Obesity, Type 2 Diabetes, and Heart Disease – what does history tell us?


Rather than trying to ascertain the causes of modern diseases only by looking through a microscope, it can often be extremely enlightening to back up and look at the big picture through the lens of history.

When one considers that the earliest hominid (prehistoric human) fossils found appear to be between 3.8 and 4 million years old, and it is believed that we were nomadic until the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, it becomes obvious that in the scheme of things, growing food is a relatively new idea. When we were nomadic, we probably followed the meat in order to survive, supplementing with plant foods that were available wherever the meat was. Can you imagine taking a handful of whole oat kernels or wheat berries, throwing them in your mouth and chewing them as part of your meal? There isn't much evidence that nomadic cultures carted around pots to cook grains with, and in fact, there isn't much evidence that we cooked our food at all until relatively recently. I think it is fairly safe to assume that humans ate very little or no grain for the vast majority of our existence.

It is said that it takes 100,000 years to change our genes one tenth of one percent through the evolutionary process, so therefore as of today, one can argue that our bodies have not yet adapted well to eating whole grain, let alone grain that has been ground into flour (which makes it act like sugar in the body), or grain that has been genetically modified (who knows what that is doing to us).

In many previous tips I have discussed the research of Dr. Weston A. Price who travelled the world in the 1930s comparing the health of traditional cultures that had not yet come in contact with “white man’s food” to those that had, and consistently found that when cultures replaced their native diet with white flour, white sugar, and canned food, their health deteriorated. Dr. Price was by no means alone in making this connection. The British, in their colonization of India noticed that the incidence of obesity and diabetes varied depending on the sect or caste examined, and that generally diabetes and obesity were diseases that struck the rich who ate European diets and were more sedentary, and was pretty much nonexistent in those that ate their traditional diet. Similar patterns were noticed in Thailand, China, Sri Lanka, and Tunisia. The correlation between the increase in sugar and white flour consumption and the incidence of diabetes was forgotten after the 1930s in the US, even though similar findings were being noted in other parts of the world, such as the studies of Dr. Cohen who compared the Yemenite Jews who had lived in Israel since the early '30s, and those that arrived after 1949, and found that those that had lived in Israel longer had a diet much higher in sugar, and also had far higher incidence of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, hypertension and gout. Similar findings were found in the Maoris of New Zealand by Dr. Ian Prior, and in South Africa by Dr. George Campbell, who was the first person to propose an "incubation period" between the onset of sugar consumption and the diseases of civilization that follow.

In 1966, British Royal Navy Surgeon Dr. T.L. Cleave published a book called Diabetes, coronary thrombosis, and the saccharine disease, suggesting that all the modern diseases had a common cause – the consumption of refined flour, refined rice and sugar. "Saccharine" refers to sugar, as opposed to the artificial sweetener. He noted that disease was absent in both meat eaters like the Inuit or the Masai as well as plant-based cultures like the Hunza or the Kikuyu, until the time that these cultures began to add nutritionally depleted, "high saccharine" foods (refined carbohydrates) to their diet. He was unable to successfully convince the medical establishment that his theory had merit, even though it was generally acknowledged that those with diabetes were far more prone to heart disease and obesity.

In the US, at the McGovern Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs in April '73, the scientific community debated whether it was a high fat diet or a high processed carbohydrate diet that was disease causing. Cohen, Campbell, Peter Bennett who discussed the obesity/diabetic plight of the Pima Indians, Walter Mertz, T.L. Cleave, Carol Berdanier and John Yudkin all demonized sugar, yet Ancel Keys' cholesterol-heart disease hypothesis won out, despite the fact that there was far more evidence implicating refined carbohydrates. The McGovern Committee sided with the saturated fat hypothesis, and in 1977 put out their Dietary Goals to lower saturated fat intake, and the public was led to believe that there was overwhelming consensus on the evils of fat, when in fact the scientific community was very much divided. In 1980, once the debate entered the political arena and the USDA published their Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the scientific debate around saturated fat vs. refined carbohydrate was pretty much silenced in favour of the wrong hypothesis, in my opinion. And unsurprisingly since that time, despite the decline in consumption of saturated fats, obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease rates have continued to rise along with the continued increase in consumption of processed sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and products made of flour.

Today, obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease are more common in the poor. Unfortunately, the least expensive foods available are those that are highly processed, and frequently contain refined flour and sugar. The poor often find it difficult to afford quality meat and vegetables, and frequently rely on packaged food and fast food outlets for cheap, nutritionally deplete food that satisfies hunger. But the poor are not the only ones that partake in breads, pastries, pastas, and sugar-laden desserts, and they are certainly not the only ones to suffer from overfatness, heart disease, hypertension, gout, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis and cancer, all which have been linked to refined carbohydrates and sugar consumption.

My apologies in the delay in discussing the metabolic cause of obesity – what happens in the body when one consumes sugar, flour products and other refined grains that leads to fat accumulation. It's coming …

I HIGHLY recommend the recent book by Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories if you are interested in the topics of diets, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Related tips
Obesity – a behavioural or a metabolic problem?
Insulin, our storage hormone
Sugar, the disease generator
Another “healthy heart guide” that got it wrong
Saturated fat, the misunderstood nutrient
Cortisol, our stress hormone

Taubes, Gary Good Calories, Bad Calories, Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007.

Chek, Paul; You Are What You Eat CD Series Chek Institute, San Diego, CA, 2002.

Price, Weston A. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration Price-Pottenger Foundation, La Mesa, CA, 2000.

Campbell, George D. “Diabetes in Asians and Africans in and Around Durban” South African Medical Journal Nov. 30;37:1995-2008, 1963.

Cohen AM “Effect of Environmental Changes on Prevalence of Diabetes and of Atherosclerosis in Various Ethnic Populations in Israel” In The Genetics of Migrant and Isolate Populations, ed. E. Goldschmidt. New York, Williams and Wilkins, 127-130, 1963.

Cohen AM et al. “Change of diet of Yemenite Jews in Relation to Diabetes and Ischaemic Heart Disease” Lancet Dec. 23; 278(7217):1399-1401, 1961

Cleave TL and Cambell GD Diabetes, coronary thrombosis, and the saccharine disease, Bristol: John Wright and Sons, 1966.

Cleave TL Saccharine Disease: The Master Disease of Our Time New Canaan, Conn.: Keats Publishing, 1975.

Prior IA “The Price of Civilization” Nutrition Today July/Aug: 2-11, 1971

Prior IA et al. “The Relationships of Diabetes, Blood Lipids, and Uric Acid Levels in Polynesians” Advances in Metabolic Disorders 9:241-61, 1978.

Prior IA et al. “Metabolic Maladies in New Zealand Maoris”British Medical Journal April 25;1(5390):1065-69, 1964.

Yudkin J. Pure, white and deadly: The problem of sugar Revised edition, New York, Viking, 1986.

Yudkin J. et al. “Sugar Intake, Serum Insulin and Platelet Adhesiveness in Men with and without Peripheral Vascular Disease” Postgraduate Medical Journal Sept. 45(527):608-11, 1960.

Yudkin J. “The causes and cure of obesity” Lancet Dec. 19; 274(7112):1135-38, 1959.

Yudkin J. “Diet and Coronary Thrombosis: Hypothesis and Fact” Lancet July 27; 270(6987):155-62, 1957.

Copyright 2008 Vreni Gurd



  1. Ted Hutchinson said,

    March 16, 2008 @ 7:27 am

    May I provide a link to an hour long lecture by Gary Taubes that can be found here.

    It was after listening to this a couple of months ago that I decided to find out if what Gary was saying worked for me so I cut my carbs and in the last 7 weeks have lost 18lbs weight and a lot of inches off my waist measurement. Not having cravings for food or alcohol makes it much easier to reduce consumption.

    I’m pleased not only with the effortless weight loss but the fact that my brain, appears to me, to be functioning smarter. I’m not feeling tired all the time or suffering bran fog moments.

    But be aware neither the talk nor the his book (sold as The Diet Delusion in the UK) are traditional “diet” advice. So there are no recipes or meal plans.

    Gary Taubes does a detailed, thorough, well researched, hatchet job on the recent history & politics of nutritional research. (He cannot bring himself to call it science)

  2. Vreni said,

    March 16, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

    Hi Ted,

    Thanks for the link – I really enjoyed it.

  3. Roch Cheng said,

    November 18, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Hi Vreni,

    I stumbled onto your website and am pleasantly surprised by such an excellent coverage of the various key people who often have spent years of their lives travelling to different parts of the world to confirm one common theme. They all have basically come to the same observation in explaining why the Western countries have rising incidences of cancer and many other degenerative diseases since about 1940 – result of often unknowingly adopting the standard “civilized” diet of refined sugar, white flour, omega-6-dominated vegetable oils, and dairy-products. I’ve read Dr. Price’s “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” and very much looking forward to reading a few others as referenced by you 🙂

    I wonder what is the impact on the US health scene (and its budget – 15% of US GDP!) if Obama has embraced the simple dietary principles of the natives in his proposed health program …

    Keep up the good work! 🙂
    Roch Cheng (Toronto, Ont., Canada)

  4. Brian said,

    January 3, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    Particularly interested in your notes about George Campbell. He was a great scientist, and a true visionary and always larger than life. I got to know him well in his later years before he died. His work on gold miners in South Africa was as important as his work on diabetes. His daughter Catherine is now a professor at the London School of Economics and together we ran an AIDS project in a gold-mining community in Carletonville, just outside Soweto, in South Africa.

  5. Moritzy said,

    June 12, 2010 @ 2:51 am

    Greetingsi Vreni,

    I found your article illuminating and so obviously well-researched. However, if you permit me, I’d like to play devil’s advocate here. I’m a religious disciple of the principle of mind power, and have been so for some forty five years.

    If you follow the fascinating teachings of Seth via Jane Roberts, or Abraham via Esther hicks you’ll discover a couple of principles relevant to your discussion here.

    1. Scientific bodies and individuals will always, always, always, ‘discover’ objective, ‘conclusive’ evidence in favor of the proposal target of their research. It’s something like the biblical paraphrase ‘seek and ye shall find’

    2. Within reason, what you THINK about what you eat, is far more impacting upon the body than what you actually do eat. So with the additional stress and concerns related to the do’s and don’ts as to the types of foods you eat, an unhealthy cyclical belief system is so established.

    3. Your overall success in any endeavor is irrevocably linked to your levels of happiness. Again worrying about the foods you eat, may ultimately not amount to doing anybody any favors.

    Thus, as you might realize, the media becomes a major culprit in the dissemination of unhealthy eating procedures and thinking processes.

    Just an alternative point of view to stimulate thinking. Have a great one.

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