The following guidelines are adapted from Diabetes: Prevention and Cure by C. Leigh Broadhurst, PhD. I’ve modernized them slightly, but the essence of her recommendations are hard to improve upon.
November is American Diabetes Month. Visit the American Diabetes Association at diabetes.org to find out how you can help raise money for diabetes research, federal and state advocacy, and public education.
It’s almost impossible to talk about diabetes these days without also mentioning its constant companion: obesity. In fact, the two have become so linked that health practitioners have come up with their own nickname for the pair, a kind of medical version of “Brangelina”—they call it diabesity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity is a major factor in the increase in diabetes. Between 1997 and 2003, there was a 41 percent increase in the incidence of diagnosed diabetes. Unquestionably, obesity is part of the reason. In 2003, only 2 of 1,000 normal-weight people had diabetes, but 18.3 of every 1,000 obese people had it. Even being overweight increases risk—5.5 out of every 1,000 overweight people have the disease as well, almost three times as many as those of normal weight.
If current trends continue, one in three Americans will develop diabetes. And in case you’re wondering, those with diabetes lose an average of 10 to 15 years of life. Diabetes is the leading cause of new cases of blindness among adults, not to mention kidney failure and nontraumatic lower-extremity amputations. And as of 2006, diabetes was the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States—the risk of death for a person with diabetes is about twice that of a person without the disease.
But here’s the thing: type 2 diabetes, which is what we’re mainly talking about here, is virtually 100 percent preventable. It’s also treatable. And interestingly, the same things that benefit those with diabetes benefit those who are overweight and obese.
To understand why dietary changes can have such a profound impact on diabetes, it helps to understand just what happens in the body when a person with a “normal” metabolism eats food. Food is broken down in the digestive system to smaller units that the body can do something with; carbs break down to glucose (sugar), protein breaks down to amino acids, and fat breaks down to fatty acids. The glucose (from the carbs) gets into the bloodstream, raising your blood sugar. In response, the pancreas secretes a hormone called insulin, which helps escort that extra sugar out of the bloodstream and into the cells where it can be used for energy. That’s when everything is going right. But there’s very little that’s right about the typical American diet.
We eat far too much sugar, far too many carbs (which, as we’ve seen, turn into sugar), and far too many calories. Couple this with the fact that our sedentary lifestyles create very little demand among the muscle cells for fuel (sugar). Not only does exercise help burn calories, it also helps pump glucose into muscles without insulin. The result? Many of us have much more sugar floating around our bloodstream than we can possibly use. The pancreas tries desperately to keep up with the increased demand for insulin, which is needed to bring blood sugar levels back to normal. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The pancreas might manage to secrete enough insulin to keep blood sugar from being in the diabetic range, but the cost is a high level of insulin, which keeps fat from being burned (it also raises blood pressure). Your blood sugar may stay just under the cutoff for a diabetes diagnosis, but your high levels of insulin (and the inevitable inability of the cells to use insulin) classify you as prediabetic.
In some cases, even that extra insulin that the pancreas labored to produce can’t manage to get blood sugar down into the relatively safe (or nondiabetic) range. At this point, with elevated insulin and elevated blood sugar, you’ve got full-blown type 2 diabetes.
Once you understand this, the importance of diet and exercise become very clear. Your diet needs to be one that doesn’t send your blood sugar through the roof. And exercise creates a natural demand from the muscle cells for sugar, therefore helping to reduce blood sugar naturally.
In my opinion, the absolute best strategy for treating (and preventing) diabetes is a controlled carbohydrate diet. Why? Because of the three “macronutrients” in every diet—protein, carbs, and fats—the one that raises blood sugar the most is carbohydrates. Protein raises blood sugar and insulin a bit, but not nearly as much as carbs do. And fat doesn’t raise them at all. That’s why a low-fat, high-carb diet is precisely the wrong way to go when you’re dealing with diabetes. Reducing carbohydrate intake (especially from sugars and starches) virtually always normalizes insulin metabolism and helps bring blood glucose (sugar) under control.
Diabetes is one of those conditions where you actually can take control of your own health. Do it now.
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