Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The real cause of Type 2 Diabetes

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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.


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Can eating chocolate reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes?

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A recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition reportedly showed that regular consumption of chocolate could reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Naturally, I wondered if that was really what the study showed.

Looking at the study, there were a few things that stood out to me. The research was done using a food frequency questionnaire, a notoriously inaccurate measure of diet. Besides the fact that this measure is often inaccurate, is the fact that we couldn’t tell if it distinguished between types of chocolate consumed. While the authors made much of the potential link between polyphenols in chocolate and reduced risk of T2 diabetes, we don’t know if the study actually looked at types of chocolate that were rich in polyphenols. By the article, we can’t tell if they made any distinction between dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate bars, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, and so on. Without accounting for different types of chocolate (many of which contain negligible quantities of polyphenols) there’s no way to attribute the reduced risk of T2 diabetes to the consumption of polyphenol-rich chocolate.

Perhaps more importantly though, there’s no way we can draw any conclusions regarding causation. This wasn’t a longitudinal study so we don’t know if people who have T2 diabetes are avoiding eating chocolate (quite plausible) or if there’s some other reason why people who eat chocolate are less likely to have T2 diabetes than people who don’t.

I also wondered about the true significance of the results. For that I consulted with my math expert, Scott. His take was that the sample size wasn’t very large and that it was limited to Luxembourg. This makes it difficult to generalize the results to populations outside of Luxembourg, for example, North America, as there could be other differences between Canadians and Americans and Luxembourgians (is that the right term?) that would make it impossible to apply the findings to our population.

He also said:

Although they followed proper testing and analysis, I’d be concerned about variables that they did not include in this study, such as location and what might be in their environment or particular diet (food items not mentioned) that may distinguish this sample from say a sample in North America. I am also wary anytime the analysis includes a questionnaire or feedback rather than pure conclusions based on observed tests and results. As you well know from interviewing people at stats can, there are more than admitted “fake” stats and responses… Yes, I do see a correlation between the two, I would require further testing to be conclusive on the hypothesis.

I followed up this analysis by asking him if he thought the standard deviations were of concern. To my untrained eye, I thought that it was possible that the range for each result was large enough that there might, in actuality, be no real difference between each group. Scott said:

I would support that claim, you would want the SD to be much closer to the mean than those results. I suspect the SD would fluctuate with any other sample size tested under those conditions.

And there you have it. While it’s possible that there’s a reduced risk of having diabetes to chocolate consuming Luxembourgians, there’s more research to be done before anything definitive, especially for other populations, can be concluded.


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Diabetes management by Huff Post

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I found it a little alarming that Huffington Post would publish an article containing medical advice on diabetes management by a naturopath. Not surprising, but alarming.

To be perfectly honest, most of her advice wasn’t terrible (therein lies the worst aspect of naturopathy, it’s often truth laced with completely unscientific bullshit).

Managing carbohydrate intake and cutting back on foods such as white bread can be beneficial. Although, you don’t necessarily have to completely remove all of these foods from your diet and other foods can also lead to spikes in blood sugar.

Getting daily exercise is also great; for anyone, not just someone with type 2 diabetes. Although, touting it as the tool for weight loss is misleading. Most weight loss results from changes in the kitchen, not changes in the gym.

The supplement suggestions make me extremely uncomfortable for several reasons. First of all, naturopaths sell supplements in-house and this is a massive conflict of interest. A medical professional should not profit from the “treatment” they provide to a patient. Secondly, there is insufficient scientific evidence to support supplementation with the remedies she recommends.

The most alarming aspect of this article, in my opinion, is that it’s providing medical advice via a publicly posted article. Treatment of type 2 diabetes (or any other medical condition) should be undertaken with appropriate medical supervision. Without first consulting with your doctor and/or pharmacist there’s no way to know what effect the supplements she recommended might have on an individual. They may be contraindicated for a medication that a person is taking or they may cause other side effects. Even making dietary changes should be done in consultation with your primary healthcare provider. If you’re taking medication for diabetes, making changes to the amount and timing of carbohydrate you’re consuming can affect the way in which your medication works.

If you suspect that you have diabetes, please see your doctor or nurse practitioner for a diagnosis. If you’re currently on medication for diabetes please consult with any/all of the aforementioned medical professionals before making any drastic lifestyle changes and certainly before undergoing any additional supplementation.


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Is sugar making you go bald?

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My google alerts, alerted me to this clip from The Doctors that says sugar is the surprising food behind your hair loss. While absolutely being sensationalist I do have to give them a little credit for not going full Dr Oz. They made sure to state that sugar, in and of itself, is not inherently evil and that it’s fine to consume it in small quantities. According to them, sugar is leading to expanding waistlines and thinning hairlines. Sweet.

It’s a very short clip, and naturally, there aren’t any references. As far as I can tell, there hasn’t been any new research in this area. I found a few studies from about a decade ago looking at the connection between an alleged male form of PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) and premature balding and insulin resistance (1, 2). These studies did not explicitly examine a link between sugar consumption and hair loss.

Insulin resistance is an impaired ability of the body to properly use insulin. The causes of insulin resistance are not yet fully known; however, major contributing factors include diet and lifestyle. High levels of fat around the waist and a sedentary lifestyle may both contribute to insulin resistance. Excessive consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates may contribute to those high levels of abdominal adiposity. However, excessive consumption of calories in general, regardless of source, may cause accumulation of excessive abdominal fat.

There are many causes of hair loss, including hormonal disruptions. These may go hand-in-hand with insulin resistance and conditions such as PCOS and type 2 diabetes.

To summarize: The Doctors have taken the leap from excessive sugar consumption to hair loss. There are many other factors at play and sugar itself would not be the direct cause of hair loss, even if it is a contributing factor in the development of hormonal disruptions. Because there are many other causes of hair loss, before you go sugar-free, you should book an appointment with your primary health care provider to obtain an accurate diagnosis. That being said, if you watched that video and thought “I’m eating too much sugar” there’s absolutely no harm in cutting back. Too much of anything is bad for you.


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Can yoghurt prevent diabetes?

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A friend of mine recently shared the news of a new study reporting an association between yoghurt consumption and decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.

The study was actually a meta-analysis of three large studies. Meta-analyses always make me a little nervous due to the ease of cherry picking and interpreting the results to yield the desired effect. The results of a meta-analysis can only be as good as the results of the original studies on which they’re based. I’m not saying this was the case here, just that it’s something to bear in mind when reading about meta-analyses. The researchers do have on their side the fact that all three studies had large sample sizes. After examining the results of these three studies, they added an additional 11 prospective-cohort studies for their meta-analysis.

The researchers controlled for a number of potential confounders. However, there’s always a remaining risk that an unaccounted for confounding variable might be the true reason for any observed effect. While the researchers reported a significant decreased risk of type 2 diabetes in regular yoghurt consumers they were also quick to acknowledge that this does not indicate causation. Yes, people who consume yoghurt appear to be less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people who don’t. However, the studies all relied upon self-reported food frequency questionnaires and they were observational. It is possible that there is some unaccounted for variable that’s reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes in yoghurt consumers other than the yoghurt.

The researchers do make an interesting suggestion that the probiotics in yoghurt may be responsible for the decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. I do wonder about the validity of this as many yoghurts contain limited live bacteria due to their processing. In addition, it’s unlikely that many probiotics in yoghurt survive the acidic stomach environment to make their way to the intestines. Perhaps it’s the by-products of the bacteria in the yoghurt (e.g. vitamins, lactic acid) that are responsible for decreased risk of type 2 diabetes. Just postulating here. I would love to see a study in which participants are prescribed diets containing either yoghurt with live bacteria, yoghurt without live bacteria, and no yoghurt. Yes, it would take a long time to determine if the yoghurt reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes but other effects could be examined as well and it would be interesting to see what the true effects of  regular yoghurt consumption are on health.