Sliced loaf of bread

At risk of developing diabetes? Cut back on carbs, says new study

A low-carb diet can help people with untreated diabetes — and those at risk of developing prediabetes — lower their blood sugar, according to a study by Tulane at JAMA Network Open. (Image via iStock)

While low-carb diets are often recommended for those who are being treated for diabetes, there is little evidence for whether eating fewer carbohydrates can affect blood sugar in people with diabetes or people with diabetes who are not being treated with medication.

Now, according to new search From Tulane University, a low-carb diet can help people with untreated diabetes — and those at risk of developing diabetes — lower their blood sugar.

The studyPublished in the magazine JAMA Network is open, comparing two groups: one assigned to a low-carbohydrate diet and the other continued their usual diet. After six months, the low-carb diet group had a greater decrease in hemoglobin A1c, an indicator of blood sugar levels, than the group that ate their usual diet. The low-carb diet group also lost weight, and fasting glucose levels were lower.

“The main message is that a low-carbohydrate diet, if maintained, may be a useful approach to preventing and treating type 2 diabetes, although more research is needed,” said the lead author. Kirsten Doranassistant professor of epidemiology in the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

Nearly 37 million Americans have diabetes, a condition that occurs when the body does not use insulin properly and cannot regulate blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes makes up more than 90% of those cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Type 2 diabetes can severely affect quality of life with symptoms such as blurred vision, numb hands and feet, and general fatigue and can cause other serious health problems such as heart disease, vision loss, and kidney disease.

The results of the study are particularly important for those with prediabetes whose A1c levels are higher than normal but lower than levels that could be classified as diabetes. Nearly 96 million Americans have prediabetes and more than 80% of people with prediabetes are unaware, according to the CDC. People with prediabetes have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart attack, or stroke and usually do not take medications to lower blood sugar levels, which makes eating a healthy diet even more important.

The study involved participants whose blood sugar levels ranged from prediabetes to diabetic levels who were not taking diabetes medications. Those in the low-carb group saw their A1c levels fall 0.23% more than the usual diet group, an amount Dorans calls “modest but clinically relevant.” Importantly, fat made up about half of the calories consuming those in the low-carb group, but the fat was mostly healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in foods like olive oil and nuts.

Doran said the study does not prove that a low-carb diet protects against diabetes. But it does open the door to more research on how to mitigate health risks for people with prediabetes and diabetes who aren’t treated with medication.

“We already know that a low-carb diet is one dietary approach used among people with type 2 diabetes, but there is not much evidence for the effects of this diet on blood sugar in people with prediabetes,” Doran said. “Future work could be done to see if this dietary approach may be an alternative approach to preventing type 2 diabetes.”

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