Dr. Neal Barnard, a professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, is a leading proponent of a vegan diet for diabetes. On PCRM’s Web site, you can see many “success stories” of people who have regained normal glucose numbers on a vegan diet. One former police officer reports, “My [HbA1c level] dropped from over 9% to 5.3%, my cholesterol dropped from 221 to 148 points, and I have lost 74 pounds” over a six-year period.
In a Czech study published in 2011, 74 people with Type 2 diabetes were randomly assigned to either a vegetarian or a conventional diabetes diet. Both diets had the same low number of calories. Over 24 weeks, 43% of people in the vegetarian group were able to reduce their diabetes medicines, compared with only 5% in the conventional group. The vegetarian group lost more weight and had much better insulin sensitivity.
You might notice that a vegan diet is about as far as you can get from a typical low-carb diet, which is often heavy in animal products. How could they both be effective against diabetes? The connection may be that both diets, when done right, are low in refined grains and sugars. Many vegans eat a lot of carbs, but in a diabetes diet they tend to come from vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts, not breads and sugars.
Traditional native diets
No group in the world has been hit harder by Type 2 diabetes than Native Americans and Pacific Islanders. To improve their health, some have gone back to their traditional diets. Although no major studies have been published on this topic, many people who take this approach seem to improve their health, including their diabetes.
The Waianae Diet Program is a community-based approach that uses a traditional Hawaiian diet to reduce chronic disease in Native Hawaiians. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that people on a native diet (low in fat, high in complex carbohydrate) lost significant weight and reduced their cholesterol and blood pressure, even though they were encouraged to eat as much as they wanted. The study did not examine glucose levels, but in other studies, blood glucose often corresponds to improvements in these other measurements.
According to Native American leader Liz Gray, “Before the 1930’s and 1940’s, diabetes was not a plague on the Native American population…The biggest problem is the federal food program. Those foods are totally stripped of nutrients, and that’s all that the tribes on the reservations have.”
Some Native Americans are replacing government food with traditional foods. In an article called “Native American Traditions Return to Heal Diabetes,” New American Media reports on Wisconsin tribes that are replacing packaged food with food “harvested from the land, such as maple syrup, venison, perch, and wild rice. In the woods, there’s wild turkey, partridge, bear, and rabbit. Local waters have plenty of walleye, pan fish, trout, and other fish. And the reservation thrives with wintergreen, leeks, apples, juneberries, and other plants to harvest.” One Native American, Bob Wilmer, said that his cholesterol and glucose numbers are great because of both the food and the physical activity involved in obtaining it. He says more and more people are “trying to fight the epidemic of Type 2 diabetes in Indian Country through a return to traditional foods, exercise, and public health education.” These programs are taking off in tribes throughout the United States, Canada, and the Pacific Islands.
Bariatric (“weight-loss”) surgery such as gastric bypass and gastric banding frequently puts Type 2 diabetes into remission. This means that the signs of diabetes disappear — often within days, before any significant weight is lost. This phenomenon was completely unexpected when it was first discovered a few years ago and has led to a surge in the number of surgeries performed.