Saturday, June 18, 2011

Vegan Diabetics

I finished reading the book "Dr. Neal Barnard's Program for Reversing Diabetes" a few weeks ago.  Overall I thought it was a decent 'self help' book, in that it didn't just repeat itself over and over, and the average person can read it and gain a lot of knowledge.  It sites some interesting studies and builds a strong case for rethinking the American Diabetes Association diet.  What is his diet?  It's a low-fat vegan meal plan, the same thing Dr. Ornish studied and recommended for patients with heart disease in the 80's and 90's.  Dr. Barnard is the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM).  The organization promotes vegan diets for everyone and are also activists in the promotion for ethical treatment of research animals.  The organization studies how diet and lifestyle affect chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and many others.  I'm not going to go too in-depth, but here is what I liked and didn't like about this book:

  • Being a vegan = more vegetables and fruits!!!
  • Decreases junk food, a box of potato chips might be vegan, but it isn't low fat.
  • It promotes weight loss, which is a good thing since most people with Type II diabetes are overweight.  Weightloss alone helps lower blood glucose.
  • The program apparently works really really well.
  • Excellent explanation and analogies of the disease process and complications of diabetes.
  • His studies did not include an exercise component, but he does discuss how exercise is needed for optimal blood glucose control.
  • No need to measure portions, encourages people to eat until they are comfortably full.
  • It's an alternative to the high fat, low carb diets.
  • Not only does the diet address diabetes, but also heart disease and renal failure.  Both are major issues for people with diabetes.


  • He sites the China Study, which has been reviewed by many people and found to be very unfounded and based on correlation.  My high school psychology teacher used to say "correlation does not equal causation"
  • His two studies were very small 13 test subjects in one, 49 in the second.
  • He states "there is no reason for anyone to eat animal-derived foods"... let me know if I'm wrong but I think we evolved with canine teeth for a reason.  People must supplement their diets when they cut out meat, and no ancient culture would ever willingly cut out meat or seafood all together.
  • He attributes food cravings to a release of opiates from meat, sugar, cheese, and chocolate.  And poor diet to poeple having a lack of dopamine receptors in their brain.  He skips over the fact that both these issues have major social, environmental, and emotional connections too.   
  • He promotes the ingestion of a high amount of processed meat substitutes.  According to him, I could have: Scrambled tofu, 'Facon', and a glass of rice milk for breakfast, A tofurkey and soy cheese sandwich at lunch, and a stir-fry with Boca meatless crumbles for supper.  This is a lot of processed soy.  While edemame and small amounts of tofu and tempe are ok, these highly processed products may be linked to....CANCER! Something he also forgets to mention; women with certain types of breast cancer need to avoid soy secondary to it's estrogen mimicking effects.
  • He limits nuts because they are high in fat.  He considers a serving of nuts as 3oz, but in actuality it's only 1oz.  Almonds and walnuts have been shown to lower overall cholesterol while simultaneously improving HDL cholesterol levels.  Nuts should be promoted, not limited.

What I found most interesting and controversial was the research on milk.  Much of what he discusses in the book can be found on the PCRM website, and it's worth taking a gander at.  They cited a study finding that drinking more than 1 glass of milk/day increases a woman's chance of ovarian cancer by 73%.  WHOLEY MOLEY that's a lot.  The studies concerning IGF-1 and it's links to prostate and breast cancer may be suspect.  I question it especially after reading this literature review by the  Cornell University Sprecher Institute on Comparative Cancer Research; it appears that the milk consumption and cancer risk are rather unfounded.  There are a few other issues in the research he cites, such as the one finding that children under the age of 1 should not drink dairy milk since it leads to colic and iron deficiency.  Duh...ideally they should be drinking their mothers breast milk; formula is a close second. No dietitian or doctor would ever recommend that children under 12 months drink regular dairy milk.

Ultimately I like the book, it does promote a healthy lifestyle and for people who are tired of counting carbs and limiting their favorite pasta dishes, going vegan might be a good alternative.  I just feel that Dr. Barnard may have taken studies and twisted their results to favor this type of lifestyle.  For the most part the jury is still out on what the best type of "diabetic diet" is.  Low Carb, Vegetarian, Paleo, Low Fat... I encourage people to eat whole foods especially fruits and vegetables, and so far there are no studies to show otherwise.


  1. I appreciate this review, Brenna. Thanks for taking the time. I had already decided I wasn't going to read the book.

    Vegan diets do seem to have a role in dietary management of diabetes. I just don't see them catching on.

    Whether for diabetes or heart disease, the great majority of people won't give up animal-based foods. (Not that I'm saying they should.)


  2. Dear Brenna,

    Thank you for this post! I've enjoyed reading through your blog.

    I could not find your email address and wanted to share the following information with you.

    As you probably know, First Lady Michelle Obama and the United States Department of Agriculture just released a new food icon, MyPlate ( to help consumers think about building a healthy plate at meal times and balance calories. The new MyPlate icon emphasizes the fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy food groups.

    The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI’s) We Can!® (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity & Nutrition) program offers a GO, SLOW, and WHOA Foods fact sheet and widget, that illustrates the kinds of foods within the food groups that can further help your readers balance their “plates”: GO foods can be eaten almost anytime, SLOW foods can be eaten sometime or at most, several times a week, and WHOA foods should be eaten once in a while, or on special occasions.

    • The We Can! GO, SLOW, and WHOA Foods fact sheet can be posted on the refrigerator or used when grocery shopping. It can be found here:

    • The We Can! GO SLOW WHOA widget is an interactive badge that helps you learn which foods are lower in fat and calories to help your family maintain a healthy weight. You can find the widget here:

    • The We Can! Parent Tips—Snack: 100 Calories or Less tip sheet can help consumers choose vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat (1 percent) milk for healthier snacks. All of these tools can help readers choose mostly GO foods for meals and snacks.
    • Link to it here:

    Would you be interested in sharing any of these tools with your readers this month?

    Please feel free to e-mail or call me if you have any questions.



    ® We Can! Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition, We Can!, and the We Can! logos are registered trademarks of HHS.

  3. Steve I think you hit the nail on the head. Even with all the benefits of a vegan lifestyle, most people wouldn't think of giving up meat and cheese and butter and eggs.

    Deborah, thanks for the information.

  4. I was diagnosed with diabetes 19 months ago and my doctor suggested I consider a plant-based approach to long term management of the disease. It was hard... the hardest thing I've ever done but I decided to give it my best effort. I can't claim 100% adherence to the diet... cheese is my weakness, but I have given up meat, refined sugars (and greatly restricted other forms), eggs, milk, and other dairy. I limit my cheese to once in a while treat. I feel the best I've felt in years!!! So far I've lost a LOT of weight (128 lbs and counting), my blood sugar (H1C) levels are almost back to normal, and my blood pressure/cholesterol are excellent. My doctor and I are beginning to back me off metformin and I hope to be off entirely by next summer.

    Is this approach for everyone? Actually, I would say yes, it should be, but reality makes me acknowledge most people don't want to give up the meat/eggs/dairy... they'd prefer to let the meds do the work for them. Sadly, they won't in the long term, but the lure of the short term gratification is the heart of the problem for most of us anyway.

    I ate what I wanted for years, ignoring what I was doing to my body, hoping to get away with it. I knew better. Doctors told me. Friends and family warned me. I have no one to blame but myself. Now, I have no one to fix this (as much as I can) but me. I was addicted to foods that were killing me. My doctor repeatedly said, "If you were addicted to crack, I wouldn't tell you to cut back." The first months were rough... my body screamed for the things I was giving up, but I managed to hang in there and now... it will always be day by day but I want this! People that haven't seen me for a while, are stunned by the changes in my appearance and attitude. People that share my daily life tell me I'm back... upbeat, happy, energetic. I have my life back and no hamburger will ever taste that good!

    To the doctor that dismissed reading the book because he didn't think his patents would do it... try read it for yourself and go from there. Give it as an option... it will always be the patient's decision, but don't sell them all short. My doctor gave me the information and I took it... but he gave me that chance! I tell him every time I see him that he may well have saved my life. And you know what... he's told me he's had several new patents come to him because of ME! I love to tell people what this diet has done for me and they can see the change in ME. Its a battle but one I advocate passionately!