The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

The Changing Face of Diabetes

The Changing Face of Diabetes

Health and Wellness

June 28, 2007

The Changing Face of Diabetes

The American Diabetes Association reports that 20.8 million children and adults in the United States, or seven percent of the population, have diabetes. Nearly a third of those affected have what is called Type 2 diabetes, a condition in which the body's cells can become insulin resistant. 

Ten years ago, this type of diabetes (formerly known as adult-onset diabetes) was only diagnosed in adults aged 35 or older. Now, the disease is becoming prevalent in children as young as 12.

While the cause of Type 1 has been linked to auto-immune factors, Type 2 diabetes has been repeatedly associated with physical inactivity, poor eating habits and obesity. The relationship works like this: when you eat, your body turns food into glucose, and your pancreas secretes insulin to help bring glucose into your cells. If your body's sugar level is repeatedly increased from consumption of excessive sugary foods and beverages like soda, your body has to secrete even more insulin to account for the extra glucose. This process, also known as hyperinsulinemia, can lead to insulin resistance. In addition over time, this process wears out the pancreas ability to secrete the hormone insulin all together. Inactivity only compounds this problem. 

Although studies are being conducted to determine genetic triggers for Type 2 diabetes, lifestyle preferences seem to be playing a more significant role. 

University of Michigan researchers estimate that more than 229,000 American children currently have diabetes, and a third of them are obese. Currently, about 15 percent of children and adolescents are obese, compared to five percent 20 years ago. The connection between increased diabetes cases and obesity rates is hard to deny. 

"We are seeing a significant rise in the rate of Type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents, and were likely to see a parallel increase as obesity cases in children also continue to rise," says Dr. Jaimie Davis, a Research Associate in the Department of Preventative Medicine at the University of Southern California, who works with East Los Angeles kids. Of the 300 kids in the area, 32 percent have pre-diabetes between the ages of eight and 12, a condition that usually leads to full blown diabetes. 

"The increased speed of early onset suggests that inactive behavior and poor food choices have a larger impact on diagnosis than genetics alone." 

People that have diabetes are at risk for a number of complications like heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and glaucoma. If diabetes and obesity cases are not reduced in the years to come, Davis says we can expect the condition to impact hugely on health care costs nationwide. We can also expect an increased diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes in children. 

The good news is, for most people, Type 2 diabetes can be controlled with diet and exercise alone. Consuming more whole grains, fruits and vegetables can significantly decrease the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Dietary fiber, weight loss and exercise have been shown to help make the body's cells less insulin resistant; decreasing sugars has been shown to improve insulin secretion. 

"Kids are drinking more sugar-sweetened beverages and fruit drinks than ever before, so here is a good example of where we can make a simple, healthy change," says Davis. "It's better to eat an apple than to drink a glass of apple juice." 

But since eating healthy and exercising can be expensive, there are other issues to consider, including socio-economic and cultural factors. Type 2 diabetes is more common in African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, as well as in the elderly. Not surprisingly, these groups also top the overweight and obesity charts. 

In order for someone to be motivated to lose weight, they need to be given the resources to reach their goal. Davis says that we need more healthy foods available at a cheaper cost, more safe parks and walking areas, and better access to inexpensive sports. Also, retailers need to give incentives to eat healthier by making healthy foods more accessible, and fighting marketing that targets the young with flashy pictures, colors and characters. 

"Take a quick look at a box of Cocoa Pebbles next to a box of Kashi Go Lean Crunch. Which one do you think your kids will want to eat?"