Is Diabetes truly the Sugar Disease?
Here’s something interesting. There’s actually growing evidence that insulin resistance and risk of type II diabetes – long toted as the sugar disease – might actually be caused by too much meat (1,2,3,4,5,6).
We saw a pretty interesting talk by one of our favourite plant-based doctors, Neal Barnard, who began by noting that diabetes rates were much higher in Western countries than many developing countries whose diet is traditionally high in carbohydrates, the food group often blamed for this epidemic.
Take Japan – traditionally on a diet of rice, diabetes rates were 1.4% before 1980 - when fast food arrived, and dietary fat began to shoot up as carbohydrate intake fell. By 1990, diabetes was at 11-12%.
As Dr. Barnard points out, Western cultures have very high meat consumption - the OECD reports us Canadians ate 68.1kg of meat each in 2016. Bad news for us, as back in 2009, the American Diabetes Association grouped 61,000 people in a study based on how often they ate meat - not only does it directly correlate with BMI (with below 25 being healthy), but also with prevalence of diabetes (7)
So at Sea to Sky Thrivers, we took to the literature to see if Dr. Barnard was onto something and we discovered that there’s a pretty strong association between diabetes and meat consumption. If you’re keen to read more, take a look at the references below, but what it all boiled down to was that not only does increased meat consumption over time elevate risk of type 2 diabetes and increased body weight – but, limited meat consumption over time can lead to diabetes prevention. (8)
The link between meat and diabetes
Two studies looked at Seventh Day Adventists, a naturally fantastic control group since not all of them keep to the vegetarian diet like they should but nearly all avoid drinking and smoking and lead a healthy lifestyle. They split them into herbivores and omnivores, and found that those that ate meat had double the incidence of diabetes (1,3).
In 2003 Neal Barnard and his team actually tested a vegan diet against the American Diabetes Association’s recommended diet for diabetics, which reduced carbohydrates and calories. They found that though both diets reduced glycemic and lipid control, the improvements were actually greater with a low-fat vegan diet than the one the health organisations are promoting! Pretty crazy, right?
Spurred on by this, we looked further and further through every study of diabetes and plant based diets. We found that EVERY SINGLE STUDY shows the same thing – a plant-based diet, even one with carbs, will improve your diabetes. Medical schools teach that diabetes never goes away – it is a progressive, permanent disease. But plant-based doctors are documenting thousands of cases of diabetes reversal.
It mostly comes down to fat.
Glucose cannot get into our cells without insulin. It’s like a key that attaches to cell receptors to let glucose into the cell. Since meat products are much fattier than grains, veggies and legumes, a meat eater’s high dietary fat dumps more of this intracellular fat into the cells (14) , and ‘clogs’ the receptors so insulin can’t open them up (11,12,13).
However, when you adopt a plant-based diet, your intramyocellular lipid concentrations drop and you become more insulin-sensitive (15). If you start early enough, the diabetes can go away. Even people that had suffered from diabetes for years and years found their conditions improving.
Visceral, or belly fat has also been linked to insulin resistance and risk of type two diabetes. This is down to increased inflammatory cytokines from visceral fat cells (10). Eliminating meat from your diet reduces visceral fat and improves insulin sensitivity compared to a regular diabetic diet (9).
And finally, Iron.
Very concentrated in meat, too much iron can damage insulin-producing pancreatic cells (16) - even slightly raised iron stores increase your risk of diabetes (16,17). However, studies show that reducing your iron intake can help prevent insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes and diabetes complications (18). Only when you’ve an excess, mind – Iron is pretty important in the old bloodstream!
So to sum up, then…
Meat consumption has been associated over and over with risk of diabetes, and its reduction with the reversal of the condition. A diet rich in plant carbohydrates and fibre, based on legumes, vegetables, fruits and whole cereals, may be particularly useful for diabetic patients because of its multiple effects on many risk factors (19)
But the resounding problem is how to change people’s minds with the powerful nutritional marketing of the meat industry in the last decades. Meat is so embedded in our culture that it will take a lot to break through these habits, but for our health, and the health of our children and even our planet, cutting down can be the best decision you will ever make.
For more of this, check out What The Health, a great documentary going into more detail about the reasons the healthcare industry is so set in their ways.
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2. Barnard, N., Levin, S., Trapp, C. Meat Consumption as a Risk Factor for Type 2 Diabetes. Nutrients 2014 6(2), 897-910
3. Orlich, M., Singh, P., Sabate, J. et al. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA intern med 2013 173(13) 1230-1238
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