During the Siege of Paris in 1870, a French pharmacist named Bauchardat noticed that the health of diabetics was improving while everyone else was suffering as a result of food shortages. That’s because the most common form of diabetes is type 2 diabetes, which the French call diabète gras, or fat diabetes. Type 2 diabetes represents the body’s attempts to resist gaining too much weight on a fattening diet. If the weight gain is solved by eating fewer calories, then the type 2 diabetes improves.
World War I provided insight into another way to deal with type 2 diabetes. Even though Denmark was neutral during the war, its grain supply had been cut in half by the Atlantic Blockade. To prevent the grain shortages from causing widespread starvation in Denmark, the Danish government developed a rationing plan. Instead of people feeding the available grain to animals and then eating the animals, the government decreed that most of the food animals should be slaughtered immediately and the grain be fed directly to the people. It also decreed that grain should not be used to make alcohol. The Danes could eat as much bread and potatoes and cabbage as they wanted; but their intake of meats, fats, and alcohol was severely restricted. Not only did this rationing plan prevent starvation, it improved the overall health of the Danish population so much that Denmark enjoyed the lowest recorded death rate in its history.
I don’t know how much of the lower mortality in Denmark during the war was due to a decrease in the rate of diabetes specifically and how much to a lower risk of heart attack or stroke among nondiabetics. All of those diseases result from the same cause, which is a rich, fatty diet. Fortunately, I do have data on how wartime rationing affected the risk of death from diabetes in England and Wales during the first half of the twentieth century.
Notice that the risk of diabetes went up during times of peace and prosperity and dropped like a stone during wartime rationing. It stayed low during the Great Depression, when many people simply couldn’t afford to overeat. The effect of dietary changes was so powerful that it completely obscured the impact of the introduction of insulin therapy in the early 1920s. That’s because the most common form of diabetes is type 2 diabetes, which results from eating a fattening diet. Less than 10% of diabetes cases result from failure of the pancreas to produce insulin.
Low-carb gurus keep telling me that a diet based on grains causes obesity and diabetes. It’s true that the low-carb diets seem to provide some short-term benefit for diabetics. Depriving a person of carbohydrates does make high blood sugar go down immediately, even if makes the diabetes worse in the long run. If the low-carb diet suppresses the person’s appetite enough to cause weight loss, the diabetes could improve. However, this improvement would be due to weight loss, not to eating fat and protein instead of carbohydrates. At the same time, the low-carb diets provide an overload of fat and protein, which is particularly bad for people with diabetes because they are so prone to heart and kidney problems. The heavy load of animal protein in low-carb diets would also promote osteoporosis and cancer, but those problems might not show up immediately.
The low-carb gurus ignore an obvious fact: diabetes and many other chronic diseases are rare in populations that eat a diet that’s heavily based on grains or other starchy staples, such as potatoes. Diabetes is common only in societies that base their diet heavily on animal products. When a population shifts from an animal-based diet to a diet based on grains and other starchy staples, such as potatoes, the rates of obesity and diabetes come tumbling down. Fortunately, there doesn’t have to be a war for people to make this change in diet. It only takes awareness and a new set of recipes.
The good news is that we don’t need to starve ourselves or suffer the horrors of war to cure type 2 diabetes. All we need to do is go ape, go wild, and eat plants. Peace on earth!