Your body requires many things in order to be healthy: sleep, water, micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, as well as the macronutrients protein and fat. What it doesn’t NEED, from a scientific perspective, is carbohydrates.
While a plate of pasta may well be comfort food, it’s not a power food. Your body will turn that simple carbohydrate into glucose (a sugar), which will be burned by your brain, muscles and other organs for a quick burst of energy, leaving you hungry and tired soon thereafter. And if you have type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, or insulin resistance, your body struggles to process the carbohydrate, leaving you with a high blood sugar problem. If instead you eat a meal of grilled chicken and a salad full of healthy fats such as avocados, olives, nuts, cheese and ranch dressing, your body can fuel itself entirely on those nutrients without giving you a post-meal glucose spike.
That’s why a growing body of scientific evidence points to a low-carbohydrate approach as a way to live with diabetes and often even to reverse your need for insulin and medications. In a study conducted by Virta Health, 87% of patients with type 2 diabetes decreased their need for insulin after 10 weeks, and 56% lowered their A1c to non-diabetic levels. Wondering how that can be? Here’s the science behind a low-carb diet:
Three macronutrients—two are essential
Macronutrients are the nutrients that humans consume in the largest quantities. They are protein, fat, and carbohydrate. All three supply the body with energy (calories), and most of our food contains a mixture of each.
- Protein is made up of amino acids, chemical compounds that regulate nearly every metabolic process in the human body. They are critical for nutrient transport, wound healing, and the building, maintaining, and repairing of tissues including muscle, organs, ligaments, tendons, bone, skin, and hair.
- Dietary fat is required for your vitamin absorption, maintenance of cell membrane structure, regulation of hormone production, nerve function, and brain development. Eating too little fat can give you vitamin deficiencies, depression, hormone imbalances, and inflammation. Fat also makes food taste better and helps you feel full sooner and full longer, which helps some people better control their food choices.
- Carbohydrate is often referred to as our fuel source: it is the sugar, starch and fiber you’ll find in grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy products. The problem is that people with type 2 diabetes are carbohydrate-intolerant: your body has trouble processing carbs. While protein and fat are both required for life, dietary carbohydrate is not essential. So, what if you could just avoid eating carbohydrates?
Reducing carbohydrates to stabilize your blood sugar
If you have been eating a typical American diet, your body is running primarily on carbohydrates. But if your body is facing medical problems stemming from processing carbs, such as type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, insulin resistance, or metabolic syndrome, a low-carbohydrate approach can be life changing. As you strategically remove carbohydrates from your diet, usually to an initial level of 30g per day, your body will begin to run on fat as a fuel–both the fat you eat and your body fat. Your body will take a few weeks to adapt (typically 2-6 weeks) during which your liver will pitch in to produce glucose from protein in a process called gluconeogenesis. Caution: It’s critical during this transition to benefit from medical monitoring and health coaching (read why), such as that provided by Virta Health, the online diabetes reversal clinic.
The key to successfully—and sustainably—reducing your carbohydrate intake to a level your body can effectively process is to replace those carb calories with a generous amount of healthy fats (such as olive oil, avocados, butter, and cheese) while consuming a standard, moderate amount of protein (from varied sources including meat, poultry, fish, eggs and nuts). You can read more about saturated fat to understand why it can be part of a well formulated anti-diabetes diet, which is often called a ketogenic diet. For many people it’s an easy new eating plan to adopt and to stick with long term because it can include such satisfying meals as a bacon-and-egg breakfast, a salmon Caesar salad for lunch, and a steak with herb-buttered green beans for dinner, topped off with low-carb ice cream or cheesecake.
At some point in your life’s experience with diabetes, you may have been told that you need carbohydrates to keep your blood sugar stable. This is true if you are living in the vicious cycle where you’re taking insulin to process your carbohydrates, and then eating enough carbohydrates to match your insulin dose; you may have experienced that, inevitably, your daily amounts of carbohydrates and insulin keep increasing, along with your weight and your diabetes side effects. The good news is this: for the rapidly growing number of people managing and even reversing their type 2 diabetes through a low-carbohydrate plan, there’s an alternative. Participants in the Virta Health clinical trial (conducted in partnership with Indiana University Health) experienced improved sleep, significant weight loss, a decreased need for medications, in addition to their lowered HbA1c and the reduction or elimination of their insulin injections. You can learn more: read about the clinical trial, and watch some participants’ personal stories.