HOW your diet affects your health is a big topic in research these days, and this is reflected in the news headlines every week. The problem is that the research findings keep changing the landscape of what’s healthy and what’s not. Eggs were bad, now they’re good. Margarine was good, now it’s bad. Eat low-fat! No, now eat low-carb. For people with no health problems, trying to adhere to the latest dietary advice is simply confusing. For people with chronic conditions such as diabetes, it can be downright dangerous.
So a new research study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), which claims that small differences in diet – even without weight loss – can significantly affect risk for diabetes, is bound to raise more questions than it answers.
The unique aspect of this study ‒ published online May 18, 2011, by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition ‒ is that diabetes risk was reduced independent of weight loss. Received wisdom says overweight individuals can reduce risk of type 2 diabetes by shedding the extra pounds through a combination of diet and exercise.
In the UAB study, 69 healthy, overweight people who did not have diabetes — but were at risk for it — were placed on diets with modest reductions in either fat or carbohydrate for eight weeks. “At eight weeks, the group on the lower fat diet had significantly higher insulin secretion and better glucose tolerance and tended to have higher insulin sensitivity,” said Barbara Gower, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at UAB and lead author of the study. “These improvements indicate a decreased risk for diabetes,” she said in a press statement.
The findings were even stronger in African-Americans, a population with an elevated risk for diabetes. Gower says African-Americans on the lower fat diet showed a stronger difference in insulin secretion compared to the lower carb group, indicating that diet might be an important variable for controlling diabetes risk in that population.
“People find it hard to lose weight,” said Gower. “What is important about our study is that the results suggest that attention to diet quality, not quantity, can make a difference in risk for type 2 diabetes.”
Study participants in the lower fat group received a diet comprising 27 percent fat and 55 percent carbohydrate. The lower carb group’s diet was 39 percent fat and 43 percent carbohydrate. All food for the eight-week trial was provided by the study.
The study participants were fed exactly the amount of food required to maintain their body weight, and the researchers took into account any minor fluctuations in body weight during analyses. Thus, results from this study suggest that those trying to minimize risk for diabetes over the long term might consider limiting their daily consumption of fat at around 27 percent of their diet.
“The diets used in this study were actually fairly moderate,” said UAB dietitian Laura Lee Goree, R.D., L.D., a study co-author. “Individuals at risk for diabetes easily could adopt the lower fat diet we employed. Our findings indicate that the lower-fat diet might reduce the risk of diabetes or slow the progression of the disease.”
But then, widely cited research studies also suggest that a low fat, high carb (LFHC) diet causes the following problems:
• Elevates triglycerides, lowers HDL (“good” cholesterol)
• Is ineffective for people with high insulin levels
• Increases insulin levels which spikes blood pressure
• Leads to greater risk for age-related macular degeneration (AMD)
The American Diabetes Association says millions of Americans are unaware they are at high risk with some groups having a higher risk for developing Type 2 diabetes, especially African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and the elderly.
It would therefore be premature to jump the gun to think that one can avoid the risk of diabetes without shedding weight by limiting fat intake. Gower rightly says further research is needed to determine if the difference between diets in carbohydrate or fat was responsible for the differences in the measures of glucose metabolism and probe the potential cause-and-effect relationship between insulin and glucose responses to the diets.
In the meanwhile, the best ways to maintain good health, diabetes or no, is to exercise, limit processed and refined foods, focus on fish, and eat a wide variety (and an abundance) of plant foods.
And shedding weight ‒ even if there’s no risk of developing diabetes ‒ will always remain a good idea.
Source: UAB News