The new plagues

The World Health Organisation has recently tried to start a campaign against the growing problem of nutrition related diseases. One of them is diabetes. For Portugal it is estimated that approximately five per cent of the population do suffer from diabetes or its pre-stages. Half of diabetes sufferers do not know that they are ill, but diabetes is still a killer. It may be silent in the beginning but in the long run it can lead to deadly illnesses like heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, blindness and loss of limbs. It can also lead to two different forms of a potentially lethal coma.

There are two forms of diabetes – type one and type two, or adult and juvenile type, or NIDDM and IDDM. The two types of diabetes are very different illnesses. The typical type one or juvenile diabetic usually becomes ill as a teenager – but it can start at any age in childhood. These patients get infections, lose weight and feel very tired and thirsty. The problem with diabetes is that the blood sugar level is too high. The pancreas produces enzymes and hormones, one of which is insulin – the only ‘messenger’ substance, which brings sugar and fat into our cells. If there is a lack of insulin the sugar stays in the blood stream and the glucose levels increase.

In the case of juvenile diabetics the pancreas produces less insulin than the body needs and the sufferer has to top the insulin levels up manually with injections. However, this type of diabetes is not inherited or as a result of obesity and its cause is not fully understood. What has become alarmingly common is the so-called type two or adult or non-insulin dependant diabetes.

This diabetes is very different to the previously discussed form. The pancreas often produces normal amounts of insulin but there are too many body cells, which need to be served. What it basically means is that the patient has become too heavy. The pancreas can compensate with producing more insulin but only to a certain degree. This form of diabetes can go, not uncommonly, unrecognised for months and in some cases, years. The symptoms are much subtler than in type one, but essentially the same, like tiredness, passing more urine, deterioration in eyesight and infections of skin and lungs.

This diabetes does run in families, meaning that patients have a genetic disposition to fall ill with it. The cause though is diet and lifestyle related. A young pancreas can only cope with an overweight body for a certain period of time, before it gets tired, and that is when the blood sugar level stars to rise.

In both diabetes types, the diet is the basis of the treatment. Type one diabetics cannot survive without insulin. Type two diabetics often have an elevated insulin level and for them the main goal is to deal with the discrepancy between their weight and the available amount of insulin. Diabetes is one of the important risk factors for heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, blindness and erectile dysfunction.

In respect to type two diabetes, it is really a problem with civilisation. In populations where people have a lack of food, diabetes type two is unheard of. Diabetes goes frequently hand in hand with high blood pressure and an elevated Cholesterol level. If the patient suffers in addition from “central obesity” (also called a beer belly) we call it metabolic syndrome. Forgive me for sounding dramatic, but I would call the “METABOLIC SYNDROME” the plague of the 21st century. This syndrome is to a large extent man made. It is caused by the way we live and eat.

Allow me to use a rather mechanical comparison. If you have a beautiful Ferrari and give it the wrong fuel and only drive it once a year you are not going to have much fun with it. The really sad thing is that children are now developing adult type diabetes more and more. To blame are the 4 C’s. Chips, computers, curriculum (too much in it) and caution (parents who are too worried about their children to let them play outside).

The governments of the so-called developed countries have identified the problem and are starting to worry about the financial implications of the Metabolic Syndrome for society. When five per cent of a country has diabetes, they will get early heart attacks, need nursing in homes after strokes as well as dialysis or kidney transplants.

This is where the initiative of WHO originated. It has a powerful counterpart mainly in the US, which is the fast food industry. This industry is lobbying the governments and basically has no interest in writing the ingredients on food packaging, or reducing energy content, sugar, fat and salt in their products.

Now, to look at the situation from an optimistic and positive point of view. We are in charge here and the solution is simple and cheap. To eat healthily and adequately is in our power. The Mediterranean traditional diet is much tastier and so much healthier than fast food and ecologically superior. To be physically active will make you happier and healthier.

Remember – “You are what you eat”.

I would like to wish all readers a good start to the summer season!