Diabetes & Obesity

Ongoing research must account for the known factors related to diabetes and body weight while evaluating the role of pesticides.

The modifiable risk factors for diabetes are obesity, particularly abdominal fat, and lack of physical activity. Eating a low-calorie diet rich in fruits and vegetables is recommended to maintain a healthy body weight. Exposure to chemicals in the environment, including but not limited to pesticides, has been suggested to disrupt normal development and metabolism leading to increased body weight. Ongoing research must account for the known factors related to body weight and diabetes while evaluating the role of pesticides. However, it’s clear from many scientific studies that consuming fruits and vegetables is health-promoting.

Definition

Diabetes is a chronic (long-lasting) disease that affects how the human body turns sugar from food into energy. There are three main types of diabetes: type 1, type 2 and gestational (while pregnant). The types of diabetes are characterized by deficient insulin production (type 1) and ineffective use of insulin (type 2). Type 2 is the most common form of the disease, formerly known as adult-onset diabetes, but it can occur at all ages. In recent years, children have been increasingly diagnosed with it. While genetic factors are important in all forms of diabetes, there are modifiable risk factors for type 2 diabetes, namely obesity and lack of exercise.

It’s clear from many scientific studies that consuming fruits and vegetables is health-promoting.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 400 million people in the world have diabetes and this number is expected to rise. If not properly managed, diabetes can lead to serious conditions, including blindness, kidney failure, heart attack, stroke and lower limb amputation.

Diabetes and Obesity

The prevalence of people who are overweight or obese is growing globally. The WHO estimates that 13 percent of adults were obese in 2016. Obesity is becoming more common in low- and middle-income countries. This is a growing concern because individuals may suffer from both malnutrition and too much weight. High-calorie and sugary foods tend to be less expensive than nutrient-rich foods.

The role of agriculture is to provide affordable, abundant fruits and vegetables, which are highly recommended by experts to reduce the risk of diabetes.

Efforts to reduce the burden of diabetes are focused on prevention, early diagnosis and treatment. The primary objective for prevention is to reduce obesity. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sponsor programs to encourage lifestyle changes that incorporate more exercise and healthy eating. In Europe, recommendations are being offered to city planners to provide spaces for physical activity. The WHO’s 2016 Global Report on Diabetes makes the following recommendations:

Prioritize actions to prevent people becoming overweight and obese, beginning before birth and in early childhood. Implement policies and programmes to promote breastfeeding and the consumption of healthy foods and to discourage the consumption of unhealthy foods, such as sugary sodas. Create supportive built and social environments for physical activity. A combination of fiscal policies, legislation, changes to the environment and raising awareness of health risks works best for promoting healthier diets and physical activity at the necessary scale.

The possible role of pesticides and diabetes is not a stated priority for these organizations. The role of agriculture is to provide affordable, abundant fruits and vegetables, which are highly recommended by experts to reduce the risk of diabetes.

Role of Pesticides

Because of the global increase in obesity, there is interest in identifying possible causes and risk factors beyond diet, exercise and genetic predisposition. Exposure to many different chemicals in the environment, including pesticides, is being studied. It is proposed that exposures to certain chemicals at a young age may disrupt normal development and metabolism that can lead to increased susceptibility to weight gain. This is called the “obesogen” hypothesis.1 Extensive testing is done on each specific pesticide to determine if it can lead to disease or toxic effects, including weight gain, in laboratory animals. Since the test animals are dosed daily at very high levels, a possible impact at lower doses is under discussion and being evaluated.

It is well established that obesity and diabetes are correlated. But pesticides are not clearly linked to either condition.

Human evidence that pesticides may increase body weight, and thereby diabetes, is very limited.  Studies that compare body weight and traces of pesticides in blood and urine must account for biological factors that affect the measured concentrations due to body weight. For example, the concentration of chemicals that are stored in body fat will be higher in people with more body fat. This does not mean that the chemicals caused weight gain. The studies must also evaluate the contribution of diet and exercise.

In conclusion, modernization and societal changes have led to increased availability of high-calorie foods while reducing physical activity. It is well established that obesity and diabetes are correlated. But pesticides are not clearly linked to either condition. The evidence is stronger that pesticides play a role in making healthy fruits and vegetable available and affordable.


1 Thayer KA, Heindel JJ, Bucher JR, Gallo MA. 2012. Role of environmental chemicals in diabetes and obesity: a National Toxicology Program workshop review. Environ Health Perspect 120(6), 779-789.

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