Is the Western Diet to Blame for Type 2 Diabetes?

When Canadian physician Kevin Patterson worked as doctor at the Canadian Combat Surgical Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, he came to realize that the Afghans he treated had very different body types from the Canadians he typically cared for back in his homeland.

"Typical Afghan civilians and soldiers would have been 140 pounds or so as adults," he wrote in an essay that was published last fall in Canada's Maisonneuve Journal, as reported on  "And when we operated on them, what we were aware of was the absence of any fat or any adipose tissue underneath the skin."

To the contrary, Patterson noticed, the typical physique of Canadians, Americans or Europeans was quite different. With them, "What was normal was to have most of the organs encased in fat," Patterson wrote. "It had a visceral potency to it when you could see it directly there."

Not that anyone's recommending Americans to embrace a way of eating that's typical in Afghanistan. But the doctor blames the rise in obesity—and of diabetes—on the effects of urbanization, according to

"Type 2 diabetes historically didn't exist, only 70 or 80 years ago," says Patterson. "And what's driven of course, is this rise in obesity, especially the accumulation of abdominal fat. That fat induces changes in our receptors that cells have for insulin. Basically, it makes them numb to the effect of insulin."

It's really two things that are causing obesity, says Loren Greene, MD, of NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. "It's the activity level and the food," she says. "When there is decreased activity and a diet that's not healthy, then you have obesity."

Suzanne Khanna, program coordinator at Novo Nordisk Diabetes Center at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, NJ, notes that when diet is changed for the worse, people tend to have more illness. "When people in Japan start eating Western type foods, you also see a big difference their health," she notes. "It gets worse. In the West, we have far too many additives in our foods, high fructose corn syrup, things we cannot even pronounce in our foods."

And making it worse is that the typical person doesn't expend much energy over the course of a day. "We sit at a computer all day, and we inhale our food and don't really taste it," Khanna says. "Over time, the body starts to develop all these illnesses."

Is there a way to get back on track and reduce your diabetes risk?

  • Be conscious of the fact that your diet may be less than ideal, says Alissa Ritter, RD, CDN at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. "Most of us eat too much salt and fat," she explains. "We don't get enough antioxidants and fiber."
    In place of processed foods, she says, eat fresh, seasonal ones. They're naturally lower in fat and sodium.
  • Pay attention to your proteins sources, choosing leaner cuts of meat and removing the skin from chicken before cooking.
  • Be cognizant of the fact that when you eat out, chances are the food will have added salt and fat to make it taste better. Also, portions are far too large. "Ask your server to immediately cut the portion in half and take half home," Ritter says.
  • Finally, make sure you're eating enough. "People make the mistake of not eating enough throughout the day," Ritter says. "Listen to your body and when it is hungry, make sure you eat. But eat smart."
  • Eating five or six small meals throughout the day is ideal, she says. Have a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit, or whole grain crackers with peanut butter. "If you skip lunch and don't eat till dinner, that causes so much hunger that by the next meal, you will overeat," she says.

"How Western diets are making the world sick." 24 March 2011.