Australian of the Year takes on Big Food, says our diet is ‘killing us’

by Maryanne Demasi | Jul 17, 2020 | Business

The nation’s flawed dietary guidelines have much to answer for, with more than 5000 people losing their lives “unnecessarily” from Type 2 diabetes in the past three months. With evidence showing diet can improve underlying health conditions, in a time of rising COVID-19 infections it is more important than ever to revise the dietary guidelines, writes Dr Maryanne Demasi.

​“A flawed dietary guideline, which we have obediently and blindly followed for 40 years, is literally killing us.”

So wrote 2020 Australian of the year Dr James Muecke this week in the Canberra Times.

Dr Muecke, an opthamologist who has spent about three decades working to prevent and treat blindness in some of the world’s poorest countries, also compared the number of lives lost to COVID-19 with the number of lives lost to Type 2 diabetes.

“In the first three months of the terrifying COVID-19 crisis, we tragically lost just over 100 Australian lives to this microscopic killer. During the same period, we lost more than 5000 lives to Type 2 diabetes, unnecessarily.”

Courageous intervention

Such bold statements have received little fanfare, despite it being National Diabetes Week. In a surprising show of courage, Dr Muecke also called on the federal government to revise or remove its dietary guidelines.

When a Tasmanian orthopaedic surgeon Dr Gary Fettke made similar observations in 2016 he almost lost his medical licence. It was felt that an orthopaedic specialist did not have the “nutritional expertise” to be giving dietary advice to patients — rather ironic, given Dr Muecke is an ophthalmic specialist.

I recall pointing out the flaws in the Australian Dietary Guidelines on several occasions during my time as a science reporter on the ABC and being met with calls for my sacking.

One can only hope Dr Muecke’s concerns will be met with a more respectful and rational debate because, of course, his observations follow the science.

Dietary evidence is flawed

Overturning dogma takes time but there is increasing awareness, at least among the general public, that the evidence that underpins our nation’s dietary advice is, as Dr Muecke puts it, “flawed”.

A previous investigation exposed these flaws and I have presented this evidence at a lecture held at the University of Sydney. The key is to disconnect healthy eating guidance from the interests of Big Food and Big Pharma.

Vindication: dietitians cut ties with sugar lobby

The importance of the government’s dietary advice, especially for people with diabetes, cannot be understated. These guidelines form the basis of menus in hospital wards, nursing homes and diabetes education programs.

A case in point: the Government’s “Practical Guide to Pre-Diabetes” recommends that people with pre-diabetes, i.e. people already showing signs of high blood sugar, can eat four to six serves of breads/cereals daily and up to two serves of “extras” such as two scoops of ice-cream or doughnuts — advice that is sure to worsen, not improve, blood sugar levels.

Mitigating COVID-19 complications

This week, I published an editorial in the BMJ-Evidence Based Medicine asking whether diet could help mitigate some of the complications of COVID-19 in people with pre-existing conditions such as Type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is a diet-related condition that results in uncontrolled blood sugar levels. The foods that have the most impact on fluctuating blood sugar are cereal, pizza, bread and sugary drinks, which contain refined carbohydrates, starches and simple sugar.

It’s a no-brainer for people with Type 2 diabetes — if you restrict your carb intake, you also limit the need for the medications to control the sugar highs. And it may also help mitigate the complications that arise from COVID-19.

A recent study of people hospitalised with COVID-19 showed that well-controlled blood sugar levels was associated with reduced medical interventions, major organ injuries and death compared to individuals with poorly controlled blood sugar.

Illustration from Zhu-L et al 2020 Cell Metabolism

Illustration from Zhu-L et al 2020 Cell Metabolism

Can we say that the low-carb diet will prevent COVID-19? No, those specific studies have not been done yet, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that by treating underlying conditions like Type 2 diabetes with effective dietary strategies, we can minimise the complications that arise from COVID-19 infections.

Dr Muecke has this week reset the stage for an honest and transparent discussion about the importance of limiting sugary foods, not just for people with diabetes, but for all those who want to maintain good health.


Diabetes, the sugar lobby and Big Pharma

Dr Maryanne Demasi is an investigative medical reporter with a PhD in Rheumatology. She has done a number of important stories for including investigations into the infiltration of the medical profession by processed food companies and the over-prescription of statins.

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