Is it possible to reverse diabetes with diet alone? Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has shown that switching to a vegan diet can significantly control type 2 diabetes, and, as an added bonus, people lose weight while eating as much fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains as they want.
While the diet doesn’t cure diabetes, it can reduce blood sugar to levels so low in some people that medicine is no longer needed.
Barnard’s study, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, compared a low-fat vegan diet with the standard diet prescribed by the American Diabetes Association, which allows low-fat meat, fish and dairy products. Neither group was given an exercise plan for the 22-week study because Barnard wanted to compare only the diets.
In type 2 diabetes, the body either does not produce enough insulin or the body’s cells become resistant to it. Because insulin is necessary for the body to be able to use sugar or glucose — the basic fuel for cells in the body — glucose builds up in the blood and starts causing problems.
The cells are starved for the energy they need for normal function, and over time, high blood glucose levels can damage the eyes, kidneys, nerves and heart.
The study found that both diets were effective, but the veggies won.
People on the vegan diet lost more weight and improved their A1C levels — an average of blood glucose levels over a 3-year-period — by an average of 1.23 points, compared with the 0.38 on the ADA diet.
“It may not sound like a lot,” said Barnard, “but it stays sort of constant. The ADA says keep it below 7, and our people on average were 8 and up to 10 [before the diet].”
The results were published in August 2006 in Diabetes Care, the journal of the American Diabetes Association.
“It’s a powerful approach,” said Barnard, who was in South Florida recently to promote his new book, Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes, which incorporates the study findings and provides menus and recipes for people who want to try it.
Dr. Ronald Goldberg, professor of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Diabetes Research Institute, said such diets can work if people can stick to them.
“It’s very difficult,” Goldberg said. “You’re dealing with a group of people who by and large probably are overweight, and over many years developed all the habits that make important changes extremely difficult. We know if you can get weight off, you can make a huge difference, but if you can’t maintain it, all the gains will be lost.”
Barnard said many of the most serious chronic illnesses afflicting millions of Americans are a result of poor diet choices.
“Half the ads on TV are for fast food, and the other half are for medicines to take care of what you’re doing to yourself with that diet,” Barnard said.
Barnard, who has long advocated a diet free of dairy products, eggs, fish and meat of any kind, said the obesity epidemic in this country is fueling a secondary epidemic of type 2 diabetes, which used to be called adult onset diabetes.
But with obesity doubling in children and tripling in teens since the 1980s, type 2 diabetes is no longer considered just an adult problem. In 2005, the most recent year for which statistics are available, about 176,500 people age 20 and younger had been diagnosed with type 2.
That’s a small number compared with about the 20.8 million of all ages who have diabetes, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but indications are the youthful numbers are growing — especially among American Indians, blacks and Hispanics, the CDC said.
A typical day’s menu offerings in Barnard’s book include oatmeal cooked with apples and topped with soy milk for breakfast; black-eyed pea and sweet potato soup, toasted rye bread and a spinach salad for lunch, and for dinner, Lebanese-style lentils and pasta accompanied by steamed broccoli, with an orange-applesauce date cake for dessert.
“People do say `I bet it’s hard’, but test drive it for three weeks. People may fall off the wagon, but just get back on. And as time goes on, people don’t want to slip,” he said. “Tastes change remarkably quickly.” South Florida Sun-Sentinel