Food for thought on Diabetes

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Let’s celebrate the New Year with some ideas about food and health. Specifically, let’s look at diabetes research that sheds new light on the power of food to help, sometimes in surprising ways. Having diabetes in your family does not mean that everyone in the family needs to get it, and having it does not need to mean that complications such as amputations or kidney disease have to follow. And, treatment of diabetes does not have to mean swallowing a big cup of pills or taking shots of insulin. There is hope, and it can be found in the foods on our plates.

Two studies published in 2009 involving a large number of people followed for many years found that reducing the amount of meat we eat can make a big difference. The first found of people who didn’t eat any animal products (meat, poultry, fish, milk and eggs) were 50 percent less likely to develop diabetes, compared with those who ate even small amounts of foods from animals, according to an article in Diabetes Care 2009.

They could eat generous amounts of corn, beans, squash, vegetables, fruits, bread, potatoes – you name it – without developing diabetes. The key was to steer clear of meats, dairy products and eggs. A second study zeroed in just on meat, and analyzed information from 12 studies. These researchers reported that people who ate meat had a 21 percent increased risk of developing diabetes, and for people who ate processed meats, such as lunch meats or hot dogs, the risk jumped to 41 percent according to Diabetologia 2009.

Can a meatless, dairy-free (also called “vegan” or “plant-based”) diet help those who already have diabetes? To test this, a research study divided people into two groups according to Diabetes Care 2006. One group followed the usual diabetes diet recommendations, which meant they could eat almost anything but had to be careful with the amounts of specific foods, and were told to choose lower fat versions of foods from animals, such as low fat or skim milk, and skinless chicken. The other group was told to completely avoid all meats, diary products and eggs, but allowed to eat as much as they wanted from four food groups – whole grains, vegetables, beans and fruits.

After 22 weeks, both groups had lost weight and saw some other improvements, but the second (vegan) group did much better: They lost twice as much weight and their A1c blood tests (which measures blood sugar control) dropped three times as much as those following the usual diet recommendations. And while the researchers were not trying to reduce diabetes medications, 43 percent of those in the plant-based diet group were able to take less.

Why would a diet that does not include any foods from animal make such a difference? One reason is that only foods that come from animals contain cholesterol, and all foods from animals have saturated fat. These fatty substances can cause problems with circulation, weight gain and heart disease, and for those with diabetes, may worsen blood sugar control.

Many people have drawn inspiration from the Tarahumara in northwestern Mexico. Their diet is practically meatless, made up mostly of pinto beans, corn, and vegetables, such as squash. They are free of diabetes, heart disease and obesity, and in fact, are called “the running Indians,” because they are known to travel long distances at a race-like pace. The combination of a plant-based diet and vigorous activity is unbeatable.

Some scientists have blamed genes for the high rate of diabetes among Natives and other groups. But looking at the Tarahumara, as one example, suggests something else is the cause. When researchers convinced eight Tarahuma women and five men to try an Anglo diet, the results came quickly. The average person gained eight pounds in just five weeks, and their cholesterol levels jumped by 30 percent according to N Engl J Med 1991, putting them on the road to developing Type 2 diabetes, had they not gone back to their plant-based ways.

The foods on our plates have the power to hurt, or to heal. In the months ahead, this column will explore the best and worst foods, and help you to make wise choices to beat diabetes. Meals that are made up of whole grains, vegetables, beans and fruits have the power to heal.

Send your questions and comments about diet and diabetes to me at ctrapp@pcrm.org.

Caroline Trapp is a nurse practitioner and diabetes educator who specializes in the care of people with diabetes near Detroit, Mich. She is the director of diabetes education and care of Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.