It's not a big surprise that Paula Deen has diabetes. First of all, diabetes is rampant in the United States. Secondly, Paula Deen's diet was less than stellar. One only had to watch a couple of her cooking shows to realize that. (Actually, watching one show would be adequate.) Her announcement of diabetes has caused an explosion of criticism. It's been interesting to note how often the fat content of her recipes is brought up in my twitter feed, rather than the sugar content of her food. Since she is known as the "Queen of Butter," butter or saturated fats must be a large part of her problem, right?


Well, then again, maybe not.


Like most diseases of the body, diabetes is complex. Why some people are more prone to it, and what exactly happens in their bodies is still being researched, though we know a lot already. But we do know this: diabetes has increased substantially in the last 100 years. In 2008, it was reported that cases of diabetes had doubled in the previous 10 years. Doubled! Statistically, we had much lower amounts of diabetes before the advent of vegetable, corn, and soy oils, which caused a decrease in the use of butter and saturated fats.


If you look at some Native American groups who are extremely prone to diabetes, their ancestral diet was quite high in saturated fats. Now that they are eating a high-carbohydrate, refined food diet, diabetes is an overwhelming problem. I don't think it makes much sense to ask these people to move to a vegan diet of whole grains and legumes, when they faired so well on their traditional diet (which includes some grains — depending on the tribe — and lots of wild game, fish, berries, seeds, etc.). Historically speaking, they did well on their traditional diet. Do we really think that saturated fat is a large part of their problem now? Couldn't and shouldn't we point our fingers rather at the loss of their traditional diet?


I feel that the increased rate of diabetes demonstrates something far more serious than a simple need to decrease saturated fats; it seems like our lifestyles and eating habits as a whole are off significantly. There is a lot more to Paula Deen's diet than the fact that she used butter (like trans fat, and sugar content).


Dr. Mary G. Enig is an expert on fats, and she answered a question about saturated fats and diabetes a couple of years ago that I thought might be helpful. You can read it here. A former director of the heart institute at the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, also shares a detailed report on fats, and why trans-fats are the real problem, not saturated. And finally, Thomas Cowan, a Naturopath, shares his thoughts on treating diabetes here (which does not include removing saturated fats from the diet).


In the end, I am not ready to lay blame at butter's doorstep for diabetes. Sugar and a high carbohydrate content are much more likely key issues. (The New York Times had an interesting piece entitled, Is Sugar Toxic? that has good information on the dangers of sugar.)


This is the question I would like to pose: if people ate a diet close to what their ancestors were eating 150-200 years ago, what would their risk of diabetes be? 

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