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3Qs: Staying healthy in a food-frenzied culture

According to the American Diabetes Association, more than 25 million people in America suffer from the metabolic disorder. The health concern returned to the national spotlight last month when cooking maven Paula Deen of Food Network fame announced that she suffers from Type 2 diabetes. The chronic disease is on the rise in our society, which, Carmen Sceppa says, often encourages eating more and moving less. We asked the associate professor of health science in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences to discuss the physiology of the disease, what causes it and how we can avoid it.

View selected publications of Carmen Sceppa in IRis, Northeastern’s digital archive.

Physiologically speaking, what is Type2 diabetes and what causes it?

Diabetes is a chronic condition characterized by high blood sugar. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type. It results from inability of the pancreas to produce insulin, which takes blood sugar into tissues such as skeletal muscle and organs such as the liver, where it can be stored. It can also result from inadequate insulin action even when it is produced (known as insulin resistance). Based on 2011 data from the American Diabetes Association, it is estimated that 25.8 million children and adults in the United States — or roughly 8.3 percent of the population — have diabetes. The disease is more prevalent among disadvantaged groups and ethnic minorities. Regardless of the cause, uncontrolled diabetes can result in serious complications such as blindness, limb amputations and kidney failure. People with diabetes are often disabled, unable to work and at risk of death.

Why is Type 2 Diabetes on the rise?

Type 2 diabetes is generally caused by the interactions between genetic predisposition and modifiable environmental and/or lifestyle factors that trigger or accelerate the disease. These modifiable risk factors are dietary habits and level of physical activity. When unattended, they contribute to weight gain and obesity, which in turn lead to insulin resistance and high blood sugar. It is not surprising that, presently, diabetes tracks obesity trends. In addition to individual choices, we also face external pressures, since our environment is conducive to eating more and moving less.

How can individuals reduce their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes?

Early-stage Type 2 diabetes can be reversed by modifying environmental and/or lifestyle factors. Some dietary changes to consider include choosing nutrient-dense foods that provide fewer calories and more nutrients, such as fruits and vegetables that are also high in fiber, and high-protein foods low in saturated fat, such as lean meats and reduced-fat dairy. As for physical activity, adults should engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, equivalent to a brisk walk at about three miles per hour or faster. Adding resistance training builds muscle and, like insulin, uses up blood sugars as fuel. There is a dose-response between physical activity and health benefits, whereby frequency and intensity of physical activity and exercise do count. It’s also important to watch the waistline because there is a direct correlation between increased waist and risk of diabetes. Poorly managed and advanced diabetes does require medications in addition to lifestyle changes. However, diabetes can be effectively prevented and managed with sensible eating and increased physical activity.