Type 2 diabetes is now considered one of the major public health problems in the United States. But it doesn’t have to be. A growing number of doctors and other health care professionals say that diabetes can be reversed via lifestyle changes, including a diet and exercise overhaul. Dr. Joel Fuhrman, whose new book The End of Diabetes will be released later this month, is one of these physicians. I talked to him to learn more about how to reverse diabetes, without drugs.
Those of us who are nutrition and healthy eating nerds (who geek out on documentaries like Forks Over Knives and Vegucated) are familiar with stories of people who have completely changed their health by dramatically changing their diet: becoming a vegan or vegetarian or otherwise cutting out unhealthy foods. But for diabetes? Diabetes is a life-threatening, chronic condition that requires constant monitoring and vigilance, both on the part of the patients and of their care providers. Is diet enough?
Fuhrman says yes. He espouses a specific style of eating to reverse diabetes, a bean-heavy eating plan he calls “nutritarian;” He’s also written extensively on nutrition topics in the past, including those related to diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is caused when your pancreas can’t properly respond to the insulin (the substance that helps your body store and use sugar from the food you eat) in your system. Risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes include obesity (the biggest culprit), inactivity, family history, a history of gestational diabetes, age and more. Commonly thought of as a disease that you “bring on yourself” through poor lifestyle choices, the increasingly prevalent idea that you can also undo diabetes’ damage could be powerful and life-changing for millions of people in this country.
Initially, I thought this notion of reversing diabetes through serious diet and lifestyle overhauls would be controversial within the medical community. But it turns out that it’s not only accepted, but highly encouraged. Dr. Amber Taylor, Director of the Diabetes Center at The Center For Endocrinology At Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore says:
We have a great amount of data on this very topic. The evidence is strongest for those with pre-diabetes or early diabetes, that there is a very high success rate with intensive lifestyle modification. In fact, changing your lifestyle to prevent diabetes is better than any drug that has ever been on the market! Generally, lifestyle changes include eating more fiber, less saturated fat (and more healthy fat), more vegetables & whole grains, and exercising 30 minutes daily. Sadly, many people at the early stages of diabetes don’t feel their disease is “serious, ‘ when in fact, this is the time to take action.
To find out more, I asked Dr. Fuhrman a few questions about the science behind reversing diabetes, how dietary changes can fit in with mainstream medical treatment, and what, specifically, being a “nutritarian” means.
Can type-2 diabetes really be “cured?”
Yes, type 2 diabetes can be reversed in nearly all cases. My experience has demonstrated that those choosing to follow my nutritional recommendation have their diabetes melt away astonishingly quickly even before they have lost most of their excess weight – they have become non-diabetic.
Conventional treatment for diabetes attempts to control dangerously high blood glucose with medication while allowing the same unhealthy dietary habits that caused the diabetes to continue. Patients are given a false sense of security; they think they are protected by the medication. But in reality, the standard American diet continues to damage to the cardiovascular system, eyes, kidneys, and other tissues, leading to devastating complications. Plus many glucose-lowering drugs promote weight gain, which essentially makes the patient more diabetic. These diabetic individuals need to know that there is another option: reversing their disease.
What do you say to other medical professionals who are wary of your claim that a lifestyle overhaul can cure diabetes?
Many physicians do not believe that diabetes can be reversed because they have only seen the results of very modest changes – not a true “lifestyle overhaul.” Modest changes simply don’t do the job. A slightly modified version of the standard American diet, with artificially sweetened sodas, reduced fat processed foods, and a modest increase in vegetable intake cannot achieve the demanding task of reversing diabetes. To get radical results, you must make a radical change. Diabetics can’t just “eat better;” they have to go all the way. A high-nutrient, vegetable-based eating style plus frequent exercise is the radical change that produces radical results. Most physicians are either unaware of the power of a high-nutrient diet style or they are aware and don’t believe that their patients are willing.
Do you recommend that an eating overhaul work in conjunction with traditional methods of treating diabetes (like insulin regulation)?
The traditional methods of treating type 2 diabetes (glucose-lowering drugs and frequent monitoring of blood glucose levels) becomes unnecessary for most diabetics who follow this program. I recommend that diabetics stay in close contact with their physicians when they begin this program; their medication doses will be need to be adjusted as they may run the risk of dangerously low blood sugar on their original doses. Eventually in most cases, diabetes is reversed; the need for medications is completely eliminated.
Can you tell us a little bit about the eating plan you recommend in your book?
I call my recommended eating style “nutritarian;” a nutritarian chooses foods based on nutrient density. I use the equation H = N/C to demonstrate this message; your future health is determined by the nutrient to calorie ratio of your diet. The eating style focuses on vegetables (especially green vegetables), beans, fresh fruits, seeds and nuts. Beans are the preferred carbohydrate source, especially for diabetics – my nutritarian eating style is unique in this regard. Low fat vegetarian diets focus on grains, which are higher in glycemic load than beans, and low glycemic diets focus on animal products, which also pose health risks. Beans are a unique food because their starch component is made up mostly of slowly digestible starch and resistant starch; so they do not raise blood glucose as much as other carbohydrates, and all of their calories are not absorbed by the body. Plus, their resistant starch is broken down by gut bacteria to form compounds that protect against colon cancer.
Can you explain, specifically, how changing eating habits can “reverse” diabetes and its processes in the human body?
A high-nutrient diet is very high in fiber and low in glycemic load, which helps to keep blood glucose levels in the normal, healthy range. In addition, it floods the body with protective phytochemicals that fuel detoxification and self-repair mechanisms, healing the body from the inside out. Plus, following an eating style with a high nutrient to calorie ratio gets you back in touch with your body’s natural hunger and satiety signals allowing you to lose weight effortlessly. Low-nutrient food and inactivity, resulting in obesity, are the causes of type 2 diabetes – by eliminating the causes, the body can be returned to excellent health.
With the diet and exercise industry (as well as the media) constantly bombarding us with information, Americans seem to know that they need to eat healthy and work out to reach optimum health. But why do you think so many people are still struggling with obesity?
The majority of foods in the American diet are high in calories and low in micronutrients – about 90% of calories in typical Western diets come from animal products or processed foods made of primarily white flour, sugar, and oil. Small quantities of these foods contain very large amounts of calories, and they don’t truly nourish us – they are deficient in micronutrients, so our bodies crave more food in an attempt to meet our nutrient needs.
Another important factor is that the low-nutrient foods characteristic of the American diet have addictive properties, and as a result most Americans are food addicts. High-calorie, low-nutrient foods activate pleasure pathways in the brain (similar to addictive drugs) and produce withdrawal symptoms often misinterpreted as hunger, leading to an addictive drive to eat more. Most weight loss plans center around portion control – trying to eat smaller amounts of the same addictive foods, which is doomed to failure. Consequently, many Americans are in a constant repeating cycle of losing weight and then gaining it back.
The beauty of a nutritarian diet style is that eating more high-nutrient foods reduces the desire for low-nutrient foods. After a few months, people lose interest in the low-nutrient foods they initially thought they couldn’t live without.
Fruits and vegetable photo via Shutterstock
Book cover courtesy of HarperCollins
Photo of Dr. Fuhrman via DiseaseProof.com