A Paleo Diet For Diabetes Management

Diabetes is now the seventh leading cause of death and rates have tripled over the last 20 years.

November is Diabetes awareness month

Type 2 diabetes impacts about 30.3 million adults in the USA alone. Almost ¼ of those don’t even realize they have the condition. When considering the additional cases of pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome, those numbers are even higher, affecting an additional 87 million Americans.

While Type 1 diabetes is technically an autoimmune disease, Type 2 usually develops later in life when your body becomes resistant to insulin. Usually the development of Type 2 diabetes is attributed to poor dietary and lifestyle choices, which damages the body’s ability to process blood sugar and insulin properly, an insulin sensitivity problem. This is what we will be discussing here

Impact Of Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes has a slow degenerative effect on the body, taking years before it ultimately leads to death. Chronically high insulin levels cause diabetes and are a precursor to nearly all age-related diseases Diabetes is debilitating and dangerous, having serious side effects and increased risks, which include:

  • Cancer 
  • Stroke 
  • Nerve damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Heart attack 
  • Infertility
  • Depression
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer’s disease

Lifestyle and dietary changes can dramatically reduce and even reverse many of the long-term problems associated with diabetes. Research has shown that lifestyle changes including a low-glycemic and nutrient dense diet can reverse many diabetic indicators within a very short period of time: the pancreas’ beta cells (insulin producers) reactivate, fat deposits disappear, and blood sugars normalize. The Paleo diet’s nutrient dense and low glycemic characteristics make it an excellent set of guidelines for managing diabetes

A Paleo Diet For Diabetes

A Paleo diet has been proven to significantly improve markers of metabolic health and insulin sensitivity. This lifestyle also reduces HbA1c (a measure of blood sugar levels over a 3-month period of time) which is a good indicator of blood sugar control. Furthermore, a Paleo diet supports weight loss and improves leptin (your satiety hormone) function. 

Studies have found that a Paleo diet improves insulin resistance, balances cholesterol, decreases high blood pressure, and reduces the risk of age-related illnesses. 

Paleo diet focusses on nutrient-dense foods, avoiding processed ingredients, man-made oils, refined sugars, and grains, and is often, by default, lower in carbohydrate content than a traditional Western diet. Research suggests that minimizing the number of carbohydrates, while consuming more foods that are lower on the glycemic index, such as non-starchy vegetables, may help more effectively manage blood glucose levels.

Several studies have been conducted to evaluate the effects of the Paleo diet on Type 2 Diabetes management, demonstrating the potential health benefits of the diet. It has been found that adhering to a Paleo diet is effective in lowering body weight and important blood markers in those struggling with diabetes. Eating a Paleo diet, even for a short period, can result in improved insulin sensitivity and lipid/cholesterol profiles.

Although low-carbohydrate diets have been shown to be particularly effective for people with insulin resistance, “low-carb” in these studies can imply up to 40% carbohydrates by calories, which falls into a medium-high carbohydrate category by Paleo standards.

It is true that some people do very well on a very low carbohydrate or ketogenic diet, but others might feel better with more carbohydrates, especially in the context of other lifestyle factors. 

Fats eaten together with a refined carbohydrate can also be problematic and poor-quality fats are legitimately dangerous: trans fats are inflammatory and do contribute to metabolic problems. However, studies have shown that a Mediterranean-type diet with lots of olive oil was actually better than a lower-fat diet for preventing Type 2 Diabetes and that in humans, saturated fat has no affect insulin sensitivity.

A lower-carbohydrate (40% or lower, not necessarily super-low), higher-fat diet may be helpful for most people. This is often where many naturally fall when following a Paleo diet

There is no direct implication that carbohydrate consumption causes diabetes. It does mean that for people who are already metabolically sick, reducing their carbohydrate load can have a positive impact on their health markers.

Modifications For Diabetes Management

The Paleo diet and lifestyle in itself is 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. Although a Paleo plan can help many people manage diabetes without any special modifications, a few changes can make the diet even more powerfully therapeutic for this disease. Those changes include:

Lower Carbohydrate/Sugar Load

Even when choosing Paleo foods, it helps to reduce the carbohydrates and sugar, especially in the morning or first meal of the day. Avoiding fruit-based smoothies, Paleo sweeteners, baked goods and starchy vegetables can be helpful. Instead, opt for a high protein and fat breakfast items like eggs, avocado, vegetables and well-sourced fats. Ensure smoothies contain a good quality protein and fat source and are low in sugars.

Throughout the day, aim to eat a low-glycemic diet high in humanely raised animal protein, vegetables and healthy fats whilst being mindful of the sugars and carbohydrates (even the Paleo-friendly ones). Emphasize fiber-rich foods, protein, and nutrient-dense sources of fat to help prevent blood sugar and insulin spikes and keep blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day. When choosing foods higher in naturally occurring sugar or starch adding an acidic ingredient (like vinegar or lemon) or including some higher-fiber foods (like a salad of leafy greens), will support lowering the glycemic response.

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Lifestyle Components

Paleo also focuses on lifestyle choices like movement (even gentle exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity) getting adequate sleep and managing stress.

Incorporating exercise and movement into the daily routine is vital. Any movement is important. Sessions do not have to be lengthy and, if possible, even short duration HIIT-style workouts have a beneficial impact on blood sugar control. Taking a walk after meals has been shown to be an effective strategy to lower the glycemic response of the meal. 

Read on here for more on incorporating movement into your daily life.

Supplement Appropriately

There are also many nutritional and herbal supplements that can support insulin sensitivity.  Knowing baseline nutrient levels is important: less than optimal levels of vitamin D and magnesium can impair blood glucose control and make other supplements less effective in managing diabetes. Chromium, vitamin B1, alpha-lipoic acid, cinnamon, and berberine have been shown to help support insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control BUT it is important and necessary to consult with your health care provider before adding any supplements to your routine. 

It is possible to manage diabetes with lifestyle interventions Choosing an ancestral or Paleo dietary approach is proven to be an effective strategy for improving blood sugar, insulin dysfunction, and outcomes those with diabetes. A Paleo diet is not a magical diabetes cure-all. The latest research into diet and diabetes does support a low to moderate-carbohydrate, nutrient-rich, fiber-rich Paleo-style diet over the standard recommendations when combined with lifestyle modifications including movement, sleep and stress reduction.

Note: If you’re on insulin and/or other medications for type 2 diabetes, and you are new to a Paleo protocol, it is important to work with your health care practitioner to customize your treatment plan to your specific needs.

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