Diabetics on a Low-carbohydrate Diet

Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Diabetes is a disorder of glucose intolerance. What happens when a diabetic eats a low-carbohydrate diet? Here's a graph of blood glucose over a 24 hour period, in type II diabetics on their usual diet (blue and grey triangles), and after 5 weeks on a 55% carbohydrate (yellow circles) or 20% carbohydrate (blue circles) diet:

The study in question describes these volunteers as having "mild, untreated diabetes." If 270 mg/dL of blood glucose is mild diabetes, I'd hate to see severe diabetes! In any case, the low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet brought blood glucose down to an acceptable level without requiring medication.

It's interesting to note in the graph above that fasting blood glucose (18-24 hours) also fell dramatically. This probably reflects improved insulin sensitivity in the liver. The liver pumps glucose into the bloodstream when it's necessary, and insulin suppresses this. When the liver is insulin resistant, it doesn't respond to the normal signal that there's already sufficient glucose, so it releases more and increases fasting blood glucose. When other tissues are insulin resistant, they don't take up the extra glucose, also contributing to the problem.

Glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), a measure of average blood glucose concentration over the preceding few weeks, also reflected a profound improvement in blood glucose levels in the low-carbohydrate group:

At 5 weeks, the low-carbohydrate group was still improving and headed toward normal HbA1c, while the high-carbohydrate group remained at a dangerously high level. Total cholesterol, LDL and HDL remained unchanged in both groups, while triglycerides fell dramatically in the low-carbohydrate group.

When glucose is poison, it's better to eat fat.

Graph #1 was reproduced from Volek et al. (2005), which re-plotted data from Gannon et al. (2004). Graph #2 was drawn directly from Gannon et al.