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Thanks for your question! It is an important one because the belief, ‘that diabetics need more protein and fat and less carbohydrates,’ goes against the majority of the last 60 years of nutritional science. In short, it is a myth.

The more you move towards a plant-based diet, the less likely you are to develop diabetes

Diet and the Risk for Developing Diabetes

Let’s take a look at a study evaluating diet and the risk for developing diabetes. In a 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers evaluated the eating patterns of 89,224 people in the US. They ranged from meat eaters to vegans (no meat, no eggs, no dairy). The researchers found that the more people moved towards a plant-based diet, the less diabetes risk they had. Compared to regular meat eaters, semi-vegetarians cut their risk of developing diabetes by 28%. Those who cut out all meat, except fish, can reduce their risk by half (51%). Subjects who stop eating all meat, including fish, dropped their rate by 61%. Participants who became vegan, eliminating eggs and dairy, dropped their rates of diabetes by 78%. In other words, if you are a regular meat eater your risk of developing diabetes is 4 times (400%) that of a vegan.

A number of studies have surveyed a diversity of diets across many cultures with similar results. Plant-based diets appear to be at least twice as protective against developing diabetes. The more you move towards a plant-based diet, the less likely you are to develop diabetes.

The Younger You Start the Better

This may be even more critical in younger people. A 2014 study published in Cell Metabolism of 6,381 people between the ages of 50 and 65 found that those who eat the highest amount of animal protein had a 500% increased chance for developing diabetes. In addition, they showed a shocking 400% increase in cancer and a 75% increase in total mortality. An important note: animal protein did not have the same health damaging effects in older people, and they also better tolerate higher protein levels.

What About Fats? 

You may find this surprising, but fats, in particular saturated fats, increase insulin levels. If you are diabetic or pre-diabetic that is not good. Further, the proportion of saturated fats in your diet and blood is associated with an increased likelihood of developing diabetes. If a person were to decrease their in-take of saturated fatty acids as a percentage of total energy from 14% to 8%, they would see an 18% decrease in fasting insulin and a 25% decrease in postprandial insulin. For diabetics decreasing insulin is a good thing!

What About Carbs?  

Carbs are often considered the bad guy in the diabetic scene. What makes them so bad? Carbs come in two varieties: sugars (that digest quickly and often have a low fiber content) and complex carbs or starches (that digest slower and often have a higher fiber content). It turns out that a high complex carb and high fiber diet decreases the need for insulin in people with diabetes.

In one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a group of men with diabetes and on insulin were fed a control diet similar to the standard American diet. They were then put on a high-carbohydrate, high-fiber diet (the kind of diet most people with diabetes are told not to eat). The results were surprising for anyone who thought complex carbs were the bad guy. The average use of insulin dropped 57% and doctors discontinued it in half of the participants. In addition, serum cholesterol dropped almost 60mg/dl, from 206 to 147.  In fact, half the participants following a high carb and high fiber diet stopped needing insulin all together.

While we have many opinions about what’s best to eat, and the studies can be conflicting, the evidence is in favor of a plant-based diet for those with diabetes and many other chronic conditions. Even just adding more plants to your diet and becoming ‘semi-vegetarian’ has its benefits.

What About the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program?

In our own studies of diabetics who have adopted the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program at 24 clinical sites, we’ve found that participants Hemoglobin AIC dropped below 7.0 and stayed there on a follow-up visit a year later.  This was the case even when our participants dramatically reduced their diabetes medications. We continue to see a decrease in our participants weight, medication usage and blood sugar. Many decrease their insulin in a few weeks and many come off their insulin in a matter of a few months. I even had some dramatic cases of peoples’ insulin needs dropping by 80% in 4 days.

Ornish Lifestyle Medicine is more than a diet; it is a lifestyle. This lifestyle prescribes a plant-based diet that is naturally low in fat, and includes exercise, stress management and group support  to maximize the many benefits of healthy living. Even a little movement in this direction can lower your blood sugar and help to prevent diabetes.

Contributed by

Ben Brown, MD
Medical Director, Ornish Lifestyle Medicine

To your best health!

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