interview magazine. That article was published in the September 1998 issue.

RM: I have both of your books, and I have them right here. The self-published one was a phenomenal success and I understand that you have a printing 300,000 copies of the new book.

LS: That’s good. Mo [Morrison Bethea] may be a little ahead of me on that. I haven’t heard the last printing.

RM: Tell me about how it started?

LS: A fellow named Victor Rice, who was the chairman of the Verity Corporation, the old Massey-Ferguson Corporation, lost 52 pounds by following the way the French eat, as he described it, in a book that his wife had found in Europe. This would have been seven or so years ago. And it was Michel’s [Michel Montignac’s] book. It was the English edition, Dine Out & Lose Weight, and I had to get it out of our London office, because I looked for it for months here. I looked for it for New York, Washington, Houston, and Dallas. I didn’t find it. I should have ordered it right off and I never did.

RM: His name is Victor Rice, and what was his title?

LS: He is the chairman and chief executive officer of a company that now is called LucasVarity [plc].

RM: What type of business is that?

LS: Well, among other things Perkins diesel engines, auto parts and things like that. Lucas was considerably bigger company than Verity and when they merged, Victor ended up being the CEO. He is a real moxie guy. He was on our board for several years.

RM: Your board, meaning Burlington Resources?

LS: No, it was the Louisiana Land and Exploration Company. That was the company I was CEO of until we merged with Burlington recently. And Burlington was about three times as big as we were, so I now am the vice chairman of the board.

RM: I saw the Times-Picayune article that said that, and that’s how I tracked you down. I was wondering if Burlington Resources was the company you had been CEO of, because it always says you had been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

LS: No, it was the LL&E. It’s an energy company. [Louisiana Land and Exploration Company, headquartered in New Orleans, ranked 983 on the 1995 Fortune 1000 list. The Louisiana Land and Exploration Company was the largest owner of coastal wetlands in the country].

RM: How old are you now?

LS: 63. I got onto this 5 1/2 years ago having dinner with Victor in Buffalo, New York. After I watched what he ate that night, after it was over with, I said, "Victor, it was sure nice of you to get off your diet tonight so we could have this nice meal in Buffalo." Victor looked at me and said, "Leighton, I am on my diet." I said, "Wait a minute. We just all had a big bunch of hors d'oeuvre and sautéed mushrooms and vegetables and stuff, and I said then we ate a big spinach salad with bacon chips all over it." And I said, "Victor, what’s left is six lamb chops on your plate and you just ordered the second bottle of red wine for the three of us sitting here." And I said, "This is your diet?" He said, "This is my diet." And I said, "Well, tell me about it."

So anyway the reason I got interested in it among other things that he said that night, he said the way the French eat is really a lower sugar way of eating. They eat a lot more whole grain products. All of this just results in a lower level of sugar in your body. And I said, my old dad developed diabetes when he was 55 years old. I saw that it really caused his later years to be of a lesser quality. Of course, this was years ago, small town in East Texas, one doctor in the town, nobody knew anything about diabetes, etc. Anyway, I thought, Leighton, if you eat like this it will either prolong it, if it is by heredity, or possibly I won’t get it at all.

So I really started looking into it and started looking at the Mediterranean diets and all of that stuff, because a lot of them were in the same direction. I was overweight to the tune, I weighed about 220 even though I am tall, I am 6’4" that was just too much weight for me to carry. And I found out that sure enough the best summary of this was Michel Montignac’s book. And that fall we went to Paris on a secondary offering of some stock of ours and I met Michel, got to know him pretty well. He ultimately came here. I introduced him to Dr. Bethea and to some of the people at the hospital, because we thought, you know, maybe he would like to get something started in the United States. It just never worked out for him and in fact he called me one day, of course this would be three years ago now or better. "Leighton, my book is just not selling well in the United States. I think I am going to sell my rights." I said, "Michel, you’ve got a good message, we’ve added to what you’ve done and come up with why it lowers cholesterol, which Michel was totally in the dark about, because when I told him that I figured out why it lowered my cholesterol, he kind of gave me a blank look to the tune that I know that he didn’t know, and we finally confirmed that he really hadn’t understood that, because the French don’t care that much about cholesterol.

RM: He’s not a doctor either. He’s a businessman?

LS: He was the personnel manager for Abbott Laboratories for all of Europe. So he was a totally non-technical guy....So anyway, Michel admitted that he didn’t think up putting all of this stuff together and seen it pretty well assembled that if you ate those foods that don’t stimulate such a big rise in blood sugar and then a big release of insulin you can lose weight.

RM: Did he build on Dufty’s book Sugar Blues or did you?

LS: No. I did. I took it and read it. Of course I read some other books, but Dufty’s book got me pretty excited because it was collaboration as far as I was concerned that sugar really can be a big problem. And in fact, Rick, I think, and I believe the doctors think also, that sugar is causing a lot of other problems, but we just didn’t want to put anything in our book that we weren’t certain of, so we just steered away from a lot of the other things.

RM: Have you been in touch with Dufty? Is he still alive?

LS: No, and don’t know whether he is. Somebody, when I was in California the other day said, "You know, he ended up marrying Gloria Swanson," which I didn’t know. In Sugar Blues he said that Gloria Swanson inspired him to write that book. It had been the only thing to rip her out of depression, was when she got off of sugar.

RM: Victor Rice inspired you, but he didn’t take the ball and run with it.

LS: No, he didn’t at all. He just mentioned that his wife had found this book and after I started looking into a bunch of stuff, I said, well let me find out what the book was. And it was Montignac’s book and I went on the diet and that’s how I lost my 20 pounds. I went to Mo Bethea for my annual physical because we were friends and we played golf together once in a while even though I didn’t have a cardiovascular problem. And when he gave me my physical after my wife nagged me and said, "Leighton, you are looking good, but you are eating steak, lamb chops and cheese and eggs. You haven’t eaten that stuff in 15 years because your cholesterol has always been so high." It got it [the cholesterol] down 21 percent. Total cholesterol. My HDL didn’t change at all so my ratio improved considerably, because my good cholesterol stayed the same. Anyhow, when my blood chemistry got so much better, Mo said, "Gosh, Leighton, I think you’re on to something here." I said, "Okay, guys, tell me why my cholesterol dropped. Because I am obviously eating more fat than I have been eating. I am eating more cholesterol than I have been eating. And they didn’t have a clue.

RM: He is really an open-minded doctor. Not all doctors are as open-minded as that.

LS: No, but let me tell you. When I figured out why it lowered my cholesterol, Mo confirmed it for me in about 3 seconds. He had just never thought about it. I said, about 10 days later, I bumped into him and said, "Mo, I figured out why my cholesterol dropped."

He said, "Why is that Leighton?"

I said, "Look, I am on a low-sugar diet. I have a lower average level of sugar in my body all day, so I don’t need as much insulin all day. So since I have never been able to get my cholesterol down with any of the diets from the hospital or even from any of pills that are turning my arms bright red, I said, "It must be insulin stimulating my liver to make cholesterol."

He looked at me about 3 seconds and said, "You’re right." He said, "I can tell you why you are right. When we get diabetics in the hospital and they can no longer control the diabetes with exercise or pills or diet, we have to start giving them insulin injections." He said, "We know that when we give them that first injection the major side effect will be that their cholesterol will go through the roof."

I said, "Well, I’ll be damned."

That’s all I could figure out. I said, "Mo, I cycled on this for 10 days. It was about to drive me crazy, how I could eat eggs and this stuff and watch my cholesterol drop like a rock."

He said, "That’s interesting. Let me go talk to the guys."

So we went down and talked to Sam Andrews, who is an endocrinologist. After a few minutes Sam said, "Well, you know, all of my diabetic patients who become insulin-dependent do have elevated cholesterol. So he said that it was probably right. Well, they got asking around, Rick, and they found out that none of the doctors in the hospital knew of the blasted association. And I mean, I can’t understand that in 1995 or 1994 or whenever it was at the time, why the doctors didn’t know that. But it just shows I guess that the ships have passed in the night between the nutritionists and the medical profession and I believe that extremely strongly, particularly after I was on television live in Houston the other day with this spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, who probably got put up to it by the Sugar Association, but they are still making statements like, "Sugar does not cause the body to make nor store fat." And then to say, "That sugar turns into fat is ridiculous." They go on and on.

RM: The American Diabetes Association has recently said that it is fine to have sugar.

LS: This is what I can’t understand about the American Dietetic Association but also even the American Diabetes Association, at least some of the literature that I have read doesn’t outlaw potatoes and white rice and stuff like that. It obviously tells people not to eat too much starch, but I don’t know why anybody with diabetes or anybody would is obese and in the threat of developing diabetes, because the percentage is so much higher that they are going to get it than the normal person, I don’t know why they would let people eat those real high glycemic foods. They might as well be eating table sugar.

Let me go back and give you and example of the fact that it is worse that than. If you take a baked potato and let’s say that the glycemic index on a baked potato is 85-95.

RM: On a scale where glucose = 100.

LS: Yes, sir. On that scale. And they measure 50 grams [of the carbohydrate] of it through a ton of subjects to get this baseline done. If you took that potato and pealed the skin right off the top of it, hollowed it out and filled it full of table sugar -- table sugar (sucrose) only has a glycemic index of 75. So do you see where I am headed with this? If a potato causes a diabetic’s blood sugar to rise more than if they were to eat that whole potato full of table sugar.

RM: You know that I have been writing about the glycemic index for years. And you and I know that the experts are in Australia and Canada. I have seldom found a doctor in the United States who would say one good word about the glycemic index, particularly endocrinologists. I am amazed at Dr. Andrews, the endocrinologist on your team.

LS: Well, we talked to Sam for a long time. Because Mo Bethea ran with this for about two or two and one-half years before we finally decided to write a book. Anyway, Sam finally came around because it makes too much compelling common sense. If you go back to Guyton’s medical textbook on physiology, if you go back and look at Wilson and Foster, you saw those charts in the book, we have that Wilson and Foster diagram [page 16] and they tell you exactly what’s happening when you consume something that turns into glucose rapidly, a big shot of insulin comes in, da da-da da-da. And then Dr. Guyton tells you that it is mainly the sugar you consume that turns to body fat as opposed to the fat that you consume. But that is not what we have been told for the last 25 years here in the United States.

RM: The official medical establishment in the United States has really looked down its collective noses at the glycemic index.

LS: Well, Rick, do you have a good summary for why that is?

RM: In my article originally for Diabetes Interview two years ago [a review of The G.I. Factor] maybe flippantly I said it was the NIH factor. Not invented here. It may well be because this is Canadian and Australian. And also how conservative the American medical establish is.

LS: It’s not any slower to change, I don’t think, than the Dietetic Association. Anyway, what we have and what we are excited about right now, and I don’t know if Mo called you or if he even knew, we found out that our book will move up to number 2 next week, not the coming Sunday, that will be number 3, but the following Sunday we will be number 2 on the New York Times list.

RM: On the New York Times list of "Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous Best Sellers," I believe?

LS: Yes. We were number 4 this last week.

RM: I have noted, as I told Mo, that it is number 2 on the "Health, Mind & Body Bestsellers" list. It was number 1 on the Los Angeles Times "Healthy Bestsellers" for May 11.

LS: Absolutely. I was in Los Angeles last week, and when I got there and saw that my jaw just dropped to the floor. Because none of us have been there. I have sent a few books out there to friends of mine, of our self-published book, and boy, to think that it got to be number 1 in that 28 million people area really blew my mind.

RM: Interesting that it is Los Angeles. I wanted to talk about New Orleans. I activity participate in the sweetalk [Sugar Busters!-oriented] mailing list and I notice that a lot of the people on the mailing list are right there in New Orleans. This has been a very localized diet or lifestyle so far. You have a hell of a lot of people in New Orleans on this.

LS: We do. It is absolutely unbelievable.

RM: The restaurants have taken it to heart, etc. There is a paradox here perhaps. New Orleans is about the fattest city in the United States.

LS: It is, by several percentage points. It’s like, the last figure I saw it was almost 38 percent and the next closest one was 33.5 percent of people who were obese. And obese is when the news gets real bad and you really start running health risks.

RM: You guys are in New Orleans, of course. Is that why Sugar Busters! has been such a success there -- or is it just that things got so bad in New Orleans that people had to do something about it.

LS: No, I think it’s real simple. This book was written in more of an executive summary or sound-bite fashioned, our self-published book was. We didn’t wear everybody out with the chemistry and physiology and everything. We just tried to lay it out in a logical fashion. I tried to take the part that the doctors wrote and turn it into something that a layman can understand. And everybody has said, "My gosh, this is the easiest of all of these books that are either low-sugar or high-protein to read, so they found it very user-friendly. The other thing is, of course, there aren’t very many Fortune 500 companies in New Orleans -- there weren’t many and now there are even fewer now that we merged -- so I obviously knew a lot of people here. Dr. Bethea has been voted the number 1 cardiovascular surgeon in the Greater New Orleans area by his peers, the best vote you can get. Andrews was with a big group, the Audubon group of endocrinologists, and Balart coordinates all the liver transplants for this area, because he is hepatologist in addition to being a gastroenterologist.

RM: Who brought him in and why?

LS: Mo and I had talked about this and we were going to write a book and all of sudden these other doctors saw what this was doing for the other patients and we had a line of doctors who wanted to come in with us to write the book. We though, okay, Mo is a heart surgeon. He is obviously going to be in on writing the book. And we thought, hey, an endocrinologist would be good there and since stumbled across the cholesterol connection we thought let’s get a liver expert in there, and that’s what Balart is. He was one of the people who wanted to join it to write it.

Mo and I wrote most of the book. There isn’t any question about that. These other guys wouldn’t argue with that. Anyway, they gave us their credentials and that will help, because if it is just a geologist and one doctor people can raise their eyebrows a little. Having that array of guys and also with Balart being that well thought of in this area to coordinate all the liver transplants, we thought that would be a pretty formidable lineup.

RM: Let’s look toward the future. I have talked to Dr. Wolever in Canada. He is trying to get the glycemic index numbers actually put on food products.

LS: He is on the right track. I agree with him. That’s where it ought to be, because if you want one piece of information on a food product for people who are interested in their weight or people who are interested in trying to prevent or control diabetes, to me the glycemic index is exactly what needs to be on there.

RM: What about you licensing breads and other products?

LS: I think we are going to have to do it. We are talking to people right now. We are having to do it defensively. (1) To protect our trademark, and (2) There are so many copy-cats out there who are saying that it is legal on Sugar Busters! and this, that, and what, and as we go through the city and look at what some people are calling Sugar Busters! there are just some atrocious violations out there. So what we are concerned about is our own reputation where people are going to start eating this stuff that is called Sugar Busters! this and Sugar Busters! that and they are not going to lose weight or they are going to get fatter and people are going to get mad at us and we will lose all the good will that we have built up. So I think that to some degree we are going to have to do that. One of the things that we have talked about, all four of us have full-time jobs and have been reasonably well-paid individuals, we didn’t have to do this for the money. We want to take a part of what we make, if we get into the food-line business as I think we invariably will unless something happens. We are going to take part of that money, and we haven’t even determined how much yet, and put it in a foundation to do some additional glycemic index studies, maybe up at the Pennington Institute in Baton Rouge or maybe even here in Tulane.

RM: I had a question about whether you have involved Pennington yet.

LS: Yes, we have talked to them. And we are talking to them about doing some glycemic tests because if we come out with products, we feel that we should get the glycemic index of them checked. That doesn’t mean it will be on the label, because it is not required to be on the label, we think that if we come out there with products people will know that we have certified that it is a healthy product....

What it has done for diabetics is the most satisfying thing that I have encountered in writing this book. In September 1995, before our book got published, I was in West Texas with some of my old friends, and a fellow by the name of Jerry Crowder was there. As people kept asking me about this new book that I was getting ready to come out with, as people drifted off, he stayed there and listened. I said, "Jerry, you are a diabetic, aren’t you?"

He said, "Yeah, I am, Leighton."

I said, "Let me give you this manuscript. I can go back to the office, my secretary can punch a button and get another one popped out. Let me leave you this. Please read this, because I know it will help you. I can’t tell you how much, but it’s made for you because you pancreas is either not putting out enough insulin and you are diabetic or you are so insulin-resistant that your body is not handling this insulin that you are making efficiently."

I saw him 60 days later in Houston, which would have been just over a month after the book did come out.

I said, "Jerry, you are looking good."

He said, "Leighton, I’ve lost 30 pounds."

I said, "Great." He’s a gruff old guy. And he said, "Let me tell you about your diet."

And I thought, oh, hell, what side effect did he have. He said, "What I really like about your diet is that I am off of insulin."

I said, "Jerry, I thought you were taking insulin injections."

He says, "I was. But my doctor told me last week, he said, Jerry, I can’t keep giving you this insulin. Your blood sugar was running from 240 to 260 and it is now 128. You are just a borderline diabetic. If I keep giving you this insulin, you will be hypoglycemic." And, man, I got goose bumps up and down both arms. And when I came back the doctors were floored, because they didn’t know you could come off of injections once you had gone on them, and got to asking around, with rare exceptions didn’t realize that you could actually do that with diet alone. And so, listen, please write about this. I think that we have a great opportunity because our book is making it so far up the list to get the attention of the American Dietetic Association, of the American Diabetes Association. We are getting orders from doctors all over the United States who are saying, "You know, this is the first time I can tie something back to what I learned in medical school, because it is founded in medical physiology and endocrinology and stuff like that. They just never put it in the context of dietary needs or reactions.

RM: That’s wonderful. Let me ask you finally, looking ahead, we talked about Pennington, the research institute, making products yourself, anything else that I should talk about at the end of the story to wrap it up. Another book....

LS: We are continuing to scan the literature and we are finding things. Did Dr. Bethea mention to you this article that was written by Jorge Salmerón ["Dietary Fiber, Glycemic Load, and Risk of Non-insulin-dependent Diabetes Mellitus in Women." The Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 277, February 12, 1997, pp. 472-477]?

RM: No, but I’ve read it.

LS: The 65,000 lady study and they’ve done a parallel one for men. That’s good stuff. We are trying to find out how much of that we can dig out. There are undoubtedly things that we will continue to learn in this area because really the glycemic index thing is in its infancy. Jenkins wrote the first article in ’81 [David J.A. Jenkins et al. "Glycemic Index of Foods: a Physiological Basis for Carbohydrate Exchange." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 34, March 1981, pp. 362-366].

RM: There are definitely gaps in the glycemic index, stuff that needs to be tested.

LS: Oh, big time. We agree. And the other thing was that when we first wrote the book two and one-half years ago, we didn’t realize that grain size made a difference.

RM: Yes. Particle size. And cooking procedures and time. You bet.

LS: I hope that we will continue to find things that add value to this. This Sugar Busters! thing has changed people’s lives. Do you ever get down this way?

RM: No, I have never been to New Orleans. You’ve got to come to Santa Cruz, California. We are just 70 miles south of San Francisco. The magazine itself is published in San Francisco.

LS: I really look forward to seeing you one of these days.

RM: I hope so too, Leighton. Thank you very much.