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Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Sugar may play direct role in type 2 diabetes development after all, says study

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A new study with an international scope may shed more light on the nature of the connection between sugar intake and diabetes risk.

The predominant line of thinking has been this: Obesity is the primary risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome, which refers to a group of risk factors, also plays an important role.

Experts always believed that sugar played a role in the development of type 2 diabetes: Overconsumption of the stuff was a major factor in rising obesity rates. In other words, because unhealthy sugar habits contributed to obesity, they contributed – by association – to diabetes, too.

But that may not be the line of thinking for long. A new study appearing in PLOS ONE appears to have established a direct link between sugar availability and type 2 diabetes rates, independent of obesity rates and other factors, like age, income and lifestyle.

Looking to the world

To arrive at their conclusion, Stanford researchers looked data on sugar availability and diabetes rates from 175 countries over the past 10 years and noted some disparities:

  • In places like the Philippines, Romania, France, Bangladesh and Georgia, obesity is low but diabetes rates are high.
  • In Sri Lanka, diabetes prevalence rose from 3 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2010, but the obesity rate stayed the same during that time period: 0.1 percent.
  • In New Zealand, diabetes declined from 8 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2010, while obesity rates jumped from 23 to 34 percent in the same window.

The study's authors took that to mean that obesity couldn't be the only factor in diabetes prevalence – so they started looking at sugar. They noted that other research already showed sugar to be "significantly associated" with 1) the development of insulin resistance and 2) a reduced ability to produce insulin. When both of those things happen, that can "lead to overt diabetes," they wrote.

What they found doesn't prove that eating too much sugar causes diabetes, but it does indicate it's a "significant statistical determinant" of diabetes rates:

For every additional 150 calories of sugar available per person per day in a given population, that population's diabetes rate rose 1 percent.

Further strengthening the notion that sugar contributes in a unique way to diabetes was that fact that for every 150 calories of any kind of food available per person per day, the diabetes rate only went up 0.1 percent.

In their conclusion, researchers said the finding "[strengthens] the argument for targeted public health approaches to excessive sugar consumption." Although up to this point, the findings weren't implausible, the study's lead author, Dr. Sanjay Basu, still described it in a statement as "quite a surprise."

Diabetes and obesity rates are both high in South Los Angeles: An estimated 12 percent of adults have the former and 33 percent live with the latter, according to county data.

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