It sounds too good to be true. But some participants in local programs are seeing meaningful results in their effort to prevent or even correct type 2 diabetes.
The key word is “effort.” It takes work, and commitment. But consider the alternative.
With type 2 diabetes, the body can’t use insulin effectively. Without insulin to break down carbohydrates, glucose builds up in the blood, which over time can lead to heart disease and stroke, kidney failure, blindness and damage to blood vessels that can lead to foot and leg amputations.
Thomas M. Campbell, M.D., clinical director of the University of Rochester Program for Nutrition in Medicine, works with patients to prevent and reverse type 2 diabetes and other diseases using a whole-food, plant-based diet.
Dr. Campbell, a board-certified family physician in Greece, uses “a diet rich in unrefined plant food — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans.” And, he adds, “we also avoid animal foods including meat and dairy and processed food — anything with added fat, added sugar.”
Kathy and Herbert Wise were halfway through an eight-week program with Dr. Campbell when we caught up with them. Both were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, and both had remained faithful to the plant-based diet.
“Frankly, I was skeptical that I would be successful changing my diet this much, but it wasn’t as difficult as I thought,” Kathy says. In just four weeks, Kathy’s blood glucose and cholesterol had improved. “I’ve taken charge and I’m improving my health in a big way. It’s a new lease on life, and I’m enjoying it thoroughly.”
Herb refers to his “numbers” before starting the program as “awful.” Four weeks in, Herb says: “My blood glucose looks so much better, and I can’t believe my cholesterol is this good. I’m going to have to start giving away clothes and buying some in my [new] size. My need to stick with this program far outweighs my desire to start the day with an Egg McMuffin.”
Dr. Campbell co-authored the book The China Study with his father, who is a researcher in nutrition and cancer. “It’s really the research that has propelled me to offer this to patients,” he says. “There is a randomized control trial showing you can reverse heart disease, reverse diabetes and get people off medication [through nutrition].”
People interested in participating in Dr. Campbell’s program can arrange for personal consultations or enroll in either eight-week or one-week medically supervised programs. There are costs for the consultations and programs, which are not yet covered by health insurance.
Kathy Mannix has had insulin-dependent, type 2 diabetes for 23 years. “It just seemed like every time I would go to the doctor, they would say increase this medicine, increase that medicine, so I got to a point where I wanted to see if there was an alternative,” she says. Mannix started on a plant-based diet over a year ago. Since then she has lost 35 pounds, and says, “I was taken off cholesterol medicine, I was taken off blood pressure medicine.”
Dr. Campbell cautions diabetes patients taking this approach to work closely with their doctors. Mannix, who is insulin dependent, worked closely with her primary care physician. She still checks her blood sugar regularly, but says, “I don’t have to take the mealtime insulin anymore.” She adds, “I still take the 24-hour insulin, but I used to take 70 units, and now I take 25.”
The Greater Rochester YMCA is also engaged in diabetes prevention. Christine Stanford, the Y’s director of chronic disease prevention, describes a classroom-based, 12-month program specifically for people diagnosed with prediabetes and those who have a demonstrated risk of developing diabetes. Stanford explains that “program participants are given daily fat-gram goals and physical activity goals, and they get to decide how they are going to achieve them.” Trained lifestyle coaches help participants with strategies to meet their goals.
Trudy Slocum is just wrapping up the 12-month YMCA diabetes prevention program with her husband. She explains that participants learn about “portion control, reading labels, and low- or non-fat ingredient substitutes.” Slocum says, “I thought I was eating healthy things, but when I added up the fat content, I was surprised!”
The YMCA delivers the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) diabetes prevention curriculum, with participants aiming to reduce body weight by 7 percent and increase physical activity to 150 minutes per week. Stanford explains: “There is evidence to support that just a 7 percent reduction in weight reduces an individual’s chances of developing type 2 diabetes by 50 percent.”
New sessions are starting in late November and January. There is a charge for the program, but according to Stanford, “the YMCA will never turn participants away based on their inability to pay.”
Slocum links success with measurement. “You write down what you eat, how many calories, how many fat grams. It’s necessary,” she says. “What you think you’re eating, what you think is a serving is way off. When you go to a restaurant, one serving is probably four.”
According to the CDC, more than a third of American adults have prediabetes — an elevated risk that a person will develop type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Most are unaware they are prediabetic.
“There’s a misconception out there that people at risk for type 2 diabetes have to be very overweight,” Stanford says. “Glancing at the published risk factors, Stanford says, “Are you younger than 65, getting little to no exercise on an average day? That’s your typical office worker.”
An assessment tool on the YMCA website helps people determine if they are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Stanford encourages people to “learn about their risk factors and talk to their doctors.”
Dr. Campbell knows people will resist a plant-based diet.
“I’d encourage people to think about this: The hard work goes away. Once you get it down, there’s no hunger, no counting. That’s very different from the standard diet approach, which is eat less, exercise more. But the problem with that approach is it never gets easy — you can’t live the rest of your life a little hungry.”
Herb Wise reflects on how far he has come. “I started in the ‘out of control’ category, my diabetic numbers were so high. Now I’m looking forward. I’m in the live-longer category already, and I don’t want to slip backwards.”
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