Type 2 diabetes and the role of processed foods

Type 2 Diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes, is a metabolic disease in which insulin resistance causes chronic elevation of blood glucose levels.

Even though the colloquial name suggests that the disease is only present in adults, it is diagnosed in more pediatric patients every year (1).

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of the disease among adults and children has increased from 2.4% of the American population in 1980 to 6.8% in 2011 (5).

This remarkable increase in the prevalence of diabetes mellitus type II in just a 30-year span is the result of an increase in the consumption of highly processed food in the average American diet.

Those who refute the idea that the increase in processed foods in the American diet has had an effect on diabetes mellitus type II rates attribute the increase to more effaceable diagnostic testing, and a change in diagnostic criteria in 1997 by the World Health Organization that immediately increased the prevalence of the disease.

It is true that testing for diabetes mellitus type II has become more efficient and the diagnostic criteria has changed slightly, but when statisticians calculate the trend of prevalence rates over a period of time spanning before and after this development, they are able to mathematically compensate for the difference (2).

The findings of these calculations uphold the conclusion that diabetes mellitus type II rates are increasing at an astonishing speed; therefore, nullifying the argument that a change in diagnostic criteria is the cause of increased diabetes mellitus type II rates.

Another argument used by those who deny the correlation between increased consumption of processed foods and increased rates in diabetes mellitus type II is that the average age has increased. In 1980, the average American was 30.0 years old. In 2009, the average age was 36.8 years (7).

This is the result of the aging of the baby boomers. If this argument were valid, diabetes mellitus type II rates would be expected to maintain the same diagnosis rate in adolescents and young adults as seen in the past. This is not the case, however. The Center for Disease Control reports that 1.6% of all diabetes diagnoses are in youth and young adults. This number is up from .6% in 1980 (VI). A 1% increase in 30 years is significant enough that disproves the theory that the increasing average age is solely to blame for the increase in diabetes mellitus type II rates.

What is to blame is the incredible increase in consumption of processed foods. Highly processed foods have gained popularity around the world, but especially in the United States. Ready-to-eat, delicious, inexpensive, and relentlessly advertised, processed foods typify the American lifestyle: maximal pleasure for minimal effort. Unfortunately, processing generally causes deterioration of food quality and addition of fat, refined carbohydrates, and chemicals to compensate for the loss of quality. The result is a low fiber and extremely energy dense product that our bodies are not adequately equipped to handle at high quantities for extended periods of time (II). The most notable resulting issues include obesity, diabetes mellitus type II, cardiovascular disease, and several types of cancer.

Obesity is an epidemic ravaging the United States and many other Western cultures, especially with children.

Processed foods play a major role in obesity because they are very energy dense, and easy to over-consume because they lack satiety factors such as fiber. In fact, the average rate of consumption of highly processed foods and obesity rates have followed nearly the same trend over the past century (II). This is extremely significant to diabetes mellitus type II rates because the excess weight and lack of physical activity associated with obesity is the largest risk factor for insulin resistance, the cause of diabetes mellitus type II. The exact mechanism of why excess weight and inactivity trigger insulin resistance is not understood, however; medical professionals have concluded that the relationship exists. The correlation between obesity and insulin resistance is validated every time an overweight or obese person develops adult on-set diabetes, loses the excess weight, and sees improvement to complete cessation of diabetes mellitus type II symptoms.

The highest rates of diabetes mellitus type II in the nation are seen in the Pima Indians of Arizona with over a 50% prevalence rate (III). Like many diseases, diabetes mellitus type II can be triggered by several factors, including genetics.

Scientists believe that many Native American tribes, including the Pimas, are genetically prone to diabetes mellitus type II if a westernized diet of highly processed foods is followed because for past the 10,000 years that they have survived on naturally hypoglycemic foods, hunting, and some cultivation. Through this time, they had to adapt a way to survive drought a famine.

The way the body managed to do this was to naturally be semi-insulin resistant so that blood glucose levels would remain high and excess energy be stored as fat. Today, most Native Americans living in the US follow the western diet, but their genetic makeup causes the heavily processed foods of today to have an extremely profound effect on them (4).

A study was conducted on this phenomenon by researchers to see if genetics or environment and diet played a more important role in the onset of diabetes mellitus type II. They took data from Pima Indians living more primitively in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico and compared them to data of Pima Indians living in Southern Arizona. The results showed five times the prevalence of diabetes mellitus type II in the Pima Indians living in Arizona than their relatives in Mexico. Through this study, scientists were able to conclude that while genetics can predispose a race to diabetes mellitus type II, a westernized diet high in processed foods has a more profound effect on the development of the disease (3).

Through data collection in observational and ecological studies, scientists have determined the westernized diet of highly processed foods to be the cause of the skyrocketing prevalence of diabetes mellitus type II. The energy dense and low fiber characteristics of processed foods often lead to obesity if consumed in amounts typical of the average American diet. The symptoms of obesity, excess weight and usually a lack of physical activity, in turn, cause insulin resistance and therefore diabetes mellitus type II. As seen in the Pima Indians, genetic predisposition to adult-onset diabetes exists, but diet is extremely important in the development or prevention of the disease.


I. Distribution of Age at Diagnosis of Diabetes Among Adult Incident Cases Aged 18–79 Years, United States, 2011. (2013, January 18). Retrieved October 10, 2014.

II. Gross, L., Li, L., Ford, E., & Liu, S. (2004). Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States: An ecologic assessment. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 79(5), 774-779.

III. Marchand, L. (n.d.). Obesity Associated with High Rates of Diabetes in the Pima Indians. Retrieved October 11, 2014.

IV. National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (NDIC). (2014, June 1). Retrieved October 11, 2014.

V. Number (in Millions) of Civilian, Noninstitutionalized Persons with Diagnosed Diabetes, United States, 1980–2011. (2013, March 28). Retrieved October 10, 2014.

VI. Percentage of Civilian, Noninstitutionalized Population with Diagnosed Diabetes, by Age, United States, 1980–2011. (2013, March 28). Retrieved October 10, 2014.

VII. Resident Population by Sex and Age: 1980-2009. (2011, January 1). Retrieved October 11, 2014.

VIII. Schulz, L., Bennett, P., Ravussin, E., Kidd, J., Kidd, K., Esparza, J., & Valencia, M. (2006). Effects of Traditional and Western Environments on Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes in Pima Indians in Mexico and the U.S. Diabetes Care, 29(8).

2 comments… add one
  • Kelly Smith


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  • Joshua

    You can’t get diabetes meilutls from obesity. You can however get TYPE II diabetes. Type 2 is controlled with diet, exercise, and medication in the form of a pill. Most people that are diagnosed with type II can lose weight and no longer have it. Type I, juvenile diabetes, or diabetes meilutls is genetic. Your pancreas will never produce insulin again and so you are required to use insulin the rest of your life.

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