Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity, is reaching epidemic proportions in the United States and many other countries, according to Francine Kaufman, a leading expert in the field. The physician has written a book called Diabesity which traces the roots of the problem and also offers some simple solutions.
Dr. Kaufman notes that diabetes prevents the body from processing sugar properly.
"Diabetes occurs when there is either a deficiency or a failure of normal action of the hormone called insulin, which enables us to use the sugar from the food that we eat," she says.
Type 1 diabetes results from the body losing its ability to produce insulin. Often called juvenile-onset diabetes, it is caused by a problem in the body's immune system.
Type 2 diabetes is often triggered by poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle, and it impairs the working of the body's insulin. Type 2 diabetes was once a disease of middle age, but is increasingly found today among youngsters.
Dr. Kaufman sees the problem every day. She is a professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California and heads the diabetes center at Children's Hospital Los Angeles. A past president of the American Diabetes Association, she sees an alarming trend, saying Type 2 diabetes is becoming an epidemic. She says fast food is a big culprit in the United States, and even in poor countries.
"Because in the developing world, we've exported some of these food products," she says. "Of course, they may make them themselves in their own country. So there are more sweetened beverages, there's more fast food, more junk food available really on the global basis."
And as the standard of living goes up in countries like China and India, Dr. Kaufman says people get less exercise, compounding the problem.
She says that experts foresee the incidence of the disease soaring in the future.
"We're talking about globally, right now, maybe about 20,000 people a day diagnosed with diabetes, six million added to the list each year," she says. "We're projecting around the globe, perhaps 330 million people having diabetes by the years 2020 to 2025."
She says the trend is reversible, but says it will take an international call to action. She says schools should ban soda pop and that adults and children alike should drink water when they're thirsty. She says employers can cut their medical costs by encouraging worker fitness. She adds that people can do more walking, and snack on fruits and vegetables instead of junk food.
"And we have to look at what's happening in our communities," says Dr. Kaufman. "Is my community a safe place where I can go for a walk with my dog in the evening and not worry about it? Is my community some place where my children can go out and play? And if you community isn't, we need to work together to strengthen our communities."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one in three Americans who were born in the year 2000 could develop diabetes in his or her lifetime. By any standard, experts say, that is an epidemic, but for children at risk, it is one that can be reversed through simple lifestyle changes.