As a child, more than four decades ago, I once heard older relatives talking about their health troubles related to diabetes, which they often simply called “sugar.” This sounded more to me like a tasty treat than a disease. I soon learned that diabetes could have dreadful health consequences, often resulting in much suffering and early death. Sadly, more than 20 million Americans have diabetes, which is a nutritionally related disease that is preventable, reversible, and often curable (in cases of Type 2) by dietary changes.1

Type 1 vs. Type 2

Diabetes mellitus is a group of metabolic diseases that result in a person having abnormally high blood sugar, either because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or cells do not respond to the insulin produced. Nearly all cases of diabetes mellitus are either Type 1 or Type 2. Type 1, which accounts for about 5 to 10% of diabetes cases, typically develops in early childhood and adolescence and is sometimes called juvenile diabetes. Type 2 accounts for about 90 to 95% of diabetes cases and used to be referred to as adult-onset diabetes, but now up to 45% of new cases are actually in children.2-3

 

A Physiological System Gone Haywire

After we eat, the carbohydrates in food are broken down into simple sugars that enter the bloodstream. In response, the pancreas normally produces insulin, which helps the glucose enter cells for both short and long-term energy. However, in diabetes, this process breaks down. Type 1 diabetics cannot make enough insulin since certain cells in the pancreas have been destroyed, whereas Type 2 diabetics do produce insulin, but it is not effective. Both types lead to dangerously high levels of blood sugar, which has detrimental health consequences, both short and long-term. Complications of diabetes include increased risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, blindness, kidney disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and limb amputations. More than 80% of adults who have diabetes die from heart attacks or strokes.1

Genes and Destiny

Doctors and nurses recognize the importance of recording detailed family histories from patients, and diabetes in a family is always considered noteworthy. Unfortunately, in my experience, too many patients leave their doctors’ offices believing that a strong family history of a certain disease, such as diabetes, is essentially a crystal ball sealing their fates.

As mentioned in my last column, I strongly believe that Type 2 diabetes (and most other common chronic diseases that impact Americans) has more to do with families eating the same fatty, salty, sugary, high calorie, processed, animal-based, low-nutrient foods and sharing the same couch than having the same DNA.

 

Research Support for Plant-Based Diet

The results of many research studies strongly suggest that the clinical course of both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes can be dramatically improved simply by making dietary changes. For example, Dr. James Anderson studied the effects of 25 Type 1 diabetics and 25 Type 2 diabetics in a hospital setting, all of whom were taking insulin. His experimental “veggie” diet consisted of mostly whole-plant foods. After only 3 weeks, the Type 1 diabetic patients were able to lower their insulin medication by an average of 40%. Their blood sugars improved greatly and their cholesterol levels decreased by 30%. For the Type 2 diabetics in his study, all but one were able to discontinue their insulin medication after only a few weeks.4

It is also worth noting that in the early 20th century, H.P. Himsworth compiled research comparing diets and diabetes rates in six countries. He found that some countries were eating diets high in fat and animal-based foods while other countries had diets high in plant-based foods that were low in fat. Diabetes related death rates dropped from 20.4 to 2.9 per 100,000 people, as plant-based carbohydrate (low-fat) intake increased and animal-based (high-fat) intake decreased.5

On a Personal Note

I was obese and pre-diabetic until only a few years ago. Now, I am now cured of prediabetes and no longer obese, simply because of significant dietary and lifestyle changes. Fortunately, my doctor suggested diet and lifestyle to me as a cure rather than a lifetime reliance on prescription medications, which may delay the onset of diabetes-related complications and death, but will not prevent, reverse, or cure diabetes. As health professionals, we are most effective when we are able to address root-cause in order to prevent, reverse, or cure any disease for our patients—and for ourselves.

Also, remember that overcoming obesity is essential for beating diabetes. Losing weight by adopting a plant-based, whole-food, healthful diet and lifestyle, including regular exercise, is the best diabetes “medicine” and offers many other health benefits, as well. As we health professionals personally begin to embrace healthier lifestyles, we can often cure ourselves and will be in a much better position to advise our patients, families, and friends, so we can all be

… healed and free at last!

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References

  1. American Diabetes Association: Diabetes Statistics. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/diabetes-statistics. Accessed January 14, 2013.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National diabetes fact sheet: general information and national estimates on diabetes in the United States, 2007. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008.
  3. 3.      American Diabetes Association. Type 2 diabetes in children and adolescents. Diabetes Care. 2000;23(3):381-389.
  4. Anderson JW. Dietary fiber in nutrition management of diabetes. In: Vahouny GV, Kritchevsky D, eds. Dietary Fiber: Basic and Clinical Aspects. New York, NY: Plenum Press; 1986:343-360.
  5. Himsworth HP. Diet and the incidence of diabetes mellitus. Clin. Sci. 1935;2:117-148.

Suggested Media

Books

  • Eat to Live, by Joel Furhman, MD
  • The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell, PhD, and Thomas M. Campbell II

Films

  • Forks Over Knives (www.forksoverknives.com)
  • Hungry for Change (www.hungryforchange.tv)
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