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Sugar, not obesity, may drive diabetes

Thu., Feb. 28, 2013

Study looks for causes of pandemic

WASHINGTON – In a finding certain to put new pressure on the purveyors of sugary foods and drinks, a worldwide analysis shows that regardless of its effect on obesity, the ebb and flow of sugar in a country’s diet strongly influences the diabetes rate there.

The new study provides compelling evidence that obesity isn’t driving the worldwide pandemic of Type 2 diabetes as much as the rising consumption of sugar – largely in the form of sweetened sodas, experts said.

Increases in sugar intake account for a third of new cases of diabetes in the United States and a quarter of cases worldwide, according to calculations published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE. In the 175 countries studied, a 150-calorie daily increase in the availability of sugar – about the equivalent of a can of Coke or Pepsi – raises the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes by 1.1 percent, a research team from Stanford University and the University of California, San Francisco, found.

Dr. Walter Willett, a nutritionist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the results almost certainly underestimated the role of added sugar in the development of diabetes, since the data didn’t distinguish between sugar that comes from fresh fruit and sugar that is concentrated in junk foods with no other nutrients.

The results make clear that sugar consumption “is fueling the global epidemic of diabetes,” and that reducing that consumption is an essential step in controlling the rise of the disorder, said Willett.

Over the past half-century, the increasing availability of sugar has made 62 new calories available every day to each man, woman and child on Earth.

The result has been a global rise in the number of people who are overweight or obese, with an estimated 1.4 billion adults over 20 falling into one of those categories, according to the World Health Organization.

Whether sugar consumption or obesity is the biggest factor in diabetes is an unresolved question with important implications for public health policy. If obesity is the primary cause, measures that boost exercise and reduce intake of any kind of calories should drive down diabetes rates. If sugar is responsible, the emphasis should shift to reducing the amount of the sweetener consumed in food and drinks.

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