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Spoonfuls of sugar make for a calamity

In news that should surprise precisely no one, a study by overseas researchers published earlier this week in Nature Medicine has found that about 70 per cent of global cases of type 2 diabetes cases are attributable to a “suboptimal diet”.

What constitutes a diet that’s “suboptimal” is found to range “from not eating enough whole grains, fruit, and vegetables, to consuming too much processed meat, refined grains, and sugary drinks”.

The number of people living with type 2 diabetes worldwide has escalated to an estimated 483 million “and is considered to have reached pandemic proportions”.

In New Zealand, about a quarter of a million of the population have the disease, and the problem is accelerating – according to Dr Bryan Betty, who until recently was the medical director of The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners and is now the chair of General Practice New Zealand, what used to be an affliction of those over 60 is increasingly diagnosed in people in their 20s.

Betty has been trying to raise the alarm about the type 2 diabetes “tsunami” in this country for years, to little apparent effect, spurred on by the damage he’s seen the disease wreak during two decades of working in a practice in Porirua.

It can be devastating.

Caused by the body failing to control its levels of blood glucose properly, the disease can lead to a number of serious health complications, including heart and blood vessel disease, nerve damage, kidney disease, and eye damage. It can result in the loss of limbs to amputation, and sufferers on average die 10 years earlier than they otherwise would.

That represents 2,500,000 life years that will be lost to those who currently have type 2 diabetes in New Zealand – numbers that continue to swell.

As if the human cost isn’t enough, a 2021 PwC report estimated that type 2 diabetes is currently costing New Zealand taxpayers a staggering $2 billion a year.

But in sharp contrast to a covid-19 response apparently predicated on the view that even one death from the virus was an unacceptable tragedy, successive governments appear to have regarded our slow-moving type 2 diabetes disaster as a mere statistic that needs no action.

Years of health campaigners calling for a sugar tax, for example, have been shrugged off by National and Labour, with both parties claiming that more research is required into whether such an impost would work as desired – despite the fact that it’d presumably have exactly the same effect as the ratcheting-up tax on tobacco products that’s already in play.

Published alongside the international research was an editorial by two leading New Zealand type 2 diabetes researchers, who say the “soft approach” based on education and information taken by most governments around the world has clearly been inadequate, and that “large-scale government action” is required to ensure the foods that help prevent the disease are available and accessible, and to limit the foods driving the global trend.

How much appetite there is for major interventions remains to be seen, but a discussion about the issue should definitely be on the menu.

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