Thursday, March 24, 2011

Westernization Ain't Always a Good Thing

Got 15 minutes to spare? Then check out Terry Gross's interview of Kevin Patterson, the Canadian physician who penned a Maisonneuve article arguing that Western diets are making people everywhere both sicker and fatter. (I briefly discussed Patterson's essay last November.)

Patterson points out that "Type 2 diabetes historically didn't exist." It popped onto the medical scene "only 70 or 80 years ago," driven by the explosive rise of obesity and accumulation of abdominal fat in "Westernized" populations. "That fat induces changes in our receptors that cells have for insulin. Basically, it makes them numb to the effect of insulin."

While working at the Canadian Combat Surgical Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Patterson noticed that "[t]he Afghan soldiers, police and civilians he treated in Kandahar had radically different bodies from those of the Canadians he took care of back home."
"Typical Afghan civilians and soldiers would have been 140 pounds or so as adults. And when we operated on them, what we were aware of was the absence of any fat or any adipose tissue underneath the skin," Patterson says. "Of course, when we operated on Canadians or Americans or Europeans, what was normal was to have most of the organs encased in fat. It had a visceral potency to it when you could see it directly there."
But while Afghans aren't (yet) as prone to suffering the diseases of Western civilization, another traditional hunter-gatherer society is quickly joining the ranks of the metabolically deranged:
Patterson explains that in his Canadian practice, where he takes care of indigenous populations near the Arctic Circle, there is a marked increase in the number of diabetic patients he sees.  
"The traditional Inuit culture of relentless motion and a traditional diet consisting mainly of caribou, Arctic char, whale and seal has been abandoned over this period of time for Kentucky Fried Chicken and processed food and living a life very similar to ours," he says. "[They're] spending a lot of time in front of a glowing screen."
More here.