I don’t believe in time travel, of course, so when somebody sent me the following article that was supposed to be a chapter from a Study of the History of Diabetes published in 2018, I didn’t think about it much. Then I read an article about a woman who had been charged with neglect in the death of her son from complications due to diabetes. It seems she “was trying to live by faith and felt like God would heal him.”
For some reason, that made me think of the Future History, so here is a chapter from the History.
Chapter IV. ACCORD to The Court
We have seen how, early in the history of medicine, diabetes was recognized as a disease of carbohydrate intolerance and how, until the discovery of insulin, removing carbohydrate from the diet became the major treatment (Chapters I and II). We chronicled the shift away from this medical practice under the influence of low fat recommendations and the ascendancy of pharmacology that followed the discovery of insulin. Nonetheless, it persisted in the popular mind that you don’t give candy to people with diabetes, even as health agencies seemed to encourage sucrose (sugar) consumption.
The rather sudden reappearance of carbohydrate restriction, the so-called modern era in diabetes treatment, is usually dated to 2008, the precipitating event, publication of the ACCORD study in which a group undergoing “intensive treatment” to lower blood glucose showed unexpected deaths . ACCORD concluded that “These findings identify a previously unrecognized harm of intensive glucose lowering in high-risk patients with type 2 diabetes.” The intensive treatment turned out to be intensive pharmacologic therapy and this flawed logic lead to a popular uprising of sorts, a growing number of patients claiming that they had been hurt by intensive drug treatment and typically that they had only been able to get control of their diabetes by adherence to low carbohydrate diets. Blogs compared the ACCORD conclusion to an idea that alleviating headaches with intensive aspirin led to bleeding and we should therefore not treat headaches.
The conflict culminated in the large judgment for the plaintiff in Banting v. American Diabetes Association (ADA) in 2017, affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2018. Dalton Banting, coincidentally a distant relative of the discoverer of insulin, was an adolescent with diabetes who took prescribed medications and followed a diet consistent with ADA recommendations. He experienced worsening of his symptoms and ultimately had a foot amputated. At this point his parents found a physician who recommended a low carbohydrate diet which led to rapid and sustained improvement. The parents claimed their son should have been offered carbohydrate-restriction as an option. The case was unusual in that Banting had a mild obsessive-compulsive condition, expressed as a tendency to follow exactly any instructions from his parents or other authority figures. Banting’s lawyers insisted that, as a consequence, one could rely on his having complied with the ADA’s recommendations. Disputed by the defense, this was one of several issues that made Banting famous for vituperative courtroom interactions between academics.
Banting was a person with type 2 diabetes. Unlike people with type 1 diabetes, he was able to produce insulin in response to dietary (or systemic) glucose but his pancreas was progressively dysfunctional and his body did not respond normally, that is, he was insulin-resistant. Although most people with type 2 diabetes are at least slightly overweight, Banting was not, although he began gaining weight when treated with insulin.
The phrase “covered with insulin…” rocked the court: the president of the ADA, H. Himsworth, Jr., was asked to read from the 2008 guidelines , never rescinded: “Sucrose-containing foods can be substituted for other carbohydrates in the meal plan or, if added to the meal plan, covered with insulin or other glucose lowering medications.”
Jaggers (attorney for Banting): “Are there other diseases where patients are counseled to make things worse so that they can take more drugs.”
Himsworth: “We only say ‘can be.’ We don’t necessarily recommend it. We do say that ‘Care should be taken to avoid excess energy intake.’”
It soon became apparent that Himsworth was in trouble. He was asked to read from the passage explaining the ADA’s opposition to low carbohydrate diets:
“Low-carbohydrate diets might seem to be a logical approach to lowering postprandial glucose. However, foods that contain carbohydrate are important sources of energy, fiber, vitamins, and minerals and are important in dietary palatability.”
Jaggers: “Important sources of energy? I thought we wanted to avoid excess energy,” and “would you say that taking a vitamin pill is in the same category as injecting insulin?”
Jaggers: “Dr. Himsworth, as an expert on palatability, could you explain the difference between Bordelaise sauce and Béarnaise sauce?” [laughter]
Damaging as this testimony was, the tipping point in the trial is generally considered to have been the glucometer demonstration. Banting consumed a meal typical of that recommended by the ADA and glucometer readings were projected on a screen for the jury, showing, on this day, so-called “spikes” in blood glucose. The following day, Banting consumed a low carbohydrate meal and the improved glucometer readings were again projected for the jury. Defense argued that one meal did not prove anything and that one had to look at the whole history of the lifestyle intervention but was unable to show any evidence of harm from continued maintenance of low blood sugar despite testimony of several expert witnesses. In the end, the jury agreed that common sense overrides expert testimony and that Banting should have been offered the choice of a carbohydrate-restricted diet.
Banting was held in New York State which adheres to the Frye standard: in essence, the idea that scientific evidence is determined by “general acceptance.” The explicit inclusion of common sense was, in fact, a legal precedent . The Supreme Court ultimately concurred and held that the more comprehensive standards derived from Daubert v. Merrill-Dow, could sensibly be seen to encompass common sense.
The final decision in Banting lead to numerous law suits. The ADA and other agencies changed their tactics claiming that they never were opposed to low carbohydrate diets and, in fact, had been recommending them all along . This is discussed in the next chapter.
1. Gerstein, H. C. et al., Effects of intensive glucose lowering in type 2 diabetes. N Engl J Med 358 (24), 2545 (2008).
2. American Diabetes Association, Nutrition Recommendations and Interventions for Diabetes–2008. Diabetes Care 31 (Suppl 1), S61 (2008).
3. Berger, M, Expert Testimony: The Supreme Court’s Rules Issues in Science and Technology (2000).
4. American Diabetes Association, Nutrition Recommendations and Interventions for Diabetes–2018. Diabetes Care 40 (Suppl 1), S12 (2018).