Preventing a diabetes ‘tsunami’

November 17, 2011

By Lindsay Ord

Most of us love to eat and find a lazy life just too good to resist. But the combination of fattening foods and inactivity is making us unhealthier than ever and our lifestyles are triggering what the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) is calling a ‘health tsunami’ of non-communicable diseases, of which diabetes is one.

Diabetes and obesity are a dangerous combination and prevalence of both is increasing at an alarming rate with up to 400 million people likely to develop diabetes (mostly type 2) in the next 15 to 20 years, unless action is taken.

Diabetes is not just a disease of the affluent – the World Health Organisation warns that developing countries will be hardest hit in decades to come and that even now, 70 percent of those living with type 2 diabetes live in low or middle income countries.

South Africa’s rocketing obesity rates are also fuelling a rise in diabetes and the prevalence in some population groups has reached almost 12 percent.

The good news is that diabetes type 2 in obese people can be very successfully controlled with diet and exercise.

A study by Newcastle University in the UK made international headlines this year with the claim that, with a low-calorie diet and exercise, type 2 diabetes could be ‘reversed’.

Some experts believe that reversal is not possible and that “remission” is more accurate – but as long as weight loss and exercise are maintained, blood glucose levels can be well controlled.

Dr Aslam Amod, a Chatsworth-based endocrinologist and diabetologist, estimates that 70 to 80 percent of type 2 diabetes could be prevented if we tackled obesity.

“In patients in whom obesity is the main driver for diabetes, significant weight loss (by diet or surgery), can result in diabetes being ‘reversed’ as long as the weight loss is maintained, for up to 10 years,” he says.

“There is insufficient data in the long term to say for certain whether this effect will last for ever – it is impossible to say whether the diabetes will return after 15 to 20 years, even if weight loss is maintained.”

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