We were very lucky to attend another ‘happy hub’ wellbeing event in Birmingham last week.
This time we heard from the renowned Dr David Unwin. He is a GP who specialises in reversing Type II diabetes in his patients.
It was a fascinating and inspiring talk. His approach now differs significantly from his first 25 years practicing medicine. Up until 2012 he believed that Type II diabetes was a chronic progressive disease that could only be treated with drugs. In fact, he was about to retire as he felt he was having little impact on the health of his patients. He has also witnessed a huge increase in the numbers of patients diagnosed with Type II diabetes. In his community the number of patients diagnosed with the condition has increased from 58 in 1986 to 470 currently! He has also calculated that his new low carbohydrate approach has saved the NHS £50,000 in diabetes medication!
These are significant statistics and Dr Unwin is delighted that he is now making a significant difference to the lives of his patients. By reversing their Type II diabetes, he is also impacting on all the other associated conditions such as obesity and heart disease, and he is having a massive impact on the quality of life of his patients. It really is brilliant. He is now a prominent figure in this field and has written papers and appeared in TV documentaries and newspapers.
However, considering all of this, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the number of patients he has put into remission from Type II diabetes. It was I think 69 people! Of course, this is brilliant for these 69 individuals, but he has been working on this since 2012.
I discussed this with a lovely colleague at work (a brilliant physiologist called Emma Thompson), and she really clarified this for me. ‘The thing is Harriet,’ she said ‘He is trying to help people who already have Type II diabetes. Their lifestyle choices over many years will have contributed to the disease and it will be very difficult for them to implement the changes required.’ Indeed, the low carbohydrate regime he prescribes is restrictive and I imagine difficult for many people to sustain!
He believes it is vital that he explains to people how their diet contributes to the disease and he clearly explained to us how detrimental sugar is, and how excess consumption will cause the disease. This is really important information for people to understand. Excess sugar is converted into saturated fat and stored. (Around our waists but also around our vital organs including our liver, and pancreas. However, he then said that he no longer eats any sugar at all or indeed any foods high in natural sugars or starchy carbohydrate, including bananas or white potatoes. One lady gasped in despair at the thought of not being able to ever eat potatoes again!
He explained that when he asks his patients to consider the impact eating these foods will have on their health (which includes a very real risk of blindness and amputation when Type II diabetes is not controlled!) they are able to choose a life without potatoes.
However, I think it is important to highlight the fact that the people he is talking about HAVE Type II diabetes! Hopefully the whole audience that afternoon hadn’t all been diagnosed with Type II diabetes so these recommendations wouldn’t have applied to everyone! I think it important that we make this distinction because this might be quite demotivating to some. I also think demonising ‘real’ foods like potatoes and bananas is sometimes unhelpful. I think we should recommend people avoid processed, refined junk food above all else! I do not have Type II diabetes and I still enjoy bananas and potatoes occasionally within a healthy diet. I am also not promoting sugar, but I am human and enjoy a slice of cake occasionally with my friends and family. I think it is unrealistic to expect people to abstain completely if they do not have diabetes.
So, I think is important to point out is that it is so much easier to make changes before we get to the point where potatoes, bananas, and cake need to be off the menu forever! Of course if we are unable to process sugar in any form then this is what we need to do, but if we are mindful of our food choices it is possible to balance our blood sugar levels and prevent disease! if you can control your blood sugar levels and PREVENT a diagnosis of Type II diabetes, you can still eat that cake occasionally, slice that banana on your porridge in the morning, and enjoy a moderate portion of potatoes with your Sunday roast! Surely that’s where we should be aiming? One of the reasons many people began to over-consume carbohydrates is because of the message that fat was ‘bad’. In the 1980s fat was considered evil and the cause of heart disease. People were recommended to eat processed margarine and choose low fat products at all costs! By demonising a whole food group, people turned to carbohydrate. Low fat products were packed with refined sugar to make them taste palatable, but people weren’t looking at that. They were choosing low fat options at all cost. This was what they were told to do! This then led to the overconsumption of the wrong type of carbohydrate, an obesity crisis, and an increase in all the other associated diseases.
My fear now is that we turn our fat phobic nation into a carb phobic nation! The right type of carbohydrate (fibre rich, complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, wholegrains, beans and pulses) are very healthy foods. In fact, it has been shown that people around the world who have the highest rates of longevity have diets rich in these health promoting foods. So please do not let us reach a point where we are demonising all carbohydrates at all cost! This is not a very helpful or healthful message to be sharing!
It is all about putting it into context. If you are overweight and have an inactive, sedentary lifestyle then it is important that you do not consume excess amounts of carbohydrate, particularly the wrong type of carbohydrate. However, if you are lean and maintain an active lifestyle, you will need to eat a moderate amount of the right sort of carbohydrate for energy! Low carbohydrate diets are very useful for people needing to lose weight or reverse their type II diabetes, in fact, this is vital to prevent disease. But why not be mindful of your food choices so that you don’t find yourself in that position. This I think is an important message for parents. It is vital that you feed your children a healthy diet and help them to understand healthier choices. Without any doubt at all prevention is SO much better than a cure!
When I first trained in Nutritional Therapy, I wanted to tell everyone about the importance of balancing blood sugar levels. It is the simplest and most useful advice we can give everyone! So here it is. Try and avoid sugar as much as possible! There is no getting away from the fact that it is detrimental to health. However, we are all human and want to enjoy it occasionally! So, make sugar an occasional treat for special occasions, not a daily habit. and don’t give your kids sugar laden fizzy drinks! Avoid refined, carbohydrates (processed foods & refined cereals and ‘white’ bread, rice, pasta,) and choose real whole foods: fibre and nutrient rich complex carbohydrates (the wholemeal versions) and pulses (beans, and lentils). Eat smaller portions altogether and make sure complex carbs are only 1/4 of that plate. Make sure you include 1/4 plate of protein and fill half that plate with a rainbow of non-starchy colourful veg! By eating a balance of fibre, protein, veg (and a little healthy fat) you will slow down the release of glucose into the bloodstream, keep those blood sugar levels stable, and minimise the release of insulin. It really isn’t complicated. There are other factors that also influence blood sugar levels, including exercise, stress, and sleep, but this post is about food…..
Dr Unwin has proved that you can reverse Type II diabetes with diet. However, wouldn’t it be better to make those subtle changes to your diet today. That way you can prevent that terrible disease (and all the associated conditions) and enjoy a healthy balanced diet without those drastic restrictions!! If you’d like me to explain blood sugar balance in more detail I would be delighted! Remember PREVENTION is SO much better than a cure! If we are healthy, we do not need to avoid carbohydrates at all costs. We just need to eat right type of carbohydrate and not eat them in excess! And please, please educate your children this way, and maybe, just maybe, we might just be able to start preventing rather than treating this terrible disease. Your health and your children’s health are in your hands!