(Reuters Health) – A low-fat vegan diet may help people with type 2 diabetes reduce physical pain related to the condition, suggests a small new study.
“This new study gives a ray of hope for a condition where there are no other good treatments,” said Dr. Neal Barnard, the study’s lead author and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit organization that promotes a vegan diet, preventive medicine, and alternatives to animal research.
Most people with type 2 diabetes will develop peripheral diabetic neuropathy, the researchers write in Nutrition and Diabetes. People with the condition may feel pain, burning and numbness in their body’s extremities.
“For an individual patient, it can be miserable and also depressing because there are no good treatments and it just gets worse and worse,” said Barnard, who is also affiliated with the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.
“By setting aside animal products and oily foods, you can become healthier, and your pain can diminish and perhaps even go away,” he told Reuters Health in an email.
Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes and is often linked to obesity. In type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells are resistant to the hormone insulin, or the body doesn’t make enough of it. Insulin gives blood sugar access to the body’s cells to be used as fuel.
The disease is thought to interfere with the ability of nerves to signal the brain about pain, light touch and temperature. Anti-seizure medications and antidepressants help relieve nerve pain in some patients but may have unpleasant side effects.
For the new study, the researchers recruited 35 adults with type 2 diabetes and painful diabetic neuropathy.
They randomly assigned 17 participants to follow a low-fat vegan diet and take B12 supplements for 20 weeks, with weekly support classes. The other 18 were instructed to take B12 supplements but maintain their normal diet.
The vegan diet focused on vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes. Overall, most participants on the vegan diet appeared to avoid animal products and about half stuck to low-fat diets throughout the study.
After 20 weeks, those on the vegan diet lost an average of about 15 pounds, compared to about one pound among those in the comparison group.
Several other measures of health, including blood pressure, improved among the participants on the vegan diet, compared to the control group.
Those on the vegan diet also reported a much greater drop in pain, compared to the control group, the researchers report. A test of the nerves in the foot also suggested that the vegan diet may have slowed or halted nerve function decline, compared to the control group.
There was also a suggestion that the overall quality of life of those on the vegan diet improved, compared to the control group. The difference may have been due to chance, however.
Barnard and his team acknowledged larger trials would still be needed to show a vegan diet helped relieve pain related to type 2 diabetes.
Dr. Stuart Weiss, an endocrinologist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, said the study was “kind of cool,” though the number of participants was small and the length of the study was short.
“We always talk about diabetes and diabetes control being about diet and exercise, but we end up prescribing a lot of medications and don’t really focus that much on diet and exercise because that’s not easy,” said Weiss, who was not involved in the study.
Weiss told Reuters Health that he typically advised patients to eat less processed and refined foods and not overeat.
“It might be that eating less of that in a plant-based diet might be helpful (in reducing inflammation), but again it was just 20 weeks and it takes years and years for neuropathy to develop,” Weiss said. “We need to see long-term and nobody’s going to pay for that.”
While Weiss said it was exciting that researchers were looking for an alternative to medication, he cautioned that not everyone would go for a vegan diet.
By Janice Neumann