The Paleo diet, relatively low-carb and low-glycemic nature, can improve diabetic metabolic parameters such as insulin levels and glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c), which is a marker of blood sugar concentration over the previous three months. The key is to find your level of carbohydrate tolerance – the amount of carbohydrate you can eat to achieve and maintain good blood sugar control.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes begins with the body’s reduced ability to produce or respond to insulin, the master energy storage hormone. Insulin’s main job is to move sugar from your blood into your cells, where it can be used for immediate energy or stored for later use. When the body does not produce enough insulin or becomes resistant to it, blood sugar levels rise and remain above healthy levels. This dysfunction of blood sugar metabolism is diabetes. Excess sugar in the blood is toxic to the body and causes all kinds of cellular damage.
There are two types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 2 diabetes is a “lifestyle disease” that results from poor diet and other unhealthy habits such as lack of exercise, chronic stress, and inadequate sleep. Type 2 diabetes is much more common than type 1, and encompasses 90 – 95 percent of all diabetes cases.
Type 1 is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas and destroys them. The body is left with very little or no insulin, and people diagnosed with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin for the remainder of their lives.
This post discusses the benefits of the Paleo diet for people with type 2 diabetes.
The Reach of Diabetes
It’s a sobering statistic: Over 100 million, or more than one-third, of the U.S. population, has diabetes or pre-diabetes. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), over 30 million adults in the United States, or almost 10 percent of the population, have diabetes. Another 84 million adults, or almost 34 percent of the population, have pre-diabetes, a condition of moderately elevated blood glucose levels that often progresses to full-blown diabetes. In fact, up to 70 percent of pre-diabetes will progress to type 2 diabetes. (3)
Globally, diabetes has been extending its reach at an unrelenting pace, with cases quadrupling since 1980 from 108 million to 422 million, and the costs are staggering. In 2017, the average medical expenditure per person with diabetes in the U.S. is almost $16,750 per year, with a population price tag of $327 billion. This is a 26 percent increase from 2012. (4)
Alarmingly, children are experiencing a rise in diabetes as well. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), if incidence rates remain the same, the number of children with type 2 diabetes in the U.S. is projected to increase by almost 50 percent over the next 40 years. (5)
Carbohydrate Tolerance and Insulin Resistance
After a meal containing carbohydrates, blood sugar rises, which signals insulin into action. In people with carbohydrate tolerance, insulin has no trouble depositing blood sugar into cells all around the body. When insulin’s job is done and blood sugar levels return to normal, insulin levels also fall back to normal. This is what happens in people with healthy blood sugar metabolisms.
In people with dysfunctional blood sugar metabolisms, carbohydrate tolerance is decreased, meaning blood sugar levels stay elevated due to cellular resistance to insulin. Over time, worsening insulin resistance prevents blood sugar levels from returning to healthy levels, leading to diabetes.
Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes
You can’t feel insulin resistance or diabetes, which is why so many people don’t realize they have it. However, there can be noticeable symptoms:
- Extreme thirst or hunger, even right after a meal
- Cravings for sugar and starchy foods
- Weight gain, especially around the abdominal area
- Frequent or increased urination
- Tingling in the hands and feet
- Feeling tired
- Sleep apnea
- Acanthosis nigricans – dark patches on the back of the neck, groin, and armpits
Complications of Type 2 Diabetes
The longer you have diabetes, the more likely you are to develop serious complications, including:
- Cardiovascular disease
- High blood pressure
- Nerve damage (neuropathy)
- Foot complications, amputation
- Kidney damage (nephropathy)
- Vision loss (retinopathy)
- Skin conditions, ulcers, fungal infections
- Foot complications that can lead to amputation
- Hearing loss
- Gastroparesis (delayed gastric emptying)
- Alzheimer’s disease
Reversing Type 2 Diabetes
Reversing your diabetes is a tremendous achievement, but dietary vigilance will always be necessary. A person with type 2 diabetes will always have it. However, lowering carbohydrate intake can lower HbA1c to normal levels and improve other markers for diabetes, such as obesity and elevated insulin levels. The anecdotal evidence of people reversing their diabetes abounds and the scientific evidence is supportive.
For instance, in an ongoing trial by Virta Health, 292 participants under closely monitored remote care experienced dramatic results. After following a very low-carb ketogenic diet (< 30g carbs/day) for a year, and receiving behavior change education, health coaching, peer support, and medication management by doctors, 60 percent of participants saw a reversal of diabetes and 94 percent of participants were able to reduce or eliminate their medications. (6)
More research on low-carb diets involves different versions. Some are low-carb (<130 gm/day), and some are very low-carb – like the Virta Health tria, while some are short term and others are longer term. However, across the carb spectrum and in both the short and long term, low-carb diets are beneficial for health and are especially effective in promoting blood sugar control, the central goal of diabetes treatment. (7, 8, 9, 10)
Low-carb diets have been shown to:
- Improve glycemic control and reverse diabetes
- Result in the reduction or discontinuation of diabetes medication
- Reduce circulating insulin
- Be effective for weight loss
- Reduce markers of inflammation associated with insulin resistance
Paleo for Diabetes
As a consequence of excluding grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar-laden processed food, the Paleo diet is relatively low-carb by default, and this is a good thing when it comes to diabetes.
In one randomized cross-over study, 13 patients with type 2 diabetes consumed a standard diabetes diet (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, berries, and lower total fat) and a Paleo diet (lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, root vegetables, eggs, and nuts) while spending three months in each diet period. Compared to the diabetes diet, the Paleo diet was lower in total carbohydrates, even though it was higher in fruits and vegetables, and resulted in improved glycemic control. (15)
Another shorter term study lasting 14 days found similar results for the Paleo diet (lean meat, fruit, vegetables, and nuts) when compared to a diet based on recommendations by the American Diabetes Association containing low-fat dairy, whole grains, and legumes. (16)
The Bottom Line
The Paleo diet and lifestyle encompass positive modifications that are beneficial for people with diabetes. With regards to carbohydrate tolerance, the Paleo diet can be as high-carb or as low-carb as you need it to be to achieve improved blood sugar control. If you’re on insulin and/or other medications for type 2 diabetes, and you’re new to Paleo, it’s important to work with a health care practitioner to fine-tune your dosages to match your new lower-carb diet. You may not even need your meds!
20 Low-Carb Paleo Recipes
Our Paleo Meal Plan is designed to be an integral part of a lifestyle that turns your body into the metabolically efficient, optimally functioning machine it’s meant to be. This is what nature has always intended for you!
By eating a diet of nutrient-dense, real foods comprised of healthy fats, adequate high-quality protein, and just enough carbohydrate to meet your needs within your own personal carbohydrate tolerance level, you can optimize your health. That’s exactly what our customizable Paleo Meal Plan is designed to help you do!
Take advantage of our free, two-week Meal Plan trial. If you are new to Paleo, get started by giving these delicious low-carb recipes a try:
- Arugula and Leek Frittata
- Chorizo Rice with Fried Egg
- Sausage and Zucchini Breakfast Casserole
- Berries with Coconut and Lime
- Zucchini Pizza Bites
- Chili Lime Broiled Avocado
- Citrus Marinated Olives with Salami
- Crunchy Almond Chicken Fingers
- Mediterranean Vegetable Cakes
- Vegetable Beef Chili
- Kickin Steak Fajitas
- Ratatouille Chicken Casserole
- Lamb Fried Rice
- Pork and Noodle Soup
- Salmon and Bacon Kale Salad
- Macadamia-Encrusted Halibut
- Slow Cooker Turkey Meatballs with Cauliflower Rice
- Crock Pot Pork Loin
- Chocolate Coconut Banana Muffins
- Paleo Pumpkin Bread
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