Why Mainstream Diabetes Diets Often Fail

Extremely High Glucose ReadingThose of you who know me, know I have a deep passion for helping anyone affected by any form of diabetes. This is partly because Type 2 diabetes has become an epidemic, partly because the incidence of Type 1 diabetes is increasing, and partly because I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 1967. I’m blessed to say I’ve lived on both sides of the “diabetes fence” and have learned a thing or two along the way.

The first thing I learned about dealing with diabetes is that what my doctor and diabetes educator told me frequently did not work. Their recommendations seemed to guarantee I used excessive amounts of insulin, had sky high blood sugars and never truly felt well. More than once I’ve had a client storm into my office, slam a sheaf of papers on my desk, and exclaim: “She’s trying to kill me!” They were referencing the dietary plan provided by their diabetes educator. This post explains why the mainstream approach often fails. (Please note the photo used in this post is courtesy of DeathbyBrokeh and is not a picture of one of my blood sugars.)

NOTE: Please follow your physician’s instructions. Do not make any changes to your care protocol without first discussing them with your physician and care team. People with Type 1 diabetes must use extreme caution and test blood glucose levels frequently when making any change to lifestyle or eating habits.

Before I dive into criticism, let me say the American Diabetes Association (ADA) has come a long way in the past forty years. They have ceased recommending a single dietary approach and are beginning to recognize that alternative eating styles “may” (in their words) have value. They admit a low glycemic eating style improves control, yet refuse to endorse it or encourage its use. They believe people with diabetes won’t comply with a diet rich in low glycemic foods, and they fail to recognize the other benefits gained from this eating style. The battle to overcome tradition in mainstream medicine is huge, so I’m encouraged to know the ADA is starting to cautiously embrace eating styles different from the status quo.

Let me also say I am NOT a fan of extreme eating styles which claim to reverse all forms of diabetes. I have seen many people’s health harmed, sometimes irreversibly, by following diets that greatly restrict nutrition. These extreme attempts at healing scare me. I prefer to use a much more balanced approach that supports the body’s own healing ability and which allows the body to rebuild and rebalance itself. It is also important to state that many people are able to reverse Type 2 diabetes, but there are less than 20 documented cases of Type 1 diabetes being reversed. I believe it’s possible, but I do not believe we know enough about autoimmune illnesses to consistently combat Type 1 diabetes and restore pancreatic function. I help people reverse Type 2 diabetes every day in my practice, but each person is very different. Not everyone is able to reverse it, and extreme caution must be used. I have tried many extreme eating styles. Each extreme style has benefits, but almost all ultimately create systemic imbalances which harm health.

The standard eating style endorsed by the ADA recommends that every person with diabetes, regardless of age, sex, weight, activity level, or type of diabetes, eat a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrates per day. A single serving of carbohydrates is 15 grams, so consuming 130 grams of carbs every day equates to eating 8.7 servings. That is a lot of carbs! The large amount of carbs recommended concerns and shocks me. I eat 2-4 servings of low-glycemic carbohydrates every day. Doing so allows me to avoid gaining weight, maintain normal glucose levels, and use less insulin. (Please read Surprising Facts About Insulin for information on the damaging effects excess insulin has on the body.) I currently maintain A1C’s* between 5.5-6.0 and have no diabetes complications. I am extremely blessed to enjoy vibrant health in spite of having had diabetes for more than 46 years.

* In simple terms, the Glycosulated Hemoglobin (A1C) is a blood test that measures blood sugar averages. Normal is considered 4.5-6.0.

The concept of encouraging diabetics to eat high amounts of carbs and then telling them to take large amounts of insulin to counteract the effects those carbs have on blood sugar makes no sense. 

The primary reason the ADA form of eating does not work is that it does nothing to improve insulin sensitivity and fails to combat the cause of high blood sugars. Effectively controlling all forms of diabetes requires maintaining adequate insulin sensitivity and eating in a way that does not greatly elevate blood sugars. The ADA style of eating tends to decrease insulin sensitivity in both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics because it encourages eating large amounts of high-glycemic carbohydrates. (Insulin resistance is as large a problem in Type 1 diabetics as it is in Type 2 diabetics. Learn more about it here:  Top Ten Signs You Have Insulin Resistance.) This approach often leads to higher levels of diabetic complications.

The ADA recommends such high amounts of carbohydrates because it fails to recognize how the body converts food to energy and believes carbohydrates are necessary for normal brain function and normal energy levels. This is simply not true. The body’s best source of energy is fat. Yes, fat. Healthy fat, not hydrogenated oils and inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids. The body converts fat to energy 80% more efficiently than it converts carbohydrates to energy. Fat is essential for the health of cell membranes, neurotransmitters in the brain, and cardiac cells. For more information on fat and to bust a few myths, read Why You Need to Eat More Fat and Surprising Facts About Cholesterol.

The fact is our bodies don’t need high amounts of carbohydrates. Your body can very effectively function on small amounts of carbs. (I spent two years eating NO carbohydrates that affected blood glucose levels, so I know it can be done, but I don’t recommend it.) The ADA believes carbohydrates that raise blood sugar are necessary for proper brain function. This is not true. The brain runs on pure glucose. As long as there is adequate glucose in the blood stream, the brain will function well. People with Type 1 diabetes rarely need to eat carbohydrates to maintain adequate levels of glucose in the blood stream. The only time they truly require carbohydrates is their blood sugar falls below normal levels. Again, the concept of encouraging diabetics to eat large amounts of carbohydrates and then making them take high amounts of insulin to counteract the effect on blood sugars is counterproductive.

So what style of eating is best for diabetics? The simple fact is that each person’s style of eating must be customized to their metabolism, lifestyle, schedule and many other factors. There is no single style that works for everyone. Each person with diabetes or metabolic challenges must work to find the best style of eating that works for them. In general, an approach that does not encourage excess carbohydrate consumption, focuses on incorporating exercise and healthy eating habits, and one which focuses on using low-glycemic carbohydrates works best for most diabetics.

I am committed to helping diabetics improve their control and live life more abundantly. I have high success rates because I have spent almost 50 years living with diabetes every single day and have an intimate familiarity with what it takes to successfully incorporate diabetes control techniques into daily life. I’ve lived both the good and the bad of diabetes. Nothing brings me more joy than helping others achieve increased control and health. If you would like to schedule a consultation to discuss your options, please contact me via email or call 317.489.0909.

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Dr. Pamela Reilly is a Naturopathic Physician dedicated to helping people improve their health and eliminate symptoms using natural, integrative methods. She has over 25 years of experience and has helped men, women and children improve their health using a holistic, client-centered focus. She sees clients in Indianapolis, does house calls, and also conducts consultations via Skype or telephone. Please feel free to contact her or visit her Consultations page for more information. Dr. Pamela speaks nationwide on a wide variety of health topics and welcomes speaking invitations.

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5 Responses to Why Mainstream Diabetes Diets Often Fail

  1. Philip Woolman says:

    For the past year I have: followed the ADA recommendations to a T, lowered my calorie intake by 50%, increased my work out by 100%, taken the recommended 50 units of insulin every night, as well as 2000 MG of Metformin and 20 MG Glupizide every day, gained ten pounds in weight, and gone for a blood test and doctor’s appointment every three months to listen to a nurse practitioner berate me and tell me “You haven’t been following the doctor’s orders”. My numbers keep climbing.

    Please forgive me for not writing what I am thinking at this moment.

    • Hi, Philip. I’m so sorry to hear about your experience. What you experienced is very typical. If I followed the ADA recommendations, I encourage you to discuss this with your doctor and research the use of low-glycemic eating styles. (I’m currently writing a book about it, but it will be a while before it’s ready.) I hope you find relief and improved health very soon.

    • Philip Woolman says:

      Things have changed for the worse. I am now taking 150 units of insulin a day, the drugs my new doctor is giving me makes me more complacent (I am sleepy all the time), and my new doctor is telling me I must take the cholesterol lowering drugs. I was once a world class athlete. This is no life.

  2. […] sugar. Don’t be fooled. This means it is not a good option for anyone trying to lose weight, control blood sugars or control Candida […]

  3. […] Fact: This myth floors me. People with any form of Diabetes need to eat a very nutritious diet, but not one that is severely restricted. I will admit that my research and personal experience with diet cause me to disagree with the typical regimen prescribed by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). The ADA encourages people with Diabetes to eat high amounts of carbohydrates and to avoid fats, stating that carbohydrates are essential for energy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a client come to see me and claim their dietitian is trying to kill them. People with Diabetes can eat carbohydrates, but I encourage them to primarily eat low-glycemic carbohydrates that don’t require large amounts of insulin. Insulin is a fat-storage hormone, so weight loss is often dependent upon eating in a fashion that allows the body to produce less insulin. Eating in this manner may also improve insulin resistance, as a lower amount of insulin in the blood stream may help the body’s cells not be “overwhelmed” by it. For more information on effective eating styles for controlling glucose levels, please read: Why Mainstream Diabetes Diets Often Fail. […]

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