Two converging epidemics are striking Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum. Diabetes and obesity are so closely connected that health care professionals have coined the term “diabesity” to describe the connection between the two. “I really believe that it is the obesity epidemic that has driven diabetes”, says Dr. Christopher Still, obesity expert from the Geisinger Center for Nutrition and Weight Management, “simply because of the increase in insulin resistance.”
Excess weight is linked to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a condition in which the hormone insulin becomes less effective at lowering blood sugar levels. The resulting high blood sugar increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, the body produces little or no insulin. In type 2 diabetes, the body still produces insulin, but can’t use it effectively. Ninety to ninety-five percent of diabetics have type 2 diabetes, and about 95% of type 2 diabetics are overweight.
The skyrocketing rate of obesity across the socioeconomic spectrum has been referred to as a “public health time bomb”. About one-third of Americans are now considered obese (20% or more above normal weight), including nearly 17% of children and teens. Type 2 diabetes typically strikes in middle age, but as the obesity epidemic spreads to our children, doctors are seeing more diabetes in children and teens. A lot more cases – there has been a ten-fold increase in diabetes in children over the last five years.
As more and more diabetic Americans become insulin dependent, sales of diabetes medication and related products like insulin pumps and insulin pens are soaring. The diabetes products market has been “enjoying” double digit growth for years. Novo Nordisk reported an increase of 24% in sales of insulin products in 2009, and is forecasting continuing increases.
Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in the US. What health care providers find most frustrating is that both obesity and type 2 diabetes are largely preventable with proper diet and regular exercise. The World Health Organization refers to obesity, diabetes and heart disease as “diseases of affluence,” and recommends a low glycemic index diet of foods rich in complex carbohydrates and protein. A US study of 90 years of national data found that the rising consumption of high glycemic index corn syrup (widely used to sweeten soft drinks and processed foods) and decreasing intake of dietary fiber parallels the explosion of type 2 diabetes in America. Dr. Still recommends those with insulin resistance cut sugary beverages like soda and juice out of their diet as a first step. “I tell people who are trying to lose weight to eat their calories, not drink them.”