Every diabetic knows that sugar is a no-no. And just about every diabetic tends to eat too much sugar. What we resist tends to persist. It's almost as if the more we try to avoid sugar, the more sugar we eat. But there are patterns of eating that help diabetics lower hemoglobin A1C levels naturally without making every decision about "not eating" sweets.
What's the Role of Diet to Lower Hemoglobin A1C Levels Naturally?
Type 2 diabetes used to be primarily a problem of the United States and a few Middle Eastern countries, but now it is a problem all over the world . There's no country with more diabetics now than China . And Chinese scientists have a huge pool of patients from whom to gain a new understanding of the relationship between foods that regulate blood sugar and eventually developing diabetes, or not.
No one is surprised that there is a clear relationship between a Standard American Diet of fast food, French fries, ice cream, frozen dinners, and soft drinks and the development of diabetes in both men  and women . People in China, however, eat a very different diet and still develop diabetes. Chinese scientists decided to look at the relationship between diet and diabetes from a more nuanced perspective:
- Clearly, family history of diabetes makes a difference, but it isn't genetics alone that determines whether you develop the disease .
- It's also clear that not getting enough exercise and gaining too much weight makes a difference, but not every inactive person, no matter the country develops diabetes .
- Families tend to eat the same diet. If one member of a family develops diabetes, then is the rest of the family doomed to become diabetic no matter what they do, or can the rest of the family perhaps avoid diabetes by eating differently?
The REACTION study identified 259,657 adults, aged 40 years and older in 25 communities across mainland China, who were tested in 2011 and 2012. (Some things get lost in translation. REACTION refers to “Risk evaluation of cAncers in Chinese diabeTic individuals: a lONgitudinal (REACTION), which seems a little odd if you are English-speaker, but the study itself was massive and brilliant.) Every single family in these cities had at least one adult in the study. The researchers then looked at the usual suspects for causing elevated hemoglobin A1C and then diabetes, food choices, exercise, and obesity, but also how big a difference they made for people who had a family history of diabetes, and for people who didn't.
The Same Diet Does Not Lower Hemoglobin A1C for Everyone
The REACTION study didn't confirm the standard advice just to eat less sugar. Yes, diabetics need to eat less sugar, but it turns out there are also other diet patterns that make a different in the ongoing struggle with high hemoglobin A1C levels symptoms:
- For participants who didn't have a family history of diabetes, there was no particular risk in eating more than 300 grams (10 ounces) of rice and other grains every day. However, participants who did have a family history of diabetes were more likely actually to develop diabetes if they ate this large, daily amount of rice and other grains.
- For participants who didn't have a family history of diabetes, the consumption of meat (pork, beef, and mutton) had no particular relationship with the development of the disease. For participants who did have a family history of diabetes, eating more red meat was associated with a significantly higher rate of diabetes, up to 300 percent higher. And it didn't take a lot of red meat, just four grams a day, or about an ounce, one tiny serving, every week. However, eating poultry had the opposite effect. People who had a family history of diabetes who consumed more than 8 grams of poultry per day (that's just two ounces per week) were less likely to develop diabetes.
- Potatoes turned out to protect against diabetes. People who didn't have a family history of diabetes were about twice as likely to develop diabetes if they ate less than 15 grams of potatoes a day (that's just one serving a week). People who did have a family history of diabetes were five times more likely actually to develop diabetes if they ate less than 15 grams of potatoes per day.
- Vegetables and fresh fruit also protected against diabetes. People who ate less than 85 grams of fresh fruit per week were up to five times more likely to develop diabetes if they had a family history of diabetes. The protective level of vegetable consumption was 85 grams per day, or about 3 ounces a day.
Bean curd (tofu) wasn't protective against diabetes, but most Chinese bean curd dishes either combine it with red meat or sugar.
How do you make sense of these findings?
Other studies have found that potatoes don't increase the risk of developing diabetes , and one recent study found that there are chemicals in potatoes that lower blood sugar levels in people who already have diabetes . Americans hear that since "fruit sugar," fructose, is a sugar found in high-fructose corn syrup, it must be horrible for diabetics. But high-fructose corn syrup is not used in China. Chinese people don't consume insane quantities of soft drinks. Small amounts of fructose from fresh fruit and freshly squeezed juice actually help the liver regulate blood sugar levels. However, more than 20 grams a day (about 100 calories from fruit and fruit juice) becomes problematic.
This study seems to say that if you don't have diabetes in your family, you just might get by with getting exercise and avoiding excessive weight gain. If you do have diabetes in your family, you need to make smarter diet choices. There's never a time that eating lots of sugar is a good thing, but emphasizing vegetables and fruits and avoiding fatty red meat is protective of your future health.