A recent study has shown that the prevalence of diabetes will double over the next 25 years. Wait, make that 23 – the study was done in 2009. Diabetes was once a relatively unusual illness, affecting mostly the elderly, and those who had lived particularly deleterious lifestyles. These days about one in every thirteen adults in America has diabetes. In 2024 it will be nearly one in eight, according to the same study.
What is Diabetes?
Why the sudden increase? It’s not difficult to see why, if we look at what causes diabetes, and what we eat. Diabetes is fairly complex, and comes in several different forms, but at its most basic it is a failure of the body to deal with sugar in the bloodstream. When we eat sugar this sugar goes into our bloodstream and is used by the body as energy. However, when we have too much of it our pancreas releases a chemical called insulin. This chemical gathers all of the excess sugar up and sends it to the liver where it can be converted into fat for storage.
What this means is that when sugar levels spike, insulin brings our blood sugar levels back to where they should be. You can even notice this effect if you eat a donut on an empty stomach. You’ll get hyper for about 45 minutes, and then you’ll suddenly feel very sleepy. Sometimes insulin goes too far, and we get a bit of a sugar crash. To counteract this different cells in the pancreas secrete a chemical called glucagon. This basically does the opposite of insulin and releases stored sugar into the bloodstream, upping our blood glucose levels.
In a person with type I diabetes, however, the insulin response doesn’t work so well. That’s why they need to inject themselves with small quantities of insulin after eating a meal so that their blood sugar doesn’t go through the roof, causing any number of complications like heart murmurs. There are also diabetics who have a problem with the glucagon response – and this is even more tricky and expensive to treat.
How Our Diets Affect Diabetes
Diabetes isn’t normally something we’re born with – it’s something we develop. There are cases of babies born with diabetes, but these are extremely rare. The reason we develop it is either because our cells become immune to the effects of insulin, or our pancreas becomes less able to produce it in the quantities that we need. That’s why someone who injects themselves with insulin will need to up the dosage every now and then because the same amount of insulin just won’t do the trick anymore.
Since the dawn of the 20th century our food markets have been saturated with fast food, refined sugar, bad carbohydrates, and bad eating habits. Despite knowing better for over 40 years, we still use these types of carbs in most of our meals. We also consume candy, soft drinks, snacks and alcohol, all of which make our pancreases work overtime to keep all of that sugar under control.
When we’re young this is no problem – we can absorb the extra sugar with no real extra effects being noticed. But as you get into your late twenties you might notice that you’re getting pretty tired after lunch, and that you need to eat more sooner.
This is because the insulin your body is producing isn’t working quite as fast, so your body is producing much more of it to cope. When the insulin catches up with your body it sends you into a sugar crash, which can only be counteracted by releasing glucagon into your body. This in turn can send you up again until equilibrium is reached. Every time this happens – which is at every meal if you eat like the average American – your body becomes less and less able to deal with abnormal blood glucose levels.
The people who sell us our food do not want us to know this. If we know it, they want us to not care. It’s cheaper to produce white bread that stays fresh for four days instead of whole wheat bread that goes stale in two. It makes us happy for an hour, so we associate positive emotions with it, and it makes us hungry after that, so we buy more.
The only way we can do anything about this is to educate ourselves about what we put in our bodies, and make an effort to buy and eat foods that release their energy slowly, the way nature intended.
Never Mind the Men Behind the Curtain
Forgive me for indulging in a little conspiracy theorizing here, but there is a slightly more sinister side to the entire diabetes drama. Diabetes is seldom fatal, at least not in healthy people – it’s easy to treat, and easy to detect, and people who live with diabetes simply get on with their lives and usually eat what they want to anyway.
The reason they can do this is because of widely available and relatively cheap medication. Insulin injectors are cheap – it’s the glucagon ones that are more expensive, but fewer people need them. But taken across the entire country this represents quite a bit of cash.
$113 billion dollars, to be exact. That is a staggering sum of money, and it is going straight into the back pockets of only a small handful of companies. 100 years ago diabetes prevalence was probably less than one in fifty, so this would have been a much smaller market if it even existed. In case you had any idealistic notions about them, the companies who make our medicine do not want us to get better. If we are healthy, they will be poor. It’s not a complicated equation.
In 2034 this figure will balloon to the disturbing sum of $336 billion in today’s currency. The pharmaceutical giants have no interest in teaching people to feed their kids food that will not make them diabetic. They only have an interest in how many insulin pens they can ship this quarter. This is reprehensible and something we all need to be aware of for the wellbeing of our families.
Likewise, the companies who make your food don’t want you to feed your kids whole grain breads and brown rice, because the stuff they sell in fancy packaging costs more, and makes them want more of it the more they have it. We all know that food companies market to kids, not to their parents. That’s why we see things like instant waffles in bright packaging. When last did you see a plain-colored, unmarked soft drink can? Yet you buy whole grain bread in a brown bag.
So next time you go into the grocery store, walk past the white bread and the white flour. Spend $1 extra on your pasta to get whole wheat pasta, and choose brown rice instead of white for the same price. Right now, you’re the only one who has any chance of helping to reverse this trend. Diabetes is not something that will naturally increase – it will only be able to do so if we do nothing about what we eat right now.