Thursday, August 16, 2012

Diabetes, Wild & “The Newsroom”

Why This Story Won’t Be On HBO’s New Series 


A scene from a recent episode of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom takes place in May of 2011. In it, a reporter implores her producer to open the show with news of the debate in Congress about lifting the debt ceiling. It’s the most important story of the day, the week, and the month, she says, and it’s critical the public knows about it. But it’s a crusade with no traction: a provocative tabloid story is consuming the news, and that will lead instead.

The story about the effect of wild berries on a major health epidemic has some similarities to this recent The Newsroom storyline.  Here’s why.

Our Diets are Putting Us at Risk
Unlike some health stories, news about the diabetes epidemic has grabbed headlines. It was recently reported that 1 in 4 children, according to a study from Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, either have or are at risk of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is being diagnosed in children and teenagers at a once-unthinkable rate, and its growth parallels America’s growing obesity statistics.

“If someone is obese, their risk of developing diabetes is twenty- to fortyfold higher,” Dan Nadeau, Medical Director of the Diabetes and Endocrinology Associates of Maine’s York Hospital told Wild About Health last month. Diabetes is not just a disease that exists in a vacuum: having diabetes means you are at increased risk of Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart and vascular disease, inflammation, accelerated aging many other complications, Nadeau said. A diagnosis of type 2 diabetes can be a death sentence or a wake-up call.

Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes in America today, and while millions of Americans have been diagnosed, many more are unaware they are at high risk. The New York Times recently reported that a dangerous form of type 2 diabetes also develops in people who aren’t overweight. One thing remains clear: diabetes is linked to our diets and it is a lifestyle disease that is, in most cases, entirely preventable.

But the lead is buried in the story. Understanding the impact of completely accessible, wild-grown foods and incorporating them into our diets can transform the lives of those diagnosed and those at risk. The fact is, help for these dire health issues is available—right now, growing in late summer in Maine and parts of Canada—and it’s being made available to us all year round. The effect of berries grown wild under circumstances that make them uniquely powerful against disease and the effect of those berries on the health of millions is front page news – today, this week, and this month.

At least, it should be.

Wild Foods: A Message of Health

We are fortunate to be able to take advantage of real food that is grown naturally in the wild. In areas that are challenged with availability, government, private, and local initiatives continue to make it more available and more affordable. But why differentiate between wild and non-wild foods when it comes to health and disease prevention? We must. While some of us are getting the message about wild-grown foods, others have yet to understand the implications.

First, it is important to know that wild foods occur naturally in their own indigenous environment. They are not planted or cultivated from seeds. Cultivated foods can be healthy, but they are created with human interference, and too often lack the natural nutrients and minerals that today we so desperately need returned to our diets. (Look no further than seedless grapes and iceberg lettuce for examples of human interference that drastically reduces nutrient content.)  With wild, these nutrients are provided, naturally, in their most intense, unadulterated form.

Another important characteristic of wild foods is that they are strong, having adapted to their environment. In fact, the harsher the environment, the more potent the protection they have. Wild blueberries, for example, are grown in rugged terrain in temperature extremes under intense sun exposure, and they have developed natural protection against those extremes. Phytochemicals found in their skins provide antioxidant protection against these stressors. Ready for another headline? When you eat these foods, you get the same antioxidant protection for yourself. And that’s the natural, wild benefit that is right under our nose. Just think what a story like that could become in the hands of Aaron Sorkin.

Find out more about why wild plants can protect you from cancer

A Catalyst for Dietary Change

While our diabetes risk can be prevented by our lifestyle choices, some diagnosed cases can even be reversed. Exercise is important, but what you eat has the biggest impact when it comes to weight loss and blood sugar levels. A recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health showed that consumption of anthocyanin-rich fruits can reduce diabetes risk. More than two servings per week has lowered risk compared with those who ate less than on serving per month. Wild blueberries top the list of berries that are high in anthocyanins. These high levels of anthocyanins are concentrated in the deep blue skin of berries like wild blues. They work to decrease the inflammation in the body that accompanies disease and provide us with protection.

Eating potent wild berries is not the only step in a program of prevention, but it is an important one – and it’s one that works. Nadeau cites wild blueberries as the catalyst for making major changes for his patients. This anthocyanin-rich, low GI-food doesn’t spike blood sugar and is packed with fiber. It can also be eaten in robust amounts in things like super-potent smoothies which provide a concrete, good-tasting recommendation that can prompt dietary change.

Researchers have also found that the bioactives in blueberries increase insulin sensitivity, a key factor in prevention. And while this news is exciting, it complements a long list of researchers that have reported on the anti-diabetic effects of blueberry-supplemented diets. Such broad but vigorous research can take time; the bottom line of knowledge can be cumulative. And, while evidence reinforcing the diabetes-wild berry connection continues to grow, there are things we don’t yet understand. The blueberry’s antioxidant effect, their synergy with other foods, and the specific compounds that act on our bodies to prevent disease are things scientists have yet to pinpoint.

Such a story – an accessible way to stop a major health issue – can be easily overshadowed by sexier, quicker, one-stop-shop health breakthroughs. But its impact is huge, and its message worth sending, no matter if it’s in the top block on Atlantis Cable News or buried somewhere on Page 9.

The Bottom Line

The wild blueberry is central in the discussion of how what we eat affects the most important health concerns of our time: cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and obesity. The research into berries and diabetes prevention is fascinating, but it can be hard to distill it into a single sound bite. The enigmatic details of this powerful connection is one reason it can only be found in nature—fresh, during the season, or frozen, preserving all the nutrition of fresh. As popular as they are, in some ways wild blueberries are still waiting for their close up.

Resources for Diabetes Prevention

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention - Topics, trends, and prevention program information.

American Diabetes Association - Advocacy, community, news, and research.

Mayo Clinic - Reliable source for symptoms, causes, and risk factors.

Warning Signs of Type 2 Diabetes - Identifying signs of a disease that is often hard to recognize.

Studies about Blueberries and Diabetes:

Berry Good News: Blueberries May Cut Diabetes Risk

Anthocyanin Intake Decreases Type 2 Diabetes Risk

Wild Blueberries-Diabetes Health Research

Learn more about GI and Diabetes

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