Type 2 Diabetes is a widespread condition that impacts nearly 200 million people worldwide (1). It’s not only physically harmful, but emotionally and financially damaging as well. Diabetic health problems interrupt lives, cause mental anguish, and cost thousands of extra dollars in medical care.
Millions of people are living with prediabetes and have no idea that the condition is to blame for their many health woes. The relationship between diabetes and carbohydrates has been highly debated for many years, but science is finally solidifying its stance on carbohydrate use for diabetics.
What is Diabetes?
In bodies unaffected by diabetes, the sugar called glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream and, with the help of a hormone called insulin, sent into the body’s countless cells to be used for energy.
However, diabetes impacts the body’s ability to process sugar because not enough insulin is produced to respond to the glucose in the blood. This is why diabetics must monitor their blood sugar levels to ensure that too much glucose hasn’t entered into the blood.
Over time, high blood sugar levels can cause major physical damage such nerve damage, eye complications, skin disorders, kidney disease, and stroke (2) .
What Role Do Carbohydrates Play in Diabetes?
Food contains nutrients that the body digests for energy, nourishment, and other purposes. Carbohydrates in particular fall into two forms: sugars and starches. Sugars can appear in healthier forms, like from fruits and vegetables, or in unhealthier forms, such as in packaged and processed food items. Similarly, starches like potatoes and whole grains are better for the body than refined breads and cereals.
When carbohydrates- whether in sugar or starch form- enter the body, they are converted into the sugar glucose. If there isn’t enough insulin to transport that glucose to the right place, blood sugar rises. Elevated blood sugar levels slowly but surely wreak havoc on physical health. It is for this reason that many doctors and scientists are now supporting low-carbohydrate diets as an effective response to diabetes. (3)
According to Barbara Gower, a Ph.D professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, “Diabetes is a disease of carbohydrate intolerance. Reducing carbohydrates is the obvious treatment. It was the standard approach before insulin was discovered and is, in fact, practiced with good results in many institutions. The resistance of government and private health agencies is very hard to understand,” (4).
The Current Diabetes Dietary Guidelines
Blood sugar control is the main goal of any diabetes dietary recommendation. However, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) doesn’t currently suggest what science indicates is best.
For the last 30 years, the ADA has endorsed low-fat diet habits to manage diabetes. This diabetes diet, also known as medical nutrition therapy (MNT), translates into eating a variety of nutritious food in moderate amounts, but with an emphasis on low-fat and low-calorie intake. By default, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are the best choices in MNT, making this low-fat plan equate to a high carbohydrate diet (5).
According to the ADA, a person with diabetes should eat 45-60 grams of carbohydrates per meal, which equates to more than 45% of total calories per day and falls into the category of a high carbohydrate diet. It’s now commonly understood that these current recommendations have dramatically failed to control the epidemic of diabetes (6).
Treating Diabetes with a Low-Carbohydrate Life Style
A large number of studies now insist that a low-carbohydrate diet should be the “first point of attack” in managing diabetes (7). Since diabetes represents a disruption in carbohydrate metabolism, reducing carbohydrates resolves this issue with little risk and immediate results.
Rather than eating nearly 50% of daily calories from carbohydrates, as recommended by the ADA, it is much better to eat less than 130 grams per day, or less than 26% of total daily calories. Unfortunately, this number is currently the ADA’s recommended minimum carbohydrate intake rather than suggested average (7).
In addition to maintaining healthy blood sugar levels with a low-carbohydrate diet, eating habits that consistently limit carbohydrates have been proven to outperform low-fat diets, and with much better results (7). This is especially significant since it is a well-documented fact that weight loss often alleviates signs and symptoms of diabetes.
Most importantly, diabetes patients who opt for a low-carb diet have been able to reduce and even eliminate diabetes medication! Since carbohydrate restriction so efficiently improves glycemic control, medication becomes unnecessary (7). This means that a patient can enjoy all of the health benefits without any of the side effects common with intensive pharmacologic treatment.
Feeling Full on a Low-Carb Diet
One of the biggest concerns about adapting to a low-carb diet is the ability to maintain what are misinterpreted as strict restrictions. The truth is, by choosing strategic carbohydrates and supplementing with protein, any diabetic can eat delicious, satisfying food while simultaneously balancing blood sugar and losing weight (8).
The best carbohydrates have the least impact on blood sugar, like certain fruits, non-starchy vegetables, beans, unprocessed grains, and yogurt. Other high glycemic carbohydrates like crackers, bagels, and sweets can be replaced with proteins such as lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, cottage cheese, tofu, and legumes.
This doesn’t need to be viewed as an impossible dietary change, but rather a healthier lifestyle that weeds out carbohydrates unfriendly to blood sugar in favor of more sustainable food choices. As Dr. Gower explains, “For many people with Type 2 diabetes, low-carbohydrate diets are a real cure. They no longer need drugs. They no longer have symptoms. Their blood glucose is normal, and they generally lose weight” (7).
Any person with diabetes can start this process slowly by gradually introducing better choices to replace carbohydrates. As this diet will naturally lower blood sugar levels, it’s important that medicine doses are monitored by a doctor to ensure blood sugar levels aren’t sent too low.
The Bottom Line
Yes, a low-carb diet can help resolve diabetes. Numerous studies have proved this trend and scientists are now calling for the ADA to alter their guidelines to match the most recent discoveries. Since low-carb diets were the original solution to diabetes before insulin was readily available, it’s only logical that such eating habits will still prove effective.