Diabetes Through the Roof in the US and Developed World

For those of us concerned about socioeconomic trends and their consequences, Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth is one of the most important books we’ll see in 2016. This blog post is the second in a series that touches upon the issues the book covers: inequality, economic growth, and poverty, among others. Click here for the first post.


My book Just a Little Bit More chronicles the rise of excess and inequality in American society, generally since the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and specifically since the beginning of the 1980s. The sixth chapter, “Excess,” is the longest chapter in the book and covers an array of topics from political polarization and the domination of materialistic values in the marketplace to the oversized inefficiencies of the health care system and the pharmaceutical industry’s commitment to marketing over research and development. I also covered recent changes in the American diet.

When I was doing research on the American diet, I wanted to see hard numbers on the increase of type 2 diabetes since 1980.* Type 2 diabetes is mostly adult-onset, oftentimes related to poor diet and lack of exercise, attributable also to genetic predisposition. I was surprised, however, when I didn’t readily find numbers detailing the increase. Eventually, using data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I was able to determine that the number of Americans with diabetes from 1980 to 2010 had increased by 275 percent. Gazoids. To say the least – an increase of 275 percent since 1980 is an astounding figure. We’ve heard about the childhood obesity epidemic for quite a while; the numbers for type 2 diabetes consequently could get worse in the future. But even so, there doesn’t seem to be that much of an outcry or societal alarm. I imagine the pharmaceutical companies don’t mind the quietness . . .

Change is in the air – perhaps. Earlier this month (April 2016) the World Health Organization released a report detailing a doubling of the prevalence of diabetes globally from 1980 to 2014 (an estimated 422 million people, 8.5 percent of adults worldwide today are diabetic, up from 4.7 percent in 1980). The “fast food” diet is a culprit in the increase, and so is plain ol’ excess.

Robert Gordon, the author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth, explains that caloric availability and consumption in the United States, steady from 1800 to 1980 at just below 3000 calories/day, is now on the rise. Whereas a healthy diet consists of 1900-3200 calories/day depending upon age and gender, daily caloric consumption and availability has risen since 1980 and now ranges from 3500-4000 calories/day (pgs. 63-4). We and others around the world are simply consuming more calories per person than previous generations. The worldwide rise in diabetes is not only affecting rich, developed nations but also middle- and lower-income nations like Polynesia and Micronesia. American Samoa, at 30 percent of its population, has the highest rate of adult diabetics in the world. The lowest rate of diabetes is found in northwest Europe at 5 percent. The United States has a rate of just under 10 percent.

This doesn’t mean that every person diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is an overeating slacker. Some are simply genetically predisposed more than others to contract diabetes. We also know that poverty is a culprit in the increase of diabetes. Less expensive foods (chips, cookies, crackers), laden with sugar and/or fat, are good at filling stomachs but substandard at providing necessary nutrition. A first-time reversal in human history beginning in the 1980s, the poor are obese and the rich are thin. In the United States (adult populations), 17 percent of Latinos, 16 percent of Native Americans, and 13 percent of African Americans are diabetic. The rate for whites is 7 percent.

Our various religious traditions teach that limits are a natural part of the created order. Since the Gilded Age, an influential part of American society has championed the idea that limits are unnecessary, because more is always better. The surge in diabetes over the past thirty years tells an important tale: our religious traditions, formed centuries ago, yet speak truth today. Some of our modern societal narratives – more is always better, as an example – are simply falsehoods.


*Type 1 diabetes, formerly called juvenile diabetes, is differentiated from type 2 diabetes, biologically and in terms of its causality. See this link from the American Diabetes Association for a detailed explanation on the difference.


This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. Distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide will be available in September 2016. ¡Que Bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más saldrá este Septiembre de 2016!