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Vol. LXV, No. 18
August 30, 2013

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Nutrition Choices Could Aid in Treating Type 1 Diabetes

Eating foods rich in certain dietary substances may help children and adolescents with type 1 diabetes stave off some of the potentially adverse consequences associated with the debilitating disease. These foods might help youth continue to make insulin for at least 2 years after they are diagnosed. The NIH-supported findings, published in the July issue of Diabetes Care, come from the largest investigation of its kind in the United States.

Diabetes is an insidious condition in which individuals are unable to break down carbohydrates effectively. The prevailing theory is that the disease is the result of an autoimmune attack on beta cells—insulin-producing cells of the pancreas.

Poorly controlled or over time, the illness has far-reaching health consequences. In type 1 diabetes (formerly known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes), which normally presents before age 20, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin or any. Thus, food cannot be metabolized properly to create energy to nourish the body’s cells. Daily insulin shots are required to stabilize blood sugar and prevent acute reactions such as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and its related ill effects.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, adults with diabetes have 2 to 4 times the risk for heart disease compared to adults without diabetes. Further, stroke risk is also 2 to 4 times higher among people with diabetes. The chronic condition is also the number one cause of blindness in adults as well as a leading cause of kidney disease, blood vessel disease and limb amputation. In fact, diabetes is a leading cause of disability and premature death in the U.S.

Dr. Elizabeth Mayer-Davis

Dr. Elizabeth Mayer-Davis

Dr. Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, professor of nutrition and medicine at Gillings School of Global Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her colleagues assessed the effects of specific food components on type 1 diabetes in more than 1,300 children and young adults participating in the SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth protocol. Scientists supported by NIDDK and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took part in the investigation. What they discovered has implications for both clinicians and patients alike.

“When we analyzed all of the data, what we found was that among these type 1 youth who were still producing at least small quantities of insulin, those who consumed foods that were rich in leucine (an essential amino acid that the body cannot manufacture) and omega-3 fatty acids experienced a slower loss of capacity to make insulin,” said Mayer-Davis. Foods in these two groups include fish such as salmon or sardines, eggs, dairy products, meats and soy-based foods.

The researcher added that by slowing down the loss of insulin production, in theory these individuals might need less supplemental insulin and may be able to temporarily ward off some of the adverse effects of diabetes.

The findings help lay preliminary scientific groundwork for further investigation into the relationship between nutrition and type 1 diabetes. Meanwhile, Mayer-Davis notes that there is no harm in patients consuming these fatty acid-rich foods, because the nutrients are already part of a healthy diet.

“Type 1 diabetes in youth is extremely difficult for youth to manage and for parents to support. It affects every day, every minute of a patient’s life. It’s very tough to live with,” Mayer-Davis said. “Whatever we can learn and do to improve the quality of life for these children and adolescents will be truly beneficial.”

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