8.3% of the U.S. population are affected by diabetes according to the National Diabetes Fact Sheet 2011. That might not seem like such a big problem until you consider that suffering from diabetes increases your risk of heart disease. Not only that, diabetes is a leading cause of kidney failure, amputations and blindness. As if that’s not enough, it is also the 7th leading cause of death in the U.S. The above mentioned government Fact Sheet states:
Overall, the risk for death among people with diabetes is about twice that of people of similar age but without diabetes.
Diabetes is indeed a serious problem. Fortunately, in many cases the power is in our own hands to prevent it from ever occuring. I want to look at the available evidence that suggests that diet is on one hand our best weapon against ever developing diabetes, and on the other the actual reason why so many people are developing the disease today.
What is Diabetes?
The U.S. National Library of Medicine defines Diabetes as:
a lifelong (chronic) disease in which there are high levels of sugar in the blood.
High blood sugar is caused either by a lack of insulin in the blood or the body becoming insulin resistant. Type 1 Diabetes relates to insufficient insulin production in the pancreas. Type 2 Diabetes is where the body no longer responds correctly to insulin that is in the blood and blood sugar cannot be moved into muscle, fat and liver cells.
As discussed in the introduction, there are a number of reasons why developing diabetes is undesirable. So what can we do about it?
Diabetes Risk Factors
This list contains some of the primary risk factors for developing Type 2 Diabetes.
- Excess body weight (especially around the waist)
- Family history of diabetes
- HDL (good) cholesterol under 35 mg/dL
- High blood triglycerides (> 250 mg/dL)
- High blood pressure (≥ 140/90 mmHg)
- Low level of physical activity
Further reading: Type 2 Diabetes Risk Factors.
Preventing Diabetes Through What We Eat
The vast majority of cases of Diabetes involve Type 2 Diabetes. Diet and lifestyle factors are an effective way to ensure the risk of us developing Type 2 Diabetes are as low as possible. They can be used succesfully to treat pre-diabetes and even to reverse Diabetes. An excellent book on the subject is Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes. On his website, Dr. Neal Barnard states:
When someone has diabetes, insulin (the hormone produced in the pancreas) has a difficult time moving sugar out of the bloodstream and into that person’s cells. That’s because tiny amounts of fat in the person’s cells prevent the insulin from “opening” the cell membrane, or what can essentially be thought of as a lock. Instead, these bits of fat—which build up when a person eats a high-fat diet—clog up the cell and the insulin can’t do its job. With the low-fat vegan diet, however, individuals can essentially alter what goes on in their cells. By eliminating most fat from their diet, that person is basically cleaning up his or her cells, which allows the insulin to move the glucose into the cells where it belongs.
Essentially his research shows that simply by following a diet high in whole plant foods and consuming no animal products, it is possible to reverse cases of Type 2 Diabetes. This type of diet has been shown to be effective in reducing risk factors of other life threatening conditions including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Steps to Reduce the Risk Factors for Diabetes
Looking at the risk factors above, you’ll notice that all but one of them can be controlled by ourselves. In other words, apart from family history, we can reduce all the other factors simply by eating a healthy diet and getting active.
Two steps to reducing the likelihood of developing Type 2 Diabetes:
- Getting active.
- Eating more plants and less animals.
The American Diabetes Association discusses a whole host of options regarding “exercise”. They point out that this doesn’t necessarily mean sports. Gardening and playing with our children (and grand-children) can certainly count as physical activity. The main point is to try and do things we enjoy. Having spent time in hospital myself (although not related to diabetes), I discovered just how important my own health is to me.
Eating more plants and less animals
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have conducted research into the effect of diet on people already suffereing from diabetes. Type 2 Diabetics respond particularly well to adopting a high fiber, whole foods plant based (vegan) diet. In many cases, patients are able to stop taking, or drastically reduce, their medications.
Further reading: PCRM Diet and Diabetes: Recipes for Success report.