Chronically high blood sugar levels lead to serious consequences, including kidney failure, nerve damage, difficulty healing and eye problems. Both types of diabetes result in a slow and painful death that can include dialysis, amputation and permanent blindness.
If you surf around the internet, you will find some websites giving pretty good advice on how to manage and even avoid diabetes. Besthealthyguide.com advises readers to eliminate processed and refined foods from the diet, such as flours, sugar and trans fat, and to limit consumption of grains and high-carb foods as a way of keeping blood sugar levels stable. The website notes that you can reduce your dose of drugs like metformin on this kind of diet.
Health.com warns that people with diabetes should avoid sugary drinks as much as possible. “People with diabetes should absolutely avoid sugar-sweetened beverages including soda, sports drinks, sweetened teas, and juice, unless these are using these beverages to treat a low blood sugar. . . . Carbohydrates in liquid form spike blood sugars very quickly—they are great for treating a low blood sugar, but if someone’s blood sugar is normal or high, they will send their blood sugar to the next level.”
A UK diabetes website reports on the promising work of Hungarian scientist Csaba Tóth. Using what he calls a “paleo keto” diet, one very high in animal fat, he reports good success in restoring normal blood glucose levels. In one case study, a nine-year-old boy with type 1 diabetes adopted a diet of meat, organ meats, fat and eggs and went two years without insulin. His blood glucose levels were significantly lower during the paleo keto diet compared to six weeks of insulin therapy, and the episodes of hypoglycemia he experienced on insulin therapy ceased. Toth’s research has indicated that children with new-onset type 1 diabetes who adopt a paleo keto diet can go for several months, even years, before needing insulin injections. As for adults with long-standing type 1 diabetes, the Hungarian scientist believes that the diet could yield health benefits, such as less dependency on medication and a reduced risk of complications. “We don’t know of any cases where a patient didn’t have positive results with this diet,” says Tóth, who insists that people with type 2 diabetes can also benefit because the diet normalizes blood glucose levels by combatting insulin resistance.
This kind of good advice has the pharmaceutical industry worried; they can’t have folks solving their blood sugar problems with diet instead of drugs! Damage control recently appeared in the form of an article in the January 5 Washington Post by Heather Ferris, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia.
Harris provides the standard conventional explanation that “type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that causes a person’s body to attack its pancreas. . . The only way to treat it is with insulin injections or an insulin pump.” I’ve often said that the medical profession tends to blame illness on the Three G’s—germs, genes and God—and Ferris is no exception. Diet does not enter the discussion as a cause of type 1 diabetes. Instead, says Harris, “Genes are an important risk factor, yet environmental influences, such as a viral or bacterial infection, probably also play a role.” In fact, Harris is insistent that eating sugar does not cause diabetes. Is it not possible that eating a lot of sugar taxes the pancreas to produce insulin meal after meal until it becomes exhausted? Is it not possible that a diet high in sugar will be so low in important nutrients that the pancreas does not have what it needs to produce insulin? Not at all! According to Harris, “. . . as an autoimmune disorder type 1 diabetes develops as a result of genetic risk,” not by eating a diet high in sugar. In other words, diabetes is not your fault, it is God’s will.
And what about nutrient deficiencies? What does the pancreas need to be healthy and to produce insulin? I am reminded of a 2003 study which found that use of cod liver oil in the first year of life was associated with a significantly lower risk of type 1 diabetes. [Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Dec;78(6):1128-34]. The inference is that vitamins A and D are involved in insulin production—which makes sense since these vitamins are involved in all hormone production. (By the way, this study indicated that giving vitamin D alone does not lower the risk of type 1 diabetes.) Another diabetes.co.uk post suggests that vitamins B12 and B6, as well as zinc and a host of other minerals, all support insulin production—in other words, a nutrient-dense diet can prevent type 1 diabetes. Sugar, of course, contains no nutrients, so any consumption of sugar will displace foods that supply the nutrients we need (in addition to spiking blood sugar levels).
But Harris insists that you can only treat type 1 diabetes with insulin. “There are endless dubious stories about people with type 1 diabetes who manage, through some dietary trick, to avoid the need for insulin.” She cites Dr. Toth’s nine-year-old patient and the actress Halle Berry, who was able to wean herself off insulin with a healthy diet. These good results never last, says Harris. “The patients have just reduced the burden placed on their weakened pancreas,” which apparently she does not think is a good thing. “Inevitably they will end up back on insulin as their immune system continues to attack the pancreas.”
In discussing type 2 diabetes, Harris seems confused. In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas produces insulin, but the body can’t get blood sugar into the cells because the receptors don’t work. Yet Harris seems to think that people get type 2 diabetes when their pancreases “can’t produce large amounts of insulin on demand.” She also blames overweight and inactivity, but perhaps these are the side effects of type 2 diabetes, not the cause. We know that trans fats block insulin receptor function, and it’s a safe bet that other dietary toxins do the same thing. Again, research indicates that a variety of nutrients play a role in improving insulin receptor function. Zinc, magnesium and vitamin D all seem to be involved in insulin receptor support, as well as avoiding too many carbs. Healthy saturated fats (butter, meat fats, lard, coconut oil) also support insulin receptor function.
Healthy traditional fats not only help our insulin receptors to work, they also slow down the release of sugars into the bloodstream. Common sense would indicate that diabetics should eat a diet high in fats while avoiding sugars. . . . but not according to Harris. Fat, she insists, “is what really makes blood sugars hard to control for many people with diabetes. In my clinic, when I see a high blood-sugar reading from a patient whose numbers are usually in the normal range, my first question is whether they had pizza or Chinese takeout the night before.”
Pizza actually does contain some good fat in the pepperoni and cheese, but Chinese takeout is made with vegetable oils. What these two foods have in common is high levels of MSG, known to interfere with insulin receptors, which could lead to high blood sugar readings.
However, it is true that a high-fat diet, especially when mixed with a lot of carbs, is a danger when you are on insulin. As Harris explains, these are “a challenging combination for someone with diabetes. Fat slows the absorption of the carbohydrates and increases the body’s insulin resistance, raising blood sugars. (Actually saturated fats improve the body’s insulin resistance, but the slow release of carbs is a problem when you are on insulin.) The slow food absorption throws off the normal insulin timing; the result is often low blood sugar levels (as the insulin kicks in before digestion) followed by high blood sugar levels (as the insulin wears off while the carbohydrates from the meal linger).”
The truth is that everything gets tricky when you are on insulin, and you may suddenly find that your blood sugar is too low (a very dangerous situation) or too high. Another problem is hyperinsulinism, too much insulin in the blood, especially if you also have type2 diabetes. This may result in anxiety or a panic attack (insulin is actually a stress hormone) in addition to sugar cravings, lack of focus and fatigue.
The problem is that doctors like Harris begin treatment of diabetes by putting patients on insulin (for type 1 diabetes) or drugs like metformin for blood sugar control (for type 2 diabetes) without first suggesting a diet that might make the insulin or drugs unnecessary. When a patient gets a diagnosis of diabetes and finds himself looking into a future of kidney failure and gradual body part removal, he might just be motivated to make real changes; he might just be persuaded to adopt a low-carb, high-fat diet of real food like butter, liver and meat instead of pizza and Chinese takeout, he might try cod liver and a breakfast of eggs and bacon, he might opt for cheese instead of a candy bar between meals. Such a diet will work for many, making drugs unnecessary and vastly improving their quality of life. It won’t work for everyone and, of course, many patients are unwilling to change their junk food habits no matter what the future holds in store. For these, insulin and drugs will have to serve as Plan B. Even then, a few small changes, like eating a breakfast of real food and taking cod liver oil, can mitigate the side effects of diabetes and its treatment. But don’t expect such good advice to come from Dr. Harris.