Eating a Path to Diabetes

The world is facing a health crisis of weighty proportions. People are padding on pounds at record rates. As a result, diabetes has taken root and flourished.

By Deborah Gardiner

Candy Brooks, 49, has experienced the stresses of Type 2 diabetes first hand and says that it is no picnic. Three years ago, her 27 year-old son, Glenn V. Brooks, was diagnosed with Type 2 or adult onset diabetes. Glenn now struggles to thin down his 230 pound frame, and cope with two serious side effects of diabetes -- kidney disease and high blood pressure -- by adhering to a strict diet and medication regiment.

Candy blames Glenn's predicament, in part, on inadequate testing and treatment for diabetes. "It's a real shame," said Candy. "Glenn could have avoided kidney damage had our local doctor spotted and treated his Type 2 diabetes earlier."

There has been a dramatic increase in health stories like Glenn Brooks'. Studies show that Americans are getting fatter, and as a result they are developing diabetes at record rates.

Obesity on the rise

Although 12 percent of Americans were considered obese in 1991 the number had risen to 17.9 percent by 1999, according to the American Diabetes Association Sept. 2 issue of Diabetes Care magazine.

Primary author of the report, Ali Mokdad, PhD, said "Everybody increased. It increased for all ages, all ethnic groups and both sexes, across educational levels, regardless of smoking levels, in all states of this country."

Mokdad, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) epidemiologist, said the findings are a national catastrophe. Obesity dramatically influences the development of diabetes, a disease that can threaten people with everything from blindness to heart disease to premature death.

"The study shows that those who have Type 2 diabetes have jumped 33 percent, from 4.9 percent of the population to 6.5 percent," said Mokdad. "What's most disturbing is that diabetes is striking more people in younger age groups."

The Western way

Vice President of the American Diabetes Association Robert Shirwin warned that the health implications for diabetics are serious.

"The thing that causes death in diabetes is heart disease. The incidence of heart attack and stroke in people with diabetes is two or threefold higher. ... Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness in people aged between twenty and sixty-five and is the leading cause of kidney failure and non-traumatic amputations," Shirwin said.

Nor are these statistics expected to change any time soon. In fact the statistics are expected to get worse. "The appearance of diabetes is expected to go up. Already between 1990 and 1998 the CDC estimates have gone up thirty percent," Shirwin said. Research also shows that diabetes has spread to the third world.

Shirwin said that the world is becoming westernized which causes twice the incidence of Type 2 diabetes than previously observed in the third world, particularly in Asia, the Middle East and India. "People in the third world are beginning to eat our food and are gaining weight. Whereas ten years ago there was no diabetes in the Middle-East and India, today these countries have roughly ten percent of diabetics," Shirwin said.

Habit forming

The diabetes rise internationally is having a ricochet effect in the United States, especially among this nation's youth. Experts say that the increase in diabetes among younger people in the United States is due partly to an increase in minority groups who come from countries with a higher incidence of diabetes.

"There are more minorities in the US than before. There are more Latino American, African American, Mexican Americans who have a two to threefold higher rate of diabetes than Caucasians,"Shirwin said.

But the crux of the problem is obesity. Shirwin said that the end result is that the more obese people are, the more inclined they are to be diabetic.

Losing to win

This all calls for some serious lifestyle changes according to Mokdad who would like his goals addressed nationally. "Everybody has to be involved to solve the problem. Educators, physicians, politicians and legislative officials need to pitch in to help. It is not an individual problem," Mokdad said.

Meanwhile, people with Type 2 diabetes can often combat their disease by taking control of their weight and controlling their blood sugar. Certified Diabetes Educator Susan J. Smith, Ph.D., a preventative care health specialist in Buffalo, New York, advised Type 2 diabetics struggling to lose weight, to work with their physician and establish a controlled diet and activity program. Simultaneously, their doctor can help them improve their medication regime to properly control their blood sugar.

Glenn Brooks is taking control of his diabetes by following these guidelines and slowly losing weight. "It is a slow process," said his mother, Candy Brooks.

Deborah Gardiner is a freelance journalist from New Zealand based in San Francisco. If you have questions or comments, she can be reached at

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