Peace on Earth, Even Though War Sometimes Cures Diabetes

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!

Pho­to by Kylie_Jaxxon

Note: In my book Thin Dia­betes, Fat Dia­betes: Pre­vent Type 1, Cure Type 2, I explain why a high-car­bo­hy­drate diet is good for peo­ple with any kind of dia­betes.

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