When it comes to controlling blood sugar and managing type 2 diabetes, experts agree that a healthy diet can play a key role. The disagreement arises when they try to define exactly what “healthy” means. Proponents of low-carb, high-protein, Keto, and other diets all lay claim to the term, with at least some evidence that their favored eating plans show some benefit for diabetes management.
Now, scientists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) have shown that the type of diet may not matter much at all, as long as the patient loses weight. Their research was published in the journal Obesity.
In this multi-site, randomized controlled trial, UAB researchers recruited 106 adults with type 2 diabetes and assigned them to either a high-protein or normal-protein diet for 52 weeks. All participants followed the State of Slim weight management program, with both diets being energy-restricted (reduced in calories) and limited to food lists for each phase of the SOS program. In addition, participants worked up to exercising up to 70 minutes per day, six days per week, over the course of the study.
The high-protein diet was composed of 40 percent protein, 32 percent carbohydrate, and 28 percent fat of total energy, while the normal-protein diet was composed of 21 percent protein, 53 percent carbohydrate, and 26 percent fat of total energy. In addition, the high-protein diet included four or more 4- to 6-ounce servings of lean, minimally processed beef per week (as its only source of red meat), while the normal-protein diet instructed participants to refrain from eating any red meat whatsoever.
At the conclusion of the year-long study period, the researchers found that the high-protein diet (40 percent of total calories from protein) and moderate-protein diet (21 percent of total calories from protein) were both effective in improving glucose control, weight loss, and body composition in people with type 2 diabetes.
Lead author James O. Hill, PhD, director of the UAB Nutrition Obesity Research Center, and co-author Drew Sayer, PhD, say that this comparison of two overall healthy diets that differed only in the amount of protein and carbohydrates allowed, as well as in the inclusion or exclusion of lean beef, indicates that the primary factor in managing type 2 diabetes is weight loss itself, regardless of the specific composition of the diet. Furthermore, the results show that avoiding red meat does not provide any additional benefits for weight loss or blood sugar control during a weight management program.
In practical terms, the researchers say, this means that individuals can have some flexibility when choosing a dietary pattern to manage their diabetes. And that the diet that most closely matches their preferences—and that they’re most likely to stick with in the long term—is probably best.