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Global Threat of Diabetes: Low-Fat Vegan Diet Best Weapon Against Disease

By Dr. Neal D. Barnard

This opinion piece was published on Feb. 15, 2008, in The Lexington Herald-Leader.

Diabetes has never been a sexy disease. It doesn't have a Katie Couric or Michael J. Fox in its court. NBC has yet to launch a diabetes reality show. And millions of Americans are unaware they even have it. But this terrible disease is finally getting the attention it deserves.

The American Diabetes Association recently released a report showing that America is spending at least $174 billion a year treating diabetes. That's about as much as we spend on Iraq and the global war on terrorism.

Finally, officials are as worried about diabetes as global warming, bird flu or any of the other major threats to public health. Complications include blindness, amputations and heart disease. Diabetes, in many cases, is life-threatening.

Given the magnitude of the problem -- now nearing pandemic levels -- how is the scientific community responding?

As a physician and diabetes researcher, I am sorry to report that we are looking for answers in all the wrong places. And that is especially true when it comes to type 2 diabetes, which is largely brought on by obesity and fatty diets.

Traditionally, most research dollars have gone to develop new drugs. While pharmaceuticals are necessary at times, many have serious -- sometimes fatal -- side-effects. The British government has tightened the restrictions on Avandia, a drug that has been linked to heart problems, and the U.S. government may be forced to follow suit.

Other solutions are just as problematic. On Jan. 23, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study and editorial promoting weight-loss surgery as a treatment for obese patients with diabetes. Missing from the resulting buzz was an honest assessment of just how risky and expensive this desperate treatment is. And ultimately, how avoidable.

For the past 10 years, I have been studying the effectiveness of a low-fat vegan diet as a way to treat diabetes and obesity. The results are dramatic. Patients lose weight and gain control of their blood sugar and are able to reduce -- sometimes even eliminate -- their medications. And the side-effects are all positive: blood pressure and cholesterol sometimes improve so significantly, patients are able to toss their Norvasc and Zocor.

What is also impressive is how easily people are able to switch to this healthful style of eating. Contrary to what many would think about the challenges of putting aside meat and dairy products, our patients have an easy time of it. A major benefit to following a vegan diet is that there are no portion or carbohydrate limits.

And once people begin exploring the world of plant-based cuisine, they are amazed at the variety and tastefulness of it. A greasy cheeseburger never looked so boring.

We can learn a lesson from India's predicament. This country used to boast a largely vegetarian diet; the huge upsurge in diabetes cases -- up to 35 million now -- is in large part because its citizens have begun adopting a more Western eating style.

Of course, it is no surprise given that American fast-food corporations are busy exporting our high-fat, high-cholesterol addiction in Asia and throughout the globe. We need an Easternization of eating styles to reverse this trend.

Conventional wisdom says that Americans like to pop pills. But a recent national poll conducted for Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine proved that Americans would prefer to treat diabetes with a dietary approach if possible.

It's time for the scientific community and our government to make that wish a reality. We need to stop pushing drugs and surgery and promote a healthful diet as a first-line defense against type 2 diabetes. It's the only way we'll win this war.

Dr. Neal Barnard is a nutrition researcher and president of the non-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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