A Popsicle and soda for breakfast. Dry ramen noodles sprinkled with Kool-Aid powder and monosodium glutamate for a snack.
These are some of the foods ingested by people of the Marshall Islands, said Brenda Davis, a registered dietician.
"You couldn't design a diet to induce diabetes any better," she said during a March 1 lecture at the Cameron Center.
‘Only profound lifestyle changes can reverse lifestyle-induced diseases. The medical system is so busy bailing the boat, it keeps forgetting to plug up the hole.’
— Brenda Davis, registered dietitian and author
Davis had just returned from the Marshall Islands, where she is the lead dietitian for a diabetes intervention project.
"The Marshall Islands is in a state of emergency for diabetes," she said. "They have the highest rate in the world."
Davis said it is estimated that 50 percent of Marshallese people 35 years and older have Type 2 diabetes and 90 percent either have Type 2 diabetes or are pre-diabetic.
Half of all surgeries are amputations due to complications related to the disease.
"The Marshallese people will wipe themselves out if they continue this diet," she told the crowd.
Davis was on Maui to speak at the monthly Vegetarian Society of Hawaii lecture series. She is the co-author of nine books about vegetarian and vegan nutrition. In addition to telling of her experiences and work in the Marshall Islands, Davis talked about new information published over the past few years showing links between diet and disease, and the impact of plant-based diets on longevity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The Seventh-Day Adventist's Canvasback Missions Inc., working with a research grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, asked for Davis' assistance in setting up a program based on her book "Defeating Diabetes."
The sort of health crisis happening in the Marshall Islands was unheard-of 70 to 80 years ago, said Davis.
"People were slim and lived to be 90 to 100 years old," she said.
Before the arrival of western influence, the populace subsisted on a plant-based diet that included coconuts, bananas and whatever fish they could catch.
"People had to work hard to get their food," she said. "They still have the notion that if you have a full belly you're fine."
In reality, the people may have a full belly, but they're eating damaging foods.
"Everything is refined," said Davis. She said a typical celebratory meal consists of sticky white rice, Spam, chicken and a white soda biscuit. All of this is washed down with syrup-based drinks.
"It's absolute garbage," she said, noting that most of the meat consumed is high-fat animal parts such as turkey tails.
Davis, with the help of her family and others, has been administering an aggressive dietary treatment program.
"We're trying to get everyone onboard," she said. Difficulties arise because the Marshallese culture of shared food is common and it is hard for the people to say no to the wrong choices.
"They're a very family oriented and fun-loving people," she said.
Davis said all she has to offer is education, which is "just a small piece of the puzzle."
Her main goal with the program is to reduce oxidation and inflammation damage from diabetes.
"Diabetes really is a disease about your body being a metabolic mess," she said. "It truly is a house on fire, and what you eat can't be gasoline."
Her program consists of a high-fiber, plant-based diet. Participants have experienced the following results:
"In the first two weeks, the pain disappears in everybody, consistently," said Davis. "They can sleep through the night and are no longer constipated."
Before beginning the program, average participants usually consume five grams of fiber a day, if they're lucky, and usually defecate once or twice a week, she said.
"They are Pioneers of the Pacific, providing hope to overcome mountains of Spam, ramen noodles and white rice . . . Could this work at home? With the barriers there (in the Marshall Islands), there has to be hope at home," she said.
"The good news is that one diet cuts across all disease categories to provide optimal protection," said Davis, referencing the plant-based diet she espouses.
"It is estimated that 90 percent of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and 70 percent of cancer are considered entirely preventable," she said.
The World Health Organization's top health culprits are unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol and tobacco, Davis said.
"The Standard American Diet is a main culprit in North America and developed countries,"said Davis. "Genes are responsible for 5 to 10 percent of the risks.
"Plant-based diets are more powerful than the most powerful medications for treating and reversing cardiovascular disease."
Davis pointed out that the World Cancer Research Fund - American Institute for Cancer Research found that 14 ounces of vegetables a day, along with unprocessed grains and legumes, consistently reduce risks of cancer.
She said Walter Willet, chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard University, was asked, "How much red meat is OK?"
His response: "Like almost everything else, it's frequency and amount that influence our risk. There's no sharp cutoff. It's like radiation. We can't say there's a safe amount."
Another study she referenced, conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, indicated that vegan diets, or near-vegan diets, are more beneficial than the American Diabetes Association diet in treating diabetes.
"Only profound lifestyle changes can reverse lifestyle-induced diseases," said Davis. "The medical system is so busy bailing the boat, it keeps forgetting to plug up the hole.
"It's time to ask for a call to action. Consumers must demand it. Make your voices heard," she said.
Davis' lecture was recorded during her appearance on Oahu and may be viewed at vsh.org.
* Rich Van Scoy can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org