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What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is two different diseases, both involving the hormone insulin. In type 1, which typically strikes before age 25 and only accounts for about 5 percent of the disease, the pancreas stops producing insulin, which is required to usher blood sugar (glucose) into the body’s cells. Type 1 diabetics must inject insulin. Type 2 diabetes typically develops after age 40, either because the pancreas does not produce enough insulin, or because the cells become “resistant” and can’t use it.
Eat To Beat Diabetes
Controlling Diabetes with Exercise
In both types of diabetes, sugar builds up in the blood and causes the blood to become sticky. Eventually, this sticky blood gums up the blood vessels and causes the condition’s complications: cardiovascular disease (heart disease and stroke); poor wound healing; and problems with the eyes, kidneys, legs, nervous system and sexual organs.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by bad luck. Type 2 is strongly associated with obesity and the lifestyle that causes it: lack of exercise and a diet low in fruits and vegetables, and high in sugar, fat and animal products. As weight increases, the body’s cells become insulin-resistant.
Unlike type 1 diabetes, which has a fairly sudden onset, type 2 develops slowly, over years, as weight rises. Because of its slow development, type 2 diabetes rarely produces dramatic symptoms, and many people with the disease have no idea they have it.
There are other risk factors for type 2 diabetes beyond obesity, but these risk factors are by no means destiny. Even in people with a family history, lifestyle adjustments can prevent the disease or eliminate it. Researchers at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio followed 3,682 people with type 2 diabetes for seven years. During that time, diet modifications, weight loss and exercise allowed 12 percent of them to become nondiabetic, according to a 1998 article in Diabetes Care.
Lifestyle Modifications for Diabetes
Regular exercise and weight loss can prevent and treat type 2 diabetes:
• UCLA researchers persuaded 652 type 2 diabetics to enroll in a medically supervised diet and exercise program. The participants took daily walks and ate a diet very low in fat and cholesterol and high in fruits, vegetables and beans. After just 26 days, their average blood sugar levels dropped 15 percent. Of those taking diabetes medications, 71 percent were able to discontinue them. Of those injecting insulin, 39 percent were able to stop.
• Finnish researchers recruited 522 middle-aged overweight adults who were not diabetic but showed signs of insulin resistance. Half of the participants, the controls, received general health advice. The other half exercised for 30 minutes a day and ate a lowfat diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. Four years later, the diet-exercise group had lost an average of nine pounds versus two pounds in the control group. Diabetes developed in 23 percent of the controls but in just 11 percent of the diet-exercise group.
“The evidence is overwhelming,” says Joe Pizzorno, former president of Bastyr University near Seattle, a leading naturopathic medical school. “Our Western diet and lifestyle cause type 2 diabetes. To prevent it, get regular exercise. Eat less saturated fat and cholesterol by reducing or eliminating animal products. And eat more fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains.”
A plant-based diet helps prevent diabetes in three ways: First, compared with the typical American diet, it’s much lower in fat, so it helps control weight. Second, it’s high in fiber, which helps control blood sugar. And third, plant foods are rich in antioxidant nutrients, which improve the body’s ability to use insulin. As blood levels of antioxidants rise, diabetes risk drops. According to a new study, herbs and spices are among the top 50 dietary sources of antioxidants. For more about the study and the benefits of herbs and spices, see “Eat to Beat Diabetes."