Chances are good that you have diabetes or know someone who does. Even if you don’t, you’re paying for the care of millions of people with diabetes through your taxes. It’s a disease that affects people of all backgrounds, income levels, and, increasingly, ages, and it costs our country nearly a quarter trillion dollars every year — that’s well over the total yearly revenue of electronics giant Apple.
New statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 29 million Americans have diabetes and another 86 million have prediabetes. Hardest hit are Native Americans, followed by African Americans and Latinos. They are at far greater risk for heart attacks, blindness, amputations, kidney failure, painful nerve symptoms, and loss of a decade of life compared with those who do not have the disease.
But a recent report has found that one simple prescription could help reverse diabetes, improve blood sugar, and lower weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol. It could allow the 115 million Americans with diabetes or prediabetes to dramatically reduce their medications or get off them entirely. And all this is possible, the analysis found, not with a new magic pill, but with tried-and-true, simple changes to diet.
A team of researchers from the United States and Japan, including the Physicians Committee’s Susan Levin, MS, RD and myself, published a new meta-analysis showing that a plant-based diet significantly improves diabetes management.
Combining the results of six prior studies, we found that a plant-based diet boosts blood sugar control considerably. Among the studies analyzed was our 2006 NIH-funded trial, which found that plant-based diets could improve a key indicator of blood sugar control called hemoglobin A1c as much as 1.2 points in 22 weeks. No drug comes close to offering those with diabetes this kind of relief.
The new meta-analysis focused on longer-term effects and combined the results of all available studies. The benefit of leaving meat out of the diet was as much as 0.7 points in some studies and averaged about 0.4 points overall. These numbers may seem small to those unfamiliar with the disease, but anyone with diabetes knows that such an improvement is truly profound.
If diet changes are so effective, why aren’t more doctors prescribing plants before pills?
Some wonder whether patients will stick to a plant-based diet. Well, studies show that patients are actually eager to make the switch. Why? Unlike conventional “diabetes diets,” vegan diets do not require counting calories or limiting carbohydrates. There’s no portion control or strenuous exercise routines. We tell our diabetes class and study participants that they can eat as much as they want — and as much whole wheat pasta, whole grains, and brown rice as they want — as long as they’re not eating animal products or lots of added oils. The diet is simple and clear, and it’s easier than ever to follow.
Plus, the “side effects” are all good. Weight comes down, blood pressure improves, and blood pressure and cholesterol drop. Best of all, low-fat, vegan diets provide freedom from the tedious routines of taking medications and injecting insulin.
That’s why doctors at Kaiser Permanente, the largest managed care organization in the United States, recently recommended that every patient receive information on plant-based diets. Doctors who lack the time or knowledge to prescribe a vegan diet can refer patients to registered dietitians and to plentiful online resources.
We can tackle diabetes at a policy level, too. Existing frameworks for improving nutrition in America, such as the National School Lunch Program and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), could be better used to promote the consumption of disease-fighting foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Taxes could help curb consumption of unhealthful foods — the precedent has just been set by Berkeley’s soda tax and the Navajo Nation’s junk food tax.
As worrisome as the new statistics are, the solutions to the diabetes epidemic are at hand. With a plant-based diet, we could help tackle the disease once and for all.
Follow Neal Barnard, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrNealBarnard