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Childhood Diabetes: Is Diet a Major Culprit?

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June 30, 2000 -- Eating more meat and dairy products has been linked to a higher rate of type 1 diabetes (also known as juvenile diabetes), and having a diet heavy in plant products -- especially cereals -- was tied to less type 1 diabetes, a recent study suggests. So does this mean that serving oatmeal instead of bacon cheeseburgers will prevent your child from getting diabetes?

No, it's not that simple, experts say. Type 1 diabetes, beginning in childhood and requiring insulin for treatment, probably arises from the complex interaction of environmental influences and heredity. And the role of dietary habits may begin in infancy and even during pregnancy.

However, "it is very encouraging that there appears to be a relationship between diet and diabetes, because these may be modifiable risk factors," says Robert P. Trevino, MD, who reviewed the study for WebMD. In his research as director of the Social and Health Research Center in San Antonio, he has found that nutrition and exercise may also play some role in development of type 2 diabetes, which is different from type 1 and may not require insulin treatment.

The study, which was reported in the June issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, shows that food energy derived from meat and dairy products is associated with higher risk of type 1 diabetes, whereas food energy from vegetable sources, especially cereals, is associated with lower risk. Total calorie intake did not predict diabetes risk.

"I'm fascinated by this report," says Peter Smail, MA, BM, curator of the Scottish Study Group for the Care of Young Diabetics. "Ever since I moved up the coast in East Scotland in 1980 and found ... twice as many child diabetics in Aberdeen as Dundee, I've been obsessed by the possible reasons for the steady and inexorable rise in child diabetics."

In Smail's group, type 1 diabetes has been increasing by 2% each year. Although genetic factors may be important, "the increase overall has to be mainly environmental, with dietary factors prime candidates," says Smail. He explains that during 1940-1945, when food rationing was in force, deaths from diabetes in Britain went down by 40%, and there were virtually no new cases of diabetes in Scottish children.

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