Diet and diabetes

Are we eating and drinking all together too much?
28 August 2018

Interview with 

Jules Griffin, University of Cambridge


 This image shows a display of healthy foods on a table. Foods include beans, grains, cauliflour, cantelope, pasta, bread, orange, turkey, salmon, carrots, turnips, zucchini, snowpeas, string beans, radishes, asparagus, summer squash, lean beef,...


How does our diet affect our lievs, and how are our collective waistlines looking? Georgia Mills and Chris Smith share a glass of fizz with researcher Jules Griffin, and find out how much it will hurt their health.

Jules - I think the basic message is that, as human beings, we’re probably eating too much in the western world at the moment. My research is looking at the interactions between diet and chronic metabolic diseases. So diseases like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and fatty liver disease, and diet is a major component of those diseases at the moment.

Georgia - Why is eating too much food bad for you?

Jules - As animals, we’ve adapted very well to storing food and going through periods of relative famine and fasting. And the body’s geared up for doing fasting and conserving those carbohydrates and fats until we need them. The problem comes, though, when we can eat continually and we can basically graze or have much bigger meals. That we’re still very good at storing fats and carbohydrates, and probably the limiting factor is what our skeleton can actually cope with in terms of that storage, and this has dramatic health effects if we eat to excess.

We’re also not doing as much exercise, unlike the chap that’s punting us along at the moment.

Georgia - Not like us though, we’re being lazy.

Jules - Exactly. And I think that’s really the key thing is, that we’re drinking things with plenty of sugar in them or eating things with high saturated fat and we’re not doing enough exercise.

Georgia - So how are you looking into this?

Jules - We look at blood plasma and urine samples from people. Blood plasma is basically the bit of blood after you’ve taken out all the cells. This carries a lot of nutrients around the body, so sugars, in particular glucose, fats, and also amino acids. And the body needs these things in order to cope with the day actually, and get you through the day, and also during processes like growth but, at the same time, you don’t want to have too much of these because they have to be stored somehow and if you have too much of these they get inappropriately stored across the body. So you tend to see them less in our fat cells and more in things like the liver, and muscles cells and that’s how we get insulin resistance, and then type 2 diabetes.

Georgia - So how does looking into this help us - I don’t know, can we stop diabetes in its tracks?

Jules - Actually, there is some good news there. I think if we’d have been conducting this interview five or ten years ago we would have said that type 2 diabetes is largely a one way street. But there’s been some really interesting research into gastric bypass surgery where you can show that just by the fasting associated with gastric bypass you can reverse a lot of the effects of type 2 diabetes as part of this.

We’re interested in trying to understand why certain people are predisposed for developing aspects of metabolic disease and other people are protected. So we’re looking at some of these small metabolite markers to try and pick out populations that are either at risk or are protected, to understand those protective mechanisms.

Georgia - Is that a sort of genetic thing or environmental?

Jules - We know it’s partly genetic and we know it’s partly environment as well, so with food being the biggest component of that environmental factors. We’ve done quite a lot of work in terms of fatty liver development and the bad news there is that alcohol is a big risk factor. But also...

Georgia - Oh oh.

Jules - Yeah, I’m guilty of that as well. But also just sugary drinks as well. Potatoes and crisps based products as well.

Chris - The thing is a lot of what you’re saying hasn’t really changed dramatically in the last five, ten years. And if you look at children going to school, a record number of them, like a quarter in western countries are now overweight or obese at the time of starting school. It’s a really frightening number. So what has changed that we are so dramatically different than we were when young people say 40 years ago were going to school when that number was a fraction? It was a very tiny number that were overweight.

Jule - I think there’s been two big effects that we’ve seen sort of happening. One is a reduction in the amount of exercise. Exercise is amazingly protective even if you don’t reduce weight, actually, in terms of protecting against type 2 diabetes, and the complications associated with type 2 diabetes. I think the other big problem is just the availability of foods that are very high in sugar. The good news is that we’ve probably done a pretty good job as a nation in reducing some of our saturated fat content intake. We need to go further in terms of that, but the bad news is we’re probably eating more calories, and the body’s very good at storing those calories, so that’s how you see more people being overweight and more obesity.

Chris - So if you’ve got this fatty liver change and then you embrace a much more healthy lifestyle, will it go away?

Jules - That’s the good news yeah, it does go away. In terms of, if you can do things in reduce your food intake, or I try and go out on a run a bit more often and do it the other way round as I’ve got quite a healthy appetite.


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