You are probably aware that diabetes is a growing epidemic in the western world. In Canada alone, there are nearly 11 million Canadians living with diabetes or prediabetes and every three minutes another Canadian is diagnosed with the disease.
According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, diabetes is a chronic, often debilitating and sometimes fatal disease, in which the body either cannot produce insulin or cannot properly use the produced insulin. Insulin is a hormone that controls the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood.
Diabetes leads to high blood sugar levels, which can damage organs, blood vessels and nerves (this can lead to numerous serious health problems throughout the body). The body needs insulin to use sugar as an energy source.
The Canadian Diabetes Association describes three types of diabetes: Type 1 diabetes occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks and kills the beta cells of the pancreas. As a result, no, or very little, insulin is released into the body. Sugar then builds up in the blood instead of being used as energy. This type of diabetes is always treated with insulin.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when your body can’t properly use the insulin released (this is called insulin insensitivity) or does not make enough insulin. As a result, sugar builds up in the blood instead of being used as energy. Approximately 90 per cent of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes.
A third type of diabetes, gestational diabetes, is a temporary condition that occurs during pregnancy. It affects approximately two to four per cent of all pregnancies (in the non-Aboriginal population) and can lead to an increased risk of developing diabetes for both mother and child.
How can you best prevent or manage diabetes?
According to the experts and the research, diet, lifestyle choices, including weight and physical fitness, the avoidance of smoking and alcohol, and glucose monitoring with the use of a glucometer (and insulin for type one diabetics) are all extremely important aspects of a self-care plan for those living with diabetes, as well as for those who want to prevent it. Many diabetics require medication to keep the disease under control. Diabetics should also be monitoring their blood pressure and their feet to avoid infections.
Various diabetes associations offer technological tools and apps that can help you track and monitor these variables: your carbohydrate intake, your blood glucose levels, medication, vitamins, exercise calculations, and so on. In short, there is a lot of day-to-day planning that is necessary to stay healthy. Speak with your health care team to carve out a self-care plan that is best for you.
What about diet?
One aspect of blood sugar management that can’t be underestimated is the impact of one’s diet. Grain-free and lower carbohydrate diets (in comparison to the standard North American diet) such as the Paleolithic (Paleo) diet have been shown to support blood sugar control and overall health.
According to Dr. Loren Cordain, founder of the Paleo diet, the Paleo diet is a healthy-eating plan based on fresh, unprocessed plants and animals. It is modeled after human diets from thousands of years ago and consists of easy-to-find foods, such as fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and grass-fed meats. Most versions of the diet are rich in quality protein and heart-healthy fats, and do not include grains (such as wheat, rye, and barley) or legumes (such as beans) which cause inflammation and blood sugar levels to spike. Only a few versions include dairy, if it is from grass-fed cows or raw (“unpasteurized”).
Paleo diet supporters avoid all processed fats, such as vegetable oil, soybean oil and margarine. This is because they are not whole foods and have been shown to contribute to heart disease. Most sugar is also limited or omitted, with the exception of whole fruit, and in the case of blood sugar management, low glycemic choices are best for those that are allowed fruit. On this diet, you and your healthcare team can choose how much carbohydrate, protein and fat is best for you.
In a recent study published in Cardiovascular Diabetology, type 2 diabetic participants were placed on a Paleolithic diet based on lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, root vegetables, eggs and nuts for three months. Following and for an additional three months, the same participants followed a diabetes diet according to the American Diabetes Association guidelines of meals with increased vegetables, root vegetables, fibre, whole-grain bread and other cereal products, fruits and berries, and decreased total fat.
“Over the three-month study period, a Paleolithic diet improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors, compared to the Diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes.”
Compared to the diabetes diet, the Paleolithic diet resulted in lower mean levels of hemoglobin A1c, triglycerides, diastolic blood pressure, weight, body mass index (BMI), waist circumference, and higher mean HDL.
Dr. David C. Klonoff stated in his overview published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “All populations appear to develop diseases of civilization if they consume Western foods and have sedentary lifestyles. It therefore seems prudent for modern-day humans to remember their evolutionary heritage and to increase their intake of vegetables and fruits and to decrease their intake of animal fats and domesticated grains. The Paleolithic diet might be the best antidote to the unhealthy Western diet.”
Originally published in Viva Magazine online, March, 2016.