Dietary Changes Could Preserve Beta Cells

Type 1 diabetes doesn’t happen all at once. Scientists have shown that it’s usually a gradual process, in which the insulin-producing beta cells eventually fade out. So wouldn’t it be marvelous if the function of those beta cells could be preserved, allowing people newly diagnosed with diabetes to produce some of their own insulin for a longer time?

That may be possible. And it could be as simple as changing what you eat.

A new study published in the journal Diabetes Care looked at information from more than 1,300 young people. It showed that eating a diet rich in foods containing branched-chain amino acids and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids could keep beta cells functioning longer.

The catch? Study participants couldn’t take some magical pill for these effects. They had to actually eat foods containing these nutrients-such as pork and wheat germ (for the branched-chain amino acids), and fatty fish and walnuts (for the omega 3s).

The study’s leader was Elizabeth Mayer-Davis of the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The news was important not just because it preserved beta cells, she said, but because it could reduce diabetes complication risks for patients down the road.

“This also opens the door for a new approach that could really benefit the lives of these children,” she said.

The study followed its subjects-all newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes- over two years. They were all part of the larger SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth study, which is being sponsored by multiple institutions in multiple states.

For those who ate foods rich in branched-chain amino acids and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, the effects looked clear. Beta cells worked longer and better. Some participants were still producing their own insulin when the study wrapped up.

Type 1s often focus on technology. After all, many of the improvements in their lives over the last few decades have been thanks to breakthroughs like fast-acting insulins, pumps, and quick blood glucose testing.

But this study shows that attention to very simple factors-the foods we eat, for example- could have real benefits. And that’s a lesson we can all afford to learn.

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