Diabetes – dairy's toll: how milk affects blood sugar | Viva!

Diabetes – dairy's toll: how milk affects blood sugar

Sadly, diabetes is spiralling out of control. There are 3.2 million diabetics in the UK (Diabetes UK, 2014) with 400 new cases every day. The global rise is astonishing. In 1985, 30 million people worldwide had diabetes but by 2011 this figure leapt to 347 million people! (World Health Organisation, 2013.) Diabetes occurs more in cultures consuming diets high in animal fat. As plant intake increases and saturated animal fat intake decreases from country to country, the number of deaths from type 2 diabetes plummets from 20.4 to 2.9 people per 100,000 (Campbell et al, 2005). Diabetes is a chronic disease caused by too much sugar (glucose) in the blood. Blood sugar levels rise when there is not enough insulin in the blood, or the insulin does not work properly. Insulin is a vital hormone secreted by the pancreas and it regulates blood sugar levels by encouraging our cells to take glucose out of our blood to make energy. When things go wrong, high levels of glucose in the blood can cause damage to the nerves and blood vessels. Without treatment, diabetes can lead to long-term health problems, including kidney failure, gangrene, sensory loss, ulceration, blindness, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes

Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes occurs when the body produces little or no insulin. It is an auto-immune disease where the body attacks its own insulin-producing cells in the pancreas and requires daily administration of insulin.

Type 2 diabetes

Type 2 diabetes occurs either when the body cannot use the insulin it produces or it does not produce enough. Ninety per cent of worldwide cases of diabetes are type 2 and these are largely the result of unhealthy diets high in saturated animal fat and cholesterol, physical inactivity and excess body weight, especially around the middle (World Health Organisation, 2013).

Ninety per cent of worldwide cases of diabetes are type 2 and these are largely the result of unhealthy diets high in saturated animal fat and cholesterol, physical inactivity and excess body weight, especially around the middle (World Health Organisation, 2013).

Meat and dairy damage in diabetes

Meat and dairy are a major cause of diabetes. And how milk affects blood sugar levels is truly shocking. A long-term study followed the eating habits of people for 17 years. It showed that eating just one serving of meat per week significantly increases the risk of diabetes. People following a low-meat diet had a 74 per cent increase in the risk of type 2 diabetes compared to vegetarians (Vang et al, 2008). Some of this difference was due to obesity and/or weight gain in the meat-eating group but even after allowing for this, meat itself remained an important cause of the disease.

The big question is, why? What makes animal products so damaging to health? The answer is simple – fat! Meat and dairy products are the major source of saturated fats in the British diet. Several studies reveal that when our bodies cannot cope with all the fats we’re eating, microscopic drops of it accumulate in our cells and interfere with their ability to react to insulin. Even though we might produce enough insulin, the fat inside our cells blocks the necessary reactions. Muscle cells normally store small amounts of fat as an energy reserve but, in insulin-resistant people, fat can build up to levels 80 per cent higher than in healthy people. Slim people are not necessarily exempt as it takes years for diabetes and other symptoms to develop. It doesn’t end here. An abundance of fat in the bloodstream also turns off some of those genes that normally help the body to burn fat! A highfat diet, therefore, not only causes accumulation in the muscle cells but also slows down its ability to burn that fat. The result is an inability to respond to insulin (Powell, 2011). Our evolutionary history may go some way to explaining this paradox. When food was scarce, our ancestors developed special mechanisms to store fat in their bodies when they had the opportunity – it was vital for their survival. We live in a much different world now but our bodies are still ready to store fat at any time if we provide it for them. And boy, do we provide it for them! How milk affects blood sugar levels is a process that can't be ignored. The common diet in many countries, including the UK, is high in fat, animal products and sugary foods and low in plant wholefoods such as fruit and vegetables, pulses and wholegrains. Not only is this responsible for ever-increasing numbers of overweight or obese people but it also increases the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.