Under a veneer of health and prosperity, a serious but largely preventable disease looms larger and larger on our horizon -- adult-onset diabetes is on the rise in the US. Despite all our wealth and innovation, ours is among countries with the highest incidence of diabetes in the world. The best antidote may not come in a convenient pill or quick fix, but might simply come down to a commitment to a more wholesome diet and moderate exercise...
Nature's Rx for Diabetes
Diabetes mellitus ("sugar diabetes") is a condition in which the body is unable to properly metabolize glucose, a sugar our cells use for energy. As a result, glucose remains in the bloodstream, causing blood glucose levels to rise. Because the glucose is unable to enter the body's cells they become starved of the energy they need to properly function. Diabetes can lead to poor wound healing, poor circulation, higher risk of infections, and many serious problems including blindness, kidney failure, nerve damage, and heart disease.
Diabetes most often develops as one of two types: juvenile-onset (Type 1), in which the pancreas does not produce sufficient insulin (a hormone needed to process glucose), and adult-onset (Type 2), the most common form, in which the insulin produced by the pancreas cannot be utilized by the body. Because diets rich in fats and refined simple sugars combined with excessive weight greatly increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, dietary and lifestyle considerations are the first (and often only) step to preventing and healing this serious condition.
Diets high in fat, especially saturated fat, worsen glucose tolerance and cause liver stagnation, a condition that imbalances the pancreas, weakening the function of insulin. The worst offenders are the saturated fats, which contribute to heart disease, the number one cause of death for diabetics. These fats are found primarily in meats, dairy fats, and the dark meat and skins of poultry. Denatured oils such as the hydrogenated fats and trans-fatty acids found in margarine and most "junk" foods are also high on the "bad fat" list. While excessive and poor quality fats play a prominent role in the typical diabetes story, judicious amounts of certain high-quality "good oils" can bolster prevention and recovery. Glucose intolerance is improved by including monounsaturated oils, such as olive oil, into the diet. GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) oils found in spirulina, and evening primrose, black currant, and borage seed oils regulate insulin and protect against diabetic heart, eye, and kidney damage. Also, omega-3 fatty acids found primarily in flaxseed oil and certain ocean fish have qualities which increase the effectiveness of insulin.
Eating carbohydrate-rich foods, whether high in sugars or starch, temporarily raises blood sugar and insulin levels in the bloodstream. The degree of this effect is referred to as a food's "glycemic index," which indicates how rapidly its carbohydrate is absorbed. The refined "white" flours, rice, and sugars found in most processed foods and in average American kitchens have the highest glycemic indices. Chromium, zinc, and manganese, minerals that regulate blood sugar levels, are all removed from these foods during the refining process. Eating a diet high in quality complex carbohydrates is associated with a reduced risk of diabetes. Beans, peas, fruits, unrefined grains such as brown rice and oats, whole-grain breads, and limited amounts of unrefined sweetners such as sucanat, maple syrup, fruit juices, honey, brown rice syrup, and molasses are examples of carbohydrate foods with low glycemic indices due to their increased nutrient and fiber contents. General recommendations also include eating more frequent but smaller meals and focusing on better chewing. Carbohydrate digestion begins primarily in the mouth where our saliva works to break them down, allowing their nutrients to be more efficiently absorbed. Better chewing means more nutrients from our food and slower eating, both of which help us to avoid overindulgence.
A high-fiber diet (providing 50 grams of fiber per day) has been shown to improve diabetes by significantly lowering glucose and insulin levels, indicating a beneficial increase in the body's sensitivity to insulin. Moreover, high-fiber diets also reduce total cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Increasing dietary fiber can be accomplished by eating foods naturally high in fiber such as whole grains and whole grain products, beans and peas, vegetables (especially leafy green ones), seeds, and fruit. Animal products contain essentially no edible fiber. Natural high-fiber supplements, including psyllium, guar gum, fruit pectin, and wheat and oat brans can also be added to the diet to improve glucose tolerance.
Exercise and weight loss
The majority of people with Type 2 diabetes are to some degree overweight. While excess abdominal weight does not stop insulin formation, it does, however, increase the need for insulin while making the body less sensitive to it, thereby increasing the risk and severity of diabetes. Exercise and weight loss reduces this risk. Increased weight gain in infancy has also been associated with a 1 ½ fold increase in the risk of developing Type 1 diabetes in childhood. Though exercise specifically improves insulin sensitivity, intensive training can also induce low blood sugar or even occasionally increased blood sugar. It is therefore advised that diabetics or those with pre-diabetic symptoms work moderate but regular physical activity into their daily lives.
copyright © February 2003