Pills or Paleo?: Preventing and Reversing Type 2 Diabetes

Pills or Paleo? Preventing and Reversing Type 2 Diabetes

by Chris Kresser

Last updated on

The incidence of type 2 diabetes continues to skyrocket, but current drug treatments are inadequate and potentially dangerous. The Paleo diet offers a safe and effective alternative.

paleo for diabetes
Nutrient dense fresh foods that frame the Paleo diet are great for treating type 2 diabetes. dml5050/iStock/Thinkstock

This article is the first in an ongoing series that compares a Paleo-based diet and lifestyle with medication for the prevention and treatment of chronic disease. Stay tuned for future articles on high blood pressure, heartburn/GERD, autoimmune disease, skin disorders, and more.

Insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes have reached epidemic proportions. In the U.S. today, someone dies from diabetes-related causes every ten seconds, and recent reports suggest that one-third of people born in 2010 will develop diabetes at some point in their lives.

Find out how the Paleo diet can prevent and even reverse diabetes naturally.

What is particularly horrifying about this statistic is that many of those who develop diabetes will be kids. Type 2 diabetes used to be a disease of the middle-aged and elderly. No longer. A recent Yale study indicated that nearly one in four kids between the ages of four and eighteen have pre-diabetes. And some regional studies show that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in children and young adults has jumped from less than 5 percent before 1994 to 50 percent in 2004.

It’s clear that type 2 diabetes is one of the most significant and dangerous health problems of our times, and we desperately need safe and effective treatments that won’t bankrupt our health care system. With this in mind, let’s compare two possible ways of addressing type 2 diabetes: conventional medication, and a Paleo diet.

Conventional Medication for Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is typically treated with the following (impossible to pronounce!) classes of drugs:

  • Sulfonylureas
  • Biguanides
  • Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors
  • Thiazolidinediones
  • Meglitinides
  • Dipeptidyl-peptidase 4 (DPP-4) inhibitors
  • Sodium-glucose transporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors

These medications vary in their mechanism of action. Some increase the secretion of insulin, others inhibit the release of glucose from the liver, and still others suppress appetite.

But none of them address the real, underlying causes of type 2 diabetes: the environmental factors that lead to blood sugar problems in the first place. These include poor diet, lack of exercise and too much sitting, and poor sleep, among others.

What’s more, these drugs also have side effects which range from relatively minor discomfort to serious complications. They include:

  • Sulfonylureas: low blood sugar, upset stomach, skin rash or itching, weight gain
  • Biguanides: upset stomach, tiredness or dizziness, nausea, kidney complications
  • Alpha-glucosidase inhibitors: stomach pain, gas, diarrhea
  • Thiazolidinediones: heart failure, heart attack, fractures, increased risk of bladder cancer
  • Meglitinides: low blood sugar, weight gain, nausea and vomiting, headache
  • Dipeptidyl-peptidase 4 (DPP-4) inhibitors: upper respiratory tract infection, sore throat, headache, pancreatitis and increased risk of pancreatic cancer
  • Sodium-glucose transporter 2 (SGLT2) inhibitors: urinary tract infections, yeast infections, renal and gall bladder issues, bladder cancer

While there’s no doubt that some people with type 2 diabetes do need medication (those that have completely lost the ability to produce insulin, for example), the list of side effects above suggests that these drugs should only be used when other safer—and often more effective—treatments fail.

A Paleo Diet for Type 2 Diabetes

One such treatment is a Paleo-type diet, which emphasizes the real, nutrient-dense foods our ancestors ate. It features meat and fish, vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds, and some starchy plants like sweet potatoes.

Studies have shown that the Paleo diet is an effective treatment for type 2 diabetes and metabolic problems in general. For example:

  • A study which compared the Paleo diet with a standard, low-fat “diabetes” diet in people with type 2 diabetes found that the Paleo diet lead to greater improvements in weight, blood sugar, triglycerides, blood pressure, body mass index, and waist circumference than the diabetes diet. (1)
  • Another similar study compared the Paleo diet with a low-fat diet in obese, postmenopausal women and found that the Paleo diet led to greater fat loss and metabolic improvements than the low-fat diet. (2)
  • A third study (also of obese postmenopausal women) found that a modified Paleo diet improved several metabolic markers, including weight, waist circumference, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and kidney function. The Paleo diet also decreased the amount of fat stored in the liver by 50%. (3)

These studies clearly indicate that a Paleo diet is not only an effective treatment for type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, it is often more effective than the standard “low-fat” diabetes diet that is recommended by groups like the American Diabetes Association.

But Paleo isn’t just about what you eat, it’s also about how you live. Sitting less, getting enough exercise, sleeping 7–8 hours a night, healing your gut, and managing your stress are also important steps you can take to prevent and even reverse type 2 diabetes and metabolic problems. These changes can often have profound effects:

  • People who work at a standing desk burn up to 75 percent more calories per day than people who sit for most of the day. (4)
  • The more breaks you take from sitting, the lower your waist circumference, body mass index, and triglycerides, and the more stable your blood sugar. (5)
  • A single night of partial sleep deprivation causes insulin resistance even in healthy people with no preexisting metabolic disease. (6)

I’ve seen incredible results using the Paleo diet (and lifestyle) in my work with patients, and I’ve heard countless stories like this, from reader Dave Harvey:

In mid-December 2011, I was awakened in the middle of the night experiencing rapid, erratic heartbeats which continued for an hour before I decided to have it checked out. After undergoing many tests as well as a cardiac catheritization to check for heart damage, I was told I did not have a heart attack, but that I did have atrial fibrillation and that I was a type 2 diabetic. The doctors put me on Metformin, a beta blocker, an ACE inhibitor and a statin which I took for a short time. I discontinued it after I began experiencing severe muscle cramping which CoQ10 didn’t help, and weird losses of memory.

I became interested in paleo and low carbohydrate eating to control my Type 2 diabetes. I discovered Chris Kresser’s website and began reading his blog posts which prompted me to devote myself to completely transforming my lifestyle into one of monitoring my diet, recording everything I ate and improving my health.

Since settling into a gluten free, low carb, paleo way of living in April of 2012, my weight has dropped to 140 pounds on a 5’6″ frame. My body fat, which was at about 30%, is 16% and my health has improved tremendously.

My T2 diabetes is in total remission, without medication. I do not have food cravings like I did with low-fat dieting. I don’t feel hungry shortly after eating. I don’t make multiple trips to the kitchen and refrigerator for snacks in the evenings. I have more energy throughout the day. I don’t have feelings of anxiety.

Lastly, and most importantly, it has been four months since I have experienced any sign of the atrial fibrillation which sent me to the hospital in December of 2011.

Unlike the prescription medications used to treat type 2 diabetes, which often have significant side effects, the only “side effects” of a Paleo-type diet and lifestyle tend to be positive things like improved energy, clearer skin, and smoother digestion.

When you look at it this way, which would you choose: pills or Paleo?

If your answer is Paleo, make sure to check out my book (just published in paperback with a new name: The Paleo Cure) for a detailed explanation of how to use the Paleo diet and lifestyle to prevent and reverse disease and feel better than you have in years. And don’t miss the bonus chapter (available online after you buy the book) on addressing type 2 diabetes with diet, lifestyle, and supplements.

As always, check with your doctor before starting or stopping any new treatment plan—including what I’ve suggested in this article. This is not intended to be medical advice, and is not a substitute for being under the care of a physician.

123 Comments

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  1. The studies you site all look at obese individuals, and the reversal of T2D is linked in part to losing weight. What about for people who are already in a normal range BMI? Is there any research on this?

  2. Hi Chris

    Choosing healthy food is one of the most important parts of anyone’s diet, but for the diabetic it can literally be the difference between life and death. Without proper blood sugar control the list of complications suffered by those with diabetes is quite scary.For many diabetics

    • I’ve been following this case, as well. He eventually won the case, but the ADSA is actually appealing and they’re going after Prof Noakes, again! I hope “they” are investigated and exposed for siding with industry over science and thousands of anecdotal accounts of people reversing many health conditions by getting off sugar, grains and processed foods.

  3. People say there is no cure for diabetes. However, there are several ways to manage the condition in order to keep insulin at the proper level.There are several different techniques and strategies for managing diabetes. Some of them include:carefully monitoring one’s diet in order to keep blood sugar levels in check;using insulin injections as needed to maintain optimal levels in those whose bodies don’t produce the hormone;keeping a close eye on blood sugar levels by using special kits that measure insulin and sugar in the blood; and following an exercise routine in order to keep blood pressure levels in check.As with any disease or condition,doctors and researchers are constantly seeking new ways to treat and manage diabetes.People are more concerned about using harsh, synthetic medications than ever before,but now there are a growing concern across the globe to as how cure it.people in many developing countries – particular in Africa – have been using herbs to treat and cure
    diabetes for years.I have never believed it till i was cure of diabetes.I came in contact with Mr.Clifford who told how he was cure of his diabetes through a herbal doctor in Africa,i made a contact to Dr.ASIEGBU ODIGWE after wish i explain my condition to him,he prepared a herbs for me,today the lab result is negative.i’m sharing this for people that are in my formal condition.Williams Jeffrey is my name, you can contact Dr. ASIEGBU ODIGWE through Email: [email protected] or call +2347066210806.

  4. I want to see the genetic breakdowns on these figures for how many people have/get diabetes.

    How much of this panic over diabetes and obesity is due to the large influx of Mesoamerican/mestizo genetics people into the US?

    I am of a different genetic ecology than they, back 50,000 years. When are doctors going to start taking those differences seriously, and when are “medical reporters” going to stop treating people as though we’re all alike?

    I am of 93% Northern European ancestry, 7% Siberian/Arctic. I had health problems galore in my teens and 20s, eating the SAD. In my 30s I was so sick I was willing to try anything, and ran across the idea of “eating like your ancestors.” I did it, and every problem I had reversed within a year.

    Later in life, in my 40s, my husband (of nearly 100% Germanic/Alpine genome) was having health problems for which his (incredibly low IQ) physician wanted to put him on a wide range of pharmaceuticals. Fortunately I had enough background as a researcher *and* a patient to dig into this, and found that men of his ancestry should be eating more high quality fat. He had been eating like a vegan hippie, and it was destroying him–he actually gained weight eating a low calorie fat free diet. We put him on good healthy fats–butter, eggs, grassfed beef with all the crackling, even bacon/pork fat since we are descended from forest people, both of us. In 6 months he lost 60 lbs, his sinus, histamine, fungus, and many other problems went away, his blood pressure dropped to 100/65, and his vitality and personality expanded. His cholesterol levels stayed high–and we refuse to worry because his family on both sides have “high” levels…and they all live into their 90s at levels of robustness it’s hard to believe.

    The mechanized, standardized, urbanized, one-size-fits-all, Sumerian/Mediterranean/Mesoamerican agricultural food system is killing everyone not of those genomes. I remember when I tried the “Mediterranean diet” for 3 weeks. Another time I tried “macrobiotics.” Got so sick and unfunctional it was ridiculous. Went back to meat, fat, fish, cooked dark greens, cole vegetables, seaweed, honey, and dairy…and it was magnificent.

    One last thing, I have always fasted, intuitively, for 12 to 16 hours each day, then eat a tiny meal around 1200 hours and a larger meal around 1900 hours. Three to five times per month I have 35 grams of organic full fat vanilla ice cream around midnight, just for fun. I am 60, and although I am taught that my weight is too high, I am able to work people in their 20s and 30s under the table in farm, forest, and field settings. So much of what ails us is metabolic and grounded in our consumption of the wrong things for our genetic ecology. I wish the “experts” would wake up to the fact that we aren’t all the same, and that their “universal blank slate” view of humanity is killing people by the tens of millions.

    • With all due respect, I think it’s more complicated than just eating like one’s ancestors, although that’s certainly worth taking into consideration. But as individuals, we’re subject to many other influences and may not respond as expected. In my case, despite my Mediterranean background (via Eastern Europe ), low carb, high healthy fats (i. e., unprocessed ), and lots of mainly non-starchy, high-fiber veg, coupled with increased daily exercise and decreased sitting, works better than any other approach I’ve tried for weight and fat loss and blood sugar stabilization.

  5. I love success stories like Dave Harvey’s which proves that you can reverse type 2 diabetes naturally with the Paleo diet, exercise and stress management. It’s interesting how when he started to improve and get his blood sugar, weight, and other biomarkers under control, he became less anxious.
    I have seen similar results with my clients with type 2 diabetes but they often have to battle with their health care providers who don’t believe they can reverse diabetes naturally. I provide lots of research studies and when they see the client’s follow-up lab results, they can’t argue with the data showing significant improvements in their A1c, cholesterol and weight. It’s so important to collect data on our patients at baseline and I recommend 12-week intervals. This educates not only our clients but their health care providers.

  6. I have clients diagnosed with type 2 diabetes who want to reverse diabetes naturally meaning through diet and exercise and without medications because they are concerned about the side-effects that Chris mentions.

    The Paleo diet along with a few targeted supplements, exercise and stress management has worked extremely well for my clients with type 2 diabetes. Within 2 months, I have seen a significant drop in their blood sugar based on their daily blood sugar tests. Their numbers have moved from the type 2 range into the prediabetes and even normal ranges on some days.

    Equally important, is that they are adopting new habits including shopping and cooking simple healthy meals and fitting exercise into their schedule. These habits when practiced repeatedly become a healthy lifestyle that will serve them well.

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