The other day someone I follow on Twitter shared a tweet from an MD/PhD student that said that, “excess calories causes diabetes” and that this results from ready availability of palatable food, sedentary lifestyles, and genetics. Apparently anyone who disagrees with this assertion is either trying to sell you something or wants you to think they’re smart. I scrolled back and forth a few times before deciding I really didn’t want to get into a “thing” on twitter but it really got under my skin and I just can’t let it go. I decided that blogging about it would be more productive than arguing with someone who’s already made up their mind about the motives for my disagreement without hearing why I take issue with his sweeping statement. Just to be clear: I have nothing to sell you and I’m not trying to make you think that I’m smart. I just don’t like this simplification of a complicated disease.
To begin, I am assuming that the tweeter was referring to Type 2 Diabetes, not Type 1. A little bit of a pet peeve of mine when people don’t distinguish between the two because despite leading to similar consequences they really are separate diseases with different causes and treatments.
Okay, so my problem with this doctor’s statement is really the implications that it has for people with T2D and the lack of acknowledgement of health inequities that contribute to the development of T2D. Yes, he mentions that it’s the food environment and the inactive lifestyle that is common in our society that’s the problem. This, I will admit, is a step above simply blaming people for eating too much and not exercising enough. However, the implied solution is the same for both messages: don’t eat too many calories and get off your lazy butts and you won’t get T2D. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For many, poverty and health inequities are at the root of many chronic diseases, including T2D.
Recent research has highlighted the relationship between the social determinants of health and chronic diseases, such as T2D. This research has shown that, “social determinants (such as income, education, housing, and access to nutritious food) are central to the development and progression of Type 2 diabetes” and, “individuals with lower income and less education are 2 to 4 times more likely to develop diabetes than more advantaged individuals”. That’s right, privilege provides greater protection against developing Type 2 Diabetes than does lifestyle “choices” while poverty greatly increases risk. Not to mention that certain racialized and ethnic groups are often touted as having greater risk for T2D even though much (if not all) of this increased risk can be attributed to inequities and racism experienced by these groups.
We need to stop thinking about T2D as the result of lifestyle choices and start thinking about it as the result of societal structures. If you have the level of privilege where you can choose to eat healthfully and be physically active that’s great and you should absolutely do so. But we need to stop pretending that it’s lifestyle “choices” that are causing this disease when many people do not have that choice.