Desert Foods for Healthy Living

How Does Diabetes Happen?

Genes or heredity, weight, the amount of movement or exercise, and possibly environmental toxins all make individuals more susceptible to diabetes. The main factor leading to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes is the result of eating or drinking too much sugar (Basu et al. 2013). Ultimately, diabetes is a dietary disease but the good news is that it can also be prevented and treated with diet.

Native Americans in particular are susceptible to the effects of sugar in the diet for several reasons, particularly because of genetics or inherited traits. These populations have lived for centuries with cycles of abundance and scarcity throughout the seasons, allowing their bodies to adapt and store more fat in order to prepare for scarce times, the so called “thrifty-gene” (Neel 2009). Through processes of colonization, separation from the land, and introduction of western foods like wheat and sugar, the once beneficial adaptive traits are no longer serving their evolutionary purpose. These populations are no longer eating seasonally and no longer have the need to store fat, but the body retains thousands of years of adaptations to different food and activity memories. Latino populations are also susceptible because of their indigenous heritage from peoples from Mesoamerica. People of European descent have had a longer history with industrial food production and adapted to conditions of more sustained abundance. But even though Native American and Latino populations may be genetically more susceptible to develop diabetes, it is still individual diet and activity levels that contribute to a diagnosis.

Sugars digest quickly, along with the processed grains, starches, and fruit juices that our bodies break down into sugars. Within minutes the levels of sugar in the blood begin to rise. The pancreas responds by pumping out insulin. Insulin is a hormone, and the word hormone comes from an ancient Greek word that means 'messenger.'  Insulin messages cells to open up and take in the sugar for energy. What our cells can’t take in, insulin tells our bodies to store as fat.  So, as it turns out, it is sugar, not fat, that usually makes us gain weight.

If an occasional soda or sweet bread was consumed every once in a while, the body could recover from this sugar upsurge and be fine.  But when sugary processed foods are consumed every day for years, eventually, the cells stop listening to the insulin's message. It’s as if someone were to send you constant text messages day in and day out for years. At first it would be annoying, and then eventually you would just ignore them. When the body starts to ignore insulin this is called insulin resistance. When we have insulin resistance, the cells no longer take in the sugar for energy, and the sugar continues to circulate in the blood stream.  The abundance of sugar in the bloodstream has nowhere to go.  In some cases, the pancreas becomes so exhausted from trying to get the cell's attention that it stops producing insulin altogether.

Type 1 diabetes is very rare and typically is diagnosed in children and young adults. Similar to type 2 diabetes, insulin is not produced, but for different reasons that are not related to diet. Therefore Type 1 diabetes is not preventable like type 2, but can be treated in a similar way.

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