What’s really driving the type 2 diabetes epidemic?

| June 15, 2017

Type 2 diabetes has been in the news again, with Professor Melanie Davies, a diabetes expert at Leicester University, warning that the condition threatens to overwhelm the NHS. A staggering 10 billion pounds a year is spent on treating it – almost a tenth of the entire NHS budget. And, as charity Diabetes UK was quick to point out, much of this expense is unnecessary, since type 2 diabetes can often be treated just as effectively with diet and exercise as with costly drugs.

Of course, the epidemic of type 2 diabetes is not confined to the UK. Every developed country has the same problem – and economic development seems to be driving it. Not so long ago, famine in India was a widespread cause of child malnutrition. Now, after a few decades of unprecedented economic growth, nearly 30 per cent of teenagers in the country are obese. And India’s type 2 diabetes rate is fast catching up to that of the UK and USA.

It seems clear from India’s experience that type 2 diabetes is a “lifestyle disease”. Particularly in the towns, the way people live has changed dramatically, with less physical activity, more calories consumed and more Western-style junk food. This certainly sounds like a recipe for weight gain, obesity and increased risk of type 2 diabetes – but are these lifestyle factors the whole story?

As I pointed out here, disruption of our biological clocks is another potential risk factor, with shift workers and “night owls” being at increased risk of both obesity and type 2 diabetes. There is also the effect of our genes – and people of non-European ethnicity seem to be at greater risk of the condition. On top of that, what an unborn child experiences in the womb could determine the expression of genes that affect its diabetes risk in adult life. This is the science of epigenetics.

Diabetes risk could start in the womb

Professor Paul Zimmet, from Monash University, Melbourne, Australia believes that this epigenetic component is often overlooked. In a recent article, he points out that women who have diabetes before becoming pregnant, or who develop gestational diabetes, have babies whose risks of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, and obesity, are increased. So, an inter-generational vicious cycle could be perpetuating the diabetes epidemic.1

Poor nutrition, smoking, alcohol, stress and exposure to medications or environmental toxins during pregnancy could also cause epigenetic changes in the baby that increase type 2 diabetes risk. In addition, these kinds of changes could happen as a result of the mother being obese or older than usual when pregnant.2

What this all means is that the diabetes epidemic results from – and continues to be driven by – a complex mix of dietary, lifestyle and social factors, together with equally complex genetic and epigenetic ones. Little wonder, then, that it is proving so difficult to get under control and that government-level efforts to reduce obesity can only scratch the surface of it.

Wishing you the best of health,

Martin Hum
PhD DHD Nutritionist
for Real Diabetes Truth

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