Low-carbohydrate diets have become very trendy in recent years, but the healthcare world has been slow to adopt and encourage them for patients with type 2 diabetes.
Recent research conducted in Denmark by Bispebjerg Hospital, Aarhus University, and the Department of Nutrition, Exercise, and Sports at the University of Copenhagen demonstrated the potential benefits of a low-carb diet for people with type 2 diabetes.
While it’s well understood that nutrition plays a central role in diabetes management, there has been controversy over whether a whole-foods diet consisting of more grains and fruit was still beneficial to those with diabetes versus a whole-foods diet that significantly limited starchy grains.
Improving Blood Sugars Even Without Weight-Loss
This study also sought to determine whether a low-carb diet could improve blood sugars even if a patient didn’t lose weight. Patients were asked to maintain their weight during the study to ensure that blood sugar improvements were the result of the changes in the diet rather than the result of improved insulin sensitivity from weight loss.
Consisting of 28 patients with type 2 diabetes, the study monitored their health over the course of six weeks while following a more conventional high-carbohydrate diet. The next six weeks, the patients were transitioned to a reduced carbohydrate diet that was higher in fat and protein.
“Our study confirms the assumption that a diet with a reduced carbohydrate content can improve patients’ ability to regulate their blood sugar levels — without the patients concurrently losing weight,” explained Senior Consultant, DMSc Thure Krarup, MD, from the Department of Endocrinology at Bispebjerg Hospital.
“Our findings are important because we’ve removed weight loss from the equation. Previous studies have provided contradictory conclusions, and weight loss has complicated interpretations in a number of these studies.”
The research demonstrates that by simply reducing a patient’s consumption of carbohydrates — and increasing caloric intake of protein and fat — you can lower blood sugar levels while also reducing “liver fat content.”
Benefits to the Liver, Too
The reduction in liver fat content is significant — something not often addressed in nutritional conversation around diabetes.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is essentially the build-up of fats in the liver’s cells. While there should be some fat stored in the liver, it shouldn’t exceed more than 5 to 10 percent of the liver’s overall weight. Beyond this percentage is considered a “fatty liver” and is very dangerous.
The American Liver Foundation explains that NAFLD is common in those who are overweight, obese, or have diabetes, high cholesterol, and high triglycerides. A poor diet can also lead to the condition, and it affects about 25 percent of the population in the United States. Left untreated, it can lead to swelling, cancer or total failure in the liver.
But How Many Carbs Were They Eating?
One very vague detail in this study (and many others like it) is the lack of specificity in how many carbohydrates the patients were eating.
The study does explain that the diet was lower than a conventional diet, but it doesn’t specify just how few carbohydrates patients were eating.
Without specifying the number of carbs, it raises the question of whether the benefits come largely from simply eliminating highly processed foods and beverages versus just from the carb-reduction itself.
The study also details that the diet was higher in protein, rather than fat. When most people hear “low-carb diet” in mainstream media these days, the assumption is often that fat intake went up considerably, too, like a ketogenic diet.
Instead, this diet emphasized that it was a “reduced carbohydrate content, a high protein content and a moderately increased fat content.”
Next Steps: A Large-Scale Study
To further demonstrate the potential benefits of a low-carbohydrate diet for patients with type 2 diabetes, Krarup emphasizes the need for a much larger, controlled study with more specific parameters around carbohydrate quantity.