Prof Spiegelman Looks at Improving Diabetes Globally Through Her Academic Research

Prof Spiegelman Looks at Improving Diabetes Globally Through Her Academic Research


The Executive Dean from the Faculty of Applied Sciences, Professor Suren Singh, in association with the Department of Food and Nutrition, hosted esteemed, international guest lecturer, Professor Donna Spiegelman, at the Steve Biko Campus.

Prof Spiegelman delivered her lecture titled: The Global Nutrition Transition Initiative (GNET). It is a collaborative initiative launched by researchers from the Departments of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. The mission of the GNET initiative is for the prevention of the global diabetes epidemic by means of improving the carbohydrate quality of staple foods in the diets of people around the world.

In her presentation to the DUT staff and students who were present at the lecture, Prof Spiegelman, spoke of diabetes being a disease that occurs when one’s blood sugar is too high and which is most prevalent in the USA, India and China.

“Diabetes has reached epidemic proportions in many countries around the world, including many low and middle-income countries, as global free trade continues to fuel rapid economic and nutrition transitions. Traditional staple foods, once rich in whole grains and dietary fiber, have been replaced by highly refined carbohydrates such as polished white rice. This nutrition “transition” has resulted in a major reduction in the overall quality of carbohydrates in the diet,” she said.

She further stated that research has shown that consumption of high-quality carbohydrates, such as whole grains, can reduce the risk of developing diabetes by improving blood glucose and insulin levels.

“Adopting a diet that is rich in whole grains could be a cost-effective, feasible, and sustainable approach to diabetes prevention, particularly in low- and middle-income countries which must simultaneously manage infectious disease and malnutrition,” added Prof Spiegelman.

In addition, she highlighted that the pilot projects are ongoing in a number of countries such as Nepal, to not only assess the effect of substituting whole grain alternatives for refined carbohydrate staples on intermediate markers of diabetes risk but to also assess the cultural acceptability and feasibility of these interventions in local communities.

“For many countries, the main staple foods in the diet are carbohydrates such as rice, corn and wheat. These three crops provide 60% of the world’s food energy intake-largely in the form of refined grains. In Chennai, India, nearly half of daily energy intakes come from refined grains such as rice constituting 75% of the refined intake. In China, white rice alone accounts for 30% of daily calories,” she said.

Prof Spiegelman looked at the components of the lifestyle intervention at the individual and worksite environmental levels. She said that her research looked at worksites where employees spend most of their waking hours at work, where access to adult population is easier and following-up can occur by means of facilitating healthy choices and health education on what is the right food that should be eaten at the workplace.

“Global research efforts to identify and promote intake of culturally-acceptable high-quality staple foods could be crucial in preventing diabetes. These efforts may be valuable in shaping future research, community interventions, and public health and nutritional policies. The team plans to use results from the pilot studies to design larger studies that can test whether whole grain dietary modifications can have a long-lasting, measurable impact,” she said.

Prof Spiegelman is one of the few people in the world with a joint doctorate in Biostatistics and Epidemiology, and the first biostatistician to receive the prestigious N I H Director’s Pioneer Award, a $5,000,000 five -year award given to “individual scientists of exceptional creativity, who propose pioneering, and possibly

transforming, approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioural research”. The Pioneer award has made it possible for her to develop and support GN ET projects, aimed at the identification of optimal means for translating findings of epidemiologic research to public health practice, thus far in Nepal and Mexico.

Pictured: Dr Ashika Naicker, Professor Donna Spiegelman, Professor Suren Singh and Susan Inge Vermeer, at the lecture.

Waheeda Peters

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